Prominent tech investor Bob Compton is one of the movie’s six executive producers. He helped fund “Columbus” and recruited tech notables Don Brown and Scott Dorsey to invest in the project as well.
Once the theatrical run of the “Columbus” movie ends this fall, its producers plan is to release it to iTunes, where it can be viewed for a fee.
“We’re not going to sell it to Netflix,” said Bob Compton, a former Indianapolis resident who is widely considered a pioneer in the state’s tech industry.
Compton, who now lives in Los Angeles, is one of the film’s six executive producers. He also persuaded Indianapolis tech-industry notables Don Brown and Scott Dorsey to invest in the project.
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This is the second time Compton has helped an independent film forge a self-distribution strategy that includes an end-run around Netflix and Amazon.
But in addition to his financial backing, Compton is taking a hands-on role. He using his background to help “Columbus” — which opened in early August on East and West coasts in limited release and has its red-carpet premiere Sept. 1 in Columbus — find new ways of reaching an audience.
The challenge, in a nutshell: How to reach viewers at a time technology is changing all the rules about film distribution.
“He’s really trying to figure out a way to make independent film sustainable and to use new technology and new ways to do that. He’s been an advocate and a champion,” said Danielle Behrens of Boulder, Colorado, one of the film’s producers.
Behrens said Compton made a “substantial investment” in the film, whose total budget is just under a million dollars, but she declined to provide specific numbers.
It used to be more common for independent films to get scooped up by a studio or distributor, which would then lead to a theatrical release. But the age of digital distribution has scrambled the old models. Now, audiences can watch movies from their computers or smartphones, and big media players such as Amazon.com and Netflix are producing their own films. The net effect is that it’s harder than ever for independent filmmakers to gain a foothold.
“Netflix and Amazon have changed the industry so radically. If you’re not prepared to self-distribute, your film’s not going to get seen,” Compton said.
Behrens said Compton has been an invaluable partner because he brings new ideas.
“He is always challenging the status quo and how people have done it in the past and the industry norms,” she said.
As an example: The traditional thinking among independent filmmakers, Behrens said, is that, if you make a beautiful film, it will naturally find an audience. Instead, Compton has pushed the idea that “Columbus” producers need to identify audiences, target them and engage with them, especially on social media.
Facebook is an ideal tool for reaching targeted audiences, Compton said, because you can tailor your message to certain groups, get quick feedback and change the message if need be.
“You’re able to define different market segments with a lot of detail,” he said.
For “Columbus,” Compton said, this has meant targeting Facebook users who are fans of architecture or independent films, as well as Hoosiers and Asian-Americans.
Going it alone
“Columbus” got some distribution offers following its screening at the Sundance Film Festival in January, Behrens said, but she and her partners decided to give self-distribution a try. They liked the idea of retaining control over the process — everything from the content of promotional trailers to screening locations.
In May, the Sundance Institute selected “Columbus” and another film, the documentary “Unrest,” as recipients of a new program called the Creative Distribution Fellowship. The fellowship provides recipients with financial and hands-on support to develop marketing and distribution strategies.
Compton’s work with “Columbus” is part of this program.
Compton has a long-standing interest in film. He’s produced and distributed several of his own documentaries, starting with “Two Million Minutes,” a 2008 film about the high school experience in the United States, India and China.
He’s also a financial supporter of the Sundance Institute, the not-for-profit founded by actor Robert Redford that supports independent films.
Compton met Behrens at Sundance and said he was drawn to the “Columbus” film for a couple of reasons.
He likes the diversity angle — John Cho, one of the film’s stars, is of Asian descent. So is the film’s director, who goes by the single name of Kogonada.
The geography of the film also was a draw. While living in Indianapolis and working for IBM from 1978 to 1982, his job took him to Columbus on a regular basis.
“It’s near and dear to my heart,” he said.
When it comes to marketing and distributing “Columbus,” Compton said he’s approaching the project as a business challenge. The filmmakers already have a product (the film). Next comes identifying customers (audience members) and figuring out how to deliver the product to them (in a theater or online).
“It’s very much like a startup (business),” he said.
That approach comes as no surprise to fellow investor Brown, a longtime friend who met Compton in the 1980s. Brown was the co-founder of Software Artistry, and Compton was a partner at CID Capital Inc., a local investment firm that backed Brown’s company.
Brown’s latest venture is another tech startup, LifeOmic.
He said he’s never invested in the film industry before, but did so based on the strength of Compton’s recommendation.
“It is something completely new for me,” said Brown, who declined to reveal the amount of his investment.
“Bob has an incredible talent for jumping into businesses of all sorts and helping them understand their value and how to unlock that value,” Brown said. “He’s proven that he can do this in very unrelated fields.”
Compton has also helped “Columbus” move past another long-standing tradition: an outsized focus on coastal markets.
“Columbus” did open first in New York City and Los Angeles. But the film also scheduled openings in places such as Minneapolis, Denver and Nashville, Tennessee.
Path to success
Less than 10 percent of independent films ever make a profit, Compton said.
It’s early in the game for “Columbus,” but Behrens said she’s encouraged that Compton’s help is putting it on a path to success.
During its opening weekend Aug. 4 to 6, the film was shown at two theaters and grossed $26,820, according to the Internet Movie Database.
In total, “Columbus” has brought in $86,937 from seven theaters.
As of Aug. 17, the film had secured screenings at more than 40 locations, far surpassing the filmmakers’ initial hopes for 10 to 15 sites.
“We’re in a really great situation,” Behrens said. “We would not be in this position, with this level of a release, without (Compton’s) support and advisement. He has been an invaluable resource to this film production.”
The “Columbus” movie, which opened Aug. 4 in New York City and Los Angeles, is saving its big premiere for its namesake town.
“We’re having our red carpet in Columbus, Indiana,” said Danielle Behrens of Boulder, Colorado, one of the film’s producers.
One of the film’s stars, Haley Lu Richardson, is scheduled to attend the Sept. 1 premiere, as is director Kogonada. The movie’s male lead, John Cho, might be there but had not confirmed as of last week, Behrens said.
On opening day, tickets are available to the four earliest showings at YES Cinema but sold out for 5:30, 6:30, 8:01 and 9:01 p.m.
Early in the run, the 104-minute movie will be playing on both of the theater’s screens — a 177-seat room and a 146-seat room — at the venue at 328 Jackson St. downtown.
Tickets are $4 for all ages for matinees before 6 p.m. with evening admission of $6 for adults and $4 for children ages 12 and under. There is a $1 per ticket processing fee for online purchases.