Buddy-ing up: Filmmaker Cherry Arnold self-distributed her biography of Providence mayor Buddy Cianci (pictured.)
Cherry Arnold didn’t know what she was in for when she started filming Buddy: The Rise and Fall of America’s Most Notorious Mayor. “If I had known all the work involved…,” Arnold says. “Pure ignorance kept me going. I underestimated by months at a time how long each step would take.”
The award-winning documentary — which she produced and directed — profiles the charismatic and controversial Buddy Cianci, who served almost 20 years as mayor of Providence, R.I., before being found guilty of conspiracy. Cianci was sent to prison in 2002 and served fire years’ time.
Arnold originally planned to find a DP or cameraperson to do most of the filming. She ended up doing most of the work herself. “The same thing happened every step of the way until the end,” she said. And that included distribution.
When her film started racking up awards on the film festival circuit, Arnold thought she could relax — she was so sure her film would be picked up for distribution.
But no one bit. She began making the rounds at television studios in New York City, using her contacts to get the film in front of top decision makers. “They would say it didn’t fit the format or it was too long,” she said. “It was always something.”
For guidance, she turned to one of her mentors, Louis Alvarez from the Center of New American Media. He remained convinced there were people who wanted to see her movie; she just needed to get the film in front of them. He advised her to get the film into local theaters.
Arnold, once again not knowing what she was in for but having no choice, said, “OK.”
She started with an art house in Providence. Working with the booker proved difficult and, at one point, he suggested she go talk to the “Redstone people.” Arnold realized that he was sarcastically suggesting she talk to the president of National Amusements —Shari Redstone, the daughter of Sumner. The chain owns several theaters in Providence. “It was like I’d been kicked in the stomach,” Arnold recalls. But then she thought: “What the hell, I’ll call.”
It took a long time to reach Redstone by phone, but Arnold was finally able to connect with her office and send her a screener. “My expectations were really rock bottom,” Arnold said. “I was very much in debt at this point.”
National Amusements agreed to show the film in two theaters in Providence, giving Arnold “an unbelievable percentage” of the ticket sales because the booker “knew how much work I was doing,” she says.
And as Alvarez had suspected, there was indeed an audience for the film. Buddy became the top-grossing movie in the region for four weeks running.
The theatrical run’s success gave Arnold the money to make DVDs, which can be ordered online through Amazon.com or purchased at all Borders, Blockbusters, and Barnes & Noble stores in Rhode Island.
Making a film reminds Arnold of entrepreneurs who launch start -ups. “Had they known how hard it would be, they’re so glad they don’t know it ahead of time.”
That being said, Arnold has no regrets. She is proud of the film and grateful to all the people who helped her finish it. She is looking forward to her next project: a cinema vérité film about autism.
The bottom line: Arnold suggests you learn as much as you can about the financial end of things at the beginning of a project. Each type of documentary will have a different business model. Filmmakers always need to have contingency plans. If you aren’t flexible at every stage of filmmaking, including distribution, you are making things harder for yourself. Finally, she says, surround yourself with people such as mentors who are passionate about your subject and want to help.
Visit Buddy’s official website.
Read Case Study No. 1 on The Sensation of Sight.
Read Case Study No. 3 on On Broadway.
Return to the main page of “Adventures in Self Distribution.”