How do you do it? If the mainstream industry and the mainstream festivals are not responding to your work, does it mean there's no audience or community for you work? HELL, NO! You just have to bring it to where they are. It might be hard. It might be grueling. And it will be brutal, but it can be done. Filmmaker Bob Ray guest posts today to show us all how it is done. He has hit the road couch surfing and community building. The kindness of strangers can be key but nothing is more so than being true to what you love and have made.
Bringing It To The People, The Badass Way: No Distrib, No Festivals, A Lot Of Help & Support
I’m honored to throw down a blog entry here. I follow this feed and put to use the wisdom gleaned from these pages. There’s a dialogue out there (and in here) about the ever-changing distribution landscape, the role of film festivals, self-distribution and the like. I hope my experience adds to this conversation and we’re all the richer for it. We’ll see, it might. It just might.
The stranger we met on Craigslist was nice enough to let us crash at his apartment in Boston. The suspiciously empty living room and the lack of a single morsel of food in the kitchen led me to believe that this was either a freaky sex pad or a murder house. We never found out which. The ghost of a woman and her dog haunted a New Orleans mansion we’d been at only weeks before. There were high-rise chickens in Florida, a crippling stunt and a pitch to IFC in NYC. I sat in the theater chair where Lee Harvey Oswald was nabbed. Whiskey-slapping in Greensboro, a near riot in Mobile and a fistful of pills in Houston. Weirdness abounds. And that’s just a few of the nights of the last film tour. Hey, at least we didn't go to jail this time.
Around mid-2010 I finished my newest film, Total Badass. I skipped the film fests and, instead, I’ve been touring the film all over the US. With my hometown of Austin as the hub, I toured for five weeks out West and another five weeks out East. I screened in over 60 cities and racked up about fourteen thousand miles in total. I traveled America and had a blast. Now I’m perched to tour Europe in a few months. Australia and New Zealand look pretty tempting as well.
Name’s Bob Ray. What’s important to know is this: I’m an Austin-based filmmaker who will whip out films of all manner: narratives, cartoons, docs and music videos, short and/or long. Lately, it’s been all docs and ‘toons. Long docs and short ‘toons. My first two feature length flicks, the stoner comedy Rock Opera (1999) and the roller derby doc, Hell on Wheels (2007), premiered at SXSW and went on to screen at tons of fests, get great reviews and land small distribution deals that saw the films released on DVD and Video on Demand. All in all, my flicks have screened at over 75 film festivals in a handful of countries and garnered plenty of spectacular reviews. I attended many of these film fests and had a blast while making a pile of new filmmaker friends. All good stuff.
Despite my previous successes (or maybe in light of them), from the get-go it seemed that the odds have been stacked against Total Badass. Here’s why: Total Badass is a raw film. Raw by design, but it’s raw. At its core, the flick is a gritty and hilariously offensive, yet touching tale of a man striving to leave his creative mark while dealing with a family crisis and trying to fly straight long enough to finish felony probation. It’s a funny and intimate story about redemption, finding your purpose and the importance of family, but along the way, there’s plenty of way-over-the-line humor, high doses of drug abuse, rowdy music, graphic sex, racy racial humor, weed dealing and some dangerous trashcan jumping. You might find it hard to believe (and for some, this is almost a requirement for documentaries), but Total Badass contains no agenda to affect social change, end oppression or save the planet (I’m all for those things, btw). Total Badass features no famous artist, celebrity, singer, philanthropist, comedian or politician. Total Badass is a film about Chad Holt by Bob Ray. And you’ve never heard of either of us.
To overcome these crippling blows, I felt that what the film really could use was a big, wet stamp of approval from a top shelf fest. I feared that most fests would be too timid to screen the flick due to the rampant cocaine snorting and cock sucking, er, the controversial subject matter. I needed someone keen who could see the forest for the freaky trees, someone who could peer through the bong smoke and embrace the heart and soul that lie at the center of the film.
With fingers XXX-ed, I entered Total Badass into several top-tier film festivals: Sundance, Berlin, Rotterdam, IDFA, SXSW, Tribeca, Slamdance, Los Angeles, True/False, Full Frame, etc. We found not a lick of love there. I soon grew sick of waiting for others to validate my work. And I was annoyed with blasting off entry fee after entry fee like shooting bullets at the night sky.
Sometimes it seems the world is against me. Here I was again: me versus everybody. Plan A was shot. I needed a plan B.
I know what I want, I just need a new way to get it. The goal is to get the film out and in front of the people who’ll appreciate it. I want to get the flick reviewed and hopefully build an audience for my movies. I want to do the work that’ll do the film justice. There’s no point in making the damn thing if no one’s gonna see it, right? I am also, by collecting piles of fantastic reviews and making waves, looking to get the attention of the film biz and, ideally, find a distributor to pick up wherever I leave off. If I can actually make some spare change in the process, all the better. It’s sure to be an adventure wrapped in a lesson and shoved up an enigma.
It’s very DIY around here. I’m willing to sleep in strange places. I’m willing to drive long stretches and make new friends of total strangers. Even with a lack of money, there are other ways to get things done.
Bands surround me. I live in the Live Music Capitol of the World. I’ll take a page and tour around, band-style. I’ll hop in a car and hit a new city every night, screen films, do a Q&A, sell merch and party. I’ll repeat for weeks on end. Sounds solid. But first I gotta sell the idea to a bunch of cinemas.
My name carries little to no weight. It sounds kinda cool and reads palindrome-y, but that’s about it. So I partnered up with some names that do. The Alamo Drafthouse has screened many of my films. SXSW has shown 11 of my films in the last 10 years. The Austin Chronicle gives me ink with kindness. The Austin Film Society is a benevolent institution that likes to help. I teamed up with them all. These would be my promotional partners. I’ll package and pitch the tour as a slice of Austin coming to towns near and far. Everybody loves Austin’s weirdness.
It’ll work because my films are Austin-centric. Total Badass is about an Austin underground icon, Rock Opera is a fictional tale set in the real Austin music scene of the late 90s and then there’s Hell on Wheels. I was privy to the birth of modern roller derby and I made a doc about it. Roller derby has since exploded in popularity and Hell on Wheels is the de-facto history book for the movement and Austin is its birthplace. This doc enjoys a built in fan base in every city where roller derby exists, and that’s all of them. If I can convince cinemas to screen two films a night, I can double dip with a screening of Hell on Wheels and Total Badass. And with Hell, I can team up with derby leagues in a cross-promotional extravaganza. So I did that.
Booking is a pain in the ass. Packed with maps, spreadsheets, emails, pitches, phone calls, scheming, plotting, conning, negotiating, math, business b.s. and other seemingly endless and entirely thrill-less work, it all pains my ass. And it takes forever. Four months before the launch date for the tour I was researching and contacting cinemas, partnering up with derby leagues and filling up the calendar. Here’s a depressing surprise: just finding indie cinemas is a bit of a chore. Some cities, big cities even, just don't have one. On the flip side, you’ll occasionally come across theaters that are totally down with the idea and jump right on in.
Business-wise, I work out door splits. Usually, I get around 50%. I’ve yet to four-wall a venue and couldn't afford to if I wanted to. What the cinemas want to know is how we’ll be bringing an audience. Cuz we all know that it’s not with ads, as there’s no ad budget. The way we do it around here is with piles of hard work and creativity.
Promotion was grass roots. We teamed up with derby leagues and partnered w/ local film groups and local filmmakers. We worked with fests that had screened my past works. We sought out music, culture or film writers who have written about off-the-beaten path events and harassed them for press. We sent out press releases, screeners and email reminders. We teamed up with radio stations and held ticket giveaways. We hit up university film clubs and sought to meet professors who’d encourage their students to attend. We teamed up with film societies to help spread the word. We reached out to every blog, newspaper, ‘zine, and radio station and angled for coverage. Getting the word out is half the battle.
On the tour, we screened some of my CrashToons cartoons (www.CrashToons.com) in front of Total Badass and Hell on Wheels. The ‘toons are super-short and punchy-funny and set a good tone for the night. Chad Holt, the subject of Total Badass and a good friend, accompanied me on the tours, contributed to the tour journal (http://crashcamfilms.com/tourjournal.htm) and hosted post-screening Q&As with me. With Hell on Wheels, we partnered up with leagues all over to present the flick. This partnership allows us to grow our audience and hopefully turn on some local filmgoers to the derby scene in their own community. After Hell screenings, I’d do a Q&A w/ the derby gals.
Steve Bloom & Shirley Halperin’s fine stoner film guide “Reefer Movie Madness” features a killer review of my first flick, Rock Opera. I contacted the author and we scored a case of books to give away as door prizes. We also gave away DVDs of Rock Opera, to help tie it all together and to create a more festive environment. After the Q&A, I’d mingle with filmgoers and sell DVDs, shirts and posters and give away stickers and condoms (for the after-parties, duh).
Life on the road is odd and fun. Of the ten weeks on the road, we only needed to rent a motel twice and only slept in the car twice. The rest of the time, we found couches, beds and floors to crash on. Sometimes, during the Q&A, we’d beg for a crash-pad. It usually worked. People like to help.
My experiment, in part forced by a flood of film fest rejection letters, has me evaluating the value of film fests versus taking it straight to the people. In one sense, I got out of touring what I would have gotten out of film fests: loads of reviews. Behold a pu pu platter sampling:
“The title couldn't be more apt.” -Time Out New York
“Total Badass is a wild, unique ride, deep into the Austin counterculture... it's entertaining and shockingly funny, and undeniably touching... a thunderbolt of a documentary.” -Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
“[Total Badass director] Bob Ray is Austin’s newish lowbrow Maysles brother... Chad Holt comes off charmingly as equal parts Texan Keith Moon and crispy Richard Benjamin, talking blue streaks and rolling joints in his probation officer’s parking lot.” -Village Voice
“A ballsy feature-length documentary... a totally unapologetic profile of the ubiquitous Austin hero.” -Vice Magazine
"A psychological treat" -Phoenix New Times
“An outrageous and hilariously seedy journey into the Austin underground... [Total Badass] bravely goes where no documentary film has gone before.” -Flavorpill
What we didn't get was the attention of industry folks. I’m not sure we’re on anybody’s radar. But we are armed with badass reviews, so we’ll try to work that angle next.
Also in the con column, I personally missed the camaraderie and fun of screening flicks with new and old film friends and peers at film festivals. This is not to be overlooked. Many, if not most of my filmmaker pals I’d befriended at fests. While on tour, I met up with and crashed at the houses of lots of these same folks. Film fests are a fantastic way to connect to likeminded peers in a kickass film friendly environment.
Back to the pros: in addition to one hell of an adventure and some awesome reviews, I found in my possession a bit of cash. I spent about seven grand on Total Badass (not including my time, and I did not pay myself). I grossed a little over eight grand on these tours. I’ve yet to do the math and find the net (there are many things to factor: gas, printing, shipping, DVD replication, t-shirt and poster costs, food, etc.), and none of this takes into account working my ass off for four months to book and promote the tour and being on the road for five weeks (twice). But when I guestimate the expenses, I still come out ahead.
Now, for many filmmakers out there, making a film for seven grand sounds nuts. And grossing eight grand on a tour is peanuts. But for us low-to-no budget filmmakers, this is all good stuff. I’m not sure how touring would transfer to a larger film with a greater budget. There might be something to the old adage “you gotta spend money to make money.” I might have more insight on that if I’d ever spent money, or had money to spend. But with no budget to promote, the attendance was hit or miss. We had some big hits, but also a few whiffs. I read of people spending upwards of $10,000 for a publicist for a single film festival screening, or dropping twenty grand for theatrical publicity. Those numbers blow my mind. For all I know, that’s money well spent. Maybe you sell soooo many more tickets that it comes back to you. I have no idea. My little film cost only $7000, so spending nearly three times that amount (let alone finding the money in the first place) seems like a steep hill.
Since we’re talking about cash and film fests, let me add this: It’s tough being at a film festival screening where 600 people are watching and enjoying your film. It’s awesome that they are there and all is going well. But when your film costs $7000 to make you figure that each person paid $10 to see the flick, and if you could keep all the box office, you could almost pay off the cost of making your film. Granted, there might not be 600 people at your screening if it weren’t for the fest, and the theater needs their cut (and I do realize that most film fests work tirelessly to put on a good show and have a great deal of overhead, so I begrudge them not). But if you don't get a cut of the door, and you aren't one of the few to benefit from industry and press exposure at said fest, the fun and experience might not be so sweet in the long run. At the end of the day, meeting filmmakers and having a blast is great, but you have a movie that still needs to be paid for.
If you submit and do not get into fests at all, the taste is downright bitter. I entered Total Badass into upwards of a dozen fests and all it did was add about ten percent to the budget with fest fees. We got nothing for our effort. Didn't move an inch. All I have to show for that pile of spent cash is a digital stack of rejection letters and greater debt. It can be quite irritating.
In the end, It’s kinda hard to tell if I’m better off not having hit the fest circuit. On the one hand, I racked up some pretty amazing adventures and I made my budget back (depending on how you do the math). On the flip side, I really did miss the fest atmosphere and being able to meet up with fellow filmmakers.
I hope Total Badass will manage, one way or another, to find its place in cinematic history alongside films like American Movie, Billy the Kid, The King of Kong, Hated and Grey Gardens. In such terrific flicks about interesting folks with passion and drive, we spend time with these individuals and find that despite their eccentricies, we share common needs, desires and goals. The small, universal truths.
Still in the thick of things with Total Badass, I’m currently setting up a European tour. The costs will be greater, but so will the adventure. If you wanna help us get there, swing by http://kck.st/g4VgjJ and throw down for the cause.
In the mean time, if you’re itchin’ to eyeball some clips from Total Badass, go here: http://www.TotalBadassTheMovie.com and click the “peek” page.
My CrashToons cartoons loiter here: http://www.CrashToons.com They are NSFW but are funny and super-short.
If you wanna keep abreast of our tours, the site with all that juicy info is: http://www.BadassFilmTour.com
Crazy tales of the first two film tours are here: http://crashcamfilms.com/tourjournal.htm
If all goes well in Europe, we might attempt a New Zealand and Australia tour in late 2011.
Kevin Smith recently began traveling with his new movie Red State. Maybe touring films around is catching on. Surely his tour will proceed on a much grander scale. Perhaps we can compare notes later on.
And, if you’ll pardon the personal shout-out, I’d like to say a HUGE thank you to Mia Cevallos, the producer on Total Badass and the Tour Producer without whom I could have done none of this. You rule, Mia!
-- Bob Ray
With ass kicking music videos for the likes of Nashville Pussy, Fuckemos and Riverboat Gamblers, a slew of freaky CrashToon cartoons, and three critically acclaimed features: the stoner-comedy Rock Opera (SXSW ‘99), the modern era roller derby doc Hell on Wheels (SXSW ‘07) and his newest flick, the crazy-fun, touching and out-there documentary Total Badass, Bob Ray catapults the Austin counterculture onto the big screen, reveling in its inspiring, unique and deliriously offbeat glory. Behold the oddities and awesomeness: www.CrashCamFilms.com