Film Fund-amentals: In the Field with Dave Boyle

A documentary filmmaker once described the process of making a small budget movie as “crawling through a field of broken glass.” Admittedly, he was making political documentaries and shooting in various war zones of the Middle East. Over there, it’s hard to find the glass through all the bullet holes.

But low-budget narrative filmmaking is no picnic either. That was one of several issues kicked around in an exchange of e-mails with the emerging filmmaker Dave Boyle. In 2006, Boyle gained some note with the quirky little comedy Big Dreams, Little Tokyo and is currently working on the release of his new movie, White On Rice. So he’s in the field, glass or not.

Boyle has a slight advantage (though only slight) over some other independent filmmakers. Working within the context of the East/West cultural cross previously journeyed by Wayne Wang and Ang Lee, Boyle has the somewhat more established framework of the Asian-American community support system. When asked about how he raised money for Big Dreams, Little Tokyo, Boyle commented, “It was hard. It always is. Filmmakers always seem to be asking each other how they got the money for their films; nobody seems to know how it’s getting done, but it does. I guess it just takes persistence. With a movie the size of Big Dreams…, it’s really just a matter of a whole ton of people each putting in a few bucks. That way, no one has a whole lot on the line.”

Budgeted at $200,000 (according to the IMDb; Boyle says it was actually less) and shot on video, Big Dreams, Little Tokyo was lean enough to be able to finance itself in this manner. The cultural collisions of dreams and mixed aspirations within the Japanese-American community also meant that the movie had a strong key into this society, which helped in both the fund-raising and the actual production.

But once the movie is made, where do you go? Big Dreams, Little Tokyo ran through the festival circuit and then went straight to DVD. White On Rice is currently working its way through festivals and a variety of special screenings while still searching for a distributor. Boyle himself is very focused on alternative approaches as well.

“The film festival circuit was – and is – absolutely useful. The thing I learned on that film was that the festivals, while very relevant and great for word-of-mouth screenings, are not enough to raise any kind of significant awareness in the general public, unless you’re getting into the very top tier festivals (which only a few movies do every year). Right now, everyone is trying to figure out the business model of the future, and I believe festivals will definitely be a part of it.

“That said, at this time it still seems to me that a traditional theatrical release – even if it is a very small, grassroots type of thing – does amazing things for creating an awareness of any given film. There’s been a lot of tub-thumping about the value of VoD (video on demand) and streaming movies – but I would argue that the huge VoD success stories have all been movies that already had highly marketable elements like brand-name stars. But hopefully as the public becomes more VoD-savvy, there can be some VoD sleeper hits.”

Boyle has also found some success with another form of alternative distribution: the traveling film salesman. “My advice to new filmmakers is if your film doesn’t have star names in the cast, you’re almost better off marketing and selling DVDs yourself through your website or whatnot. It’s not glamorous, but you can probably move as many units as the big guys can from your basement, and you’ll be able to collect 100 per cent of the purchase price yourself. Fact is, DVD distributors have a lot of titles to keep track of, and of course priority goes to the movies that are easy sells – movies with big names in the cast. I don’t blame them for this; after all, it’s a business and they have to keep their doors open. But little movies, acquired for no advance, just don’t get any attention – even if they sell relatively well, most of that revenue just goes to covering the distributor’s overhead.

“…People are coming up with some creative solutions that are at least getting some cash flowing and exposure for some of these great movies beyond just festivals. I think of Todd Sklar and his Box Elder college tour, which I consider to be a great innovative success. Also, Tze Chun and Mynette Louie, who were at Sundance with Children of Invention and then made the great choice to sell DVDs at every festival screening since. You should see those DVDs fly off the shelf — tons of people are buying them at every festival.

“Our team has put together our own plan, including traditional theatrical play and non-theatrical community screenings and college play that, I hope, will continue for many months to come. We’ll also do something crazy with the DVDs too, I’m sure. It seems like the filmmakers who are having grassroots success are the ones who identify their audience early on, and come up with creative ways to bring their work to that audience.”

In the e-mails, Boyle noted that the Miramax days of the 1990s are over and stressed the need for alternative strategies by beginning filmmakers. “It’s important to have a plan in place for your movie,” writes Boyle, “that doesn’t rely on external help. It’s a little like the band who gets a little gig and then hopes the guy from the record company will be in the audience, bobbin’ his head ready to sign them on the spot – chances are, it won’t happen. Sure, the market is crappy right now, but we can’t use that as an excuse not to try and make our own way. Things will only change if we keep pushing forward and be self-reliant in how we bring our films to audiences.”