Interview: John Sayles and Maggie Renzi on hand-picking a marketing/distribution team for Honeydripper

 

On December 14th, John Sayles, Writer and Director of Honeydripper, honeydripper-04807.jpgwhich opens in New York and Los Angeles on December 28th, and Maggie Renzi, the film’s Producer, spoke with me about the unique self-distribution and marketing model they created for their latest indie project.

 

Film Publicity Help: With studios owning and operating boutique indie-style production houses, is true independent film becoming an endangered species for theatrical release?

 Maggie Renzi:  Well, the independent films are increasingly being distributed to a Hollywood standard and with regard more to box office than to art or expression. But we should go beyond just saying it’s the fault of the distributors, and say there’s been a great appetite in the press for turning the independent film system into something they could commodify and can talk about in business terms all the time. That wasn’t the way that it started. It was always a surprise that independent movies were making it into legitimate distribution systems and that they were making any money. In an article written by Patrick Goldstein in the LA Times, it stated that the standard for successful independent film now is Little Miss Sunshine at $20 million in the box office. So we can say that it’s the fault of the distributors, but there’s also been, generally a gobbling up of these independent films as commodities much more than as what I really feel confident that you could call “art”.  

John Sayles: My feeling is that the distributors who exist now who have any size to them look at a film as how much work would this be to get a bunch of people to see it. They’re only going to put out X number of movies a year and is this one that’s going to be a lot of work? Will we have to hire more sayles.jpgpeople to think up new ideas, or can we just put this out the way we always put things out and look at the opening weekend and then react to whether the opening weekend is good or bad, which is pretty much what Sumner Redstone and the guys that run the huge studios do. They just look at the numbers. When we first started, it was a much more labor-intensive process. I don’t really think it’s a problem of the big studios getting into it, I think everybody is looking for that home run that just falls in their lap.

FPH: You mentioned opening weekend. The main demographic of the audiences who enjoy your films typically don’t rush to see movies on opening weekend.What is your plan for Honeydripper to survive beyond that live-or-die opening weekend?

MR: You start with a film that is worth an adult’s time. It’s a beautifully lit, extremely well-told, really great story with wonderful actors in it, and it’s beautifully designed. So, that’s a lot, and worth an adult devoting two hours of time and a substantial amount of money on parking, tickets, dinner afterwards. So that’s one part of it, the movie has to be good enough to tell the adult it’s going to be worth them committing themselves to the time in the theater.

The rest of it is that it’s our own distribution company, it’s a team of people we’ve put together and everybody is committed to have this movie open in the end of December and run comfortably right through January and begin to open in several cities until it opens across the country for Black History Month in February. So, the first thing is we have a real commitment from the distributor not to abandon it. We know we’re not about that first Friday growth, do we make or break it then, we’ll learn something from that first weekend. We’ll learn, I hope, where our advertising is working, we’ll learn where the outreach we’ve done is working, we’ll learn which partners have really come through for us.  We’ve got some great partners: The Blues Foundation, the Black and Hispanic Achievers Program, which is a part of the YMCA. We have a lot of individual partners in different states, including some of the film festivals we’ve been through over the year – the Memphis film festival, the Savannah Film festival.

We’ve done a huge amount of publicity. Danny Glover, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Sean Patrick Thomas and John, but especially John and Danny, have done a huge amount of publicity. We’ve worked with four different sets of publicists: a music publicist, an African-American urban publicist, an east coast publicist, and a west coast publicist.  That’s four companies of people, all working to target the press in their own areas of expertise. 

I feel like we’ve done what a normal distribution company doesn’t do, which is to really figure out who is the ideal team here.  For example, we have an internet marketing consultant, who is responsible for not only designing our very user-friendly website, but also keeping it up to date, and part of the mission with all this is a real grassroots call to people who love John Sayles movies, who love this kind of music, who want intelligent movies for adults and movies which reflect the African-American experience in an intelligent and loving way.

Everybody has been working on getting those kinds of audiences since last November. We started this strategy. We didn’t just jam it in into action, Somehow there’s this magic number that you just need three months.  All that means is that the long-lead press decide their editorial policy three months ahead of time. Well, if you get to them, even, at the three-month mark, you’re already late.  I think that’s one of the ways films have really suffered. And look, there’s another way you could do it:  spend so much money on television advertising that people’s attention is of course taken by it, and they’re forced to go to the movie theater, just to get those ads off. Then there’s another way to do it, which is to work your way, and it’s the only way we could afford, since we’re funding this ourselves, to work your way towards those audiences that you strongly feel are going to like your movie and bring them on, as partners. You invite them. It’s like inviting someone to vote for your candidate.Danny Glover in Honeydripper

FPH: Through Emerging Pictures, you’ve reached out in some innovative ways to bring in your target audiences as partners to promote the film, such as the program with marketing departments in the Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

MR: It’s been a really disappointing response, frankly, from the HBCUs.  They have issues and problems of their own, including, of course, a constant struggle for funding. The response has been really lackluster.  It seemed like such a fantastic opportunity for the students to be involved from the ground up, really learning how to market a high quality film, but we didn’t get much interest, except Clark Atlanta University and one other, and it’s a shame, but maybe it lays a new model and people will try it next time when it’s not so new.

Here’s a clarification. Emerging Pictures is not releasing this movie. Ira Deutchman and Josh Green from Emerging Pictures are part of our team and I realize I should have probably named it something, you know?  “Fly By Night Distribution Company” or something like that, because, although I’m delighted to have Ira and Josh get all the credit they deserve, Emerging Pictures as it exists, wouldn’t have been able to do this job we’re talking about. It’s a bit of a misnomer for people to think that Emerging Pictures is releasing this film.

FPH: Emerging Pictures is acting as a consultant?

MR: No, they’re part of the team. Along with Will Packer, and Mark Wynns, a marketing consultant from Atlanta, and our four sets of publicists, and Brian Chirls, our internet marketing guy. We’re all partners in this. And there are other people who work at Emerging Pictures who are also part of it. I was only realizing today that articles are saying the film is distributed by Emerging Pictures, and that’s not quite right, they are one of the partners.

FPH: And that in itself is an innovation, a departure from the norm for distribution, is it not?

MR: Yes, it is.  I think sometimes people will bring in distributors to act as facilitator.

JS:  Yes, to do a basic service deal.

MR: And that’s not what this is.

FPH: Did you envision from the beginning, while making the film, or even before script completion, that you would use the self-distribution model?

JS:  It’s been a long road. We spent about a year looking for money for the movie and when I say we, I mean Maggie, and we didn’t get anywhere.  It had a script that’s a good script, it’s a $5 million movie, that never changed, so people knew the scope of it. Danny Glover attached himself right away, so Maggie was able to use his name as the lead, and nobody was interested.  So that’s when we started thinking in that year, and of course in the last part of the year, we also realized the cotton was gone. You can’t shoot the movie if the cotton isn’t in the ground, and so we’re going to have to wait a whole other year before the cotton comes up again, that we’re going to have to do more of this ourselves, including, it turned out, finance it totally ourselves.  And if you’re going to finance it totally yourself, you’re left with an awful lot of control over how it’s being released.

MR:  Especially because of our experience on Silver City, which we also ended up funding ourselves, and then we sold it to a distributor, and the distributor dropped it, basically, after a disappointing opening.  So I felt very sure from the time we decided we were going to fund the film ourselves, which was fairly early on, that unless something major came along to dissuade me from this, it looked to me like the very best way to do this was to create a new distribution company, because we’ve worked with so many over the years, and there wasn’t a single one of them I would have gone back to and said “you’re the right one”. There are a handful we haven’t worked with, but I think a lot of them have the same fundamental issues.  So no, I was sure from the very beginning, I remember talking about it before we went up to the Toronto Film Festival, which was our international premiere, with the team, just to say “I promise you I will be open minded if someone comes up to me and says here’s 10 million dollars and we will fulfill everything you’re talking about” and that person never stepped forward.

I think a part of it is we’ve set the bar so high now for distributors, it’s different from the way they’re working.  There’s a scene in the movie when Danny Glover’s character is waiting for the train carrying this guitar player who he thinks is going to come and rescue his club and his finances and his marriage and everything else and Keb Mo’s character is sitting there smirking at Danny Glover’s character while he’s waiting for the train, and says to him “nothing on that train gonna change your luck, Tyrone”. And that’s the way I really feel about distribution.  I got a good look across the landscape that I’m quite familiar with because we’ve been doing this for a long time, and I thought there’s nobody there that’s going to change our luck, we’re going to have to change it ourselves.

FPH: You’ve put together this really innovative team of different talents and skills. Are you going to turn this team into a permanent new distribution company?

MR: (laughs) Absolutely not! This team was put together for exactly this single purpose.  I was talking with my friend, Alejandro Springall, who has a movie called  My Mexican Shiva,  John and I are Executive Producers, and he also has a contract with Emerging Pictures, and I’m encouraging him to do with Emerging Pictures just what we did with Emerging Pictures, which is to hand-pick a team. And it won’t necessarily be all the same people. Alejandro’s movie is shot in Mexico in the Jewish community, it’s in Spanish, and it has a wonderful klezmer and mariachi soundtrack. It’s different than our movie… and I suspect we’d adjust the team.  The Jewish community is its own unique audience and is quite accessible. The movie is about sitting shiva, the period of mourning in the Jewish tradition, and I love the idea of going after the audience of retirees, caregivers, therapists working with [the geriatric community], so the team won’t be a completely different set of people, but we’ll step back and start over, and that’s what I think the distributors don’t do. They’ve been doing it the same way for so long, they hire the usual suspects and then they’re surprised when the suit doesn’t really fit.

FPH: Exactly, because they have a canned process they use over and over, which results in formulaic movies because anything outside the formula doesn’t fit the canned process.

MR: Right. There’s been this drive throughout the culture to chase the youth vote, to get the youth dollar, and I think in the course of doing that, we forgot there’s a wonderful audience of adults who have grown up going to the movies, who love going to the movies, but we’ve abandoned them.  So now they have to be asked back. 

FPH: What are some of the specific activities you have planned to bring the more mature audience back into the cinema to see Honeydripper?

 

MR: The Martin Luther King Day and Black History Month connection is a natural for this film.  It was Ira who suggested that we not open the movie wide as soon as we might have, because we could have opened it last summer. But he suggested we look at what happens during Black History Month and MLK Day.  That’s when all businesses and media exercise their corporate responsibility to pay attention to the African-American community, which may be a cover on a magazine, maybe more time on a radio station, so we focused on that and we’ve gotten some great partners. Hands On Atlanta was one of the first partners.  They’ll do a special MLK day event and Honeydripper will be a part of that.

 

 I’m trying to get a conversation going with radio stations, the southern NPR stations, and say “look around your area and see what you can do about making some sort of show about the juke joints, about Jim Crow South, about cotton.”  Cotton is a huge part of American history.  I’m hoping to encourage people to have inter-generational dialogue about this history.

 

We have our grassroots guide, the Honeydripper Grassroots Marketing Package. We’re trying to make it really easy for people to adopt a theater for a screening, to get their organization, or bookclub, or family, to go see this movie and support it.

 

FPH: Before we end, this is way off topic, but I have to ask John about Jurassic Park IV.

 

JS: That’s the problem with IMDb. I did that 2 or 3 years ago. I did a couple drafts on the movie. And I, being a screenwriter, have no idea if they’re still pursuing it, or if they’re working with other writers, but it’s going to stay on IMDb until the movie is made. I have no idea. If they make it, I’ll probably read about it on Variety, just like you do.

  

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4 Responses to Interview: John Sayles and Maggie Renzi on hand-picking a marketing/distribution team for Honeydripper

  1. […] to stellar reviews.  That is one luncheon that I want to repeat because it was so good.  Maggie Renzi, who produces most of the film by John Sayles, talked about the challenges that often keep small […]

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