LAURA DERN IN INLAND EMPIRE.
One of the highest-profile DIY distribution ventures at the moment is David Lynch’s release of his three-hour Inland Empire. After premiering the film in the Venice and New York film festivals this fall, Lynch decided to capitalize on strong reviews and unexpected Oscar buzz for star Laura Dern and get his film quickly into the theaters. He opened in New York and L.A. in December and, as Lance Weiler’s conversation with Eric Bassett, managing partner of Absurda, the company that works with Lynch on his various ventures, reveals, will leverage the release of Inland Empire into a whole new self-sustaining revenue model for his future pictures as well.
Below is an edited version of their talk, which is available in full as a podcast on workbookproject.com.
Weiler: What led David to decide to go DIY with the distribution of Inland Empire?
Bassett: Well, there were a lot of issues. I guess without getting into every little detail, the main thing was the length of the film. Being three hours long made it, at least in the United States and Canada, very difficult to distribute. We still had offers, but we thought that it would be most beneficial to do it ourselves because we would make sure it was done in the right way and David would be involved.
Weiler: How did you guys go about selecting the markets for the film’s release?
Bassett: Well, David did a big [speaking] tour for Transcendental Meditation, and I had the advantage of seeing the results of that tour. He went pretty much everywhere, [including to] a lot of college towns. So I [selected] the best [towns from that tour]. We were also forced to make the film Oscar-qualified, so we had to go into New York and Los Angeles and do all of the qualification runs and ads and all that stuff in a big hurry in December. So that’s why it’s in New York at the IFC Center right now. We hopped [immediately afterward] over to Boston, again because it’s a college town and they have the historic Brattle Theatre, and killed two birds. And then we opened at the Laemmle Sunset 5 [in Los Angeles] and the Playhouse 7 in Pasadena. The other towns are Austin — again, a college town; David’s huge in Seattle, so we’ll be going to Seattle and having a very, very big event there in the middle of January; and then Chicago, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., in January. These are all the “event” locations that we’re going to roll out.
Weiler: What do these “events” involve?
Bassett: We rent a theater, David shows up, introduces the film, and does a question-and-answer afterwards. That generates a lot of publicity. We do a lot of interviews with at least the biggest three publications [per city], newspapers usually, and that jump-starts our theatrical release. We come out a few days later at the best possible theater we can get in, which is usually an arthouse theater. And for places where David can’t introduce the film, just because he obviously can’t be in 200 places in six months, we’re trying to set up an electronic webcast so David can introduce the film through the Internet. I’ve been working with the theater owners on that.
Weiler: So how did you start getting the word out about the release?
Bassett: Well, first of all, the fact that people know who David is makes things a lot easier for me. It’s easy to get interviews for David, get on Letterman and Leno and that kind of stuff. That is the base PR for the film, and just about everything else I do for David is [about] leveraging that. Also, Laura Dern’s performance became a big deal and a possible award [contender], which was quite a surprise for us.
Weiler: How are you going about an awards campaign, given your DIY model?
Bassett: One of our ways of accommodating Laura and not spending all of our money involves David going out on [street corners] with a cow, which he has done three times and which has gotten us on the cover of
both The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. We rented a cow, a farmer and a street corner. The first one was North La Brea ave. and Hollywood Blvd. — David sat on a director’s chair with the cow next to him and two giant signs. One had a picture of Laura with a sign that said “For Your Consideration” on it. The other one had a saying that referred to cheese and the Inland Empire — it was a riddle-type thing. We weren’t allowed to [issue a press release] — David just wanted it to happen naturally. And it turned out we got a lot of TV crews there. A couple of guys filmed it and put it up on YouTube, and I think we’re up to about 55,000 [viewings].
Weiler: David has a very successful membership site, davidlynch.com. In terms of this new release, how are you guys harnessing the Internet to your advantage?
Bassett: Well, the Internet is a really, really big part, as all do-it-yourselfers know. It’s what makes it possible these days. My initial plan was to have a net to catch all this media, to create a location where people can follow the theatrical release and interact with other fans on message boards and things like that. Inlandempirecinema.com is the site that we’ve created, and it’s starting to really pick up. I hired a friend who was involved with the creation of a company called Buzztone to help me with grassroots online stuff. I created all these banners, and [the online team are] out talking in chat rooms, going to MySpace and Craigslist and creating user groups there. I think there are 3,000 related links to Lynch fans, and I try and make those [fans] our evangelists. I am personally at the events with a little team of mine, and we hand out T-shirts, but only to the hardcore people who are in the rush lines. We tell them about the site, make friends with them and give them as much swag as we can to make them happy so they spread the word. And it just kind of goes like that.
Weiler: Are you also doing any digital swag?
Bassett: Yeah. We made a deal with Revver. And we’re almost done with a video blog like they used for that Lonelygirl15 phenomenon. And one thing I didn’t mention is that we also create kind of a digital scrapbook at all our events. We film David’s introductions to the film, and we always have a two-minute improvisation by a local musician before David introduces the film, and we film that. And then at the end of the film we interview at least three people about their reaction to the film. And then we put all that up on the site. David is very difficult in this area, but I’m persuading him to give us some cuts of the film that we can leak, and also some clues and games. I’m also cross-marketing his coffee line. We have these coffee coasters and they’re branded for the film and the coffee. There might be some clues on them about the film and there may be some winning tickets to have coffee with David and things like that.
Weiler: In terms of handling the other windows of release, are you guys considering other DIY-type outlets, like digital downloads of the movie, or are you just staying with physical media like DVDs?
Bassett: The problem is, this is just a little bigger than a normal self-distribution deal. David is a bit better known, and that creates a situation where we need quite a bit of money [for the theatrical release]. So I made a deal with Rhino Entertainment just for the DVD and leveraged our advance monies [to fund the release]. I know that’s where all the money is, based on David’s sales on Mulholland Drive, for example.
Weiler: Will you be selling the DVDs through your own site as well as in stores?
Bassett: We have some restrictions, but we will be selling [the DVD] through davidlynch.com. That’s one of the things in our contract — we are able to do that. But we also have a really good relationship with Apple Computer, so we’ll be going through iTunes too. Again, that’s a very difficult thing to do and only because David is who he is were we able to do that. And I will personally be [selling] pay TV, TV and all of the other revenue sources out there. Right now we’re just trying to get a lot of publicity and get the film in as many theaters as possible in our six-month window. We’re trying to come out with the DVD in July.
Weiler: What has been the thing that’s surprised you the most about the project in terms of doing the DIY release?
Bassett: Wow. [laughs] I knew it was going to be a lot of work, but I had no idea how much work. Some of the surprises have been dealing with the MPAA on ads and posters — having to get approval on all these little details when you have an R-rated film. An enormous amount of energy has been taken up by that. The other big surprise was dealing with an awards campaign, which I never dreamed that we would be doing. We had to retain extra PR people at a large expense, and it’s overwhelming the amount [of materials] that the PR people need. Every interview needs a Beta SP electronic media kit. [We’ve done] probably 100 different screenings for all of the awards to get people in to see the film. I think it’s really paid off because we’ve gotten lots and lots of publicity, but it has completely consumed me and my little staff. So I’m really looking forward to that part being over.
Weiler: Do you guys see Absurda continuing to do smaller films for David this way, the ones that he wants to do outside the system?
Bassett: I don’t think he’ll ever do something inside the system again. This was a long-time goal to do what we’re doing now. And because of the length of this film, and the opportunity that came out, we did it one film earlier in my opinion. I believe that on David’s next film we would have done this no matter what. And for that film we’ll do this for the whole world. We won’t just control the rights for the United States. I’ve been setting up relationships for years on DVD releases around the world. I’m really looking forward to that. Again, it’s an overwhelming amount of work, but I don’t think David will ever use a studio again.