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The Resurrection Game and the Quest for Distribution PDF Print E-mail
Written by Written by Mike Watt   
Apr 28, 2005 at 02:00 AM
A few weeks ago, I received two pieces of relatively big news on the same day. The first was the call from my doctor, telling me that the lump I had recently discovered in a very tender location was not cancer.

The second was from a major DVD distributor telling me that my movie, The Resurrection Game, was not going to be distributed by them.

Oddly enough, this second call was almost enough to completely annihilate the relief I had gotten from the first.

See, prior to the first piece of news arriving, I had been thinking a lot about my life, my role to play here on Earth. Rather than being frightened of dying—which could very well have been a possibility, had that phone call gone a different route—I was more concerned about shuffling off this mortal coil without very much to show for my having been here. Granted, I have nearly a decade’s worth of published articles and short stories, but hardly enough to warrant much of a footprint in the immortal sand. I had written and produced a short and a feature—WereGrrl and Severe Injuries—both directed by my amazingly talented wife, Amy Lynn Best, and both distributed by Sub Rosa, and that was more than some folks in my circle had achieved.

Still, The Resurrection Game was the only feature I had, to date, both written and directed. I also play a sizable role in the movie. It was the first film produced by Happy Cloud Pictures, the company Amy and I had formed with our partner, f/x maestro Bill Homan. It was conceived just weeks after my graduation from film school, and there was never any thought beyond our blind “we should make a feature” declaration. We shot it on 16mm film and persevered for two years to complete the production.

We sallied forth even after our original lead actress moved to Greece after almost a year of filming. We carried on even after my original director of photography (and gateway to the bulk of our professional equipment) decided that he had to start taking paying jobs to support his family. And throughout it all, we kept on.

In these primitive days of the early millennium, before the easy availability of digital equipment, I had to edit the workprint by hand—on a Steenbeck Flatbed at Pittsburgh Filmmakers and on an ancient, evil upright Moviola I’d purchased from a man who’d used it in the ‘60s to cut sports footage for network news. Two years later, I cut the negative by hand and paid sound engineer extraordinaire Eric Fleishauer $200 to mix the deteriorating mag stock dialogue tracks to DV tape. Using the soundtrack as a guide, I resynched the newly-transferred neg-to-DV in Premiere—having to teach myself the new program in the process, without any real basis of comparison. I then re-cut the film again, in its entirety, after discovering that my negative conforming had resulted in several scenes cut too short.

Following this, I taught myself After Effects to spice up some of the ancient video effects I’d clumsily incorporated into the original film. And, discovering that my original composer, Paul McCollough (Night of the Living Dead 90), had left the film game, I sought out new composers to fill out Paul’s score.

I think the movie is pretty good. Through its various bootlegged incarnations—including a VHS version shot off the flickering flatbed monitor, minus all music and sound effects—we’ve had a pretty good response. We screened it last year at the Pittsburgh Comicon to a packed room, and everyone seemed to enjoy it despite the theater’s blown-out speakers preventing a single line of dialogue to be heard properly. I’m thinking, if I’m remembered at all once I check out, it will be for this.

So through this all—wrestling with old technology, learning new technology, tweaking this damned thing long after I thought it was done—and I’m still not sure that it is—I’m lost in the mire of the distribution search.

You would think that the time would be ripe for this type of movie. The Resurrection Game is a hybrid of zombie gore and film noir. When we set out to make a movie using the zombie framework, we decided to do something different with the genre—we kept the zombies almost completely in the background. They’re the “Maltese Falcon”—what Hitchcock referred to as “the MacGuffin”—they got the story moving. There are no zombie feasts, few scenes of zombie hordes attacking the living. We didn’t use the cliché of “people trapped in a house while zombies loom outside”. In The Resurrection Game, the story picks up four years into the zombie “Infestation”, and everyone’s used to them. Zombies are treated like stray dogs or mice—things to be avoided or exterminated. At the time, we thought it was pretty original. The rest of the film involves a small team of people searching for the cause of the zombies, and run up against an evil corporation that deals with other scientific anomalies. The tone is somewhere between Raymond Chandler’s sardonic darkness to Re-Animator’s tongue-in-cheek snarkiness.

Maybe all of this was a mistake. I’m not sure. The most recent distributor told us that he didn’t like the humor, that his “audience” preferred straight horror. Now, The Resurrection Game is hardly a comedy. There’s some satire, and a pair of zombie exterminators (played by Bill and Amy) that provide some gory comic relief, but the movie gets darker as it goes along, a subtle tonal shift.

Predictably, we were also told, by an earlier try, that the zombies weren’t a big enough part of the movie. Which, we thought, was the point.

Now, in one way or another, I’ve been part of this scene for a long time. I started my career as a freelance fiction writer, so I know a little about researching your markets. I didn’t just start shotgunning our screeners to random distribs and hope it would stick somewhere. I took a hard look at the companies that were available, who was buying horror, who was buying our type of horror, who could get their titles into “brick and mortar” stores rather than relying on internet sales, etc. MTI put out the disturbing black comedy Lucky, as well as the brooding war thriller, The Bunker. Media Blasters was picking up all of George Romero’s and John Russo’s backstock titles, Martin, Heartstopper and The Majorettes, as well as Bill Hinzman’s Flesh Eaters. There are other good ones out there, too, like Darrin Ramage’s Brain Damage line, that just keeps getting better with each new wave of releases.

We didn’t want to hit companies that were just looking to fill holes in their schedule. We wanted to get the movie into the hands of a company that wanted it and would treat it like one of their own. We poured a lot of money and three times the amount of work into this—we didn’t want it dumped on a shelf.

Maybe this was a mistake, too. Maybe, after all these years, we should just take what we can get, cut our losses and move onto the next production.

But there’s that nagging thought in the back of my head: that I want to be remembered for this movie. For all its flaws, virtues, whatever. I’m proud of the movie. I want it to be seen. And I want it to be seen in the version that I created. I’ll reign or hang on my finished version.

And maybe this attitude is a mistake, too. But that’s the decision we made.

So I’ll go back to market research and continue to polish the soundtracks, create isolated Music and Effects tracks for the pending foreign sales, and keep submitting it. There are still plenty of companies out there that are snatching up horror titles, and there has to be one out there that likes a mix of horror and humor and gets what we’re trying to do. Worse comes to worst, we’ll continue to do what we’ve done since 2000: distribute it ourselves at conventions and through our site. At least, that way, people who want to see it will be able to.

For those who are in a similar boat, do your research—I cannot stress this enough. There are a myriad of companies out there, but not all of them will give you a fair shake and not all of them have your best interest at heart. Talk to other indie filmmakers, find out what they thought of their individual deals. Take a hard look at the contracts offered—try and get a lawyer to look over it if you can. There are all sorts of hidden clauses in contracts. Some companies will buy the title—and all rights to that title—for a limited amount of time, usually five-six years, with an option of renewal. This means distribution and duplication, all marketing considerations, image rights, music rights, etc.

Beware of any company that wants to buy all rights for more than five or six years. Some companies want it for twenty or more. This should be a red flag to you. If your movie isn’t moving for them for the first year, do you really think they’ll continue to push it into stores for another 19?

Companies should report to you every quarter—i.e., every three months—with how many units were sold, which stores are carrying your movie, etc. If you don’t get a quarterly report—or if they’re not offered at all—you may be in trouble.

Know the difference between “net profit” and “gross profit”. Some companies will offer a 50-50 split of the net profits—which means you get paid after their expenses (duplication, replication, distribution, etc) are covered. Some companies will do a 50-50 split of the gross (regardless of expenses covered) but want all rights in perpetuity. If it doesn’t matter to you that you own your own movie (or ever will again), then take the latter deal. If you want to regain control after a period of time, tough out the expenses-repayment period, but keep an eye on the reports. Remember the Forest Gump debacle—that movie grossed hundreds of millions of dollars, yet is still reportedly losing money! Red tape can go one for years in Hollywood, and it’s not unknown in the indie circle either.

Consider if other things are important to you: will the distributors give you input into the package design? What percentage of foreign sales do you get (this is usually a separate deal)? Who writes the package copy? Who decides the tag line? Do you get a set amount of copies for free and the rest at a discount? Ask questions. There are dozens of companies out there, you don’t have to go to the first one that answers the door when you knock.

And, above all, don’t get discouraged. You poured your heart and soul into the movie, so your patience must be great. Keep a good attitude while pursuing distribution. Taste is all subjective; because one studio head didn’t dig your movie doesn’t mean that the movie isn’t any good. Believe in your movie, believe in yourself, but get as much information ahead of time as possible.

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