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Planning, Patience, and Reality: An Interview with Film Critic Phil Hall

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Planning, Patience, and Reality: An Interview with Film Critic Phil Hall

At one time, Phil Hall navigated between the worlds of public relations and film criticism, two professions that could not be more dissimilar. It is one thing to promote independent films through film-festival circulation, press coverage and, ultimately, distribution, and quite another to be judging the merits of non-mainstream cinema. And yet, having experienced both sides of the spectrum (and hanging up his publicist’s hat in 2004 to focus on criticism full-time) Hall has had the opportunity to see the strange balance of art and commerce that comprises the motion picture business. His previous book, The Encyclopedia of Underground Movies: Films From the Fringes of Cinema was a way of categorizing the films Hall felt needed a little more exposure, as well as a celebration of the art form. His latest, Independent Film Distribution: How to Make a Successful End Run Around the Big Guys, is all about the business—its rare success stories and its many pitfalls.

“Do not buy any of the happy-hype surrounding the independent film business,” Hall warns. “This is a tough, highly competitive field. It is also not a world where people are tossing bushels of dollars skyward and singing ’We’re in the Money!’” He goes on to say he has had prominent distributors confide in him that they are “uncertain how anyone is getting rich via indie movies—and these were distributors who released films that gained national attention and Oscar nominations!” These daunting words level the playing field for Hall’s argument: follow your dream, but know what you’re getting yourself into.

Hall asks whether film festivals are worth the trouble (and increasing expenses), and offers some fair-minded answers, more often than not erring on the side of supporting emerging and “smaller” festivals instead of embracing a big brass ring mentality. “Almost every major city has its own festival, and in one case a city with no cinemas even has a festival named for it (the Atlanta City Film Festival, which is actually held in neighboring towns)...Smaller festivals, on the whole, have been more generous in giving screen time to films without distributors…And the new festivals keep coming.” The outlook may be grim, but hey, there’s always hope.

As a contributing editor to Film Threat and a member of the governing committee of the Online Film Critics Society, Hall has continued his support of niche films that are close to his heart, so in a way Independent Film Distribution is intended as a field guide for the movies he loves. “The more you learn about [the] subject,” he advises, “the better you’ll be at the game.” And he ends the book with a justifiable question: “How far are you willing to go?”

Tell me about your background in movie PR and as a film critic. How do you find a balance between the two?

The film criticism came first, starting in 1985 with freelance work for the New York Daily News. That was followed by articles and reviews in a variety of publications, culminating in my joining the Film Threat team in 2000. The PR work began in 1994 through the agency I owned and operated, Open City Communications. I focused on the promotion of independent and foreign films released by boutique distributors—though later in that work, many of my clients were self-distributing filmmakers. There was no balance between the two. I kept both activities separate and apart. To be honest, I preferred writing about films versus promoting them. This was strictly because many of the films I promoted were not very good and I felt guilty having to hype up flicks that really weren’t deserving of attention. I left the PR business in 2004 and I never missed it.

You have been an advocate for independent (or underground or non-mainstream) cinema. How would you describe your personal taste?

I am somewhat inconsistent because I don’t slavishly subscribe to any particular genre. I judge films on an individual basis, not on the subject matter or production origins. I could just as easily praise a cheapo horror movie as I could praise a Cannes-honored art movie. I don’t prefer one to the other—I just want to connect with a film positively. For example, someone wrote to Film Threat praising my glowing review of Another Gay Movie and thanking me for being supportive of gay-themed cinema. But I’m not—most of the reviews I’ve written of gay-themed films have not been supportive. But this isn’t because I hate gay-themed films—it’s because most of the films I’ve come across in this genre strike me as being poorly made. But a lowbrow comedy like Another Gay Movie or a provocative art film like Quentin Lee’s Drift struck me as being excellent, even though both are polar opposites in regard to their visceral goals. I also want to stress—film criticism is all about opinion. Just because I say a film is good or bad should not be viewed as a statement of fact. I am expressing my viewpoint

Why did you write this book, Independent Film Distribution?

The book was created because too many filmmakers have no clue how to get a film into release. In filmmaking, the focus is almost always on the production side and not the business side. That’s why there are tons of fine films gathering dust on shelves—it is not a reflection of their quality or commercial potential, but rather because the filmmakers lacked the knowledge of marketing their films for distribution.

Were you hoping to demystify the business side of cinema in some way?

Not so much “demystify” as to introduce it to filmmakers. You may be surprised how many filmmakers have no clue what distribution is all about—film schools and the film media emphasize the creative aspect of the craft, not the business side. I would like to think of the book as an in-depth guide to the subject, designed for those who don’t know a service deal from a salami sandwich.

How did you meet your publishers at Michael Wiese Productions?

They published my first book, The Encyclopedia of Underground Movies, in 2004. My Film Threat publisher, Chris Gore, made the introduction for me.

What led to Keith Gordon writing the introduction, and what are some of the things he says that you respond to and agree with?

The introduction was originally supposed to be written by Henry Jaglom, but he wound up pre-occupied with his own work and was unable to do this for me. I interviewed Keith Gordon for the book and the introduction is actually the text of our interview—it was polished and tweaked into an introductory text from the original Q&A format. I can’t say that I agree or disagree with Keith’s comments—Keith is talking about his experiences. One of the key aspects of the book is the fact there is no be-all/end-all answer. There are multiple approaches to the various concerns that arise in the discussion of distribution. I do regret that Henry Jaglom is not interviewed in the book, although he is cited as a successful example of self-distribution and four-walling.

In the section entitled “Outsiders Fighting Back” you create links in a chain from Thomas Edison to John Cassavetes. We might not initially put those two names together.

There is not a direct link between those two, but both were significant players in the rise of independent distribution. Edison was a producer and distributor and he tried to muscle out the smaller distributors by creating a distribution monopoly with the other major film companies. It didn’t work, thanks mainly to Adolph Zukor and Carl Laemmle working feverishly to set up their respective indie distribution networks. But if Edison had not tried to control the distribution game, the rise of the independents either would not have happened or would have come much later in film history. Ironically, both Zukor and Laemmle “went Hollywood” and took over where Edison tried to go—into running the film business! As for Cassavetes, he showed us how self-distribution could lead to great success and crushing failure. A lot of people forget Cassavetes eventually wound up in serious debt because of problems in self-distribution; there is the habit of focusing on Shadows or Faces as self-distribution success tales, but ignoring the debacle of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie or the failure to get Opening Night into release after its 1979 Los Angeles debut. We need to be honest—this book is not a 100% guide to success. A lot of people fail in this business. If anything, we can profit from their losses and avoid their mistakes.

You say the key to understanding independent film distribution is that the independents were initially considered to be the producers, not the directors. Can you explain?

This goes back to the “business” side of “show business.” The original independents (from the 1920s to the 1940s) who worked regularly and successfully were producers: Sam Goldwyn, David O. Selznick, Howard Hughes, Walter Wanger, etc. They were the driving forces behind movie projects. At that point in the cinema, the director was not viewed as the controlling artist—rather, he was an artist for hire or an artist under contract to a studio. The producer was the one who called the shots. A couple of filmmakers wore both hats as producer and director (most notably Cecil B. DeMille in Hollywood and Oscar Micheaux in the “race film” fringes of the business), but it wasn’t until the late 1950s with Otto Preminger and Stanley Kramer that the dual producer/director responsibilities became more prevalent.

How would you describe the “professional isolation” of the independent filmmaker, and some of the avenues they can take to be less isolated? You stress the importance of the Producer’s Rep and the Publicist, for example.

“Professional isolation” refers to the situation facing many filmmakers, especially outside of Los Angeles or New York—you are not connected to a wider industry and thus you are working with relatively little local support. Filmmaking is a collaborative effort. So is distribution. Even if you self-distribute, you cannot wear every single hat. The filmmaker surrounds himself with the best possible team during the production process, and he should also do the same with the distribution process. Let’s clarify something: I don’t stress the importance of the producer’s rep. Some people interviewed in the book say that person is needed, others beg to differ. I stress that person can be part of the process, but whether you need one or not is something for the filmmaker to determine.

Do you have mixed feelings about filmmakers four-walling theaters?

It depends on the situation. If a filmmaker has no other options and can afford it, that’s fine. And there are more than a few cases of successful four-walling. But aesthetically, I would prefer to see a film booked through the proper commercial channels rather than paying a theater owner to show the movie.

Do you feel the film festival circuit is over-hyped and generally not helpful, or is that an overstatement? There must be some benefit, as you interview several festival programmers for great independent festivals.

It is a wild overstatement. Granted, there are too many festivals and most of them will not help the indie filmmaker. But there’s the challenge: go out and find the festival that will benefit your film. For example, Liz Garbus notes how her documentary Girlhood got its distributor at the Atlantic City Film Festival, which is considered a second-tier event by many people in the business. Meanwhile, Hal Hartley relates how he wound up self-distributing his flick The Girl From Monday even though it played at Sundance. Go figure.

How would you describe the evolution of Sundance from its conception to where it is now?

Imagine a little kitten that grows up and becomes a Tyrannosaurus Rex—that’s Sundance. It journeyed from a benign and playful entity into a predatory and oversized beast, and its transformation is thoroughly ludicrous. Sundance was supposed to be the anti-Hollywood, not Hollywood in the snow. But, honestly, it should not be a surprise. The goal of most filmmakers is to go Hollywood. Very few want to stay on the indie fringes, and who can blame them? What would you rather have, a five-picture-deal with MGM or the angst of hoping some foundation will give you a grant to finance your next documentary?

Your opinion of “Video On Demand” is “Wait and see.” It raises the question: wait and see for what? What good or bad can you see in the proverbial crystal ball?

Wait and see if anyone is going to watch your film via Video on Demand. If we are talking about Net-based VOD, there is little to suggest that people will seek out original feature-length films for online viewing. The trend seems to be for short films, and currently the viral video craze suggests zany amateur stuff is more popular than well-conceived short film productions.

You have many fascinating interview subjects throughout the book. Did any of your interview subjects say anything you personally disagree with?

Yes, but the purpose of the book is not to get a lot of prominent people to agree with me. The point is to bring a diversity of experiences and opinions to the table and show the various ways a film can get released. For example, Ryan Dacko urges people to avoid film school and Paul DeSimone recommends selling copies of your film via eBay. I might not offer that advice, but both strategies worked for them—so who am I to say no?

What did you learn about cinema and distribution through writing your book?

I learned that an indie filmmaker can get a film released—but it takes a lot of planning, patience and reality.