‘Sabbatical’s’ Brandon Colvin on self-distribution and why indie filmmaking needs to be more like punk rock

UW-Madison’s Brandon Colvin has an eye for filmmaking but he saves the other for talent. In addition to programming Micro-Wave Cinema, the FREE on-campus indie film series that’s currently in the midst of its second season, Brandon wrapped production on his second feature-length project Sabbatical. The result of local talent, cold-emails, and a successful crowdfunding campaign, Sabbatical was featured as part of the 2014 Wisconsin Film Fest’s “Wisconsin’s Own” program and will later play at the New Orleans Film Festival in October.

Before presenting Sabbatical at LakeFront Cinema this Thursday, Sept. 25, Brandon spoke with me about the trials and tribulations of both programming for and making his own microbudget films. The internet’s pretty cool, too.

So Sabbatical was accepted at this past Wisconsin Film Festival, and then you got the great news about playing New Orleans Film Festival this October. But it sounds like outside of that, getting into festivals has been a challenge. Even with programmers who enjoyed your film, and it sounds like there were quite a few, there’s either no room or a limited audience for this kind of microbudget drama. So how has your experience with the circuit been?

It’s definitely a little discouraging, but if I complain about festival programming it’s easy for me to seem like a whiny filmmaker. I’m not the only person it happens to and a lot of the stuff I play at Micro-Wave doesn’t play SXSW or Sundance. It’ll premiere at regional festivals that don’t get the press coverage and have almost no distribution deal-making potential.

There are a lot of great films that get pushed out of the limelight. In my experience, programmers will like films, but the priorities of the festival and their assumptions about their audience profile forces them to make choices to attract whomever they think that audience is. In Madison, a huge part of the festival-going population is, for lack of a better term, the elderly and so a lot of times the festival is really cognizant of trying to engage with that demographic. This was no more apparent to me than when Sabbatical played at the film festival in the same theater as Le Week-End with… I forget the actors’ names.

Jim Broadbent and… I forget the actresses’ name. [Editor’s note: Lindsay Duncan. Whoops.]

Jim Broadbent and basically “female Jim Broadbent.” There was a line through all of Sundance, and I remember thinking “Maybe some of these people are coming to see Sabbatical.” No, people were being turned away from Le Week-End because it was so full. Le Week-End was coming to Sundance for a theatrical run in two weeks. I was there at the Sabbatical screening. [Actor] Robert Longstreet was there. Nobody from Le Week-End was there, but if a movie’s coming in two weeks and people are still coming to see it, then maybe the festivals are right and people don’t want to see my movie.

These assumptions are systemic to the circuits. Eric Kohn at IndieWire ripped Toronto because The Judge, which opens wide in October, played on opening night. On the one hand, it’s part of a programmer’s job to attract buzz and media attention, but marquee features also eliminate part of what makes festivals unique: the discovery.

I think that festivals being an arm for discovery is disappearing.

I’ve been told before I am too naïve.

I think it’s an idea filmmakers have, too but I don’t think it’s true. There are festivals geared toward discovery, but there are plenty more that are programmed from the bigger ones. If you pick an international film festival, a ton of stuff on their slate already premiered at Berlin, Sundance, Cannes, or Toronto and that’s always confusing to me. If you have the capacity to book films people haven’t seen, especially films with younger talent, why aren’t you doing that?

Well then digital exhibition/distribution outlets like Simple Machine and NoBudge are direct responses to these inflated, top-heavy circuits.

I think that’s explicitly why they exist, especially with NoBudge. Kentucker Audley [director, NoBudge founder] reasoned that if it doesn’t get into a big film festival, you might as well put it on the internet, otherwise you’re paying all this money in submission fees that aren’t going to help your movie anyway. With NoBudge, he wanted to take it into his own hands and facilitate networks between filmmakers, curious cinephiles, whatever.

A lot of Simple Machine is rooted in the fact that many microbudget films don’t get a distribution deal because those filmmakers are never offered one and when they are, there’s little money and they take away the film rights anyway. You’re better off distributing it yourself and taking whatever meager profits.

They’re alternatives for artists who might have an interest in iTunes or Netflix Instant if the quality control requirements weren’t so elaborate and complex.

If you don’t have a distributor that wants to put your film on iTunes you have to pay like $2,000 and for people working in this budget range, that matters.

At what point do you privilege exposure over profit?

As soon as you make a microbudget film that eschews commercial compromise, you forego profit. Filmmaker Magazine has run a few articles about how most indie filmmakers today have second jobs and do not make money from their films. There’s even an interview with Joe Swanberg where he talks about how he’s just now starting to make a profit.

I interviewed Jarrod Crooks and Greg Kuper who are based out of Wausau after last year’s 48 Hour Film Festival and one of their sticking points was their willingness to compromise exposure for profit — basically, the opposite of what we’ve talked about. They set up screenings in different cities around the state for one-night showings and charge $5 for a ticket. Are you saying Sabbatical wouldn’t benefit from a model like that?

I think my audience is so specialized. If I had a documentary about the Green Bay Packers, I would absolutely try to keep it off the internet and tour it around Wisconsin. It would make so much money. But I don’t have a movie like that. I think the people who are going to be the most interested in Sabbatical and will help bring others to this movie are people who watch movies online.

That sounds like a drawback but there’s also a benefit to self-distribution beyond cost-effectiveness. You’re more finely attuned to what your audience would be.

We don’t really have the money to gamble and set up screenings in different towns. That involves renting out a theater which is too big of a risk.

But you do have the internet. When you cast Robert Longstreet as your lead in Sabbatical, you basically cold-emailed him. Even for an actor who’s probably best known for five seconds in Pineapple Express, that sounds insane.

But you can do it. To contact some of these people, it definitely helps to know other filmmakers.

That’s where that networking comes in handy.

I’ve met a ton of filmmakers because of the internet, people I wouldn’t have met otherwise. People I wouldn’t even meet at film festivals in a lot of situations.

A lot of it’s easy, but the thing that doesn’t get easier is being an artist. It’s really easy to make a film, but that’s kind of a low bar at this point. You can make a film on an iPhone if you want to, but are you trying to make something great or are you just trying to make a movie? To get interesting people and a talented crew attached to your project you have to have a good project people are interested in.

Who else did you reach out to for Sabbatical?

I emailed Robert, but I got to know him through Kentucker whom I had sent my film to blindly. I had never met Kentucker before in my life. He ended up liking my first film Frames a lot and was interested in me as a filmmaker, and then Robert helped us cast everyone else.

Everyone else?

I had tried to cast some parts locally in the very early stages but once Frames got on NoBudge, we thought we needed to get people who got us excited. Robert picked four or five people who he thought would be good and sent clips or photos or whatever and put us in touch. And we did it. All of our first choices said “yes.”

Most of the crew was local but Tony Oswald, who was a producer and the editor on Sabbatical and also edited Frames, he actually met our sound guy at the Maryland Film Festival. He also did the sound on This is Martin Bonner.

That’s a big get to land the sound guy from one of the biggest indie releases of last year.

Yeah. Of course, Robert’s also in that movie. Compare that to Frames, where we cast the entire movie on Craigslist. Now there’s the internet at work.

Especially considering Craigslist isn’t always the most reliable. Or safest. [laughs]

We also did most of our location scouting for Frames on Craigslist.

And did you write your script via subreddit?

We outsourced it through Reddit, yes. [laughs] But the credibility given to Frames through NoBudge was instrumental in making people aware of my work.

Does that kind of thing carry over to other projects?

Oh completely. Our cast on Sabbatical would have been 100% different and 100% shittier if Frames was not on NoBudge. We also wouldn’t have been able to crowdfund nearly as much money.

Independent filmmaking has virtually become synonymous with crowdfunding now.

True indie filmmaking has essentially become non-profit. The goal now is to be in as little debt as possible, not to make a lot of money. How can I make this film and feed my kids? Crowdfunding functions as a presale where you mitigate your own investment. It’s currently the most sustainable way to make films, although there’s always a fear of tapping out your crowd.

Right. “But I just gave this person my money.”

Yeah. When people get tired of giving filmmakers $20 for their campaigns. When is that going to happen?

If you weren’t able to secure the funding you did for Sabbatical, did you have a Plan B?

Not really. Before we started the campaign, we reached out to people who eventually became backers, so we had the campaign pre-funded at least halfway just through that.

You didn’t just jump in the deep end.

Some people do, which is kind of dumb. You should not do that. We didn’t have a sense that we were going to fail, and we did it on Indiegogo so the project wasn’t contingent on meeting our projected goal.

So despite all these challenges for microbudget filmmakers, you’re finding alternative avenues.

It’s getting cheap enough to make movies now that doing microbudget cinema is getting closer to punk rock and “DIY.” If you’re in a punk band, you have to print the flyers for your show, and I think the distribution and creating exhibition networks are becoming the responsibility of the filmmaker as opportunities are shrinking or homogenizing. We can’t all be in New York or Austin. We have to set up our own architecture, and to do that we can’t all exclusively promote our own films. There has to be more interaction among filmmakers as exhibitors and distributors of each others’ work. Nandan Rao, who founded Simple Machine, started it because films would play at festivals and then become impossible to see. Now, the internet preserves a film’s life.

For months, I kept thinking “Man, Simple Machine is a great idea. I wish someone would do that here” until I realized, “Fuck. I have to do it. No one else is going to do it if I don’t do it.” I think more filmmakers should take on that responsibility in their regions. The internet makes the geographical separations between filmmakers a lot smaller.

Micro-Wave kicked off with two films by a guy from the Pacific Northwest.

We showed films by Zach Weintraub, Ian Clark, and Nandan Rao who all live in Oregon or Washington. We have to be able to make audiences for these things. The challenge, like with punk, is forging a taste culture that is strong and in multiple places at once. People who are into microbudget film should be more like people who are into punk music. They shouldn’t be like cinephiles who watch movies alone in their rooms with Region 4 DVDs of rare French classics. I love Region 4 DVDs of rare French classics too, but it has to be more social, more community-oriented.

Sometimes I see certain filmmaking circles and the exhibition is a little incestuous, with the same people watching the same films by the same filmmakers.

And when I show stuff at Micro-Wave, I can almost guarantee audiences would never watch those films otherwise. If you can start building on that idea in various towns and getting turnouts of 20 people, that’s a victory.

That’s “forging a taste culture.”

And a lot of people don’t even know these films exist. They don’t hear about these movies unless they’re actively seeking them out. This fall, I’m showing a film by Nandan Rao called Hawaiian Punch. It is avant-garde and it is awesome. It’s this crazy blend of documentary and fiction about these Mormons in Hawaii. It breaks the fourth-wall and at one point, the screen goes black for five minutes but you can still hear sound. It’s real work, not just cutesy stories about guys with beards who work in bookstores.

I love those.

Work from directors like Nandan exists but festivals won’t show it because they’re confused about where it fits and who would see it.

Are you saying “If you screen it, they will come?”

Maybe less ambitiously, “If you screen it, people will know it exists and can make their own choices.” When you take it off the table, you don’t even know it’s an option. If people come and watch my movie, I don’t really care if they like it or not. I’m just glad they had the opportunity to make that choice.

  • You can make the choice to see Brandon’s movie Sabbatical FREE this Thursday at 6:30p in Rm 302 of the Central Library. Tell him you appreciate the opportunity in a special post-screening Q&A.