By James Latham
I spoke recently with George Pappy about his feature film Few Options, which we screened in November. It’s now available on DVD at Amazon and will appear on Showtime in April. My previous posting on George was about making the film. This one is about marketing and distribution.
James Latham: So, congratulations on getting a distribution deal for your film. For a crime drama, Few Options has relatively less action and other conventionally entertaining elements than is typical for this genre. It’s more about character and mood. How much did you have marketability in mind while making the film, and what would you say are its key elements of appeal for audiences (beyond the known talent in the cast)? Who are its main audiences?
George Pappy: It’s also about story: a sympathetic hero pursuing a goal in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds and opposition – and yet he somehow manages to win in the end. You don’t need car chases, explosions, running gun battles, or gratuitous sex to pull that off. And, on this low of a budget, those things can be your enemies. I was not all that concerned about marketability, and I felt that putting those “elements” in just to make the film more marketable would be a cop out. It’s like a lot of the films I saw being sold at the American Film Market over the past two years that have these “marketable” elements – and the vast majority of them are really bad! I’d be ashamed to have made a movie like that. I’m proud of Few Options.
In particular, someone during pre-production suggested that having shots of nude strippers (since a lot of the story takes place behind a strip club) would really increase the marketability. I also had a potential sales agent at American Film Market offering to take the film if I’d agree to shoot some second unit footage inside a strip club and cut it into my movie. The fact of the matter is that in Few Options, you never see the inside of the club – the hero’s not allowed inside. And he hates the idea of even being there. He takes a moral stance against what’s going on inside (and how it’s making the SOB who’s threatening to kill him rich). I’d throw out a lot of the film’s thematic credibility if I put nude stripper shots in just to increase the marketability.
What are the key elements of appeal? First of all, Few Options features excellent actors across the board. (We haven’t mentioned Erin Daniels, David Marciano, Brad Dourif or Dayton Callie yet.) Also, the story makes you think, and it keeps you engaged and guessing until the end (and it delivers a satisfying climax and resolution that make you glad you sat through the film). We also have an excellent score written by Victoria Kelly, who did half the score for Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones. The film also looks and sounds excellent. I had people at AFM telling me it looks like a film made on a budget 5-10 times higher than it actually had.
Regretting certain fateful choices made in the past is a strong theme in this movie, and I’ve found that older audiences (mid-30s and up) really respond to it on this level, based on the few screenings we’ve had so far – there were a few previews before the Valley Film Festival, plus the festival screening. I guess if you’ve been alive long enough, you can look back at certain regrets in your own life and relate to the main character’s plight. This may not be the most sought-after age group in terms of movie marketing, but it’s a lot of people! Some of them watch movies. Not every movie has to appeal primarily to males in their teens.
Also, strangely enough, I’ve found that women in general tend to respond very well to the movie. I think that has to do with Kenny Johnson’s sensitive portrayal of a guy who’s been in prison so long that it’s very hard for him to open up around women. It also has to do with Erin Daniels (from The L-Word), who does an amazing job portraying an aging stripper who can’t find a way out of the only profession she’s ever known, even though it’s slowly destroying her soul.
JL: Yes, I can see that about the female audience for the film. Your point about pressure to add strip club footage reminds of me of how Martin Scorsese’s debut feature, Who’s That Knocking at My Door? had the same sort of thing happen. He could only get distribution via a soft-core porn distributor who wanted and got an added nude scene. So I guess you’re in good company. But what I want to ask about is the theme of “fateful choices made in the past.” In the previous posting for this interview, you talked about how becoming an engineer was something sort of foisted on you: “being a filmmaker was never an ‘acceptable’ option (it was expected that I would become a white collar professional). So, I wound up in engineering.” I’m wondering if making this film was partly a kind of therapy for you—working through your own issues about problematic major choices made early in life—as well as simply writing around a theme about which you had special personal insight, though not exactly the same as what Kenny’s character faces.
GP: Sure, I think that played into it. If I had it to do over again, I'd definitely go to film school at eighteen and put in my 10-20 years of "pulling cables on other people's movies" (as I recall hearing Paul Thomas Anderson say on the director's commentary to Boogie Nights). Ironically, my dad (a union attorney) used to represent the DGA when I was in high school, so I might have even been able to get involved in production more easily than the average person.
I'd say one of the things that pushed me to pursue making films all these years later was my general dislike for engineering! I've felt like it was not a good personal fit for many years, even though I seem to be pretty good at it; kind of like I was doing something I was never meant to do.
Now, you're going to call me crazy, but in terms of "regretting the past," I'd also say that second-guessing myself about turning my back on a high-paying career in engineering (and dumping the nice house I bought before the real estate bubble) was probably also banging around in the back of my head in the summer of 2009 when I wrote Few Options. Although I had a lot of support from some of my engineering peers, others did a very poor job of hiding the fact that they thought I was insane for walking away from a job like that to pursue a "long-shot" like filmmaking. One guy used to see me and ask "Hey, are you a big Hollywood star yet?" Nice. But during the summer hiatus in my Screenwriting graduate program, eight months after the start of the economic collapse, unemployed and living in a dumpy Van Nuys apartment, those voices came back to haunt me. Fortunately, I was able to channel them into a screenplay!
JL: Yeah, better than paying for therapy. Once you made the film, how did you promote it (press, festivals, etc.)? Did you have professional help?
GP: Well, I set up a Facebook fan page for the film, and I also applied to some of the higher-profile festivals. I hired a festival consultant who pointed me to what he considered to be the right festivals (and steered me clear of the ones he thought would be of no help or might even make the movie look bad). We came VERY close to getting into the Florida Film Festival, which, while not on the level of something like Sundance, is an Academy-qualifying festival. Out of over 300 features submitted, we made the short list of 30 finalists and ultimately wound up as the eleventh on a slate of ten – which meant if one of those ten decided not to screen, we’d be in. Unfortunately, all ten showed up!
We also came close to getting into SXSW (we made it past the first two judges, only to get nixed in the final round), and we had a similar experience with Seattle and a few others. However, over time, I became less concerned about gaining publicity through the festival circuit since we landed a reputable sales agent to handle all of that.
One unexpected avenue of publicity for us ended up being Matt Neal, a radio DJ in Wichita, Kansas, who happens to be a huge Kenny Johnson fan. He’s had me (and Kenny) on his show for interviews multiple times since late 2010, and he always provides me with recordings of the interviews, which I’ve made available on the Facebook fan page. I also got an opportunity to give a long talk in a friend’s acting class, and he posted the video on YouTube. Naturally, I linked that to the Facebook Page, too.
I’ve also posted links to our Facebook page on many of our actors’ fan sites. That’s one advantage of having recognizable cast names, and some of them even have a number of different fan pages for specific shows they’ve done. Kenny Johnson, for instance, has general fans as well as tailored followings specifically for The Shield, Saving Grace, and Sons of Anarchy.
Another thing I did was reach out to Tommy Gelinas, who runs the San Fernando Valley Relics Facebook page. This page, which is dedicated to the visual history of the Valley, has almost 22,000 fans today (up from slightly under 10,000 at the end of 2010). It occurred to me that since Few Options takes place and was shot in the Valley, the Valley Relics fans might be particularly interested in my movie. Tommy loved the movie and agreed to sell it through his page (he already sells other Valley Relics merchandise, including T-Shirts). I’ve recently put our DVD distributor in touch with him, and I expect that we’ll soon be seeing it sold through Tommy’s page, with some of the proceeds going towards supporting his ever-growing collection of San Fernando Valley Relics historical memorabilia.
One of the real challenges for me relative to generating all of this publicity has been the fact that it’s taken a year to get the movie released here in the U.S. I realized early on that I might need to throttle back my efforts when a lot of people started asking when they could see the movie and I had no idea what to tell them. On the one hand, I didn’t want to let people forget about Few Options, but on the other hand, I didn’t want to get them over-excited about something that might not be available for God knows how long. Thank goodness that part’s finally over!
JL: You’ve made some great use of social media for grassroots marketing. How was your experience with The Valley Film Festival, where Few Options had its LA premiere?
GP: I had a very positive experience at the Valley Film Festival, and our screening wound up selling out. This was not a big surprise, since I knew there were a few hundred people in LA who’d been eager to see the film for about a year prior to the screening. I just had to promote it sufficiently well, and the Valley Film Festival website and publicity people helped to make that very easy. Tracey Adlai, who runs the festival, is obviously someone who loves film and filmmakers, and that really showed in the event.
JL: When and how did you bring professionals, such as a sales agent, aboard to help get distribution?
GP: I was lucky in that the 2010 American Film Market, held here in LA (actually, Santa Monica) happened just as I finished post. I bit the bullet and bought a pass, spending the week prior to the market researching the companies attending. I must have sent out close to 200 emails to the companies that seemed to have movies like Few Options in their libraries.
Fortunately, based on the strength and name recognition of my cast, I was able to get about 30 meetings over the course of the week. Out of that, I had five or six credible offers from sales agents to represent the film. I wound up going with a local company that came highly recommended from someone who knew a few filmmakers who’d had good experiences with that company in the past.
JL: How did the process of getting distribution work? What were the main hurdles?
GP: Well, this has been the job of my sales agent, who’s been at it since February of 2011. We always seem to make a handful of foreign sales at each market (Berlin, Cannes, MIPCOM, AFM 2011), but it’s been a lot slower than I thought it would be. Apparently, the small indie film market has really been devastated by the global economic crisis of the past several years. Buyers are much more reluctant to spend money these days, and they’re paying less than ever before when they do.
The U.S. situation took awhile to work itself out, but, ultimately, my sales agency was able to make a deal for Few Options to premiere on Showtime this coming April, and they also made a DVD deal (the DVD starts shipping on Jan. 24 – it can be purchased on Amazon). We’re also hoping that our Netflix deal comes through; they like the film, but the final deal has not yet been struck. Hopefully, we’ll also be making more cable deals in the wake of the Showtime run.
JL: Where do you aim to go next with distribution? How much or what other kinds of distribution do you think you’ll ultimately need in order to adequately recoup your investment?
GP: My strategy is simple: let my sales agency do their job. They will continue to showcase the film at the major markets throughout the year, and they also target individual buyers in between the market events. In terms of recouping the investment: to be perfectly honest, it’s not clear yet if this film will ever entirely get there. Distribution requires a lot of money to get the film “out there” for public consumption, and that eats into each sale. Perhaps someday I’ll make all the money back, but it’s a long way off. (Did I mention having gone back to my old job?)
JL: Yes, keep that day job as long as possible. What advice would you have for other independent filmmakers on promoting their work and securing distribution?
GP: I don’t really know that there’s a “one size fits all” set of advice here. It depends a lot on things like genre, cast, and timing (i.e., relative to the economic climate at any given moment). I think it really helps to have a recognizable cast, but on the other hand, if you have the right genre (think Paranormal Activity), that may not really matter. This is a tough business, and often nobody really knows why one movie does exceptionally well while a bunch of others don’t. This is even true for well-financed studio pictures.
JL: Right, “nobody knows anything,” as the old Hollywood saying goes. Finally, what projects are you working on now, or anticipating? How did this experience create new opportunities for you?
GP: Well, I’ve had another, more ambitious project waiting in the wings for several years. In the past, it was a hard sell to get someone to back it financially with me as a first-time director. That was actually the main point of making Few Options myself on a tight budget: prove I could do it and hopefully convince someone to back me on the next project. I’ve got a partner and we’re working on that now. Fortunately, I’ve already made some good contacts based on the strength of Few Options. Once the movie premieres, especially on Showtime, I’m hoping that my next project will really start to gain momentum.
JL: OK, thanks, and good luck with that.
You can reach George Pappy at FewOptionsMovie@gmail.com or the Facebook Fan Page for Few Options.
For more on The Valley Film Festival, visit our website or Facebook page.