Down the Lost Highway: Why I Toured My DIY Feature Through the American South

LEE FANNING – FILMMAKER

 

In April of 2009 I completed post-production on my feature-length directorial debut—a 120-min do-it-yourself adventure/mystery/drama called A Genesis Found.

And then I had no idea what I was going to do with it.

As with many young, DIY, digital storytellers of my generation, our plan of execution from the concept’s inception throughout the polish of its final mix was meticulously detailed and methodically executed.  But the phase that followed—what I would come to learn might be the single most important phase of every film’s life—was still a big, scary blob of gray.

Now, before I completely sell my compatriots and myself short, we were told, going in, to think about distribution, and we did.  But as most can empathize with, the options for a bunch of no-name-almost-kids touting an overlong, self-financed genre effort were, dubious, at best.  So instead we just focused on learning how to make the movie, and figured we’d eventually get around to learning how to market one in much the same way.

During any long production, there’s a certain point of no return, where this monster you and your conspirators have been dragging along for so long suddenly comes to life and begins dragging you.  Once this happens, once this point is reached, it’s like a hording river, and you’re caught in the undercurrent.  The only way out is to finish, and the film’s self-sustaining, almost-natural energy, ever building, ensures said completion is inevitable.

So I assumed distribution would be just as natural of an experience– that there’d be a certain inevitability to the film finding its audience.  All we had to do was play a couple of film festivals, make some contacts, find a modest distribution deal, and the film would do what it was going to do.

To our credit, our hopes and goals were modest and well-intentioned, if they were a bit old-fashioned and uninformed.  Unfortunately, this hazy “game plan” we had ready to implement was, essentially, the exact same game plan every other freshman filmmaker on the planet has starting out.  That such a combination of events, naturally occurring once a project is complete, is inevitable has become a myth of sorts for filmmakers, a specialized derivative form of the American Dream.  We can do something as all-consuming and diversely challenging as produce a feature film with little money or resources, but for some reason we can’t recognize just how impractical and how little business sense this “hail mary” of a distribution strategy makes.  Maybe we just don’t want to.

In all fairness, there’s nothing wrong with film festivals.  And there is still something to be said for fests as a legitimate distribution outlet for projects that fit the mold of their market.  But we have to recognize them as a market, and that, as with any market, some projects work great, others don’t.

Apparently A Genesis Found didn’t.  Or, at least, our festival run was quiet, slow and ultimately disappointing.  From August 2009 to April 2010, A Genesis Found played only seven festivals, most to quarter-full audiences and with few networking opportunities.  Now, don’t get me wrong—a screening is a screening, and we were happy to get what we could.  But in this brief phase of wandering, this distribution purgatory, it became painfully evident that the festival circuit was not for us, and that it was time to do what we should’ve done from the outset—take responsibility for our film’s destiny.

To do that, part of what we had to address was exactly what our goals were.  We knew, ultimately, we needed to make our film more widely available online—after all, the net is the single best resource for the strapped cash DIY filmmaker of the modern century, and it’s only improving as an option.  But before we “dumped” the film off to its final, digital resting place, we felt part of our goals still lay in a period of more “personal,” face to face distribution.

Both Benjamin Stark (Genesis’ Producer) and I have made a choice, for the time being, to stay in the Southeast and to tell stories here, about here, from an informed, personal perspective that’s objective and fair. That’s really our ethos, to advocate regional-specific storytelling.  Maybe, for us, this is just a reaction to all those “yankees comin’ down here and makin’ us look bad”—but I personally like to think it’s more of a reaction to the world getting “smaller and smaller”, a reaction against the inevitable homogenization of culture in a world where regional identity is dying.

It was this ethos, and the film’s conformity to it, that led us to the conclusion that a region specific tour of the film was what we wanted to do.

Now all we needed were screening locations we could book for free.

The film deals heavily with Native American prehistory in the South, as well as various other academic disciplines from Anthropology to Literature.  This, along with our regionally focused mission, opened a very unique possibility for us, considering we were marketing a narrative film and not a documentary.  That possibility was Academia.  By Fall of 2010 we’d decided on a Southeastern campus tour, and I started talking to schools.

I think, overall, I contacted somewhere between 80 to 85 colleges and universities, public and private, of every size.  Sometimes I got lucky and found someone interested in helping me book the school instantly.  But usually I got bounced around half a dozen or so leads, or I wound up never finding anyone who would write me back at all.  Then sometimes I’d get interest and nothing would materialize.

I ultimately visited 15 schools with the film– from July 2010 to March 2011– which may not sound like much, but to a one man band also working a full-time job, it was plenty.

Going in I underestimated a few things, not the least of which the amount of effort I’d have to put into promoting each screening.  Though most schools would help me distribute fliers and spread word of mouth, I did take it upon myself to divvy out an exhaustive press packet, send press releases and PSAs to local newspapers, magazines and radio stations, and to get the ball rolling via some social networking platforms.  I eventually worked out a pretty comprehensive, one-size-fits-all template for this, but it still ate a lot of my prep time, and I had to keep up with upcoming dates and make sure I didn’t start my promotions too early or too late.

I also underestimated how hard it would be to finalize a booking.  Initially I had hoped to book all of the schools beforehand, like most respectful tours, but found out quickly that wasn’t going to happen.  In doing a campus tour with, essentially, no money to offer, you’re at the mercy of your contacts, the gracious men and women who are willing to help you out for, really, little gain on their end.  It’s hard to expect them to make your screening a top priority, and I learned that, when it comes to free bookings, slow and steady not only wins the race, it’s the only option.

For the most part, the tour was a “light weight” commitment—I rarely had more than one screening a week.  Though I initially had hoped to do more a tour in the traditional sense, with periods of multiple screenings back to back, the lack of a definitive tour infrastructure at its outset, along with the lack of significant manpower, funds and resources on my end, kept that from happening.

Honestly, though, I was really quite happy with the consummate approach I wound up with, and wished I had planned for it all along.  It would have saved me a lot of wasted work and overwhelming stress, and probably kept me a bit more organized overall– something I certainly faltered at throughout the length of the tour.

Needless to say, it was one big learning experience.  Here are a few of the more enduring truths I picked up along the way.

-Distribution is hard.  There are too many outlets for entertainment nowadays, too much supply and not enough new demand (in other words, there’s the same number of folks looking for movies there always was).  So finding success doesn’t always boil down to an original approach to distribution or having a good film.  You’ve got to be a good salesmen.  I’d say even a natural salesman.  I’m a horrible salesmen.  I found some success on this tour, and I think I’d call the whole affair a positive and successful promotion of the film, but I was never passionate about the experience.  I’m passionate about telling stories, just not selling them.  And it’s hard to sell them if you don’t love doing it.??

– Regionalism is an idea that’s marketable and attractive, but it ain’t changing the world just yet.  I had a lot of folks come out to see the film due to its regional ties, but we could have easily done better exuding much less work marketing a Z-horror picture or a Faith-based flick.  Even bad ones.  Hell, ESPECIALLY bad ones.??

– It’s easier to sell something than give it away.  For some reason, it’s hard to get folks to come out to free events.  I’ve seen this not only firsthand with this tour, but also with numerous free community events we have up at the day job– cost equals quality in the cultural consciousness.  The predominant feeling is that if it’s any good, we wouldn’t be giving it away.  It’s hard to argue that logic.

??- I consider the Tour a success, but I wouldn’t do it again.  The idea worked as well as I figured, if not as well as I’d hoped, and I think the film has benefited from the exposure it brought, which was the point in the first place.  I also made some nice contacts and got to talk to a lot of interesting people, saw some great Southern cities and campuses I’ve always wanted to see, and have an interesting story or two to tell strangers and grandchildren.  So, as a personal experience, it was inspiring, revealing and memorable; and as a business model, it was a neat experiment that did what it was supposed to do– but I don’t think it was successful enough to justify doing again.  At least not without some backing and a bit more focused campaign.

For more information, visit the film’s official site, agenesisfound.com, or the official travel blog for its Southeastern Campus Tour, sonofarkie.com.  A Genesis Found is also now streaming free online at Open Film!  See it at openfilm.com/videos/a-genesis-found.

Bio:

A 25-year-old native of Hartselle, AL, Lee Fanning has pursued an interest in film and video production for the past 11 years. Fanning founded Wonder Mill Films with Benjamin Stark in Fall 2006 and the two have had several short films screen at festivals throughout the southeast. Fanning is a 2007 graduate of the University of Alabama and is married to Costumer Designer Peyton Fanning. A Genesis Found is his feature-length debut.