After three ver the course of an auspicious career, documentary filmmaker Arthur Dong has created an extraordinary body of work, including the Academy Award-nominated Sewing Woman (1982), Forbidden City, U.S.A. (1989), the Peabody Award-winning Coming Out Under Fire (1994), and Out Rage ’69, a program in the ITVS series The Question of Equality. He is currently at work on Tap! The Tempo of America, a social history of tap dancing.
In his most recent film, Licensed To Kill (1997), Dong excavates the root causes of homophobia. Based on interviews with seven men convicted for murdering other men because they were gay, Dong elicits uncanny psychological insights from the killers while carefully situating their stories in the social and cultural contexts that both inform such hatred and tacitly sanction its expression through violence.
After Licensed To Kill won the Filmmaker’s Trophy and the Documentary Director’s Award at the 1997 Sundance Film Festival, Dong was in the enviable position of being able to take his pick among distributors eager to acquire the film. Instead, Dong decided to distribute Licensed To Kill himself. In this interview from The AIVF Self-Distribution Toolkit, Dong discusses why and how he took this unusual step.
You’re self-distributing Licensed To Kill. But I wanted to know if you’ve had any previous experience with self-distribution.
Actually, yes. My film Sewing Woman, which I produced in 1982.
What was your motivation for doing so?
Back then, self-distribution was still a relatively new idea. AIVF had published this little pamphlet called Doing It Yourself, authored by Julia Reichert of New Day Films. That was my inspiration.
At the time I was working as a production assistant at ABC and I thought: “This isn’t right. I’m a filmmaker. I’ve got my own ideas to push. But how can I make a living, besides working for the corporate networks?” Because of this little booklet, I said, “Well, this might be a way to do it.” So I quit that job and said, “I’m going to try to distribute Sewing Woman.”
I’d have to look at my records, but I think the film maintained me for a couple of years—and this is a 14-minute, black-and-white film. I believe there were about 22 prints circulating all the time. And I sold a lot of copies. I wasn’t selling video, because video wasn’t really marketed then. That would have made it a lot easier!
After spending two years distributing Sewing Woman myself, I signed non-exclusive contracts with other distributors. Because Sewing Woman was about a Chinese-American woman, it was immediately labeled as an Asian-American film—which it is, obviously. But I made it for a broader audience; I didn’t make it just for Asian-American studies, which is a small group in terms of the market and would sustain very little in sales.
That’s why I finally chose the distributors that I chose: Third World Newsreel, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), and Picture Start in Chicago; nowadays NAATA (National Asian American Telecommunications Association) also handles it. When I signed off with the ADL, I said, “That’s perfect, because it complements their focus on immigration.” Picture Start wanted it because it was an art film. And I said, “That’s great, that’s a different audience.” Third World Newsreel is concerned with women’s issues and Third World issues. So I signed with these distributors, and they didn’t mind because they knew that their audiences were different.
Did any of these areas of interest emerge as the leader, in terms of sales?
With Sewing Woman, actually the strongest area was women’s studies. There’s an organization in Santa Rosa, the National Women’s History Project, that’s been around for a long time. They have a catalogue of educational materials in which they wanted to include Sewing Woman. They don’t often invite distributors to advertise in their catalogue, but they invited me to place an ad. This happened a few years later and it was as if there was a second wave to the film. For about five years running, the ads got bigger and bigger every year because it was just like, “God, what a great market.” They loved the film so much that they would bring my study guides with them to conferences and pass them out and say, “This is a film you all should buy.” And I would get more sales.
That’s another thing: the study guide. I took the time to craft a study guide to go with the film and that’s one of its key selling points. It’s a good study guide; I had advisors working with me on it. I printed a bunch and gave them out freely. I know some distributors charge for them, but I didn’t.
As a self-distributor, I also found that buyers themselves really appreciated hearing from the filmmaker. Sometimes I’d call cold. My goal, especially for the first year, was every day I had to make at least five cold calls. I didn’t have a sales rep to send out—I was it. So that was my goal: every day, five cold calls. And I made connections with people who use films. Oftentimes they would say, “It’s refreshing to be able to talk to the filmmaker as opposed to someone that doesn’t really care and doesn’t even know the product.”
I’m sure it livens up their day.
But I think the biggest hurdle, really, was having to say to myself, “This is not about me; this is about the product.” Because it’s hard to make a call and say, “Hey, there’s this great film you should buy.” I had to get over the hurdle of being shy about the film.
How did you make that adjustment?
I just wore a different hat. I just had to say, “Okay, I’m the sales rep now.” I bit the bullet and did it. That’s hard, because a lot of filmmakers see themselves as artists and creators, not as business people. That’s a nice exalted goal, but to survive in this capitalist society, you have to think otherwise. Especially with film, because it’s so expensive. There’s no way you can hide in a loft and just work and not make money. Maybe if all you had to do was buy paints and canvas, you might be able to do that on food stamps. But not with film or video. No way.
Between Sewing Woman and Licensed To Kill, you made a number of other films, which are handled by various distributors in different markets. Given these established relationships, and with many options available to you, how did you decide to go back to self-distributing?
Because Licensed To Kill was a personal film. There was the message of anti-gay violence. Licensed To Kill took me 20 years to make and it wasn’t a film that I wanted to sign off right away.
The film I produced before Licensed To Kill was Coming Out Under Fire. I signed off on that with Zeitgeist Films. I’m very happy with them and what they did with it, except for the educational market. And with a film like Coming Out Under Fire, the educational possibilities are so important. I’m a little disappointed—it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.
So partly as a result of that, I said, “Well, am I going to do the same thing with Licensed To Kill?” I had three good distribution offers right after Sundance. I had to really think hard and I said, “You know, I think I have to do this one myself.” Because it provided me with a soap box; it provided me with a forum to speak about the issue of homophobic violence. I also wanted the freedom to work with community groups and to be able to say, “Don’t worry about the money. Take it.” A distributor would be less likely to do that—and rightfully so. They have to think about the bottom line.
It was also a moment when other documentaries—Freida Lee Mock’s Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision, Paris Poirer’s Last Call at Maud’s, and Marc Heustis’s Sex Is . . . —had all been self-distributed rather successfully. I know those filmmakers, and I met with them and asked, “How did you do it? What does it mean? What are the numbers?” They all said it’s a lot of work, and I said, “Well, yeah, I know this work though. I had done this before with Sewing Woman, and I enjoy the business end of it.”
How did you define the audiences for Licensed To Kill?
My dream audience would be the followers of [Senate majority leader] Trent Lott, religious conservatives and political conservatives. And teenage boys who might be on the verge of acting out this type of violent behavior. That’s my goal. Obviously, that’s the more difficult audience to reach. In releasing Licensed To Kill theatrically, I knew they may not plunk down the $8.50 to come into the theater; maybe just the gay and lesbian audience will.
From the start, though, the press responded enthusiastically. They saw Licensed To Kill as newsworthy. In every city where it opened, we got at least one review if not a feature story or a syndicated feature. And what that said to me was: “Okay, the homophobes and the Boy Scouts might not pay to see it, but hell, when they pick up the newspaper, they’re going to read about it.” And for me that was just as important, if not more important, than the actual grosses.
Were you working with a publicist?
For certain cities like New York, L.A., and San Francisco we hired a publicist because they were very important for the market. In L.A., because I was also the booker, I was in direct communication with the Laemmle Theater offices and worked with them very closely. They helped a lot. And this happened in many other cities with local theater managers.
Besides press outreach, did your distribution strategy incorporate outreach to other constituencies?
In the cities where Licensed To Kill opened where there was also a gay and lesbian anti-violence program, I worked with them to coordinate opening night benefits, which we did several of, or made sure it was part of their organizing efforts because the film, obviously, speaks to their work and what they’re concerned with. I worked closely with those organizations in about 10 different cities. It really was a part of a community effort—that was important.
Were these special events with gay and lesbian anti-violence projects an extension of relationships you had already established during production?
Some were. There was one thing that I actually am very proud of which I don’t think a distributor would have done. We organized five screenings in Texas during the month of October. I wanted the film to have an impact there because so many hate crimes occur in Texas, and a couple of the crimes in the film happened in Texas.
Although I had requests from festivals and theaters to book it in Texas, I said, “You have to wait until October.” It was booked in five different cities and I was at each one of them. It was very important for the press to say that this is part of a five-city tour. It made an impact; it’s not just some documentary that some guy made, it’s important because it’s traveling the state. And this is a film about anti-gay attitudes and violence. The press really gave it extensive coverage.
How did the audiences in Texas respond?
Well, I was hoping for more weird people. [Both laugh.] I was a little disappointed because they were all supportive—which is good too, of course!
You made a point of being present for the screenings in the Texas tour, but to what extent did you do that in other parts of the country?
Now here’s another thing. How should I put this? I think filmmakers often sell themselves short, especially documentary and social issue-type filmmakers, because they’re so passionate and will do anything for the cause, right? But you have to stop and think: “I’ve got to worry about paying the rent and supporting myself and my work.” I treat this like a business. I’ve always put a price tag on me—but always allowed an out, saying: “Listen, my ultimate goal is educational. You tell me if you can’t afford it; tell me what you can afford, and let’s work it out.” I always provide that option. But I always put a price tag from the beginning because I’m worth something. Especially with teachers, I always say, “So you can’t afford it, but you want to use the film in your class. Well, I think that’s great because that’s how I want the film to be used. But would you teach for free?” It stops them cold.
So anyway, the deal is: I would book the film, let them organize the benefits, and give them a larger share of the opening night proceeds. But if they wanted me to be there, I would ask for an honorarium. Of course, I would push for me being present, because it often helps ticket sales to have the filmmaker there; they know that and I know that. And I put on a good show. It also helps the press to know that I’ll be there. The day before you could get radio interviews. And radio is so important. People kind of pooh-pooh it, but radio reaches people while they’re driving in the commuting hours, right before the event. They’ll say, “Oh, I’ll drive there instead.” Having me there was very important for press and for discussing the issues because it’s a very difficult film. It’s a film that doesn’t give answers and audiences are often very disturbed after seeing it. So having me there provides a nice buffer.
How did you plan the overall pattern or sequence of the film’s release?
In large part, the pattern of booking Licensed To Kill was based on what had happened with Coming Out Under Fire. I got reports from Zeitgeist Films on Coming Out Under Fire and looked at all the theaters that had booked it and used that list as a map. It was that much easier because I’d call up and say, “Hi, I’m Arthur Dong who made Coming Out Under Fire, which you booked in April of ’94.” I knew how much it made, so I could say, “And it grossed this much,” which wasn’t bad; it was a good run. And I’d say, “I have a new film.” That’s how I would open the conversation. In the same breath I would mention that it also opened at the Film Forum, which is very important, if you’re able to say that.
Did you seek funding specifically to support the self-distribution of Licensed To Kill?
Yeah, I wrote probably four different proposals. I only got one grant, though, from the Paul Robeson Fund of the Funding Exchange. It helped a lot. The three others, I thought they would be easy. They were to places that funded distribution of materials that addressed homophobia. But they turned me down. It was getting a little discouraging.
Were you given a reason?
No, but I’ve been on enough panels myself to know there could be a dozen reasons. It could be something as simple as one member just didn’t like it. Or one person had bad Chinese food and you’re Chinese. [laughs] Or other more substantial reasons, hopefully. Or it could be bargaining: “Well, if you get this one, then I get that one.” That’s how they can finish and go home that night.
I don’t often call foundations to ask why I didn’t get a grant, because I don’t want to put them on the defensive. If I spend the time to write a proposal I must believe in it, but I always acknowledge that perhaps I didn’t do a good enough job crafting the proposal. If so, then it’s back to the drawing board.
Apart from the Paul Robeson Fund grant, where did the rest of the financing for distribution come from?
And hopefully the self-distribution has started to pay for itself?
Oh, yes. I had a feeling it would, based on the fact that Coming Out Under Fire did pretty well too. And Coming Out Under Fire is black and white, it’s shorter. I just had a feeling that Licensed To Kill would get a response. It was all a gamble. But when Film Forum’s Karen Cooper booked it—she was the first one to book it . . .
Right after Sundance?
No, way before Sundance.
Yeah, it’s a little unusual. She was on one of the funding panels where she saw a sample clip. She called me and goes, “I want to see your first cut.” I sent it to her, I believe, in September . And we booked it in October, way before I even finished. Sundance wasn’t until January . But she booked it for April because, in having done publicity on my other films, I knew that you need a certain amount of lead time to get adequate coverage. She initially wanted it in January or February. “First of all,” I said, “Karen, it’s snowing. What are you going to do with my film in the middle of the snow?” She goes, “No, we get audiences.” I said, “Yeah, but this is going to be tough . . . It’s a tough film. I just don’t want weather to be a part of the reason why people aren’t going to come. What I need is April because what if it does well at Sundance? We want to be able to use that.” So everything was timed for publicity.
So that gave me the encouragement to call other theaters to say Film Forum’s booking it. That helps a lot. Other theaters joined in. There were three major cities—San Francisco, L.A., and New York—all concentrated into April. One reason for that is because, as a publicist, it’s harder to get a national story if it wasn’t a national event. But having those three cities was national enough for many publications. And, of course, we had other dates soon after that, so it really did become a national event.
Who were the three publicity firms you worked with?
Karen Larsen & Associates in San Francisco, the Pogachefsky Company in L.A., and the Fisher Company in New York; the Film Forum also has their own in-house publicist.
Film Forum didn’t have the money to fly me in, so all the publicity would have been telephone stuff—no radio, no appearances, none of that. But they were able to convince the Soros Foundation to chip in for my air fare. (The Soros Documentary Fund was a funder of Licensed To Kill.) We had a lot of participants in this deal, because New York is so expensive. The premiere was co-sponsored by the New Festival [one of New York’s gay and lesbian film festivals] and Asian CineVision. Then we had a special private screening for high donors to the New York Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Program. Their share was a week’s stay at a hotel, which was not cheap. It was like a multi-partied event for me to be in New York. It was a very busy week, but a very successful one.
In terms of these benefits, in some cities I would try to create coalitions. Because I’m Asian and I’m also gay, and those two communities don’t often get together. I would call Asian CineVision—I have a history with them—and say, “Well, I’d like you to work with the New Festival . . .”
And you’d say the same thing to the folks at the New Festival . . .
“If you want the premiere, you’re going to have to work with this group.” Not that I had to force them, they just hadn’t thought of it. This gave them the chance.
Politically, this serves another purpose outside the subject of the film. It helps create working relationships between two different communities. You see this mix in the audience. What I often find is it’s more gay than Asian in these mixes, but hey, you know, at least it happened. At least their members get the mailings. Especially with the Asian-American community, they know my work because my first films were about Asian Americans and were very popular with that community. Now they get mailings with my name on it, but about a gay-themed film. So they’re forced to be confronted with this. They realize, “Oh, the guy’s a fag. But he did such good work before.” They’re forced to see that the gay community isn’t all white. “Here’s one of ours whose work I respected from before.” It makes them have to think. That’s very important for me personally. And that is part of the distribution effort, to get that communication going.