Making a Movie: Distributing a Niche Documentary


Making a Movie” is a series of columns that chronicles our attempt to make, market, and distribute a film with Stephen Tobolowsky in 2014

A lot of people have asked me how we’re planning to distribute the film we’re making with Stephen Tobolowsky this year. The film is shaping up to be some hybrid between a documentary and a concert film, and it may only appeal to a very specific audience. But my personal hope is to go the film festival route and get picked up for distribution from there. If that doesn’t work, there are plenty of options for self-distribution, including Vimeo on Demand and VHX.

I’m always eager to learn from those who have traveled the path that I’m trying to go on myself. And by coincidence, I recently received an e-mail from Adam Roffman  (the former program director of the excellent Independent Film Festival of Boston) mentioning that a film he produced, Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself, was going to be airing on PBS this Friday. That film is a documentary about a really interesting figure whose brilliance deserved further exploration (sound familiar?).

After appearing at 20-some festivals, Plimpton! did a limited theatrical release with a small distributor called Laemmle-Zeller (owner of the Laemmle theater chain in LA). The film received a DVD distribution deal and was supposed to go onto DVD this past October, but in early September, they got an offer to air on PBS and thus delayed the DVD release. I wanted to know more about how a film like this gets made, seen, and distributed, so Adam connected me with the film’s director, Luke Poling, who chatted with me over e-mail. See his answers to my questions after the jump.

What was the motivation behind creating this film in the first place?

I was a fan of George Plimpton’s books years before we started making the movie. I think you only need to read a few paragraphs before you fall in love with his voice and his outlook on things. When [co-director] Tom Bean and I (who had written together for a couple of years before starting the film) started kicking around ideas for a good documentary subject, I saw my copy of “Open Net” on the shelf and said, “Why not Plimpton?” We were shocked that no one had told his story before.

How did you budget for this film? How did you go about raising financing?

We based our budget on the quotes we were getting to license footage and photos.  We hoped at the beginning that we would be able to bring that down, either through striking a good relationship with a licensor, or with licensing so much stuff we could get some sort of package deal. We talked with a lot of different companies that had footage we wanted to use.  They ranged from Warner Bros and the NHL to photographers who had shot Plimpton during his various attempts or at The Paris Review.  Some of our best footage, like Plimpton watching the boat races with President Kennedy and the first lady, as well as a lot of the material from the night of the RFK assassination came from various libraries, which let us use the material for free. For the material we had to pay for, we were able to strike some package deals and we ended up fair-using other material that proved far too expensive. All of George’s TV shows, for example, paying the quoted rate outright would have doubled our budget, so we had to get creative in how we utilized all of our footage, either to minimize the amount we used, or to make sure it fell under the fair use policy our lawyers helped guide us on.

As far as the financing goes, we were incredibly fortunate. Plimpton funded The Paris Review for 50 years by getting his various friends to act as publisher for a time.  To fund the movie, we talked with a lot of the people who had helped Plimpton previously.  Publishing The Paris Review is not a get-rich-quick scheme, so they knew what they were getting into when helping fund our movie.  We, both the film making team and the funding team, were all in agreement that people needed to be reminded of all the great work that Plimpton did.

What did you see as the function of the theatrical runs? Was it to make money?

We thought that the movie played well with an audience. We had seen it with enough film festival audiences to know that it was a ride that played best when the people around you were laughing and having a good time. We also had some incredibly nice reviews, which definitely helped us get the word out. In the end, you have to follow the mandate from the audience and, for whatever reason, they weren’t coming out to the theater in droves. We worked hard with our distributor to really get a groundswell of buzz, and it didn’t take off like we had hoped. While we wished we had made a bigger splash and stayed in theaters a little longer, we got to play over 20 cities in the US and we recognize how fortunate we were to have had that opportunity.

Looking back on it, do you think the time you spent putting this film through festivals was time well spent? What did you get out of it?

Getting this film out to festival audiences really helped us show to potential distributors that there was an audience out there who wanted to hear George’s story. We also got some very nice reviews and a few awards, and that doesn’t hurt your chances. It also allowed us to talk with distributors and to be able to start every conversation with, “we just played here and we’re going to be in this festival in two weeks,’ was a nice way to go.

Plimpton! will air on Friday night as part of PBS’s American Masters series. Check your local listings for details.

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