Andrew Grant (The Filmbrain) and Aaron Hillis (The Cinephiliac) are walking definitions of the cinephile. All you have to do is read their respective blogs (and other fare) to figure that out. Dedicated to their passion and obsession for great cinema, Grant and Hillis have recently partnered in a new business venture. The Benten Films banner, a distribution company or “specialty label,” as they like to call it, caters to fellow film freaks who long for access and a confident curatorial hand to guide them to hard-to-find films—ones culled from the festival circuit and other international film markets, where they play to appreciative crowds, acquire great buzz, and then go on to languish in obscurity, more times than not.

These writers and filmmakers have set a few non-negotiable directives for Benten, foremost being uncompromising quality in the production of their products. Beautiful and thoughtful packaging, enhanced features, and high technical quality are apparent in their first release, director Joe Swanberg’s LOL. Early next year, the company will release Aaron Katz’s first two feature films as a double disc set, Quiet City (which has received wonderful reviews during its inaugural theatrical run here in New York at the IFC Center as part of the “New Talkies: Generation DIY” series) and his South by Southwest debut, Dance Party, USA, which had a theatrical run at The Pioneer in 2006. They will also release Todd Rohal’s fantastic The Guatemalan Handshake, another ’06 festival fave.

On a quiet Friday afternoon, as folks were scrambling to get out of the city for one last summer vacation fix, I chatted with Andrew and Aaron at a local coffee house in the Brooklyn neighborhood where both men live and work.

Renew Media (RM): Was the exquisite timing of your inaugural DVD release of LOL in conjunction with the current “The New Talkies: Generation DIY” series at the IFC Center done on purpose?

Aaron Hillis (AH): No, it sure wasn’t. We’d heard rumors circulating for quite a while that Hannah Takes the Stairs was going to be picked up by IFC First Take, but we didn’t know when it was going to happen and, honestly, had we not pushed back our release date one month, we would have come out in July. So it was a happy accident.

RM: You’ve both had a lot of success as film writers, critics, filmmakers, businesspeople. Why a distribution company? That’s hard work! But with all the shingles being opened up online, the timing probably couldn’t be better. I know that your impetus for starting this was to provide a home for a lot of fantastic (unclaimed) product out there, but why take that on?

Andrew Grant (AG): Well, for years I had worked on Wall Street whoring myself out making money and I hated it. It was never meant to be a career; I mostly worked as a contractor. There was never any kind of commitment and I was miserable there. After 9/11, I started to reassess things and a couple of years later started the blog, found a good amount of success–not in any financial terms, but started to gain a good reputation. The films I was writing about were mostly not available in the U.S. and I would always get emails from readers asking where they could get those films. My father was at Universal Pictures for years in distribution, so that seed was there, plus I thought it was a great way to give something back to a community for which I have great love and admiration and I could do something that I don’t hate but really like a lot. But I went in kind of blind, it’s not like I had the experience or the training; there wasn’t a whole lot out there on how to do it. We just kind of dove in.

RM: You had a solid idea of what kind of product you wanted to market and distribute, but, in terms of really being effective in getting that product out there, who did you turn to for an example, who did you try to emulate?

AG: Fortunately, I have quite a few friends in the distribution business in New York at companies like Zeitgeist, Kino, New Yorker

RM: So you just called them up and said, “Now, what do I do?”

AG: Yeah, basically. Actually, the first thing we did was find a parent distributor. Many people told me that while it’s financially better to do it on your own, it’s very hard to establish relationships with retailers, both brick-and-mortar and online, so we found Ryko Distribution. They were very friendly and helpful. They’re good in that they do what they need to do but they’re very hands-off. They’re not trying to mold us or tell us what we should or shouldn’t do or what to say.

RM: So they’re giving you a basic structure within which to operate?

AG: Exactly. They do all the dirty work that we don’t want to do.

RM: And it’s just the two of you right now?

AG: It is, yeah. We’ve had a lot of help along the way, but yeah, right now there’s just the two of us, but hopefully that will grow in time.

RM: So, in terms of growth, where do you see yourselves a year from now, talk about your potential slate, your potential audience, what does that look like to you? Have you thought that far ahead?

AH: We just put out our first release on Tuesday and we have no idea where the ride is going to take us, honestly. We have two titles lined up for the 2008 slate.

RM: And where are you shopping—festivals? Where are you casting your net?

AH: Yeah, that’s definitely a big one—that was part of the issue. A lot of the films that we really liked over the years live and die at the festivals. They never see a home, they never see a theatrical release. It’s frustrating. You just made this film, you want to share it with everybody, people are asking where they can see it. And you’d kind of have to say, “Well, Berlin, three years ago.” It’s tough. Now that we’re getting the name out there and we’ve been given a lot of attention for the first release [of LOL], we’re finding that filmmakers are contacting us directly and sending us things for potential acquisition. We’ll continue to go to festivals and marketplaces, finding as many titles as we can.

AG: We currently have a hefty stack of screeners to get through and we have plenty of things that we’re interested in. Now, it’s a matter of timing and, in terms of overseas titles, it’s a very long process. Not only to get them to pay attention to what we’re doing, but also informing them about what the American market is like. A lot of them don’t really have any idea. And we’re not focusing on any kind of niche marketing. What it boils down to is just things that we love. It’s a mixture of docs, narrative, a good balance of quality product, no matter the genre. Back to the question of how we find films, one film that we’re definitely going to sign came from a recommendation from another filmmaker. They had seen this great film and the filmmaker had contacted them via email and that’s really a great way to find things, as well.

RM: Do you have theatrical ambitions at all?

AG: One of the advantages of living in New York, is that there are some independent theatres that will actually talk to us, again, through personal connections. We know the people who run Film Forum, IFC Center, so that if we have a title, they’re willing to work with us on a small release.

AH: Through Ryko, we’re everywhere right now—we’re online, we’re in stores, on shelves at all the mega-retailers. We’re not just an online sales company. It’s really great that someone can pick out our product at a Best Buy in a suburb of Chicago; that’s really great for us.

AG: When I spoke to people in the business, talking about first starting out with this, they were hesitant. They felt like it’s a really saturated market. And there is that stigma of having a film only having a DVD distribution and not having any kind of theatrical release. One of the ways we’re trying to overcome that is by putting ourselves out there. There’s real transparency in who we are as critics and cinephiles and what we like and what we want to sell. And we’re hoping over time, that people will trust that. Having seen our first, say, three releases, they’ll say, “Well, I’ve never heard of this movie from Brazil, but I’m going to give it a shot.” It’s kind of like the Criterion model. I mean, I’m not comparing us to them.

AH: Yet.

AG: . . . But our hope is that by having a title affiliated with our name, or as part of our collection, it will have instant credibility or legitimacy with a certain audience. It’s not about quantity for us, or picking up titles on the cheap. I’d rather go four months without a release than just put something out as a placeholder. Part of the reason we’re not going to the IFP Market or the American Film Market out in Los Angeles is that we have a long list of films that we’re still looking at and that will keep us busy for quite a while.

AH: We don’t want to jump on something just because it’s new.

RM: Are you looking to fill your catalogue with older stuff, classics and the like?

AG and AH: Yes, absolutely.

RM: So, you’re also in the process of building an archive, as well. Most people, I don’t think, would have the patience to do that—they would just want to jump all over what’s coming out now and in the near future.

AH: We’re living in over-stimulated times. You have to shout to be noticed. Our way of shouting is tasking ourselves with careful curation. And whether or not cinephiles are a dying breed, well, we’ll find out in due time.

RM: Are you interested in starting at the development stage? A lot of people are all about producing original content; that’s their main directive for newly-formed companies of this nature. Or are you totally focused on archiving?

AH: DVD is what we really want to do right now. And it’s not like we can stop working our other jobs to do that kind of thing just yet.

AG: Actually, that’s something that, just in the past week or two, has sort of appealed to me, in a way. Mostly because the next DVD we’re bringing out contains two films by Aaron Katz. He’s got a new project that he’s written a screenplay for that’s going to require funding. I’d love to finance that. We’re not there yet, either, but yes, maybe one day, why not? I don’t see any reason why we can’t ride part of that wave, too.

RM: Well, to me, that’s very encouraging to know that people like you are keen to do that versus some stockbroker (no offense, Andrew) that knows nothing about filmmaking or what it entails.

AH: It’s the very reason why independent film has been co-opted by the studios. You look at a film festival like Sundance. I mean, what is truly independent about their schedule every year? So many of those deals are brokered so far in advance by mini-majors, and such. It’s true—there tend to be the passionate creative types and the number-crunchers and never the twain shall meet, and that’s largely responsible for this globalized marketplace we have now.

RM: Well, the frustrating thing about that is that those deals get made and the film is still not marketed properly or ever finds an audience.

AG: Yeah, exactly, it’ll get buzz for about 15 minutes and then vanish forever. One of the things we’d like to do long-term is to expand the company overseas, especially regarding the American independent stuff we’re looking at, which is extremely underrepresented in Europe. My experience at festivals there has always been that when American independent films do show up, they get a great reception. There’s a real desire for it. Audiences want to see them but the market’s very small there and no one’s really tasking themselves with getting them well-represented. That would be a great thing to try and conquer.

RM: What were some things you learned releasing your first project?

AG: Well, we’re working on a schedule that Ryko sets. For example, the Aaron Katz release coming out in January—there are materials that we need to start preparing in early October. It’s a long lead-time. For LOL, we lost a lot of time in the packaging design phase. We went through a lot of designers along the way. And because of delays or unacceptable work being delivered at the last minute, we lost a lot of time there and had to play catch-up. That wound up costing us time and money. We, obviously, want to avoid that this time. All things considered, though, we’re really thrilled with the end product. We didn’t compromise on anything—the design, the cover, the idea of an outer sleeve and an inner sleeve, the extra features.

AH: LOL will be our only title until January 2008—it’s the only one that’s out there. So that also gives us a lot of time for our next release and that’s how it needed to happen. Ryko has pre-scheduled things for Christmas time, so early January is the earliest we have a slot and we’re happy about that because it does give us time. And as far as next year, it’s still only going to be the two of us doing it. Right now, we’re looking at doing one every other month and when we feel confident enough that we can keep up and have people that we really like and trust to do the authoring and design, it will make things a little easier, so that we’re producing what we really want to be putting out there.

AG: One of the real unknowns during this process, which also makes this extra time an advantage, is that we have no idea what to expect in terms of sales. That’s one thing that people [in the distribution business] are pretty tight-lipped about. They just won’t reveal those numbers. I mean, we have seen our early numbers and we’re extremely pleased with them and that gives us a better gauge about what to do for future projects. How much should we spend on P&A [publicity and advertising]? Should we take out this ad, or not? We’re thinking we need to gauge that on a film by film basis—how to market, how to buy ad space. For LOL, we concentrated the bulk of our advertising towards the industry, just getting the word out about Benten. And for public targets, we really relied on interviews and taking advantage of already-established relationships that we have, people who helped out along the way. We got a lot of inquiries from people here and abroad and we got coverage overseas, as well. For the Aaron Katz films, we’ve already come up with some ideas on where it might be best to advertise.

AH: The problem with advertising is that it is just so stiflingly expensive. We have some money but hardly the kinds of budgets the mini-majors have. We really have to pick and choose, and going film by film, we’re just going to have to be as creative with the marketing as we are with the design and other, more obviously, creative things that have to do with creating the DVD. Because of the people we know in journalism and the blogosphere and whatnot, we’re fortunate. There are two ways of getting into a publication—paying for advertising or getting someone to write about you. We’re of the mindset that it’s always going to be better to get someone to write about you or more about the project and it’s also much cheaper to get a screener into a critic’s hands than pay for a banner ad.

RM: It’s so grassroots and so simple, and it’s much more work. But, ultimately much more rewarding because it does stem from that authentic feeling in the community that there is something good out there that should get some attention. And there are other people besides cinephiles, besides “movie folk” who are hungry for product like that and just can’t really seem to find it.

AH: There aren’t enough alternatives out there. That’s how independent film has been co-opted, like I said before. That’s why I feel like people are willing to support us because we are the “little guy.” It’s frustrating–I really think people would see better films if they knew they existed.

RM: Do you anticipate more companies like Benten cropping up?

AH: I hope so.

RM: It might be that you’re a primer for people who feel the same as you.

AH: I guess that’s going to be the interesting thing to see with all this—how a company based on certain personalities or a critical reputation, rather than a genre or a niche market, will fare.

RM: So, I’m sure you can’t divulge what’s on your near-future hit list, but can you tell me who some of your favorite directors are, your acquisition wish-list, if you will?

AH: We’re all over the map.

AG: Yeah, we really are. The first film I tried to go after with the company was Seijun Suzuki’s Princess Racoon, which I saw and loved. We were in negotiations back and forth, but what they wanted up front, well, there was no way. It didn’t even make sense for a DVD-only release. And we found that with another Asian movie we liked as well called Funky Forest, another film I fell in love with. It made us step back and re-think our strategy, in a way. But in terms of favorites? It’s too varied. There were quite a few films we saw at Berlin this year that were from first-time directors, new directors, and those are the films we ended up going after. We’d love to go after a Herzog film or a Chabrol film, but it would be finding something in the back catalog that’s not released yet, and anything new is just going to be out of our range. But the new director thing is really exciting. Aaron and I both saw [Katz’s] Dance Party, USA last year and then Quiet City which Aaron saw at South by and I saw the week after. And between the two films I thought, “Wow, this guy is really great,” and he’s such a nice guy and I think he’s going to go on to have a really great career.

And I think that’s what’s so great about working with this Aaron [Hillis], is that, you know, we don’t always see eye to eye on films, but when we do agree, it’s pretty solid. It’s an assurance that it’s worth doing or pursuing a certain film.

AH: Well, you know, no one’s going to be making millions off of “mumblecore” (laughs).

RM: Yeah, but the investment you, and others, are making is in the careers of these talented filmmakers and you’re helping to build an international audience that will want to see the latest Katz or Swanberg or Bujalski film.

AG: And that, ultimately, is what matters more to me. I don’t want to lose money with this company, mind you, but it’s getting people to acknowledge these films. One of the reviews we got for LOL on the DVD Beaver from Gary Tooze himself said that this really changed his expectations about a movie shot on prosumer video equipment and shot 4:3; it defied his expectations. That’s what matters. In the DVD business, it’s name recognition—a certain actor appearing in the film or what have you. Our films don’t have that kind of name recognition—at least not yet. And we have a quality product sitting on store shelves right now and it looks really nice sitting there!

AH: We are, in essence, appealing to our own sensibilities in the way we’re marketing and packaging our products—it’s for the collector, it’s for the person who has a sizable DVD library in his home, who wants to own something to stick on the shelf. Which kind of makes it easy—we really don’t have to do any kind of market research. We’re just doing what appeals to us.

AG: In doing the commentary tracks for LOL and the ones we’re working on now for Quiet City and Dance Party, we’re not merely doing them because it’s obligatory and that’s what’s done for the DVD. I want this to be a kind of artifact—what it was like making a digital feature in the early part of the turn of the century. That’s what’s important from a film history perspective. Who knows what filmmaking will be like 30, 40 years from now? But to hear all that from the cast and crew, from the people who made these movies is essential. It is an exciting time now for these American films because, while the idea of shooting on video’s been around for a while, we’re now really seeing that convergence of that kind of technology with really good, quality films. Outside of Criterion, at least in America, there’s no other label that’s trying to do that—create that kind of brand, if you will. In the UK, there’s a DVD label called Second Run, they’re kind of doing it and that’s where we’re trying to get to here, in terms of how we market ourselves as a company.

AH: I think the difference is that we won’t be able to brand ourselves from the get-go. Our branding is going to have to be a slow burn. Once we have, say, six titles in our collection, people will see that none of them have anything in common in terms of genre, era, budget, etc.. There’ll be the 1960s Korean horror film together with the low budget DIY drama. The only commonality will be that they’re all good

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Tags: Blog-Project, Creative Process, Distribution, Reframe