Overwhelming the Circuit: How I Scored First-Class Distribution for My Microbudget Film
My film was never going to be an easy sell. It’s black and white, nearly three hours long and stars no recognizable name actors. That’s all without mentioning that it was shot on the rattiest of shoestrings and, as a story, it’s a rather strange ride. Yet it wound up with dozens of positive (and sometimes rave) reviews from established critics, and a distribution deal with Kino Lorber, one of the best—if not the best—arthouse distributors in the country, and all without a publicist or sales agent. To invoke the Talking Heads: “Well, how did I get here?”
I have a friend who made an independent film called The Hard Part Begins, and I’ve come to believe that this is what most filmmakers tell themselves when they finish a new film. In other words, “Okay, I’ve legit made a movie. Now what?”
Overwhelm the Sky was a film spontaneously born of desperation and restlessness, in November of 2016, shortly after the death of my dear mentor and friend, Paul Sylbert, to whom the resulting film is dedicated. Years (and one tumultuous presidential term) later, Overwhelm the Sky made it onto disc (with extras) and VOD. I’m now prepared to recount the journey the film took, and to impart a few of my secrets.
The film was scraped together “comin’ in on a lens and a prayer.” At the outset, I made it for me, in a much-needed act of what you might call creative self-care. My previous feature had tanked and gone nowhere, and anyone who’s experienced that knows how depressing and demoralizing that can be. But Overwhelm the Sky (made with a hell-raising attitude of “to hell with it, let’s just go wild”) just happened to connect more than any of my other films thus far. As I watched it succeed with critics and audiences, I muttered to myself at various junctures, “I don’t understand anything anymore, and maybe I never did.”
Here’s the thing, though: it goes back to filmmaking as a kind of crazy alchemy. “No one knows anything,” states the oft-repeated William Goldman maxim. Otherwise expressed, no one knows what’s going to work and what won’t. Not in any definitive sense, anyway. Especially in the case of low-budget filmmaking, you invest as much as you can into the production, creatively and, yes, financially, and hope for the best. It’s one instance when you can risk it all with low stakes. In other words, it’s an endless opportunity.
If it doesn’t work out in the end? Well, you own it. Good or bad, love it or hate it, accepted or rejected, it’s yours, in more ways than one. Indie icon Henry Jaglom once said, “Love my films or hate my films, they’re all mine. I made them the way I wanted to make them and I regret nothing.” How many people working in the bigger system constantly complain that they’re being somehow screwed? Now, I myself do have aspirations for bigger productions and budgets (and that’s now very much on the table for me, thanks to Overwhelm the Sky), but there’s nothing sweeter than that feeling of total freedom within what is a very expensive medium.
And never forget, the best filmmaking lessons emerge from errors and missteps, the ones you know you never want to make again. I’m seven features in and, though I blanch at some of the choices I made in earlier efforts, I love what they each capture about life as I understood it to be at the point I brought them into existence. Another way to look at it: they are personal snapshots.
On Overwhelm the Sky, I did the same thing I normally do when directing a film, but on this occasion, the ingredients just seemed to mix better.
The first time I screened Overwhelm the Sky publicly, I was cornered into cutting the film down to a more “manageable” length. The film didn’t work at all in that 124-minute premiere version, and I knew that right away. The proof was in the pudding. But I did use the formidable press and publicity arm of that first festival to score some leverage. Let it be said that SF IndieFest (San Francisco Independent Film Festival) is absolutely killer in this department, the best of most any fest, big and small, that I’ve attended or been part of. All that, to me, was worth the transitory pain of seeing my work in self-mutilated form. And you know what? That version was only shown that one time. Subsequent success and accolades allowed me to destroy that version, thankfully.
By the time critics were reviewing the film, they were getting my full 170-minute cut. And they really dug it. The key word, brothers and sisters in the cinema arts, is “parlay.” The constant hustle that defines this type of filmmaking involves acquiring the “ammunition” to move on to the next milestone. If you develop a method for doing so, you can prove unstoppable, even with what would otherwise be considered difficult marketing points.
I’m fortunate to live in San Francisco, a town I love dearly, and I’ve been fortunate to have run into Fog City maverick Philip Kaufman at many local functions and parties. Upon completing my cut of Overwhelm the Sky, when I was having concerns about my film’s length, I picked Kaufman’s brain over cups of Coppola wine. I wanted a dose of courage as a chaser, you might say. “If you really feel it has to be that long,” he told me, “and if you feel it plays well with your audience at that length, there are ways to fight the voices that want to see you fold like a cheap accordion.” His The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988) is a real favorite of mine, and I asked him about a rumor that he’d edited a two-hour version of that film to prove to Orion execs that it didn’t work at that shorter length. “No,” he replied with a little smirk, “though there was a four-hour version I was quite fond of.”
I left that interaction with renewed resolve. I was not about to let people pressure me into totally arbitrary revisions predicated solely on Americanized moviemaking dogma and equally arbitrary market fears. Okay, maybe they’re not totally arbitrary in an attention-deficit society. But if they can sit through three hours of Avengers…well, I think I have a pretty good story to tell, loosely adapted from a novel that has captured imaginations for literally centuries (Edgar Huntly, or Memoirs of a Sleepwalker, by Charles Brockden Brown, published in 1799). I was really feeling bold at that point, and I don’t regret that boldness. It was a kind of useful arrogance.
That I released the film in “roadshow format,” with overture, intermission, and printed souvenir programs, a la the event pictures of an earlier cinematic era, provided some extra visibility and interest. I was earnest and not merely brazen in this packaging, because I grew up rhapsodizing about the roadshow era of film exhibition, even the most obscure roadshow pictures, and I swore to myself I’d attempt such a presentation if I ever made a long movie. Tarantino, of course, beat me to it with The Hateful Eight (2015), and with more of a budget (and a much wider release) to boot.
The byproduct of the roadshow angle, though, beyond my own film nerd machinations, was that it lent a “curiosity” vibe to the picture. What’s the worst that could happen? Chatter about “a microbudget picture with delusions of grandeur”? I could handle that—though it turns out that it actually gave us more of an edge, and people started remembering us. When I was interviewed about Overwhelm the Sky in this very publication back in February 2019, it was very important to me that the roadshow angle be emphasized.
The following point cannot be emphasized enough: a good, cool poster and some attractive promotional materials go an awful long way in establishing a relationship with a potential audience. Obtaining first-class key art was a dogged mission for me, and it needs to be. An afternoon on PhotoShop all by your lonesome likely isn’t going to cut it, unless you have legitimate graphic design skill. Come to an artist with an idea and a perspective, hire that person if it all checks out and watch that artist work within those set boundaries, and hopefully transcend them in unexpectedly beautiful ways. Someone in our retinue even made t-shirts with the key art, and when I wear it, it still elicits conversations with strangers. It’s a conversation piece. I wanted an epic tableau style and our design certainly catches peoples’ eyes.
A number of festivals responded to my initial inquiries, informing me of programming limits and ceilings for films of length (even ones they potentially liked). I refused to let that interfere, and perhaps surprisingly, it didn’t spook me. I was not going to amputate the child just to get it into a good school, so to speak. I’d home-school it, if I had to.
It all started with roaring endorsements from critics Gerald Peary and the great F.X. Feeney (may he rest in peace). Then KQED-NPR gave the film the type of review that indie filmmakers always dream of, concluding with, “Daniel Kremer does not lack for ambition, persistence, bravery, and talent, and his work deserves a wider audience.” Joy! Eventually, I was profiled in the San Francisco Chronicle. Respected journals and critical venues started writing about it, and approaching me to write about it. I gave it to accomplished filmmaker friends, who had no qualms about endorsing it. Again, the word is “parlay.” Use everything to propel yourself and your work forward. “Look who loved the film! Maybe you want to have a look too!”
Keep in mind, I was working as a one-man band. I had no crew or apparatus behind me with the roll-out of the film. It was all on my own, hustling day after day. Part of me believed that I had to work harder than usual on behalf of this particular movie. I remember Francis Coppola once saying that getting married and having children only inspired him to work harder to succeed at “the business he’d chosen,” to use Godfather parlance. This film’s length and consciously “arty” market challenges invigorated me to roll around in the mud a bit more. Another metaphor, submitted for your approval: I didn’t just throw one hat in the ring, I threw many hats. And I refused to waver or tire in the hat-throwing. Pork-pies, borsalinos, casquettes, baseball caps, Panamas, pith helmets, all tossed with gusto so that one day I could construct this overwrought metaphor.
In the midst of its run, I solicited a number of companies for distribution, many of which told me that they took issue with the film’s length. One told me that monochrome was a commercial death-knell for them; they’d picked up other black-and-white movies only to see them tank on the VOD market. Then, in early 2020, a major company took a real interest in it, and even expressed an interest in potentially striking a film print for exhibition. When the pandemic hit, they sat on it and then completely dropped us for purely practical and financial reasons. I was crushed, understandably, but I didn’t give up hope.
Word of the film had circulated enough. I am known to contact new emerging filmmakers to compliment their films (and to make contacts with other young filmmakers whose talent I respect—this is very important, oh ye youthful media artisans!) and starting in early 2020, new contacts I made would regularly tell me, “I’ve actually heard of you, and I’ve read a lot about your film. I’ve been wanting to see it!” The movie had gotten word of mouth among other filmmakers, and this was beyond encouraging. My rigorous lone-man-in-the-wilderness labors had paid off.
Early in 2021, I finally reached a deal with Kino Lorber for acquisition of the film. One of their screeners saw the film, dug it, and handed it off to the acqusitions team. I often work with Kino Lorber Classics, as an audio commentator on their studio-licensed archival titles, but that is a mostly separate division from their main line of new releases. I found myself working with a terrific team of cinema-literate distribution stewards who treated me more than fairly and made it easy.
A physical media release meant a great deal to me, because I (along with most of my closest friends) still collect DVDs and Blu-Rays. Hell, I still hoard VHSes and laserdiscs! I prize extra features and feel that extras are, in equal part, fun diversions and “teachable moments.” Because Overwhelm the Sky is a microbudget film that is nothing if not ambitious (the word “ambitious” was the single most repeated adjective in all its reviews), I wanted to impart some on-the-ground, hands-on suggestions for those geared towards making equally “big little movies.”
I want to see more upcoming filmmakers looking at low budgets and microbudgets not as limiting, but as limitless and liberating. I want to see more epic films made at this scale, and I want artists to know that they are always (and have forever been) in a dance with the art of the possible. I also want aspiring filmmakers to know that they’re not automatically constrained to a few people talking in a room for an entire runtime, simply because they don’t have the dough. Sure, you can certainly make worthy films if you are content to stay behind four comfortable walls, and I love many such works, but every microbudget director has a license to test one’s ingenuity and mettle…and win in the end. Despite new opportunities that have arisen for me, I’m still drawn to the notion of making microbudget features when I can. I just got back from a road trip to the Telluride Film Festival, and started shooting a new feature on the way there and back.
In the final analysis, the hustle is all about leveraging and parlaying. A couple years ago, I shared beers one-on-one with Patrick Wang, who has achieved resounding success with his films In the Family (2012) and A Bread Factory, Parts 1 & 2 (2018). His wisdom to me: “It’s not rocket science. You just figure it out.” I still think about that wisdom. Overwhelm the Sky certainly benefited from it.
San Francisco filmmaker Daniel Kremer has directed seven feature-length films and has provided audio commentary tracks for AGFA, Shout! Factory, Kino Studio Classics, and Scorpion disc releases, and essays for Twilight Time special editions. His book Sidney J. Furie: Life and Films was published through Patrick McGilligan’s Screen Classics Series in 2015. He is currently under contract at Oxford University Press for the first book about Joan Micklin Silver. His other films include the independent dramas Raise Your Kids on Seltzer (2015) and Ezer Kenegdo (2017). He has newly been named a Trailers from Hell guru by Joe Dante.