When it comes to the mysteries of making it as a filmmaker, few independent filmmakers consider the most important aspect of reaching an audience. What could that be? A distributor, in case you were wondering. In the south one might feel like a distributor is thousands of miles away figuratively when truthfully they are literally. Despite the successes of Alpha Film Group, Atlanta had not much going on in the distribution arena. A new company hopes to change that. Afterlight Pictures was formed in 2008 as a distribution outlet for independent filmmakers focusing on short films via digital distribution models. They are now stepping into the arena of feature films in a big way. They’re releasing the action film Blood Ties from Atlanta-based director Kely McClung. The film premieres Feb. 11th at the Aurora Cineplex (http://www.auroracineplex.com/) followed by the official DVD release February 15th. I was able to speak with Zeke Flatten of Afterlight Pictures as well as director Kely McClung. Questions For Afterlight Pictures
What made you want to go into film distribution with Atlanta as your base of operations?
As filmmakers in Atlanta , we knew of other talented filmmakers creating great work (mainly short films) that went no further than limited festival runs. At the same time, sites like Indieflix.com, MOFILM, and Amazon Video On Demand were just starting to provide short film content. You had to be not only a filmmaker but also a promoter and businessman to have any type of success using these delivery platforms. So Afterlight Pictures was born in 2008 to provide independent filmmakers with marketing strategies for the digital delivery of their films.
How did you land Blood Ties to distribute? What attracted you to the project in particular?
Like I mentioned before we are also filmmakers, and while producing the short film “YardByrds” I met Robert Pralgo. Over the next year or so I ended up working with Rob on a few other projects and during one of these shoots Rob mentioned that he had produced a feature film, “Blood Ties”, which was primarily shot in Thailand , for $20,000. I was immediately intrigued because my father was living in Thailand at the time and the entire feature was shot for $20,000. Wow! He told me that the film had won several festival awards and was now sitting on a shelf. I told Rob that our company had a digital distribution model for independent films and that I would be interested in seeing it. He quickly introduced me to the director, Kely McClung, and they set up a screening for me. Within the first 10 minutes of the film, I knew that I wanted Afterlight Pictures to release “Blood Ties”.
Do you think that Atlanta will prove to be a significant force in the world of feature films?
I feel that Atlanta has a strong chance to play a significant role in the production of feature films. Obviously much larger players in the industry feel the same way with Screen Gems and Raleigh Studios moving into the state; but two things need to happen to solidify this. First, the state needs to maintain the tax incentive for at least another five years to allow the industry to take roots in Georgia . Right now there are lots of producer, directors, cast and crew that are moving to Atlanta because the work is here. If the industry money leaves before these individuals have time to settle, they will also leave. Second, we need to see more “Green Light” decisions made locally for projects being shot in southeast. Even though there are a ton of “studio” films being shot here right now, the decisions to make these films are still being made in Hollywood . As producers and directors move to Atlanta , I hope to see more of these decisions being made locally.
The world of independent film distribution is currently in flux, with no clearly defined model dominating the market. Where do you see the future of independent distribution?
One word…Digital. The digital age has created the opportunity for small independent filmmakers to shoot and edit their projects without the deep pockets of Hollywood studios, and digital is also the answer to the distribution of these films. Digital entertainment demands have very recently caught up to the mounting supply of available content, and this is evident with sites like iTunes, Hulu, AVOD, Indiefix, and the rise in cable PPV use. But it is not only limited to these types of delivery platforms, the digital age has moved into the theaters as well with more and more houses installing digital projection. It used to be if you wanted your film to run in a theater, you had to have a 35mm print which costs tens of thousands of dollars.
How do you make your acquisition decisions? How would a filmmaker attract you to their project?
Being that we are a small company, and we do not have investors or shareholder to answer to, we have the flexibility to make our decisions based on what we want to see in the marketplace. We don’t have to analyze and make our determination based upon who directed the film, whether there are named actors, or what the budget was; in order to guarantee some minimum return. We like independent films that are made against all odds and there is just as much to the story of how it was made, as to what was made.
Are you planning future releases after Blood Ties?
We have several films we are currently looking at distributing, and we are also talking with some filmmakers about some projects that are going into production this year. In addition, we have already negotiated for the license to distribute a zombie film, “Zombie Invasion” that we will be releasing in October of 2011.
Questions for Kely McClung
Both Blood Ties and Kerberos have had a lot of offers, both for domestic and foreign distribution. I was able to meet face to face with many of them, primarily in the years I've attended the American Film Market in LA. In every case, even though some of the companies were quite big, there was always something in the contracts - usually a combination of their plans and their expenses in taking it to market - that threw up red flags for me. You look at their current catalogs and other films they are handling; some impressive and some, even though Blood Ties was a low, low budget movie, you really don't want to be associated with.
I think I've always been realistic in what we actually made, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive, but the first thing every distributor wanted us to do was to lie - too big a stretch to say exaggerate - and to tell everyone we spent 1 to 1.5 million. It really rubs me wrong as we pulled this off for 20 thousand! Even though I understand their reasons, it just feels wrong, and I always felt they were missing a huge opportunity in the marketing plans.
Zeke Flatten with Afterlight Pictures was the first company to embrace the movie for what it is, and to help craft a strategy based on what we actually did. As it's turned out, Afterlight has stepped up, invested their own money and a lot of their time into helping to take the movie even further in terms of the actual deliverables. I love that we are working together on every detail and every step of the way. They have shown immense respect not only for the movie, but for who I am and where I am at as a filmmaker. From my experience and the hundreds of conversations I've had with distributors and other filmmakers over the years, this is absolutely a unique situation and I have no doubt that this is a great partnership.
You shot on extensive locations for Blood Ties, the furthest away being Thailand . What made you decide to take on that kind of challenge for such a low budget feature film?
I had been to Thailand , trained and taught my own martial arts there, and have an affinity for the people and the culture. When Rob Pralgo and I locked in the fact that we would make a movie together, he gave me total creative control. The last thing I wanted to do was make a martial arts movie, but as the fights and what I can do physically is pretty much the only special effect we could afford, it seemed the way to go.
Even though it had been years since I had been there, I knew that if I could capture even a little of the flavor, the sounds and smells, and color of the people and streets, we could make something special. That and the idea of having a martial arts movie in America , where in reality almost anyone could and would just shoot you, made no sense. Everyday there was huge challenge, but the fact that we were there making a movie was incredibly energizing. I created a flexible structure for the narrative and much of the movie evolved to either solve problems or to take care of the hundreds of great things that came our way. Work gets you work, and the magic is created by the doing... "Blood Ties" is absolute proof of that!
Blood Ties had quite a festival & awards run, what was the best time you had on the festival circuit?
We didn't get to Cannes or Sundance, but we've been thrilled at our success. Every festival is so unique, and in my case, each one brought so many additional rewards. The Action on Film International Film Festival in LA was our first. As you can tell from the name, there are a lot of action movies there! Many of them cost a couple hundred times our budget, and many with actors and producers and directors that I had worked with as an actor or stuntman/fight choreographer. So to win "Action Film of the Year" still feels pretty amazing.
The thing I think to be open for - besides winning awards - and Blood Ties won the top awards at almost every fest it was in - is the people and connections you can make.
I met Stan Harrington at the festival at Disney where we won "Best of Festival." I not only brought him in to co-star in my second feature Kerberos, he then let me help direct scenes for a couple of his last features, introduced me to the main acting teacher at the Stella Adler Theater in Hollywood who will star in my next film, and cast me to co-star in a film we start shooting in San Francisco. Winning "Best International Film" at the End of the Pier Film Festival in the UK, introduced me to BAFTA winning sound engineer Rob James who introduced me to Craig Irving, the award winning sound engineer who did Shakespeare in Love" and made it possible for me to mix Kerberos at Twickenham Film Studios in London. This is where Tim Burton, and Kenneth Branagh, and Michael Hafstrom have mixed and mastered.
It's always fun to be seen and I was a world champion marital artist, so competing in is my blood and then winning is great, but the real reward for me has been the realtionships I've created and been able to nurture.
What's next for you? I hear you’ve got quite a few projects in the works.
Wow. I travelled back from LA last week where I was locking in actor/playwright Tim McNeil as the star of my next film Altered, and had meetings with Stan who is directing me in his mystery Perception shooting in San Francisco . I also was able to lunch and talk about my script with Amanda Dreschler, who I met while directing scenes for Stan's last feature Creed, and will co-star in Altered. I spent much of the weekend with my friend, film director Akiko Izuminani, who I met when Kerberos screened and won in LA for "Best Director" last fall, and I was able to help her find the sales rep for her award winning documentary ("Best Documentary" at the Beijing Int'l Film Festival) on Japanese war crimes Silent Shame.
I leave for San Fran on Friday, and will be making several trips there and to LA to shoot my scenes in Perception - I'm in wheel chair the whole movie, so a lot of fun, and challenging for me. I'll get back just in time for the Blood Ties World Premiere and then our DVD release a couple days later. Our premiere is on Friday the 11th, and by Sunday, I am in rehearsals for Anthony McHie's action short Passive Fist.
Then it's back and forth to be in both projects. I am also being brought to Chicago to speak and present at the Self Employment of the Arts Conference and help out on a couple technical panels.
I have a friend in NY who is setting up press screenings of Kerberos at Tribecca, so that's gonna take some work even as I continue promoting Blood Ties.
And last, I am so excited to be moving in to actual pre-production and assembling my team on my horror/thriller Altered. I've had the concept for over 8 years but until now, I didn't feel I was remotely good enough to do it justice... So I don't know if the world is ready for it, but I am so ready in every way!
You know, you spell it all out like this, in your mind and on paper, and you suddenly realize, "This is what I do! I'm a filmmaker!"