WHY ‘TEX MONTANA WILL SURVIVE!’ IS IMPORTANT, WHETHER YOU LIKE IT OR NOT

 

 

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The idea that a filmmaker can have their movie out there and available in stores, on VOD, on streaming services, and in any other number of venues but still not actually be making a living from that movie is one that is admittedly difficult to parse. This is not necessarily a new problem, but the explosion of independent films and new distribution channels over the last several years has made it one that is much more visible. The release of Jeremy Gardner’s THE BATTERY is a perfect example of this phenomenon. Following a highly successful festival run, the film has since been released on Blu-ray/DVD by Scream Factory and is now available through a number of VOD services. However, Gardner and his collaborators at O. Hanna Films have seen very little financial reward for their work.

 

In a piece for Moviemaker, Gardner explains what happened after the release of THE BATTERY: “We went back to work. All of us. Back to our day jobs.” Cinematographer Christian Stella said in a piece for Filmmaker Magazine that “We don’t know a single filmmaker who makes their living solely off of their films.” A note on the front page of the film’s official site reads: “Last month, we sold only 1 legitimate copy of the film through this site, while we had a minimum of 500 torrent downloads. We want nothing more than to get out there and make more films.“ There’s a “Donate” button for anyone who would like to help Gardner and O. Hanna Films do just that. In addition, O. Hanna recently ran a Kickstarter campaign to release their latest film entirely for free through a Creative Commons license and help give them a chance “to step away from our day jobs long enough to get back to doing what we truly love.”

 

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In short, this campaign was an attempt to create a new kind of film distribution in which fans can directly support the filmmakers and piracy is not an issue because the film is already free to anyone who wants to download it. Fortunately, it was a success. Whether O. Hanna themselves attempt to replicate this model for the release of their next project may be an indication of whether or not this model of self-distribution is sustainable. But for now, they have at least proven that it is possible to rally supporters to release a film for free and distribute it online with no restrictions. The film in question is, like THE BATTERY, a low-budget feature with a minimal cast. In fact, for the vast majority of its running time, there’s only one character on the screen.

 

TEX MONTANA WILL SURVIVE! is both the name of the film and the fictional reality series the title character (played by Gardner) has starred in for eight seasons. As the film opens, Tex learns the show has been canceled after it has been revealed that it is staged. In response, Tex decides to prove he’s the real deal by surviving in a vast forest completely alone for 30 days without any assistance or camera crew. He takes a camera with him to document his ordeal in a last-ditch attempt to clear his name and save the show. The main problem with his plan becomes painfully obvious almost immediately once Tex sets up a camera and starts rolling: He clearly has no idea what he’s doing.

 

Gardner and co-star Adam Cronheim were the only two actors with speaking roles in most of THE BATTERY. This time, Gardner is nearly the only person ever seen on-screen at all. Shot quickly and for a fraction of his previous film’s already tiny budget, TEX MONTANA WILL SURVIVE! is a showcase for Gardner’s comedic and improvisational talents. The character of Tex is deeply unlikeable, an egomaniacal jackass who takes every opportunity to threaten the livelihood of his editor Amanda by directly addressing her through the camera. The viewer watches Tex fumble around trying to build a shelter, freeze in the terrifying darkness of the forest at night, and run through multiple takes of commentary that he usually ruins by peppering with language not suitable for broadcast. Throughout, we learn more about Tex and his relationship with Amanda, and what exactly might drive him to take on this ridiculous challenge.

 

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This is very much a case in which how the viewer feels about the film’s traileris a good indication about how they will feel about the movie as a whole: what you see there is pretty much exactly what you get. For a movie that cost very little to produce it has some beautiful cinematography by Christian Stella. Another key collaborator returning from THE BATTERY is musician Ryan Winford, who provides the film with spare music cues that are simple but effective in setting the tone and reinforcing the idea that the film is footage that has been assembled into a super-sized episode of Tex’s show. In some ways, it plays like a goofy companion to Trevor Juras’s THE INTERIOR, another visually impressive film about a character striking off on his own deep into the woods. But where Juras’s film plays as a psychological horror story and meditation on “lost in the woods” horror tropes, TEX MONTANA is not interested in genre commentary at all. It is, at its core, a movie about a guy who is not very smart dicking around in the forest for about 90 minutes.

 

This makes TEX MONTANA the perfect test case for a fan-based crowdfunding campaign. This is a film that will primarily be of interest to fans of Gardner’s work both behind and in front of the camera in THE BATTERY. People who enjoyed that film and wanted to see more of him get their wish and then some here. But a single-character “found footage” comedy is almost certainly going to be a tough sell to anyone not already familiar with Gardner and his previous work. Convincing producers to put money up for this concept would have been exceptionally difficult if not impossible, so O. Hanna cannilyshot it on their own dime some time ago. This meant the Kickstarter campaign was not meant to raise funds to produce the movie, because aside from assembling the final credits, it was already completed. What Gardner and O. Hanna really bought with the success of the campaign was twofold: exposure and time.

 

Using the film as a test case on Kickstarter was, intentionally or not, a good way to get a fair amount of free advertising for the film. Genre fan sites would have covered the film regardless thanks to the acclaim many of them gave THE BATTERY, but without the campaign and the promise of a new approach to distribution, it seems unlikely that Entertainment Weekly would have posted a story about it. This wider exposure likely brought in at least some new fans curious to check out the previous film and help release the new one, and in the case of a crowdfunding campaign like this, every little bit of support really would have a direct impact on its success. And the more eyes on their site, the better the chance that some fans will be willing to hit that “Donate” button on the front page.

 

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More importantly, the money earned from the campaign will help the people behind O. Hanna take time to focus on their next film project. Having a financial buffer will allow Gardner and his team to plan ahead to take some time off work at their day jobs instead of having to finagle exhausting weekend or evening shoots around everyone’s schedules. Considering what O. Hanna has been able to accomplish with considerably fewer resources, fans likely saw the campaign as a sound investment. There are independent filmmakers such as Christopher Mihm and Henrique Couto who have successfully taken this kind of approach to partially or fully funding multiple feature projects on a smaller scale, but the TEX MONTANA campaign may be a sign of things to come for filmmakers working in the space between low- and micro-budget production.

 

Of course, it is entirely possible that O. Hanna’s success may have been an anomaly. Proving this is a workable concept will require not only the successful distribution of TEX MONTANA, but going forward other filmmakers will need to make the same gamble. That might be a much tougher sell than getting fans to help raise funds to release an already-completed film for free, because it requires a huge risk on the filmmaker’s part. TEX MONTANA is a film that was produced for a comparatively tiny budget, so the financial risk to O. Hanna was relatively small. Other filmmakers hoping to attempt a similar approach will have to either come up with a similarly small-scale project or be very confident in their talents and their fan base.

 

As of this writing, the only other film crowdfunding project attempting anything like O. Hanna’s is an Indiegogo campaign attempting to raise half a million dollars to produce a porn parody of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACKthat will be released online for free if it is produced. Why that project is struggling to raise funds despite being the sequel to a hugely successful film is probably best left to its own more detailed discussion (including the question of what exactly “success” looks like for a modern porn feature), but director Axel Braun’s aggressive response to piracy of his work may be a contributing factor. Gardner said in the Moviemaker article that O. Hanna engaged with people who pirated THE BATTERY in a unique way: they actively sought out torrent sites and commented on popular torrents of the film to ask anyone who enjoyed it to make a donation on their site. The result was surprising: “We made more money on donations from ‘pirates’ than we did selling the film on our own website.”

 

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Allie Haze in STAR WARS XXX (GQ Italy)

 

It’s no secret that the film industry, like the music business before it, has been flailing in its attempts to deal with piracy and figure out what the future of distribution looks like. In many ways the business of film distribution and exhibition is virtually the same as it was a century ago, and while big studios try to fight their way out of the tar pits it will likely be up to independent filmmakers to innovate and find a way forward. It is unlikely that O. Hanna has stumbled upon a magic bullet that will best make distribution work for both consumers and filmmakers, but their willingness to find a meaningful way of dealing with the problem of piracy and the resulting engagement with fans? — “pirates” and otherwise — will likely be an important reference point in figuring out how independent film distribution will work in the future.

 

 

— JASON COFFMAN.

 

 

 

Jason Coffman

Jason Coffman

Unrepentant cinephile. Contributor to Daily Grindhouse and Film Monthly. Member of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle. Co-director, Chicago Cinema Society. Attempted filmmaker. Proud owner of 35mm prints of Andy Milligan's GURU, THE MAD MONK and Zalman King's TWO MOON JUNCTION.
Jason Coffman
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One Comment

  • Reply
    March 18, 2016

    Jason,

    You absolutely NAILED this article. First off, thank you… But I really wanted to say that you hit a lot of points that we never really made public. The idea that the release was just as much about exposure as money/time is dead on. That this movie would have been a very hard sell traditionally was also dead on. These were all factors that brought us to the Creative Commons/Kickstarter idea.

    As you mentioned, I do think it will be interesting to see if this kind of release could scale. I’d argue that The Battery has a similarly rabid fan base to filmmakers working at the $250,000 budget level. We made it to our $50k goal by the skin of our teeth, so this seems like it may only be an option for the very, very small, and strange films in between the fully funded ones.

    For me, I never wanted to use Kickstarter unless the crowd owned everything in the end. Taking money as a budget and then making those people wait, not only to make the film, but also until the official release (after festivals) seems insane to me.

    At some point soon, I will most likely write an article about this whole process, and how it worked out. We raised $53,000 but are looking at clearing about $21,500 after all fees, expenses, the budget, reward fulfillment, shipping rewards, etc. that is a HUGE amount of money to us, but we are 3 guys making movies out of a house… As small as Tex is, most filmmakers would be very hard pressed to make it for our actual budget. We have an unfair advantage, as we have a writer and lead actor as 1/3 of our company, a business minded person as another 1/3, and then me, who did every technical job on Tex, from camera, sound, lighting, to all post production in all disciplines and even designing the DVD menus for the Kickstarter disc rewards (I’m doing that right now and it’s so very boring).

    I still believe that this is the best model I’ve thought up for navigating the digital world. Whether we do it again is an interesting question. For me, I could never do it again until our fan base has grown by at least five-fold. There are a few hundred people who paid far beyond the value of a digital movie purchase to give Tex Montana to everyone… These would be the same people giving us that money the next time. We have multiple people who gave us $1250! For me, accepting those kinds of large sums from one person is a one-shot deal. Even somebody who gave us $50. I don’t want them to feel like they have to give us $50 every movie to ever see it. for this to truly work, I’d love to see thousands of people putting up $5 or $10, to take the pressure off the diehard fans who we’ve (in many cases) become friends with over the years.

    I think it is more likely you’ll see us try something entirely different to release the next movie. It could be further into the studio-style release or further away. I’m looking for the model that can afford us a higher budget, or at least enough of a budget to hire a real sound designer! Currently, I’m the bottleneck of our company when it comes to time because I’m doing all of the post production in a tiny bedroom. When we take that off my hands, we can be making two movies a year… And I’m learning that volume, building up a back catalog, is as important as anything else. New movies feed the older ones.

    Finally, I will mention that piracy dealt us a strange blow this week. It seems that, Tex Montana is not of any interest in that community… Simply because it is free. I’ve met a lot of blowback trying to GIVE the movie away. I created an account of The Pirate Bay and posted torrents of the film… But a few hours later they were removed and my account was banned. The same thing happened when I asked for help “leaking” the movie on a torrent subReddit. Posting a movie that was not stolen is seen only as promotion and highly frowned upon. This was a huge disappointment for me. There are a lot of arguments in the piracy world, but when you think you are pleasing them, you’re not. The $5 self-released DRM-free version of The Battery was a direct response to pirates claiming that they don’t want to support big companies. Then you hear the argument that torrents aren’t ONLY used for piracy… That they can be a legitimate form of distributing content as well. While that is true, the places that index that content want no business with our legitimate release. My torrents are removed soon after posting on all the major sites. Hopefully this will change when people with more clout in that world start reposting the movie… But it was a strange end to this journey. The exact people we thought we were changing “the system” for… They want nothing to do with this release. Again, hopefully that will change. We don’t have any money to gain, but the exposure would be nice. Mainly, business aside, it just feels good to know that people are watching your movie, and I truly wish that was the only thing that mattered. With Tex, we get that luxury.

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