What Happens When You Have the Movie Star But No Distribution

By  · Published on October 17th, 2012

There’s a scene in Ingenious where Sam, the seat-of-his-pants flying salesman, convinces Matt, the quirk-filled inventor, to gamble away the money they have to re-invest in their novelty gift business at the dog track. His brilliant can’t-lose method? Bet large on the dog that drops a deuce before getting into the gate. It’s slightly less than scientific, but there’s a good chance that writer/producer Mike Cram was feeling a blend of what Matt and Sam felt at the track when he and director Jeff Balsmeyer emerged from the festival circuit without any viable distribution offers.

There were deals on the table, but nothing close to ideal, meaning Cram and company were about to take a massive gamble.

It’s a position that thousands of filmmakers find themselves in every year, but Ingenious was different in one specific way: the guy playing the slick co-lead had just been nominated for an Oscar after bursting onto the national scene. The movie had (by a standard business measure) crapped out during its festival run, but Jeremy Renner (and a firm belief in the quality of the film) gave the production team good reason to bet on themselves to win.

“Yeah, especially in Mike’s eyes, that was the film’s saving grace,” producer Brian Neufang explained. “The fact that we had such an important actor. Who would have known when he did this little independent comedy that he would be as good as he was?”

Prescient Casting

By the time Ingenious was prepping to go to the Santa Barbara Film Festival in February 2009, it had become clear with The Hurt Locker that their tragi-comic relief was something special. Even so, Neufang claims that they thought the film they’d made was better than the distribution deals indicated, so they kept the film rights for themselves instead of taking the best worst deal. Holding on, they saw Renner score a second Oscar nomination for The Town and sign on for three major franchises that were set to drop within a year of each other.

Before Renner took on Mission: Impossible, joined The Avengers and replaced Bourne, Cram and Neufang chose to learn from the lack of good distro offers and reworked the movie.

“The cut we were screening at the festival circuit is different than the one we have now,” says Neufang. “Having gone through all of that, we realized that maybe we didn’t have quite the product that people felt marketable. The production went back and slowly put money that they didn’t have – they went beyond the budget – and added a different soundtrack, re-edited the film to include more performance time from Jeremy because that was one of the things that we thought might make the film more marketable. Color correction, Dolby certification, and over the course of the post-festival run, we went back into the post-production of the film and perfected it.”

Yet again, they gambled on themselves. This time, they went to a different dog track.

“That’s part of what Mike’s strategy was holding onto the film, waiting for this summer. He knew Jeremy had these huge movies coming out, so we relied on his rocket into super stardom to get the film more visibility.”

Any other year, that might mean a four-walling campaign or a whatever-we-can-get distribution deal set to ride a free wave of marketing from other movies featuring their star. After all, even if they’re a bit higher up the chain, Lionsgate pulled the same trick releasing Cabin in the Woods with Joss Whedon and Chris Hemsworth drawing attention to it, and several other projects have taken something off the shelf with a now-larger star and tried to get a return on their investment through VOD, Netflix and DVD deals.

Taking a decidedly different road, the Ingenious gang decided to use the windfall of Renner’s celebrity not to release the film limply, but to raise money to release the film the right way.

“When we went to the festival circuit, Kickstarter wasn’t even a thing,” said Neufang. “It didn’t exist, so it wasn’t an option for us to consider back then. So, owning the rights and being able to make decisions on our own, when Kickstarter became what it was, it started to become more and more attractive. We started to see it wasn’t just filmmakers going there to start their project, to fund it from the beginning; there were a lot of films like ourselves who went there for post-production funds or finishing funds, so we thought it could be a good move for us.

Considering it just from a marketing standpoint, we thought at the very least this would be a good deal because of how many eyes go to Kickstarter when they’re looking at independent projects. It’s become a haven. We thought, worst-case scenario we don’t meet our goal, but we now have thousands aware of our project so maybe the relationships that get built … we had several conversations even during the Kickstarter campaign with potential investors.”

The project did more than start conversations with potential investors, though. With almost a week still to go in their appeal, they’d met their goal of $48,000 and currently stand with slightly over $55,000 invested. They also have 14 theaters lined up for the release, only one of which (the L.A. location) is a four-wall set up; the rest are all box office deals.

Successfully Kickstarted

So how did they pull it off? Obviously the novelty of having Renner helped, but the campaign also stood out because of a slick video which intercut their trailer with a call to action from Neufang. The team was aggressive with outreach to movie websites (like, you know, this one), using their unique hook to get write-ups at IndieWire and FirstShowing while gaining Twitter followers and Facebook fans.

It’s not unfair to say that timing had almost everything to do with their gamble paying off, but there’s no denying the tenacity it took to avoid the offers on the table when faced with few options post-festival. At any rate, the odds fell in their favor and produced a happy ending. Who knows how the film will do in theaters. The point is that it will get a chance to impress an audience (and maybe one of the production staff needs to hit the bathroom before each screening to help their chances).

There’s also an interesting footnote here. The Ingenious Kickstarter page offered two types of producer credit on the film (Associate and Executive) for (respectively) investments over $1,000 and $5,000. They doled out 9 such credits, and when I asked Neufang why that might be especially attractive to someone, he theorized that it might partially be because it gave the investor an IMDB credit for a Jeremy Renner film relatively on the cheap. For a thousand dollars, they could claim to have produced a film starring Jeremy Renner, and there’s some cache in that. It’s also a way to buy a seat at the table, because those investor producers will be attending screenings and meeting with Neufang, meaning that they’ve purchased an opportunity to make a business connection with a producer who’s proven he can make something happen.

It’s an interesting angle on Kickstarter – using it as a networking tool. Undoubtedly these investors saw something worth investing in beyond the chance to have their name near Renner’s on a movie database, but that kind of access is not such a bad commodity to sell.

For the film itself, the parallels between the plot and the production are significant, but it wouldn’t be right to spoil the details. To see just how closely this story mirrors the movie itself, you’ll have to go see it. It hits L.A. on November 9th.

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.