ON a midsummer night a few dozen people, many in glasses and with messenger bags, gathered at Zebulon, a bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to watch a new low-budget movie called “The Builder.” The story of a contemplative Irish immigrant, it moved slowly, driven by atmosphere rather than dialogue, but the audience watched patiently at small candle-lit tables, beers in hand. It was the antithesis of a typical summer-movie outing, but that was sort of the point.
“It’s just great to see people with drinks and candles,” said R. Alverson, the film’s director. “It’s so much more personal than seeing it in a theater.”
Everything about “The Builder” seems personal. Mr. Alverson, a musician-turned-filmmaker, made it with friends and untrained actors for $5,000, including the cost of camera gear. To release it, he turned to Jagjaguwar, an indie rock label in Bloomington, Ind., whose roster of musicians includes Bon Iver, Okkervil River and Mr. Alverson’s former band. Jagjaguwar put “The Builder” out on DVD, organized a few screenings and hoped for the best.
“As a film distributor, we have no experience,” said Chris Swanson, who helps run the label. “We’re approaching it the same way we did music, like, find a nice room and put the work on display in a dignified manner.”
The audience was small, but Jagjaguwar had already agreed to finance Mr. Alverson’s next feature. It views him as an artistic investment: helping him develop his oeuvre is akin to supporting a band from the release of its first seven-inch.
“I realized his artistic voice is far more conducive to film, and if he had a continuum of work, it would have real meaning,” Mr. Swanson said. “And our audience knows how to take it in.”
Jagjaguwar is one of a number of indie music labels and hybrid companies that have turned to film distribution, some following the model laid out by seminal punk labels like Dischord and Touch and Go: stay small and informal, know your audience, and put out stuff you like. In the last few years, both the independent film world and the independent music world have stratified, shrunk by digital sales, a crowded entertainment market and the collapse of major specialty divisions. Money is harder to come by now. But experimentation can rule, and a few players have found that there’s a niche, and a clear overlap, in putting out D.I.Y. music and D.I.Y. film.
“The mediums aren’t exactly the same, but the ways of doing things, getting the word out, I think there’s a lot of similarities,” said David Fenkel of Oscilloscope Pictures, which he founded with Adam Yauch, who is much better known as MCA of the Beastie Boys. “A theatrical campaign is not that much different than going on tour with a musician, and creating an event,” Mr. Fenkel said, calling the evolution from music to film “natural” and “awesome.” In its two-year existence, Oscilloscope has released a slate of attention-getting features and documentaries and even won Oscar nominations for “The Messenger” and “Burma VJ.”
This summer, Drag City, a Chicago label, distributed “Trash Humpers,” the fifth feature by Harmony Korine (the screenwriter of Larry Clark’s “Kids”). “We were very glad to take it on,” said Rian Murphy, Drag City’s sales director, “because it is something new and different, and we like that kind of thing, and because it doesn’t have to do with the record business right now, which is kind of in a bummer.” Drag City, which represents musicians like Joanna Newsom and Silver Jews, bought prints of the film and “made sure they were in constant motion” around the country.
“Trash Humpers” was “not held to the traditional channels for distributing a movie,” Mr. Murphy said, “because we don’t know what those are.”
He added: “If someone e-mails us, and they’re not a complete lunatic, or if they are a complete lunatic, and they have money and a screen….”
As a result, the film has played at a beer bar in Chattanooga, Tenn., a bookstore in Houston and the George Eastman House in Rochester, extending its life beyond the art house. (How many screens? Mr. Murphy didn’t know; the company barely even signs contracts with its artists. “It changes the atmosphere,” he said.) The “Trash Humpers” DVD is due in September.
Working on the film, Mr. Murphy said, helped Drag City answer a question it had lately been pondering: “If you have an apparatus which is designed to meet a demand, does it matter what kind of demand you’re meeting?” In this case the answer was no: cult content is cult content. But that calculation must be tweaked when there is relatively little demand.
Last year Matt Grady started Factory 25, a distribution company that releases vinyl records with its movies. With DVD sales jeopardized by digital downloads, Mr. Grady knew he would need another angle to appeal to consumers, but he didn’t want to sacrifice the physical object. So he packaged DVDs with limited edition LPs. “I wanted to make it cool, like a fetish item that people would want,” he said.
In most cases the album is the film’s soundtrack, but for “Make-Out With Violence,” a teen zombie movie that is opening on Friday at the ReRun Gastropub Theater in Brooklyn, Factory 25 is featuring the music of a band, the Non-Commissioned Officers, formed by the lead actors. The band got together during the shoot and has since toured and played Bonnaroo, the music festival in rural Tennessee.
Still, neither the film nor the group is particularly well known. A typical run for Mr. Grady — Factory 25’s sole employee — means 1,000 DVD-LPs. He needs to sell about 400 to break even. He also sells his releases on iTunes and offers downloads from his own site. His hope is to build Factory 25’s reputation with a catalog of films that would be hard to find elsewhere, keeping collectors in mind. “I’m putting out a black metal documentary — for something very genre-specific, people will want a physical thing,” he said. “I’m definitely looking for titles that have a specific audience, a core following that will want it.”
That is also a goal for Todd Sklar, who borrows from the music world more directly: he takes films on tour. Starting in 2008 with his own movie, a college comedy, Mr. Sklar, 26, traveled around the country in a van with a few buddies, crashing on couches and setting up screenings for unreleased films, including festival favorites. Last year his company, Range Life, took 14 films to 40 cities, using its 1986 Toyota as a mobile office. He has built up a network of cinephile and media contacts at each stop but is still fine-tuning his business plan.
“We make money for the films, but as a company we’re just staying afloat,” said Mr. Sklar, who moved to New York in February. To supplement its income Range Life has leveraged its D.I.Y. credibility to promote movies like the Banksy documentary “Exit Through the Gift Shop.” This fall it will take eight films to 85 cities.
Janet Pierson, the producer of the film festival and conference for SXSW in Austin, Tex., said that it was too soon to tell what might work in the shifting creative landscape but that many were energized by the possibilities. “The music and film business, none of them can count on what sustained them for a number of decades, so they’re all trying to figure out what can we do, how can we connect with audiences,” she said.
As Oscilloscope and countless resolute indie bands show, success can be found on the margins of the mainstream. “It’s about taste,” Mr. Fenkel of Oscilloscope said. “Finding films and releasing films because you want to release them and you want to do right by them, and that’s what the priority is.”
By MELENA RYZIK