Thursday, August 16, 2007

Sayles on Sayles: Part Three

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John Sayles on advertising, distribution, YouTube, and the
UCLA Film & Television Archives
(click here for part two)

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On advertising

Unfortunately, what's happened with independent filmmaking in the last 10 years
is it's gotten more like mainstream filmmaking in that if your first weekend is not platinum, you disappear. We make movies very low-budget for as ambitious as they are. For instance, Honeydripper is about a five-million-dollar movie. We only had, with that, five weeks to shoot it, so it was very, very tight. But to make five million dollars back, you can't just play two weeks everywhere. You have to hang in the theaters a little bit longer, or you have to really use that theatrical opening as a kind of loss leader or something you break even on, like advertising, or other revenue.

Now the other revenue becomes problematic if everybody is going to go to their friend-you know, ten people are going to go to their friend and copy it from them, instead of buying it on DVD. So, I hope there's still a window for us to get people
to either go to a theater or buy a DVD, or sell the rights to the movie or whatever.

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Featuring Sayles, Strathairn, and NYPD Blue's Gordon Clapp
On distribution
However, we're basically not quite self-distributing this movie, but we didn't have
a distributor, and we still don't have a distributor. You know, it's what we can afford.
I mean, advertising has gotten so expensive that only the big studios can afford
it. I'm still a screenwriter-for hire, and one studio just put out a fatwa saying: no dramas, no period movies. That's like a whole studio. They're interested in dopey comedies or big Spiderman kinds of movies. It's what they know they can sell; and that they know they can sell when they know they have to spend 20 million or more advertising it on television, because that's the way they do things. Even when they do a platform release, they're still buying television in those markets that they platform in, and it's really more expensive than we can handle. I mean, we basically spent
all our money to make the movie, and we had almost none left for advertising.
On his first distributor
I had hitchhiked across the States, but I had never gotten as high as Seattle, so it's the first time I got up to the Northwest [when Specialty Films picked up Return of the Secaucus 7]. There was a guy named Randy Findley who owned the Seven Gables and the Varsity-six or seven of the best theaters-and he had done a little distribution.
He had distributed The Man Who Skied Down Everest, and a French movie that did
very well. He bought our film partly because he knew he could make money in Seattle with it in his theaters, and then he sub-contracted a guy named Barinholtz, who invented the midnight movie with Eraserhead. He did most of the work east of the Mississippi, and Randy did most of the work west of the Mississippi. They were good guys. They really had a seat-of-the-pants, grass roots way of selling the movie.
So, we came to Seattle a couple of times and did publicity-in Portland, as well-
and [we've] come back there to visit friends, and have fun since then. We've been
to the Seattle International Film Festival several times. Randy ran those theaters
for six or seven more years. Then he started a lawsuit against the two major theater chains in town-and studios. He had the best theaters, he would offer more money, but they still wouldn't give him a mainstream picture, so he ended up selling his theaters in the lawsuit to the new people who owned them. All the studios finally settled, except for one, and they lost triple damages. It was obvious they were
doing some kind of secret bidding, under-the-table thing, and freezing him out.
On Seattle theaters
Seattle was the place-not only Starbucks started there, but Elliot Bay, where you
can sit and read-but also the concept of an independent movie theater being a place where you like to go. You go to see what's there, and then it has some personality, and it doesn't look like every other one, and you can get coffee and a brownie or something-instead of just popcorn-and there are good seats. And Randy really sort of started that, and other people started copying it around the country.
So, it was a nice introduction when we were all trying to invent this independent film thing. He was a good guy to have hooked up with, and Seattle-at that time anyway, I don't know if it's still true-had the highest per capita movie-going and book-reading in the country. Probably because of the rain. And it's still true if you have
a sunny weekend, you're dead. When your movie opens in Seattle, if it's beautiful and vibrant, it's like, 'Why go to a movie?' It's beautiful there when it doesn't rain.
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Chris Cooper in Matewan
On the UCLA Film and Television Archives
First of all, UCLA's doing great work. It doesn't have to be an ancient film. It
doesn't have to be a silent film or something from the 1930s to need restoration. And so a lot of,AeP And so, out of my first 10 films, probably eight of those distributors are out of business, and so when we try to get the rights back or we try to get a
print or whatever, things disappear. One reel of The Brother from Another Planet had disappeared, and we luckily had an intermediate something that we were able to
find somewhere and make a new negative of. UCLA has helped doing a lot of that.
Some film stocks don't exist anymore, so when we printed Matewan, which we re-did on our own, because we don't have the rights back, but we wanted to preserve it, even if the people who own it didn't. We had to print it on Fuji, because the Kodak stock it was printed on doesn't exist anymore. So there's a lot that goes into it.
On YouTube
What I would hope is that-the problem for everybody is how to get money out
of this thing. It's great to get word-of-mouth going. It's great for publicity, in that you don't have to pay very much. It's just: is there any form that people will pay
to see your thing? Movies have not gotten quite as downloadable as records have.
For instance, not enough people are buying CDs. They're sharing them, downloading them, buying them a song at a time-not buying a whole album-or whatever.
Maybe in 15 years, everybody will be getting their movies in a different way.
So, right now, it's good to have these things, and who you're reaching with them
are the most movie-mad audiences, who are actively going to sites to look for
what's coming out. It's not the biggest audience, but it is an important audience.
I think for people just starting out, it's great. Unfortunately, for a while there was this phenomenon where even if you got your first movie into Sundance, if it didn't get a huge release or didn't do well on its release, that was it for you as a filmmaker.
There was no failing, there was no apprenticeship, and so now, I think, there are people who can-compared to me-who have made three or four movies on hi-def video. None of them cost more than a million dollars, but they got that experience, and you hope they don't get disheartened, and at least they have some-even if
it only plays on YouTube or is downloadable for 50 cents-audience for it. You know, sometimes it's a little bit like going home and playing your violin and opening your case and hoping people put dollar bills in it, but people do okay doing that.
Next: On Black Snake Moan, Will Oldham, Limbo, and Robert Altman
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Images from NNDB, FRAMEONLINE, and The Stop Button.

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