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The Final Frontier of Filmmaking: Three Stories of Self-Distribution

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Here’s how the story goes: You scrimp, save and starve to make the film of your dreams. You sleep in your car, you only eat ramen for two years and develop scurvy, you volunteer for experimental drug treatments for cash, you teach the 9-year-old next door how to use Final Cut Pro so that he can edit a trailer for you while you’re supposedly babysitting him. And when you’re finished, you premiere it at a festival to audience and critical acclaim, and a distributor swoops down and carries you and your film off to the fame and minor fortune you deserve.


These days, a crowded market and the sheer difficulty of making money on a theatrical release has made distributors wary of taking any chances, and often when an offer is made, it’s not at all favorable towards the filmmaker. Suddenly self-distribution, once an unthinkable rarity, seems like a viable option for filmmakers who are willing to do the work to get their films on screens. September may be the month self-distribution comes into its own. The three filmmakers profiled below are all in the midst of releasing their own films, and they’re not the only ones. Susan Buice and Arin Crumley are setting up screenings for their film “Four Eyed Monsters” using an innovative online request system inspired by Chris Anderson’s idea of The Long Tail. Joe Swanberg opened his film, “LOL,” in New York last week.

Andrew Bujalski

Film: “Mutual Appreciation,” a black and white Brooklyn-based comedy about the semi-adventures of a aimless musician who just moved to the city.

In the words of Variety, “Wait, you don’t know Bujalski?” His first film, “Funny Ha Ha,” ended up A.O. Scott’s top ten list last year after a tortuous path from festival to television to eventual self-distribution three years after its premiere. On the basis of just two films, critics have hailed him as the voice of a generation, but Bujalski finds himself once again having to bring his own film to theaters, with the help of “one enthusiastic angel (in several senses of the word) investor” and the distribution company they created, Goodbye Cruel Releasing.

Bujalski’s not one to aggrandize his start-to-finish DIY process — “It’s completely unsustainable. I’ve been absurdly lucky,” he told the New York Times. He had hoped for a distribution deal this time around, but was prepared for difficulty: “We had a good sense of how steep an uphill battle this would be and had our nerve steeled pretty well against disappointment.” And there are plenty of benefits to having your film play in theaters, even if you’ve had to do your own booking. For one, it gets reviewed, and so far critics have been very pleased with “Mutual Appreciation.” For another, as Bujalski notes, “Light, pouring through a projector, through a film image, onto a big screen in a dark room full of strangers, is a beautiful and moving thing!”

“Mutual Appreciation” opens in New York on September 1 and platforms out to the rest of the country from there (more).

Sujewa Ekanayake

Film: “Date Number One,” a full-length comedy composed of five different stories about first dates.

Ekanayake has always organized his own screenings (“I like DIY distribution.”), but “Date Number One” is the first film he’s taken outside of the Washington, D.C.-area. He’s an enthusiastic and vocal supporter of both the theatrical experience and the DIY ethic, bypassing the more conventional festival route, selling his own DVDs through his website. He offers some encouraging words for anyone less fearless who’s considered handling their own distribution:

It is not as hard as most people think. The essential work required is: 1) Set up screening. 2) Promote screening. 3) Oversee screening, make sure the event goes well, solve any problems that come up. 4) Repeat steps 1-3 ’til you don’t feel like it no more.

Like many indie filmmakers, Ekanayake has taken full advantage of the web to garner interest in his work, documenting his experiences on his blog and reaching out to other film bloggers to review his films. Maybe it’s all that fresh air from working outside the system that’s allowed his to retain a remarkably positive attitude about filmmaking, noting that “Being able to make and show movies is a privilege (due to various economic, cultural, political and other historical factors), a privilege reserved for very few people on this planet at the moment.”

“Date Number One” premiered in DC in May. It opens in New York August 31st, with other dates and cities to be announced (more).

Lance Weiler

Film: “Head Trauma,” a psychological horror film inspired by a pair of traumatic experiences: a terrible car accident and a hellish period working as the producer of a pilot at a major studio.

Weiler’s first film, “The Last Broadcast,” was a faux documentary about the grisly fates of a trio filming a cable access show about the Jersey Devil in the remote woods. Sound familiar? It preceded “The Blair Witch Project” by a year, and many will argue it’s the better film. “The Last Broadcast” also had the distinction of being the first film to be shot, edited and screened entirely digitally — Weiler and his fellow filmmakers released the film themselves in five cities, and it played on HBO and IFC. Weiler did look into traditional distribution for “Head Trauma,” but says that “the deals were weak – the advances were low and everyone wanted so much for so little… So I decided early on to return to self distribution. We’d done it with our first film and we’d seen a profit and best of all we retained the rights to the work.”

Drawing on the experiences from his first bout with self-distribution, Weiler laid out an impressive, practical plan that included the creation of an interactive comic to build early interested in the film, pairing screenings with speaking engagements at schools and film societies to offset costs, selling posters, enlisting fans to spread the word and making use of social networking sites. He’s already opened the film in three cities, and will expand it further in the weeks leading up to the DVD release.

It’s tempting to use Weiler as the savvy poster boy for self-distribution making economic sense, but he’s also passionate about the theatrical experience. “There is nothing like seeing the movie on a large screen with an audience,” he declares, adding that “the most important thing for me, since I’m traveling with the film, is that it allows me to make a personal connection with the audience and assists in building a fan base for the work.”

“Head Trauma” opened in Portland, OR on August 18th and is expanding from there to other cities across the country (more).

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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