October 20, 2010 | By

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A graduate of USC’s film program and a filmmaker with a marketing degree from Georgetown, Stu Pollard’s work is the product of a smart and committed filmmaker who also maintains a savvy business sense – a successful blend that’s ensured his films – the romantic comedy Nice Guys Sleep Alone, and the suspense/drama Keep Your Distance – are both personal and well-produced for filmgoers wanting more than predictable studio fare.

Pollard’s hands-on approach means he’s completely accountable for every stage of a film’s birth and maturation, and while prior interviews have focused on the writing, casting, and filming of his latest work, Pollard generously discussed a stage in a film’s life span that he acknowledges most filmmakers tend to ignore – distribution in theatrical and ancillary markets (like home video, pay TV, etc.).

The life of an independently financed and produced motion picture rarely mirrors the meteoric success of films like The Blair Witch Project – an experience which can be distilled to a movie being discovered and mass-distributed with a major ad campaign, and giving fame and fortune to once-poor filmmakers.

For these phenomena, the media’s focus is often on how they got to the top, and while an indie filmmaker may hope for such heady good fortune, the reality is a long and patient journey over months and years to get their films accepted into film festivals, and sell their work to video and TV distributors. It’s less sexy, but as you’ll learn from Pollard’s own experience, selling and distributing one’s film can be an extraordinarily empowering experience.

Note: the following interview integrates and edits comments from two separate interviews conducted in the fall of 2003, and January 2006.



Mark R. Hasan: Did you have to do a lot of advance research regarding the production of a DVD?

Stu Pollard: I think we were very fortunate to do a DVD… When Nice Guys Sleep Alone got its first video deal with Hollywood Video, they ordered 10,000 units of the movie, and they almost ordered 10,000 VHS and no DVDs, but at the last minute they changed the order to 8,000 VHS, and 2,000 DVDs.

That opened the door for me to do a separate edition, once the Hollywood deal ended, because I got to meet the guy who authored it for Hollywood [Clive Bush] and as a result, I got my own version out. Getting that film to DVD was one of [the] most important accomplishment in getting the second film made, because every business plan [for] Keep Your Distance had a DVD tucked into the back of it from Nice Guys – which was a great way to show a sample of my work.

The second thing that I sort of picked up from the process was getting out and having to push my movie to all these different video stores… I guess it was the best lesson that I could have possibly asked for in salesmanship: trying to get somebody to rent your movie at a video store, or [get] an independent video store to pick up your film. It’s a very similar mind set to asking an investor to put money into a new project… so in a lot of ways, getting out and selling that film as much as I did, once I got it to DVD, was what really gave me the confidence to go out and start working on a new project.

MRH: During the early planning stages of your latest film, Keep Your Distance, did you think about shooting on DV instead of film?

SP: Having gone to film school at USC… we shot on 8mm and 16mm, and a lot of the thesis projects I produced for my fellow students were shot on 35mm; so call me a film snob if you want, but I’m a big proponent of wanting [film] to be a big part of the aesthetic.

Now going in, we set the fundraising goals for the picture accordingly. A lot of people ask me, ‘Why spend that extra money to shoot on film?’ And my answer always is, ‘Because I want it to look like a film.’ People who don’t shoot on film all have one thing in common, regardless the format they choose: if they’re not shooting on film, they’re trying to do something to the DV, or the HD, or whatever it might be to make it look like film; so I supposed that the biggest difference there, from an economic standpoint, is just knowing that that’s what I wanted going in.

I didn’t get to $1.2 million dollars and say, ‘That’s enough money to make this thing on HD or on DV.’ We needed to raise enough money to accommodate shooting on 35mm film, [and to have] an adequate shooting ratio, and all that kind of good stuff, so I spent an extra six months raising enough money to do it, and that’s not something a lot of people are willing to do.

MRH: Were there any stages in the production of the Nice Guys DVD that you found were particularly challenging, or were there areas that were actually much easier to produce compared to film production?

SP: This may be another fundamental difference between studio DVDs and indies, [but] there was so much lag time between when we shot the film and when we actually were getting to do a DVD that we had an incredible amount of perspective on it… In the summer of 1998, I had no real concept of what a DVD was at that stage. I had a laserdisc collection, but I did not do any forward thinking with regards to special materials or all that. So the fact that we got all the stuff that you saw on that DVD was a little bit of good fortune.

MRH: During shooting of Keep Your Distance, did you have the DVD already in mind, and were there certain moments during production that you decided to schedule in some extra footage for the making-of featurette, interviews, etc.?

SP: Absolutely, and that’s another huge difference between going in, as evidenced by the story I just told you about Nice Guys :

a) It was my first feature, when we shot it in ’98, and

b) I didn’t even know what DVD was in ’98.

Things that we actually did [for Keep Your Distance ] were not out of the ordinary on a studio level, but… I hired an experienced director of special features for DVDs named Greg Tillman. He not only shot all of my behind-the-scenes on digital video… but he also sat all the actors down and interviewed them.

When we wrapped principle photography, we had 12 hours of cast interviews, and well over a 100 hours of behind-the-scenes footage. We also made sure we had a still photographer on hand for every day of the shoot; I think on Nice Guys, we only had one on hand for a week out of four weeks, and that was an economic decision. We went out of our way to get that behind-the-scenes team – the still person, the video person – on board from day one, so we could make a damn good-looking behind-the-scenes featurette.

And I suppose one other thing we did was shoot a ‘one year later’ sequence for the film – which did not make the final cut of the theatrical release of the movie – but we always knew going in, even though we had some questions of whether or not it would end up in the movie, [that we’d] keep this on the schedule because this could be a fun special feature: an alternate ending.

MRH: There’s a schism that exists between filmmakers and the studio marketing department, where a director is occasionally given the chance to release his/her preferred version of a movie on DVD, and while that may reflect the director’s original vision, it could also be a version that lacks the smarter pacing decisions made under pressure during post-production that created in a leaner, tighter work – the version that won praise from critics, and the attention of mainstream filmgoers.

I guess that from a marketing standpoint, the studio gets to trumpet a new and improved version, but for filmgoers, that revised version sometimes becomes the only way to enjoy a film – thereby obliterating the one people arguably preferred.

What’s curious, though, is whether having the knowledge of being able to later expand or refine a scene or entire film can affect the initial editorial decisions for the theatrical version.

SP: During the cutting of the film, I always want to make the best possible movie that I can, and at an early stage in my filmmaking career, there was the adage, ‘When in doubt, leave it out,’ or ‘Shorter is better.’ One of the prototypical good news/bad news things about doing things independently is that you’re your own boss; so you have complete creative control, but you also have complete accountability.

I think there’s somewhere between 8 and 10 minutes of deleted scenes that’ll be on the DVD in a special section, and not put back into the movie… I do think that, on their own, each of the scenes we cut out stand up well, and are well-performed and executed, but it really did come down to a pacing issue that slowed the movie down.

MRH: Returning a little to the topic of distribution, did you find that it’s easier to present yourself as a filmmaker at festivals because your entire film résumé can basically fit into a pocket?

SP: In the business plan for Keep Your Distance, I had a binder with five sections… One through four were the offering memorandum and the subscription agreement and the appendices and all that, but the fifth and final tab was simply my DVD in a sleeve for Nice Guys. I think the perception is that if you’ve got your film on DVD, it’s got to be a quality film right away; I think that’s accurate to some degree, because it takes a lot more effort to author a DVD than to just lay off a dub.

A DVD is so compact… I know it was a big part of what got [Keep Your Distance] made, because if I had had to put a bulky VHS in a traditionally packaged plan, I don’t think it would have gotten watched. With the DVD, they can plop it out, [and] can put it on a laptop on the plane if they want to.

MRH: Because you personally handled the distribution of your first film, did you discover any serious pitfalls, and did the experience exceed your initial expectations?

A: Well, I don’t know what I expected. There’s a friend of mine who runs the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Colorado every year, and it was the first festival to play Nice Guys. When I saw him at another festival in New York, he goes, ‘You’re going to self-distribute?’ and I said ‘Yeah, I’ve got to, because I believe in this film too much,’ and he goes, ‘You know, that’ll be at least a year of your life.’

And he was right, and then some.

In terms of what I expected from a time commitment, it was probably more than I expected. It was a lot of work, but the flipside of all that is it’s exceptionally fulfilling; I learned so much and met so many people that are involved with the distribution of film that it put me in a much better position to talk confidently about what I could expect to do with my new one.

MRH: Because major studios judge a movie’s value – successful, mediocre, or dud – by a freakish standard of how much revenue is earned during the first days of a theatrical release, how were you able to ensure the success of your films, when your own approach mirrored what was once the norm: a slow, gradual release strategy, moving through territories, and building momentum and word-of-mouth over months, instead of days?

SP: It’s part of… my responsibility to make sure that the film gets seen by as many people as possible, and so my job does not end when I lock picture, when I do the final sound mix, or when we sign a foreign sales deal… I think part of it is just believing in your work, and another part is being exceptionally/obsessively persistent in pursuing different venues.

In the case of both of my films, I’ve had a very receptive hometown community in Louisville, Kentucky, so that’s given me the opportunity to get the film into theatres there; then based on its performance there, I’ve been able to… get out and meet other independent theatre owners.

Part of it is also knowing what goes into marketing a film: having a really good looking trailer and a poster. A lot of times when I’m out lecturing to young people at colleges and high schools, I say, ‘If you want to be a filmmaker, make sure that you have a very good friend who’s a graphic artist, because whether you’re taking the movie to festivals or to independent theatres or ultimately to DVD, you need very expressive, high concept, and well-executed marketing materials. You need something that makes people want to see the film.’

Probably all indie filmmakers who insist on doing it their own way (and I’m one of them) … grossly underestimate what goes into delivering a film; for the vast majority of us, we don’t go out and win at Sundance and at other major festivals, and we’re left with a movie that cost a fair amount of money, that doesn’t have a major festival win on its cover, and has good actors in it but not necessarily big stars.

One of the ways that I think you can make yourself marketable is to be able to say to a distributor, ‘I’ve got a good movie, a very watchable movie, and by the way, here are four binders with an index where I can show you that all my papers are signed, my negative is cut, my optical is done, all my contracts are in neat and legible order… and here’s our insurance policies.’

That’s really about the most uncreative part of the process that I can think of, but it’s all required to actually distribute the film.

I went to the Toronto International Film Festival [in 2003], and at one of the panels there was a guy talking about a new concept he has: pushing the idea of releasing the DVD at the same time as the theatrical release, [so] all the people who don’t really have the chance to see it in the theatre are still benefiting from the marketing involved in the theatrical release.

MRH: It was a great panel, and there was one participant who was brutally honest about what you, as a filmmaker, must do to convince people why they should leave the comfort of their home on a lousy wintry evening, pay for parking, stand in line, and go see your movie.

SP: He was from New York, and he was a very talkative guy.

MRH: Very talkative, but incredibly sobering. It was basically, ‘This is the reality of it, and if you don’t like it, tough.’

SP: In some cases, I applaud that attitude, because it probably wakes up the dreamer in all of us, but by the same token, one producer said, ‘I can’t stand filmmakers who call their films their babies, because their not babies; they’re films. You’re obviously going to be thinking about the next one,’ and I said, ‘Well, if I had that attitude, no one would have ever seen my first film, and if [that had happened], I never would have gotten into DVD, and I never would have been able to raise money for my next one.’

I think it’s kind of different strokes for different folks, but like I said: for the vast majority of us who don’t go out and play major festivals, if you get into one, great… but there has to be a certain persistence that borders on mania, I suppose, if you really want to be your own distributor.

I suppose the really good thing about DVD is that’s it’s a wonderful way to preserve the film. I read an interview with Ridley Scott [in 2003], where he calls his films ‘his babies’ – which made me feel better… I think he was speaking most of catalogue titles. It gives you the chance to not only preserve the film in a pristine state, but also put some information on there: ‘This is why we did it this way, and this is how our hand was forced here, and why we made this choice.’

Maybe it demystifies the process a little bit, but it also might help you sleep better at night.

MRH: Did you choose to speak to universities partly because of your own experience at USC – giving something back, so to speak – or because you enjoy the responses from keen university audiences?

SP: Well, it’s both of those things, and a lot more. I’d say my main motivation behind it is sort of acknowledging that it’s young people that go to movies. I think it’s very important for filmmakers of any age – I’m in my late thirties now – to get out and get your work in front of these people who are actually carrying the tickets.

To a certain extent, you want to see if your work is reaching people, and the questions you get asked in that environment can be very stimulating because there’s almost a full generation difference between me and kids who are in college now.

There’s a part of me that likes to say, ‘When I was an undergrad, I did not get to learn a lot about filmmaking’ – this is going back twenty years, so it wasn’t nearly as accessible as it is today to young people – and I think there’s a lot of things about the process [in which] there’s a right way and a wrong way to do things when it comes to making films.

I think I do a lot of the things the right way: how you treat people; when it comes to dealing with the natures of soliciting investments for these high risk things known as independent features; being diligent about permitting, and treating locations with respect; and making sure your crew is well-fed. …A lot of times when I talk, especially to high schools, I’ll break out a list of golden rules… to impress upon people that … there are good habits to form, and bad habits to avoid forming at an early stage in your career.

One of the things that I’ve found that works well is making anybody who’s going to invest in the film understand that they should not invest more than they could afford to lose. Some people think that’s extremely counter-intuitive; the flip-side of that is yes, it may not seem like the best way to sell yourself… but conversely, there’s no better way to get people rooting for you, regardless of the film’s financial outcome, then by getting people [to understand] that it’s a high risk investment.

Most indies don’t make money, so getting to acknowledge that from the get-go can make you life a lot easier as a filmmaker in post-production and in release than if you give people grandiose, or unrealistic expectations.

MRH: Was there a point where you began to see certain revenue coming from the success fromNice Guys Sleep Alone – either from DVD sales or rentals?

SP: With Nice Guys, there was money coming in. That was a movie that, despite the significant amount of distribution it received from DVD and from cable and from overseas, it still did not quite cover its budget, so it lost money. But I think the exciting thing about DVD for me is that it basically gives any filmmaker out there the ability to get their work out to the marketplace. essentially has limitless shelf space, as does, so if you’re a filmmaker, it’s really never been a more exciting time – not just because it’s been easier or cheaper to make a film, but also because there’s so many different ways you can get it out there. I think right now DVD is, depending on how good your home theatre is, the best way to enjoy a film.

MRH: Did you do more research for Keep Your Distance to find out how many outlets are available for distribution – pay per view, rental, video on demand?

SP: I don’t know how much of it you would call research, but what I did have, going on the second one, and which was a major change from the first, was simply an understanding of all that was out there: I did not know how foreign sales or things like the American film market worked. Going intoKeep Your Distance, I was very prepared for delusional projections from very over-solicitous foreign sales agents this time around, and being able to properly separate the pretenders from the contenders in the foreign sales game – because there are a lot of unscrupulous companies out there.

It doesn’t mean it’s any easier to get a film sold; because there’s never been more product generated on an annual basis on both the independent and studio level, there’s never been more ways for films to be seen – but there have also never been more films in the marketplace.

MRH: What forms of publicity were the most successful?

SP: I think what worked out best for [Nice Guys] was twofold: we had that exclusive deal withHollywood Video, and …the second was our relationship with Netflix really took Nice Guys under its wing and used it as its poster child for what an indie film can do in the Netflix environment – where it’s being recommended to people who might rent a lot of studio romantic comedies, and getting word-of-mouth recommendations.

Between those two sort of macro deals, and my always vehement grass roots [efforts], I guess that’s what I had taken away.

I’m getting ready to go a 2,500 mile drive tomorrow that will take me to Owensboro, Kentucky; Des Moines, Iowa; and Dawson, Alabama, to meet with various video retailers and wholesalers just to make an introduction, and say, ‘Here’s why this isn’t just an average independent film; here’s something that has a high profile cast, in terms of being very TV friendly; and is very well produced.’

This goes back to something that I tie very directly to you personally: when you reviewed the Nice Guys DVD, you said something about the commentary track to the effect of ‘obviously this guy built this movie from scratch, and we didn’t get a whole lot of nuts and bolts on the commentary track, and it was a missed opportunity.’

Well, this time around on the commentary track I may have, if anything, erred too much in the opposite direction: I tried to jam pack it full of the answers to all those questions I get asked by those kids I get to speak to, and saying, ‘Here’s how we got these people in the cast; and here’s how we raised the money.’

I drop my email address in the commentary track three or four times; my experience becomes far more worthy to me if intelligent, motivated young filmmakers want to interact with me and tap into my experience, and make me feel that I haven’t pursued this career just for myself. I always say I don’t know everything, but everything I do know I’m willing to share.

MRH: Some folks – even before considering the bland and familiar comedy or thriller of the month – are willing to take a chance on something new in both theatrical and home video markets.

SP: I think that goes a long way towards something I learned doing my grass-roots for Nice Guys Sleep Alone, which I intend on repeating with Keep Your Distance : sticking my head into stores, and talking to the people that work at those video stores, because [they’re] either filmmakers themselves, or film aficionados.

There might be people out there I’ve met who will turn around and recommend something I’ve done, because I’ve taken the effort to say ‘Hey, help me get the word out [because this film] was a labor of love, it’s a good movie, and there’s a lot of things on the DVD that’ll give you a significantly deeper look into how you make something for a very modest money at the end of the day. It’s not in this Never Neverland of a $100 million dollars budget; it’s a $2 million dollar budget, and I think that makes it very accessible for people who are not just interested in the storytelling of films, but the science and sweat that goes into making them.’



KQEK would like to thank Stu Pollard for taking time out in his busy schedule for a lengthy and detailed discussion on a less sexy, but vital stage in a movie’s evolution.

Keep Your Distance is available from Monarch Video.

All images remain the property of their copyright holders.

This interview © 2003 and 2006 by Mark R. Hasan


Related external links (MAIN SITE):

DVD/Film:  Keep Your Distance (2005) — Nice Guys Sleep Alone (1999)


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