Film Fund-amentals: Marching to a Different Drummer

Back in 1993, the Ethiopian filmmaker Haile Gerima directed the movie Sankofa. It was an incredibly unflinching look at the conditions of slavery at a pre-Civil War plantation, which also means that it was widely considered unreleasable. Since no distributor would touch it, Gerima took the four-wall route and proceeded to travel through the major urban markets, renting theaters and presenting the movie himself (often in collaboration with various African-American organizations in the various cities he toured).

It basically worked for Gerima. The production budget on the movie was $1 million, and the tour made a little over $2.69 million. Due to the very overt racial nature of the film, the business side of the Sankofa tour was vastly under-reported at the time (I know, because I was one of the few white reporters covering it). The modest success of the tour was a tribute to both Gerima’s organizational skills and his strong sense of determination.

But don’t do this at home! Four-walling is an incredibly bizarre – and often bitter-tasting – bird. Sure, the process of going to a town, renting a theater outright for a night or a week, and collecting everything up front, sounds pretty simple. Sort of. The same could be said of sticking your head into a door frame and slamming the door repeatedly. And in most cases, the results feel about the same. In the case of Sankofa, it probably didn’t really break even once all the bills were tallied from the effort of coast-to-coast promotion.

I am bringing this up because four-walling is back, but in various new ways. As noted in a recent New York Times article by Michael Cieply (dated August 13), the movie The Age of Stupid will play in September for one night on 400 screens across the country in a presentation being paid for by the filmmakers themselves. Likewise, the rock documentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil has been slowly moving through theaters on a “pay-as-they-go” basis.

Though it is not exactly a return to the legendary Sunn Classics model of the 1970s, the new process bears some resemblance. The old Sunn Classics business model was based on massive market research into the economic and sociological structures of typical, medium-sized towns. Part of the research was to determine what might pique the local yokels’ interest more: UFOs or Noah’s Ark. This was followed by the quick production of such movies as In Search of Noah’s Ark (and I do mean quick, since the films often looked as if they had been shot with a Brownie Super 8mm). Then the company spent the summer rolling like a medicine show through every medium-size town with a theater through out the Midwest and Deep South, renting the theater for a week and blitzing the airwaves.

The system actually worked for them. According to some, Orson Welles (who picked up lunch money narrating some of these suckers) took a major interest in the Sunn Classics business model. Sunn Classics was not making big money, but they were making money. Or at least they were until all the small town theaters went under and became video stores (most of which have also gone under).

The modern approach has taken a somewhat different path. The Canadian metal-rock band that is the subject of Anvil! (curiously enough, the band is named Anvil) has shown up at selected theaters and performed. The Age of Stupid will do its screening along with a video performance by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke. In each case, the musicians become the rough equivalent of carny barkers luring in an audience. Four-walling is still a type of medicine show, and the bands are the modern shills.

But the real focus for the new age of four-wall screening is the way it is now being used as an ad for the DVD release. The Age of Stupid is already available in Europe as a down-loadable release, while Anvil! is coming out in a coordinated release through DVDs and showings on VH1. In each case, the real business is coming from these directions, not from the screenings.

How well this can work remains to be seen. To be honest, most independent filmmakers would have problems getting even this much of a presentation pulled together. Few indie movies are going to inspire a rock performer to show up, let alone play. But with a dying theater system (the death throes are currently most noticeable with independent movies, but they are in a state of decay even at the mainstream level) and distributors increasingly monopolized by the major companies and their exclusive pursuit of teenage boy viewers, something somewhere has to give way to another approach.

Four-walling alone is not the approach. Combined with a major marketing plan rooted in a variety of alternative systems… Maybe. A very strong maybe. quotes Dennis Toth on Mad Men star John Hamm’s chances for a successful transition to the big screen. Read the article by Christian Toto, John Hamm’s Transition.