When Nina Paley's playfully cosmic feature "Sita Sings the Blues" premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2008, its crowd-pleasing potential became immediately obvious.
Paley, a New York-based cartoonist, toiled over the Flash-animated movie for years on her personal laptop, and the results of her painstaking effort showed in its deeply personal, handcrafted spirit.
By combining the story of her divorce with the sacred Buddhist narrative of the Ramayana and comical music numbers, Paley managed to pull off the seemingly impossible task of marrying spiritual poignance to modern skepticism without
disrespecting either end of the spectrum.
The movie remains cute, moving and visually spectacular from start to finish. But it might not be coming soon to a theater near you.
That's no exaggeration. In December, "Sita" actually won IFP's "Best Film Not Playing in a Theater Near You Award," which acknowledged its status as near-universal entertainment while suggesting a bleak outcome for its future.
What kept "Sita" down? Did it have anything to do with Indian protesters offended by the movie's secular content? (I previously wrote about that factor here.)
Actually, the problem was simpler than that: Paley was in debt. Her movie used several recordings by 1920's jazz singer Annette Hanshaw, and the filmmaker paid through the teeth for the rights use them.
The thousands of dollars she needed to rescue herself would probably not come from a lucrative distribution deal, which nobody offered. Instead, earlier this year, Paley came up with the unique and highly ambitious strategy of making her movie available for free.
Although "Sita Sings the Blues" is available on YouTube and downloadable as a high quality video file on the official website, you can buy a special edition DVD directly from the creator or through a number of distributors on sites like Amazon.
The movie has screened at well over 100 festivals worldwide, and Paley has entered into non-exclusive theatrical distribution deals with companies able to show the movie on a 35mm print.
In March, New York's Channel 13 broadcast and posted it online, although Paley says other networks have requested that she enter into exclusive deals, offers that she has routinely rejected. Meanwhile, she has been selling merchandise for the film on her website.
Amazingly enough, this radical experiment appears to be working. At a busy "DIY Days" event in Philadelphia last weekend, Paley delivered a half hour lecture about her project and shared some numbers: She has netted roughly $40,600 off the movie this year, not including her fees for speaking gigs.
She received $21,000 in donations, mostly around the time she posted a request for them on her blog in June. To date, the merchandise from her store has grossed over $16,000. And she has been operating under a Creative Commons license the whole time.
Paley's ongoing story is one that I would love to share with filmmakers and other independent artists afraid to try new tactics for disseminating their work. There's nothing wrong with wanting your work to play on the big screen.
But the truth of the matter is that not every movie, even it brings down the house, will find the home it deserves with a traditional distributor. The opportunities provided by the Web make it possible for virtually anyone to connect with their audience, but only if the artists are willing to take a shot at it.
Otherwise, it's not just Sita who's singing the blues.