Escaping the Plantation

In May of 1851, The New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal published “Report on the Diseases and Physical Peculiarities of the Negro Race.” The paper, written by Louisiana physician Dr. Samuel A. Cartwright, sought to explain why some slaves attempted to escape captivity. Cartwright wrote that slaves who ran away suffered from a disease called “drapetomania,” which he claimed was an actual affliction that made slaves want to be free. “A runaway slave is mania mad or crazy,” wrote Cartwright. “It is unknown to our medical authorities, although its diagnostic symptoms be absconding from service, is well known to our planters and overseers. In noticing a disease that, therefore, is hitherto classed among the long list of maladies that man is subject to, it was necessary to have a new term to express it. The cause in most cases that induces the Negro to run away from service is as much a disease of the mind as any other species of mental alienation, and much more curable as a general rule.”

I was thinking about drapetomania when I first toyed with the idea of starting a distribution company to release my own films on DVD. Most people thought I was crazy, and from time to time, I was slow to argue with them. After all, making a movie is difficult enough as it is, and as some might argue, a pretty crazy thing to do. But releasing a movie, by yourself, without the fiscal and marketing muscle of an established distributor, is something that goes beyond crazy or stupid. In fact, I don’t know if there is proper word to convey the daunting futility of such a decision, but crazyfuckinretarded is pretty close. And yet, for reasons that I will explain, I decided to release my movies myself.

Back in 2004, I started production on my second feature-length film, the (un)romantic comedy Damaged Goods. Without going into the specifics, it was a rewarding experience that quickly degenerated into a nightmare of technical issues that resulted in a seemingly never-ending hell of post production. There was however, a very tight rough cut that I was able to show to some distributors, several of which expressed interest in releasing the film on DVD. One distributor even went so far as to send a contract, which I came very close to signing.

Luckily (or unluckily depending on how you look at it), the first round of technical problems that slowed the completion of the film kept me from signing the deal, as I was uncertain if we could meet the deadlines spelled out in the contract. As the years(!) dragged on, I had more and more time to think about the distribution offers that came my way. Most indie filmmakers would be more than a little excited to have a company offer to pick up their film, put it out on DVD, and maybe even sell it on the shelves of Best Buy and Wal-Mart. And to be honest, I was excited and flattered that anyone would think enough of my movie that they would try to make money off of it. But the problem, as I saw it, was that the chances of me ever making money off of the film that I financed out of pocket was slim to none. There were no distributors knocking on my door with “up front” money, and every contract was clear that any money I made would be after the distributor recouped their “hard costs.”

“Hard costs” is one of those tricky terms, in that it can pretty much mean anything someone wants it to mean. If your film gets picked up by a distributor, the cost of making the DVDs is a “hard cost.” Shipping the discs to retailers can be considered a “hard cost.” If the distributor takes out an ad in a magazine or on a website to promote your film, it is a “hard cost.” And every single “hard cost” that is applied to your film is money that it must make back for the distributor before you see a penny.

So, let’s imagine that “Nice Guy Video” decides to release your little indie film that you shot on digital video with the help of friends and family, which only cost you $10,000 to make. It’s great that Nice Guy Video thinks enough of your movie to release it into a market that has so many titles it can overwhelm consumers. But the reality is that Nice Guy Video is going to rack up at least $20,000 in various “hard costs,” all of which they must recoup before you get paid. And no matter how much they may love your film, they don’t have the marketing muscle to go toe-to-toe with the release of something like Iron Man, which means that even though they are essentially charging you for the advertising they do on your behalf, they most likely can’t do much in terms of effective advertising. Or, more importantly, even if they do have the money to outspend Iron Man in terms of advertising, you don’t want to have to wait for them to recoup that cost.

Now, let’s say for the sake of argument that Nice Guy Video spends $20,000 in putting your film on DVD and marketing it (and please know that 20k is not a lot of money). That means they need to make back all of that money. If they wholesale your movie for $5, that means they need to move 4000 units just to break even. If your movie has no recognizable stars, has not had a ton of buzz from winning awards at major festivals like Sundance, Toronto and Cannes, then it is likely to have trouble finding an audience amongst all the titles Hollywood releases with advertising budgets in the millions of dollars—which will make moving 4000 units very hard.

But let’s say that Nice Guy Video manages to get your movie out on DVD for $20,000 in “hard costs,” and then it recoups that amount. Now, finally you can start making money on the “back end.” Maybe you’re getting a whole 10% of all money made after recouping the dreaded “hard costs.” That means for every disc that wholesales at $5, you get 50 cents. Nice Guy Video would only need to sell another 20,000 DVDs in order for you to get back the $10,000 you begged, borrowed and stole in order to make your movie.

Or you could put the movie out yourself, bust your ass, sell 1000 DVDs at $15 each, recoup your investment and make a few dollars in the process.

The way I see it, the current distribution system for film and home video is a lot like slavery—or at the very least share cropping. Indie filmmakers bust their back (and often bank accounts) making movies, but only a very small percentage actually make money in the distribution system as it exists. We hear about these films all the time—the ones that get caught in a bidding war at Sundance—but they are very few and far between. If you are lucky enough to be the filmmaker whose film is caught in a bidding war, more power to you. But if you’re some poor schmuck like me, who scraped together some money and made a movie that doesn’t completely suck, you need to ask yourself some hard questions when it comes to distribution. You need to ask yourself if you want to work on the plantation, or if you want to try and escape.

I decided to try and escape. Last year I formed Drapetomedia, a company to release my films on DVD (the first release was Black Santa’s Revenge, followed by Damaged Goods). The name comes from drapetomania, which is of course a disease that makes slaves want to seek freedom. Maybe I’m crazy for doing this. But the way I saw it, the distribution offers that had come my way were not doing anything for me, other than ensuring someone else was getting paid for my movies before I was (and not even guaranteeing that I would ever get paid). If not wanting to be a part of that business model makes me crazy, then so be it.

So, what is my point of writing all of this? It’s actually quite simple…I need people to buy my DVDs. Not only that, I need people to encourage their friends to buy Damaged Goods (and Black Santa’s Revenge). Host a Damaged Goods party where you screen the film, and then have your friends order their own copy on line. If I can sell 150 copies of Damaged Goods on DVD, I will recoup the cost of making the discs. If I can sell another 400 DVDs on top of that, I will have recouped the money I spent making the movie. Every DVD that is sold after those 550 discs will represent a profit/investment in my next release. And it will help keep me off the plantation.

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