Recently I posted on my wall an article about the new distribution landscape as a result of Netflix and Amazon, which have been snapping up content at a remarkable rate. Of course, for microbudget filmmakers this seems like the best time to be making movies and getting people to watch it and getting some payment for their efforts.
In the discussion below the article, Russ Russo, the star of An Act of War, a microbudget drama/thriller, talked about some of the challenges that film had going through the distribution process. Because this is such an important discussion for microbudget filmmakers, I approached him about an interview so we could learn more about their experiences getting distribution for that film.
First of all, congrats on the success of An Act of War. Besides distribution, I see that the trailer has gotten over a million views on YouTube, which is very impressive. As well it has received some very positive reviews. Could you talk a little bit about the production process? The length of the shoot, the size of the crew, gear, etc. Also, about the experience for you as an actor.
I think that it’s worth mentioning that An Act of War is a drama/thriller and not a horror film because so many micro budget filmmakers believe that the only way to get an audience is by making some kind of horror film. Based on your experience do you think this is a myth that holds or is it possible to push in other directions and still have success?
Thank you, Shawn. First off, I want to say & also clarify that I was not the producer of ‘An Act of War’, but a creative with a backend incentive. Also, while my role in ‘Bad Frank’ was that of a co-writer, actor & producer, there was a great collaboration between many talented people to make that film a working, living, breathing entity. In regards to genre filmmaking, I think as long as you believe in the story your telling, that will translate, hopefully, to an audience, because you're telling the truth.
'An Act of War' was shot on a brand new Arri Alexa camera before they started getting popular in 2012. With Bad Frank, we shot on a Red Camera , which I quite like as well. We only had 15 total days to shoot ‘Bad Frank’ & 19 days to shoot ‘An Act of War’, very minimalist. As an actor, who also has a stake in the film, when we are on set, I put everything into character & step away from production, but as soon as I’m not acting, I try to jump right back into production. The only way these movies work on such a low budget is great storytelling & great acting, which is also why so many low budget films fail, aside from the odds being stacked against micro budget films.
The film won Best Picture at the Take Two Film Festival in New York. Was it taken to other festivals and how was that experience, especially in terms of building pedigree and momentum for getting a release?
Around the year 2013, if you recall, there was a lot of talk of "scam film festivals", about selling directly to an audience etc. & if you didn't have a “name” in your film & couldn't go to Sundance, Cannes etc. you would have to take a different route to sell your film. I feel like the producer, Atit Shah, who has gone on to make a few very successful Hollywood films since ‘ An Act of War’, took the movie to a few film festivals just to gauge the response to the film.
We won Best Picture & Best Actor at the Take Two Film Festival, but also the Audience Award at the Amelia Island Film Festival. I just think all the industry talk had made an impact on the producer & director & they tried to see if they could go directly to the audience instead of continuing to build 100 film festival wins for Best Picture. Hard for me to say if that was a mistake given the nature of Scam Film Festivals & the thousands of dollars you can pour into them just to get very little viewership for your film in return. At that time in micro budget filmmaking, It kept coming back to direct marketing.
I noticed that the film was shot in 2011 but didn’t come out till 2015. Was there a reason for the four-year gap between the shoot and the release – like extensive visual effects? Or was it simply the old adage that you can only choose between two of three options – fast, cheap or good?
Post is a very difficult & unyielding process. It was the first feature film that I had been so heavily involved in the creative from beginning to end and Ryan Kennedy, who I had a great connection with while shooting this character, Jacob Nicks, he was also the writer, was only 21 years old at the time & directing his first feature film. Atit Shah, the producer, I believe was also working on producing his first feature film. So, we got to post & I took a well needed vacation from the type of role I was playing, an Iraq Soldier returning with PTSD.
Several months went by & Ryan had already started working on the editing part time with an assistant and the next thing I know, a year has gone by, of course, I'm eager to see what we have, but in the meantime I'm doing ADR & voice-over work for the film. So, it didn't feel like we weren't in the process of working, it just seemed like you do your best to plan for post, you hope there’s money left in the till so you can get your film out to the world in a timely manner.
I made note of this when starting pre-production on ‘Bad Frank’. Looking back on ‘An Act of War’, I wish I had helped those guys out more, I felt wrecked after playing that role, my biological father had just passed away and even though I wasn’t a producer on the film. I could’ve been more pro-active come post-production. A lesson learned.
Back to Kickstarter vs Netflix – the film was first released on Kickstarter. Was this the original intention? How did it come about?
So, all these ideas for direct marketing had finally come to fruition & the producer & director decided to release 'The Projectionist' on Kickstarter & immediately made $12,000 in doing so & caught the eye of a sales agent once Bloomberg News as well as IndieWire caught wind of what they saw as ' A new way to sell a micro budget film'.
Why did you decide to go from Kickstarter to Netflix?
The producer & director did. As far as I could tell, $12,000 wasn't going to pay off what cost close to $100,000 to make the film, so the sales agent they hired started getting distribution companies interested & finally struck a deal domestically with Revolver Entertainment who had recently released 'Flowers of War' starring Christian Bale at that time. They seemed to have a marketing plan to really push 'The Projectionist' into its niche market and the first thing they did was re-title the movie 'An Act of War'.
Once you got a contract with Netflix, how painful/painless was the process of getting the film up there – deliverables, negotiating the deal points in the contract, etc?
The distributor did this once they had the deliverables. I became friends with the distributor, I like to have relationships with the people who are part of the creative experience, so I was kindly walked through what a deal is like at a giant like Netflix.
Talk a bit more about the contract with Netflix – the good, the bad and the ugly. For instance, there’s the point you made (that many filmmakers have complained about) that Netflix won’t release viewing data so the filmmaker side has no ability to negotiate based on objective results. Do they give any indication how a film has done? Do their payments seem fair? Also, how did negotiations for international territories go?
I love Netflix, but I really wish they would release more information so we, as filmmakers, can gauge where our viewership is at. They had ratings at the time ‘An Act of War’ was on Netflix with reviews & the film was rated a 3.3 with many reviews. But by the time it completed the 1-year lease, ratings & even reviews had gone away as a feature. Netflix paid a licensing fee for a year, fair market value, same as many other SVOD services, but currently ‘An Act of War’ is negotiating International, so I hope to have more information on that soon.
I will say that Twitter has become quite a resource for filmmakers, there are hundreds of distribution companies willing to talk to you about your Feature Film, but you can also go through a traditional International sales agent like 'An Act of War' did. I've just found that 'sales agents' have their few companies & territories they have relationships with & those are the buys you're going to get at a 'Film Market'. But Twitter has opened up a world of relationships you may have never had with a foreign distribution company aka 'a buyer' at a film market.
Distributors don’t always pay on time. How have the filmmakers dealt with that situation? Is there anything that filmmakers can do?
You just have to continue to be diligent and make friends with the people who are releasing your film, the industry relies on these friendships, it's also a way to gut check those who may be thinking of adding extra 'marketing costs' to the bill of distributing your movie. ‘ An Act of War’ made money, that's a fact, considering its budget, domestically. International sales may prove to be just as good. All you can do at the end of the day is make great art, do good business & be a good human being. These things have a way of working themselves out. Just like in film, truth is your best asset.
Finally, what sort of general lessons have you drawn from the experience? I know that you’re producing as well as acting in a film, Bad Frank, that has recently been completed. When you think about the marketing and distribution experience from An Act Of War, what do you intend to do the same and what differently?
Set everything up in pre-production. Have a vision for where the film is going to go, who it's going to & don't really stray from that plan. Plan everything, right down to the last detail.
Any final thoughts on things that I haven’t covered that you think are important for micro budget filmmakers to know?
You don't need “big name actors” or even recognizable actors to make a great film. You need great actors, production & concept. If you can make a great film for under $100k, let's put distributors aside, because now there's outlets like ‘Distribber’ & other aggregator sites that can put your film directly onto the SVOD & VOD platforms while you watch each purchase like a hawk, but do make friends with Distributors because they can be your worst enemy & your greatest ally.
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