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Selling My Baby: Marketing Independent Film

by Safina Uberoi

Last month I spent a blissful two weeks in South Africa. I visited Nelson Mandela?s old home, climbed Table Top mountain, lounged on pristine beaches, attended an anti-Aids campaign, got mugged in broad daylight, saw my first whale and danced all night in the black township of Soweto. And I got to experience all this in exchange for the privilege of showing South African audiences a little Australian film which almost died at birth

Making a film is a little like having a baby - most of the hard work is invisible. True, there is a growing bulge and the mother-to-be develops an appetite for some weird food, but you really have no idea what is cooking until, after nine months of waiting and several hours of screaming, a little miracle is born. When a film is finally made, film-makers often lie around in a post natal stupor, wondering what to do next. I know, because I have been there - inexplicably depressed and unfocussed, wanting people to see the film but not quite sure how to get the film out there and too exhausted to try anyway. But if you don?t manage to get your film to a wider audience, you can be quite sure your baby will die.

This is because only half of the business of film-making is about the birthing of a piece of art. The other half is about marketing and giving the film a life. This is true whether you are making a short film, a documentary for television or an independent feature. In Australia this presents very special challenges - we have limited resources and tend to put most of our money on the screen. There is very little room left over in most budgets for any promotional activity. We are also far away from where most of the ?action? is. If you are a film maker in London or New York it is much easier to access those markets, simply because you know who is looking for what and where is the best place for you to be hawking your wares. So how do we work it from way Down Under?

The most obvious pathway is to send your film off to festivals and hope it gets into a good one. The Australian Film Finance Corporation (AFC) provides a list of the key festivals and it is easy to look up their profiles on the net. You can keep yourself very busy sending off application forms, tapes and paying sometimes exorbitant application fees. If it works, and your film gets into a prestigious festival, you can apply to the AFC for a grant to attend the festival. Once there, you network like mad and persuade distributors to buy the film or try to ensure that it goes onto other good festivals. But what if a major film festival does not pick up your film? What do you do then?

This happened to us with My Mother India. The documentary was commissioned by SBS and financed with the assistance of the Film Finance Corporation. In Australia, it won a number of awards, including the Award for Best Australian Documentary from the Film Critics Circle, the Rouben Mamoullian Award from the Sydney Film Festival, and the Premiers Literary Award for its script. But its performance at international film festivals was highly erratic - it got into some very good festivals including the Hawaii, New York and the Mill Valley, but it didn?t get into any major European or British film festival.

We were somewhat flummoxed by this, especially by the blanket rejection from festivals in the United Kingdom. My Mother India tells the story of an Australian woman (my mother) married to an Indian man (my father) who went to live in India in the 1960?s. In part the film is a description of my rather eccentric and multicultural upbringing in India. It features my father?s collection of kitsch Indian calendars, my mother?s Australian underwear (you have to see the film), my grandfather?s pretensions to being a Guru, and the anti-marriage campaigns mounted by my man-hating grandmother Biji. As the film progresses however, it focuses on the events of anti-Sikh riots of 1984 and tells a more serious story about the impact of civil violence on the lives of ordinary people. Given the film?s focus on the history and politics of modern India, we had expected a much more positive response from the UK where Indians and South Asians form the largest minority community. But film festivals all across the UK rejected the film.

Of course this led to much soul-searching on my part. Was the film no good? Was it out of date? Had British audiences already seen a film about these issues? While I was still wondering whether the film was a dud, it was picked up for theatrical distribution in Australia by Ronin Films. Before we knew it, the film was playing in theatres across Australia - and doing extremely well. We organized special screenings and discussion groups and I did weekly Q and A sessions at the very charming Valhalla Cinema in Sydney. This provided me with a unique view of the audience response to the film - Australians of all walks of life responded to the film very emotionally and their reactions gave me faith. I became convinced that given the chance audiences in the UK would respond similarly (they were human too, weren?t they?).

So we did not accept the verdict of the British film festivals. Instead, the day the film got accepted into a small festival of Australian films in London, we began to plot our own Battle for Britain. To begin with I emailed everyone I knew who very kindly emailed everyone they knew. It is amazing how effective a lively, well-worded email can be and we got lots of responses. Then I flew to London a few days before the screening and got on the phone. I called everyone - from producers at the BBC, to teachers of film at Westminster University, to programmers at the British Film Institute. Of course senior people didn?t come (who is this upstart ringing us anyway?) but sometimes their secretaries did, and in the end that was enough. On the day of the screening the hall of 650 was packed and the audience participated in a wonderfully warm (and sometimes heated!) discussion after the film. Jubilant, I spent the next day calling distributors and television buyers and told them how much British audiences had loved the film. Did they jump out of their seats in excitement and ask to see it? No. Not one agreed to see me, most would not return my calls and many sounded reluctant even to see the tape!

But by this stage I had learnt not to take ?No? for an answer. I called up two feisty women who run a terrific festival called Tongues on Fire which profiles the work of Asian women artists. They had given me great feedback after the screening and were delighted to program the film for a series of special University screenings. Before I knew it, the community screenings were snowballing and I was taking the film to women?s refuges in Newham, radical student groups in Sussex, and a gaggle of University professors at the School of Oriental and African Studies, all of whom seemed to know my father from his days in London in the 1950?s! It was a grassroots campaign to get the film noticed and it was the most fun I have had in years. I learned to use the London Underground, checked out an Asian Gay and Lesbian Bollywood Boogie Nite and had lunch with a famous writer in a club in Soho which was so trendy it did not have a front door. By the end of the month I was totally in love with London, several hundred people had attended the screenings and something of a buzz had built up around the film. This time when I rang the distributors, they answered the phone.

The best response we got was from the Institute of Contemporary Art which offered to screen the film for a limited season in their cinema theatre near Piccadilly. It was not a theatrical release, but it was something. And it was something which the Australian Film Commission and Macquarie University helped us to capitalize on. With their funding and support, I was able to go back to London and make sure those halls were filled. The good old email, phone and post card routine was on again. I rang all the community groups I had met with earlier and put out flyers in all the interesting theatre and arts venues. The film was opened by the writer and actress Meera Syal, who wrote Goodness Gracious Me and appears on The Kumars as the naughty Indian Granny. Meera was a wonderful presenter and helped make the connection between a film about an Australian-Indian family and the stories of Indian migrants in Britain. We ended the season with a dance party at the Institute?s bar where we played Hindi film hits and danced till dawn - or so I am told because I don?t remember very much

When the Institute totaled up their takings from the film and the dance party, they phoned me. It was the first time I was not doing the calling and I held my breath. The news was the best we could hope for: The Institute?s distribution arm offered My Mother India a national theatrical release in the UK!

A theatrical release is a very rare honor for a documentary, and for an Australian film to have a release in the United Kingdom is rarer still. Early next year My Mother India will open on 26 screens in 11 urban centres across the UK. We will have the opportunity to reach diverse audiences, generate publicity and attract the interest of broadcasters for TV sales. And all this for a film which was rejected by every British film festival!

Moral of the story?

Get out there and do it yourself!

Film festivals were first invented by film lovers who wanted to celebrate film making in all its diverse incarnations. Now most large festivals are driven by ?market? forces. Distributors with strong profiles or already-famous directors are almost guaranteed of a screening. Independent films by unknown film-makers are a gamble and fall easily into the reject bin. So if you want your film to be seen, you need to work out innovative ways of accessing or even creating audiences for it. Sure, it is very time consuming and expensive (all my credit cards are maxed out) but you can ensure that your work gets seen. If you can put in the hard yards, the film can eventually acquire a life of its own and eventually start paying you back-

After six months of carting My Mother India around the world, the film is now paying for my ticket to exotic destinations like Amsterdam, Texas and Johannesburg. (Well, exotic to me, anyway, I hadn?t been to any of those places before!). It has started selling to international TV and suddenly hundreds of thousands of people are going to watch it. Suddenly my baby is grown up and is opening up whole new worlds to me

. Like when I was in South Africa last month, meeting freedom fighters who make steel sculptures, retired cocaine dealers who campaign for social justice and Zulu tour guides with an excellent command of five languages who have a night job rapping at the local Shebeen

Hey, I want to spend the rest of my life carrying my film around in a suitcase - it?s almost a pity that I have to stop and make the next one!

Safina Uberoi
Sydney, November 2003

Safina Uberoi is a filmmaker whose credits include My Mother India. She was Honorary Associate in the Department of Media, Macquarie University, 2003.