DISAPPEARANCES. PHOTOS BY: KINGDOM COUNTY PRODUCTIONS
When I finished my newest film, Disappearances, I rushed the print to its South by Southwest film festival premiere, hoping to then launch a mini release to the 24 towns in Vermont that have movie theaters. After all, there were lab bills to pay while wrangling domestic and foreign distribution deals.
The problem was that I couldn’t break the logjam of Hollywood releases. Local movie houses were chockablock full of cars, pirates, supermen and snakes on a plane. Even Montpeliers’ Savoy Theater arthouse was tied up till late July with A Prairie Home Companion and An Inconvenient Truth. I contacted theater owners and argued the case for my widescreen Populist Prohibition-era whiskey-smuggling adventure starring Kris Kristofferson, Geneviève Bujold, Gary Farmer, Lothaire Bluteau, William Sanderson, Luis Guzmán and 15-year-old newbie Charlie McDermott, but the doors remained closed.
That’s when I decided to launch a 100 Town Tour of the state. We needed cash, so while we waited for movie theaters to clear their schedules, we started playing town halls, granges and old opera houses. You can rent most of them for $50 and set up the show in less than an hour. And you take home all the cash at the end of the night.
My two-person staff is no stranger to self-distribution. Immediately after playing the 1994 Sundance Film Festival, we cycled my first feature film, Where the Rivers Flow North, to 212 U.S. venues over 51 weeks, helping to stimulate a healthy video release. But we’d never gone so deep into our home state.
Co-producer Hathalee Higgs and I avoided towns with movie theaters, wanting to keep that market ripe for the fall. Instead, we looked to small towns of 600 or more people. We hired a couple of college kids and my 13-year-old son Jasper in order to keep two teams on the road, full-time, from June 30 to Labor Day. We put 20,000 miles on our tour vehicles: a $500 Saab and my late-’90s Subaru Outback, with 232,000 miles on it.
We learned that, in summer, “every night is Saturday night.” And we played to 18,458 people, many of them blue-collar audiences that would not have seen the film in theaters. We added 2,600 people to our mailing list and grossed $163,264 in tickets, T-shirts, DVDs and soundtrack CDs.
We also experienced odd and wonderful moments that could fill a book. In Irasburg, a farmer arrived on his John Deere tractor, kids rode up on bikes, and a guy and his gal parked their 18-wheeler outside the town hall. In Derby Line we packed the old Haskell Opera House, which straddles the U.S.-Canadian border. The screen and part of the audience sat in Canada while most of the crowd watched from seats on the U.S. side of the thick black line running through the hall. I had to assure one woman that she wouldn’t get arrested for sitting in Quebec territory.
Nearby, ushers in spit curls hawked rentals of lavender seat cushions for 50 cents. In the lobby, two guys nearly came to blows over competing claims over whose family was more central to the area’s whiskey smuggling trade. A Quebec newspaper publisher collared me after the show to say I’d violated Canadian law because our portable screen sat on the stage in Canada and we lacked the proper licenses. That felt somehow right, given the film’s outlaw themes.
Each projection team navigated dirt roads over mountain passes to far-flung towns they’d never seen before. Once there, they sized up venues, installed fans and hung black drapes to cut the summer heat and light. Each team carried high-quality DVD projection and sound systems, costing about $6,000. You can find good projectors for less. Quality sound is a must, though; our simple mixer and powered speakers could handle even the boomiest halls.
We mailed 60,000 color postcards to rural box holders, from South Hero, in the Champlain Islands, to Canaan, where moose outnumber people by a substantial margin. Bulk mailings cost 10.5 cents each, and in many towns we could hit everyone for $60.
The 100 Town Tour concept was easily understood throughout the state. Editors, shop owners, town gatekeepers and the general public knew what we were talking about when we called. We knew that to play 100 towns we’d sometimes have to book villages that were only six miles apart. Fortunately, it worked okay. By ganging these towns together we could list them on the same ad or postcard, and audience word-of-mouth helped build support for the next date.
We launched the summer tour with a free two-week sponsorship from Vermont Public Radio that created awareness that helped us all summer. The state’s public television station provided some exposure later in the tour, and they broadcasted our half hour behind-the-scenes documentary. I pitched press releases and photos to every daily and weekly paper and wrote first-person stories when an editor would run one. I wrote about working with Kristofferson; I discussed the uniquely regional and cultural elements I see in the picture; and I recalled how my Texas grandmother helped inspire the character of Cordelia.
When one weekly editor publicly criticized the film’s Western-style violence, I wrote an op-ed discussing larger issues of film mayhem and compared the picture’s themes to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. Once I’d written it, I was able to syndicate it to four other newspapers and post it on our Web site. Another piece got picked by the regional monthly Yankee.
The 100 Town Tour prompted me to make a half-dozen tweaks to the film, and it enabled me to experience Disappearances more deeply than my other pictures. As I discussed the story’s metaphors and magical realism with audiences, new insights emerged. I wrote about these continuing discoveries and developed an evolving Director’s Statement, which we handed to audiences and also used to solicit donations and sales.
The Director’s Statements also stimulated people to explore their own thoughts during Q&A’s. In Waitsfield a woman asked, “What does the snow owl mean?” I asked her and others to tell me what they thought. “The owl’s a messenger,” said one. “A witness,” said another. “It’s Carcajou [the feral villain and whiskey pirate] making his presence known,” said a woman in the back of the hall. Then others chimed in. “The owl’s a sign of passage or transition.” “A protector.” “Extinction.” “Death.” A fellow in the second row stood up and said, “It’s just a snow owl, for Christ’s sake.”
“Any and all of those ideas work,” I said.
Since my family didn’t have time for a summer vacation, I slipped in July screenings on Martha’s Vineyard and the Wellfleet Library on Cape Cod. One of the college kids drove to the Cape to grab equipment for his next date while we drove to a film festival in New York. Once word spread about the tour, we received screening inquiries from New Hampshire, upstate New York and Massachusetts. We also discovered film-series programs in small towns, where people book the local school auditorium and mobilize audiences for once-a-month screenings. We’ll continue to book those dates as we launch our national self-release, starting Feb. 1 at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge.
While traversing Vermont last summer, I thought about an experience I had at a mid-’90s Sundance Producers Lab in Utah’s spectacular Wasatch Mountains. I had completed the self-distribution of my first feature, Where the Rivers Flow North, and I was hoping to enlist support for my next picture, A Stranger in the Kingdom.
At one afternoon session, panel members included distribution executives for several studio specialty divisions. Panelists described the largely obstructed path for filmmakers to garner support. I raised my hand, and when the moderator called on me I stabbed at a few words describing how we’d successfully taken Rivers to venues across the country, generated terrific press and triggered a substantial video release.
“So what’s your point?” asked the moderator as he reached for a water pitcher.
“We had to do it ourselves,” I said. “That’s my point. With only a small marketing budget and little knowledge of the distribution infrastructure, we played to solid audiences across the country. Can this proven success help us get support for my next film, which will also be based in Vermont?”
One executive nodded that he’d take my question. “You’re talking about a kind of film that doesn’t even register on our radar screens,” he said. “A Vermont film won’t play to urban demographics.”
“How do you know?” I said. “And how can you characterize “a Vermont film” without considering its own merits? And isn’t there a large rural audience out there?”
“Look,” said the distributor. “As far as I’m concerned, there’s a brick wall eight miles outside of Manhattan. And I don’t care what happens on the other side of that wall.”
The executive was talking metaphorically, of course, but our Disappearances 100 Town Tour showed me again what our Where the Rivers Flow North release proved: that there are vital signs of life on the other side of that brick wall.
Hey, I love New York and get a kick out of seeing many studio films. My two sons and I check out the new crop on a regular basis, and we appreciate the full range of indie pictures too. But I also think Kentucky farmer and writer Wendell Berry is right when he laments how America’s hyper-commercialized mainstream marginalizes rural areas.
“The health of the oceans depends on the health of the rivers,” Berry writes in his book The Way of Ignorance. “The health of the rivers depends on the health of the small streams. The health of the streams depends on the health of their watersheds. Natural law is in force everywhere. . . . We cannot immunize the continents and the oceans against our contempt for small places and small streams.”
As in literature, America’s most resonant film narrative can only result by fostering a cultural fluidity that includes and values regional and rural voices — and audiences — and allows them to develop, achieve maturity and be heard in every corner.