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2008 Film Poll: The Sound of One Audience Member Clapping

Resourceful indie filmmakers are finding new ways of getting their movies into theaters. But will anybody come?

“[Sturtz] exhausted me, and I was sick for three weeks,” Brown says, laughing. “But my whole goal is to start a conversation, and because there are more people, word of mouth builds faster.” Still, she says that she wouldn’t take the self-distribution route herself, because it would put her filmmaking career on hold.

“I could do it if I wanted to take a year off from my life,” she says. “I know myself well enough to know I don’t want to do that.”

Nevertheless, the brief tour suggested the impact a nationwide link of independent theaters could have as an alternate distribution route. Leonard was among a handful of programmers who leapt at the chance to show Sátántangó—Hungarian director Béla Tarr’s legendary seven-and-a-half-hour black-and-white film, never released theatrically in the U.S.—when a print landed in the country in 2006. That cinematic coalition of the willing gave the film its broadest stateside exposure to date.

Audience of One
Audience of One

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Filmmakers who wish to opt out of the system altogether can follow the example of Bill Daniel. Applying precepts that he developed in the Texas punk scene of the late 1970s, Daniel spent some 16 years making his experimental hobo-graffiti documentary, Who Is Bozo Texino?, then carried it around to art schools, galleries, and other atypical venues.

In recent years, he’s roamed the country with another project called “Sunset Scavenger,” outfitting a “sailvan” converted to run on vegetable oil with screens of diaphanous silk. On them, he projects “images of social and environmental collapse” culled from Katrina’s aftermath and those who resist the dominance of petroleum. From his home in Braddock, Pennsylvania, he makes it to some 50 dates a year, reaching anywhere from 20 to 200 people a night.

“When we talk about distribution, it’s like the rest of the economy,” says Daniel, who was the cinematographer on underground filmmaker Craig Baldwin’s features. “The gap is so huge between the haves and the have-nots, between corporate culture and individual culture. What I do is more akin to being a musician—putting it in front of audiences manually night after night. Nobody with a normal life and aspirations would ever consider doing this.”

But people with a normal life and aspirations typically don’t make films. And if they do, they sure don’t show them themselves. Asked if he’s able to survive on his self-hewn distribution path, Bill Daniel just laughs.

“It’s like an old guy told me once,” he says. “ ‘I may not make a living, but I live on what I make.’ ”

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