Holding Patterns and Long Tails: Benten Films and the Distribution of the Future

By Ben Slater


Founded by a pair of New York-based film critics, Andrew Grant and Aaron Hillis, Benten Films announced their existence a little over a year ago when they released the DVD of a film called LOL. An early instalment in a very loose movement of low-budget independent American titles that some critics had unfortunately dubbed ‘Mumblecore’, LOL had done some festivals, and its director, Joe Swanberg, had gained notoriety for his sexually explicit online video series Young American Bodies, but that still didn’t necessarily explain why Benten gave it a DVD treatment that can only be described as ‘Criterion’ style, i.e. original artwork, thoughtful liner notes, two commentary tracks, bonus short film, making-of footage, interviews, music performance video. Indeed, all of Benten’s subsequent releases have maintained this incredibly high level of commitment to producing the most lavish package imaginable for each and every film they take on.

Although some of the Benten titles have had festival exposure, none of them have scored a proper theatrical run in the US, (a few had one week runs at a single NYC art-house), so these cultural artefacts demonstrate that going ‘straight-to-video’ doesn’t have to be such a terrible thing. Benten’s activities are a further sign that the landscape of film distribution (independent and otherwise) is being transformed, and that the old rules no longer seem to apply.

When I spoke with Andrew Grant, aka Filmbrain, who also runs noted cinema blog ‘Like Ana Karina’s Sweater’ (www.filmbrain.com), I asked him about this gap between each film’s performance in the theatrical marketplace and the Benten ‘treatment’. “In order to get people interested in these movies, we really needed to sell them.” he says, “If you take these films and do a bare-bones version, they would get lost in the shuffle. The fact that in some cases these films cost $10,000 to make doesn't affect the treatment we want to give them. I believe in the collector, because I’m one myself.”

So far, Benten have produced six releases with a seventh on the way. These include the aforementioned LOL, a double-set of Aaron Katz’s pair of low-key digital features Quiet City and Dance Party USA, Todd Rohal’s bizarre and beautiful The Guatemalan Handshake (in a two-disc edition no less), Kentucker Audley’s Team Picture and the odd disc out, German Mathias Glassner’s punishing portrayal of a rapist ex-con, Der Freie Wille (The Free Will). Ken Jacobs fils, Azazel’s The GoodTimesKid is forthcoming. It’s an extremely eclectic bunch of interesting underdogs that Benten have assembled here. Not all of these films impressed national critics or made it to major festivals, none of them are likely to be declared ‘masterpieces’, but it’s clear working your way through the discs that they are all films that deserve to be seen, and some (The Guatemalan Handshake in particular) may gather larger cult audiences. It’s also really hard to dismiss films this well presented.

free-will-matthias-glassner.jpgThe Free Will, 2006

Benten’s apparent slant towards American indies is not an intentional policy, but more a result of their on-the-ground situation. Grant has stated that the first film he wanted to release was Seijun Suzuki’s Princess Raccoon, and he is currently eyeing Johnny To’s Sparrow. The trouble is that sales agents, particularly foreign ones dealing with buyers in the US, have a very inflated idea of the prices their films can fetch in the current market. Also, like everyone else, the agents want to hold out for the elusive theatrical release before the DVD. And, in this day and age, it rarely happens. “Aaron and I have talked about doing a limited theatrical release for some of our titles in New York,” Grant says, “although it’s going to lose money.” Besides getting films on the big screen, theatrical means newspaper reviews and media coverage which can really help a DVD shift units later down the line. But, in these days of digital distribution aren’t we meant to be moving away from the tyranny of the old staggered release window model (theatrical before video before cable before TV before…)? “We are going to find that theatrical becomes the exception”, Grant concurs, and this opens up a realm of discussion and prognostication that Benten are having to deal with every day.

Grant is very wary of the way in which certain rich companies, fuelled by the ‘long tail’ theory that everything has a market as long as you have enough of everything, are grabbing available content in preparation for the next so-called revolution. “Companies like Cinetic are approaching anyone who has made an independent film that's half-way decent and trying to lock them into horrible contracts.”, says Grant, “They are hoarding content, so that when someone figures out the ideal platform and the technology that makes sense and works, they will be the ones you turn to and then they’ll milk you dry. But no one has figured it out yet, Everything’s in some weird holding pattern right now. Film-makers are torn. They put a lot of time and effort into making their film, they can’t get theatrical, they can’t get it into many festivals, can’t get a DVD deal, and this comes along and it sounds very impressive.”

None of the current ‘new’ technologies are ideal; streaming video is poor quality, iTunes only allows a dubious ‘rental’ of copyright protected files (and is very selective about non-Hollywood content), new hard-disc-based download services are on the rise from companies like Netflix and Vudu, but (like iTunes) are USA-only. So, it’s no wonder people are still relying on ‘darknet’ downloading systems like Bit Torrent, where several of Benten’s films can be illicitly acquired as ‘DVD rips’. Even though it hasn’t happened, Benten are happy for their titles to be downloaded legally through some online portal, although Grant has seen figures from cable pay-per-view channels and they are not impressive. “We did a deal for LOL on a smaller cable network run by AT&T, it was in half a million homes and it ran for 90 days and I made 30 dollars. That’s six buys.”

Not great for Benten, but if companies like Cinetic bulk-buy thousands of films that make 30 dollars each, then they will have proved the ‘long tail’ theory works. But, that doesn’t ultimately help the films, the film-makers, or even audiences who would like to see unfamiliar good stuff, but don’t always know how to select it. “I keep telling these young film-makers, ‘how is your film going to be found?’”, Grant says, “It’s going to be even harder, traditional marketing methods aren’t going to work. With online, people can’t just walk into the store and see your product on the rack. You hear people talk about YouTube, and how a video got a million views, and they say there’s no reason that can’t happen with an independent film, but it’s not the same. The YouTube clip is two minutes long. It's the same reason why MP3 music files are different from films and you can’t compare those experiences.” Feature films require time, commitment, concentration, and the files are much, much bigger.

lol-joe-swanberg.jpgLol, 2006

Given this shifting climate, Grant knows that niche DVD retail in America is just not sustainable. Other companies are also feeling the pain, and Benten are now seriously looking overseas to Europe to expand the scope of what they do. Grant talks about a mysterious company run by a film-lover with equipment and resources to do restoration of old films and conversion to all regions. Benten goes international? “That is our only chance… World-wide rights are critical right now. You get a product and you blast it out to as many places as you can in as many media as you can and hopefully you make enough to justify the costs.”

On their website, under Benten’s logo is the line – ‘curated by critics’. It’s a phrase that seems nebulous at first but, when you look at the landscape they operate in, and the ways in which it’s changing, the concept of a critical voice no longer commenting from the sidelines, but also helping you see otherwise unavailable films, becomes a very sound premise indeed.

Check out Benten Films where there are many articles and interviews relating to their releases. So far, all their discs are Region One and can be ordered overseas via Amazon.com, but keep watching their site for news on that front.

Ben Slater is a writer, lecturer, blogger and resident of Singapore. His book Kinda Hot documents the making of cult film Saint Jack. Visit www.kindahot.blogspot.com and harrylimetheme.blogspot.com