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Tuesday, September 16, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 59.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Secrets of success: An interview with Wisconsin filmmaker Justin Eugene Evans
Evans: 'To make a spy thriller as an independent filmmaker has violated some kind of taboo.'

Wisconsin filmmaker Justin Eugene Evans is a man of many hats. He wore several during the production of his new Cold War thriller, A Lonely Place for Dying. Evans served as producer, director, co-writer and cinematographer -- all while leading a small crew into an abandoned New Mexico prison. Graphic-design skills honed in the video-game industry also came in handy. He used them to create more than 300 visual effects with a dedicated team of assistants. Plus, he managed to stay within a $250,000 budget -- no small feat in the filmmaking world. The film has found a receptive audience on the festival circuit, where it's won 27 awards.

Evans is a man of big ideas as well. A Lonely Place For Dying is just one vehicle for his drive and determination. He's also founded the media companies BryteWorks and Humble Magi, which help independent filmmakers share their work with a larger audience. BryteWorks has developed an innovative portable digital projector, which Evans hopes will eliminate industry obstacles for filmmakers hoping to reach theater screens. Humble Magi has created a distribution circuit for A Lonely Place For Dying (watch a promotional clip).

The film will be screened at in more than 20 theaters in five states, with more engagements to be scheduled in the coming weeks. It will visit Medford, Chetek, Merrill and Baraboo before coming to Madison for screenings at the Barrymore Theatre Sept. 14-17.

During a recent phone call, Evans discussed new filmmaking technologies, festival-entry strategies and the learning curve for making theatrical distribution a reality.

The Daily Page: What are some of the obstacles indie genre films face on the film-festival circuit?
Evans: The film industry is polarized. There are big-budget genre pictures made by the studios and there are art-house movies made by independent filmmakers. To make a spy thriller as an independent filmmaker has violated some kind of taboo; we're not supposed to make something mainstream.

With film festivals, our solution was patience and brute force. We submitted [A Lonely Place for Dying] to over 65 festivals, which sounds good because we were accepted into 46. But 17 of those rejections were at the beginning. We kept submitting, and we refused to give up.

Festival directors saw audience members absolutely loving the film. At the San Diego Film Festival, we went from 22 people attending our first screening to 150 attending our third. When a festival director can tell that to the next group of festivals, it makes it much easier to get in. Once we'd been in about 15 festivals, the tide turned. Suddenly we were overwhelmed with festival invitations.

How have new technologies affected independent film distribution?
Digital distribution was supposed to transform everything for independent filmmakers. It hasn't. In fact, the studios, in conjunction with digital projector manufacturers, have created artificial barriers that make it harder than ever to get a movie into a theater. Most of these new regulations are hidden in the contract a theater signs to finance a digital projector, known as the Virtual Print Fee. It has a benign name but includes clauses that take programming out of the hands of independent theaters and give veto power to the projector manufacturer.

Our saving grace is that Apple took a liking to our film. They featured our trailer on iTunes' Movie Trailers [watch], which resulted in about 1 million downloads in one week. Apple is now treating our picture like any other motion picture from the studios. Five years ago, a movie would be released on iTunes, but there were only 100,000 Apple TV owners in the U.S. You'd get only 1,000 downloads, so Hollywood pretty much ignored it. But for an independent filmmaker like me who made a film for $250,000, we're told that, conservatively, we'll do about 100,000 downloads. At $5 a download and keeping 70 percent [of this sum], that recoups more than our original investment. That's still small potatoes for Hollywood, but I would say, 'Wow, I just gave my investors a solid return," which means they more than likely would invest in my next project.

What are the biggest challenges in assembling the theatrical distribution circuit for A Lonely Place For Dying?
The biggest challenge is self-education. Most filmmakers assume that theatrical distribution must be an impenetrable mystery. It isn't. After six months of research, we built a software tool called the Master Venue List, which helps us identify venues and execute theatrical bookings. We've identified theaters that are inexpensive to support but still have the potential to deliver a strong return. One theater in Chicago might cost as much as 10 theaters in Montana, but those 10 theaters in Montana would earn you more money. If the goal is to connect with the largest audience possible, which theater is more important?

But none of this works if the movie isn't solid. If the script isn't tight, if the acting is weak, if the craftsmanship isn't worthy of an audience's time, then none of this works. There is no clever shortcut when one wants the audience's respect. At some point, you have to let go and accept that the audience is your employer.

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