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Josh Hamilton in a strange land. (Photo: Ayesha Broacha, ShadowCatcher and IFI, LLC)

The locally made film Outsourced was seemingly bound for a theatrical distribution

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Outsourced: Alone and Without Matt Dillon

Local indie takes the hard path to distribution.

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Josh Hamilton in a strange land. (Photo: Ayesha Broacha, ShadowCatcher and IFI, LLC)

The locally made film Outsourced was seemingly bound for a theatrical distribution deal after well-received screenings at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, and following SIFF this spring. (There it earned the top audience prize, the Golden Space Needle Award.) Instead it’s being “four-walled” next Friday, Sept. 28, with Seattle company ShadowCatcher Entertainment essentially paying to put it in theaters—initially in markets including here, New York, and San Francisco—then hoping to recoup its costs by selling the DVD directly from its Web site (www.outsourcedthemovie.com), before it’s available through Scarecrow, Blockbuster, and Netflix. (Our review will be online and in print next week, before it opens at the Majestic Bay and Bellevue Galleria.)

So, I asked the film’s executive producer, was this what he originally anticipated?

“Absolutely not,” says David Skinner, a member of the old-money Seattle family, speaking by phone from Santa Fe. “I was very, very surprised and disappointed. The foreign [distribution rights] went right away.” For the U.S. rights, he continues, “Ultimately we walked away from what some would consider a fairly substantial offer from Miramax-Disney. Even though we knew that we had money in the bank if we took the deal. They wanted to do a remake. They really thought they could do a better job with bigger stars and a bigger budget.”

Ironically, Skinner enjoyed his first great success in the ’90s when Miramax distributed the Sherman Alexie-written Smoke Signals. He knows those halcyon indie days are over. “Would Smoke Signals do as well today? Probably not. Minimum guarantees [the advance money paid by distributors] are coming down and down and down. The reason is that there is more and more and more product around.”

Given this indie glut, to raise the initial money, and to later break through the cluttered shelves at Blockbuster, Skinner says a vicious cycle is born: “We have to figure out a rational alternative to the conventional distribution system, which—for films like ours—sucks. The distribution community can’t figure out how to sell it because we don’t have the quote-unquote star. We had been in discussions with Matt Dillon...and he was interested in the project, but it wasn’t going to pay a lot. And he felt he didn’t make a lot of money in Crash, and he went off to make You, Me & Dupree. The problem is that if you put a big star like that into a little picture…even then you can sell it right away, it blows the whole conceit of the film.”

He means that Outsourced’s Seattle call-center drone—a role finally cast with respected New York stage actor Josh Hamilton, seen in recent indies like Diggers—should be an every-dude, a little guy (not unlike the film itself).

And as more American tech and office workers similarly find themselves competing with low-cost labor abroad, Skinner sees Outsourced arriving at an important cultural moment. Outsourcing, and India, are in the air. “It’s interesting that The Darjeeling Express is coming out soon; there was The Namesake…all the Mira Nair stuff. I think people find [Outsourced] to be relatable, compelling, and certainly current in terms of what’s going on in the world today. And compassionate. And told from both points of view”—that is, both the American and South Asian sides of the story, since Outsourced ends up being a cross-cultural romance.

Given favorable audience reaction at Toronto and SIFF, are international-minded American viewers actually ahead of the studios in this regard? “Absolutely! Ahead of the distributors, ahead of the studios, no question. People are shocked that we’re having to do this on our own, because the system isn’t smart enough. It is driven by cast and their marketing numbers.” (Interestingly, ShadowCatcher’s second round of self-financing for the distribution includes tech money from NRI’s—non-resident Indians—in Silicon Valley and the Northwest; in fact, an advance screening will be held next week at Microsoft, which employs many NRI's.)

Instead of chasing the widest possible demographic (sometimes called “high-concept”), ShadowCatcher’s hybrid strategy is to pursue the niche: a few progressive urban markets with significant Indian immigrant populations; plus “intense community word-of-mouth screenings” in places like Atlanta to help drive niche viewers (i.e. DVD buyers) to the film’s Web site.

“Our principal focus has been on online distribution,” says Skinner. “Because that’s really where we feel we can do better financially than we will on the theatrical side. That’s the kind of future that films like ours are going to have to consider if they’re going to be successful. And really challenge the system. It’s tricky, and it’s expensive, and it’s a big risk.”

 
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