For indie filmmakers, the trick is finding an audience

In these digital days, anyone can direct. But with hundreds of microbudgeted movies made each year, the competition for exposure is fierce.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

At the Independent Film Festival of Boston's première of "On Broadway," the ticket holder's line wraps around the block. Limos pull up to the Somerville Theatre, delivering cast members Joey (New Kids on the Block) McIntyre, Will ("Arrested Development") Arnett, and Eliza ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer") Dushku. Even Boston Mayor Thomas Menino makes an appearance.

But hordes of locals, a name-brand cast, and the mayor's blessing can't guarantee the Boston-made film will have legs beyond this festival weekend. Even the paparazzi clinging to Dushku's tight, gold- and silver-sequined dress can't make writer-director Dave McLaughlin's dreams of theatrical distribution for "On Broadway" come true.

So McLaughlin has adjusted his expectations. Sort of.

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"Success/failure will be a matter of whether people are moved by the film," McLaughlin wrote in an e-mail the week before the festival. "Whether they respond to it."

The trick is reaching that audience. In these digital days, it seems anyone can direct. But with hundreds of microbudgeted movies made each year, demand for venues and audiences is way up. Many films don't reach the festival circuit, let alone get a theatrical release or rack space at Blockbuster. Some go straight to DVD. Some find a specialized audience on the Internet. Some go nowhere.

The measure of "success" has come to mean something other than a "Spider-Man 3"-sized opening weekend for indie filmmakers, who have become creative marketers to rally a fan base.

So let's say you're a McLaughlin. You've lined up $30,000 or $3 million in financing and maxed out your credit cards and/or your parents' goodwill. You shot, you scored, and the film is in the can. Now what?

"There's this mythology that at Sundance Harvey Weinstein will walk into the screening and write you a check for $1 million," says Matt Dentler, producer for the South by Southwest film festival. Only 5 percent of the 122 feature films in competition at Sundance – in 2007, culled from 3,287 entries – get any sort of deal, major or minor. Some odds.

"Everyone wants to get their film seen," says Portland-based director Cullen Hoback, whose documentary "Monster Camp" screened at the IFF Boston. "Number 2 goal: Getting to make another film." That means, at least, breaking even to pay off any investors.

"On Broadway" has the advantage of recognizable stars, national release after IFF Boston, DVD or otherwise, is likely. The movie is already slated for a European première at the Galway Film Fleadh in July, and media attention at fests can help ink a bigger deal. But straight-to-Internet download is a more likely – and cheaper – route to finding viewers, whose independent tastes can be targeted.

"Theatrical distribution is not viable for most films," says Danielle DiGiacomo, documentary film coordinator for Indiepix. DiGiacomo says low-budget filmmakers often end up losing money on a distribution deal.

Indiepix.net "releases" select movies for "download-to-own"; members burn DVDs from their computers. Filmmakers receive $10 per sale, DiGiacomo says, and are freed from the "full-time job" of promoting their films. Similar indie-friendly download sites include SuperIndieFilms.com, Jaman.com, indieflix.com, and greencine.com.

DiGiacomo was speaking on an IFF Boston panel discussion called "Non-Theatrical Distribution for Filmmakers." Audience members wanted advice: How to build buzz on sites like MySpace.com and YouTube.com, for example. DiGiacomo cited the recent "Four Eyed Monsters" as a film that used podcasts to draw fans in major cities, who in turn lobbied local theaters to book the film.

But some filmmakers, like Allie Humenuk of Cambridge, Mass., find online distribution undesirable. At IFF Boston she premièred "Shadow of the House," her documentary about photographer Abelardo Morello. "Yes, I want it seen by as many people as possible," Humenuk says, but she'd prefer they see her film on the big screen. "The idea of it being played on a small monitor doesn't appeal to me."

"Your market doesn't find you," says Tom Putnam, "you have to find your market." At last year's IFF Boston, Putnam premièred his World War II documentary "Red White Black & Blue." It then played Switzerland's Locarno International FilmFestival. But it was a run at an Alaskan museum that proved to distributors that a market existed.

"The hard part is to get out there and rise above the din of the other films," says Putnam, who lives in Los Angeles. A year later, he finally did. PBS's "Independent Lens" series will screen "Red White Black & Blue" on Veterans Day.

As for "On Broadway," it will play two more small fests, New Jersey's Hoboken and Michigan's Waterfront, this June.

McLaughlin remains confident. Sort of. "I feel that I've made the film we wanted to make. There's nothing to be nervous about," he says.

"You roll the dice, grit your teeth," adds "On Broadway" actress Jill Flint, basking in the film's Boston première, "and let it go."

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