tello Perspectives: An Interview With LGBT Distributor Michael Jack Shoel

​By Karen Frost

Michael Jack Shoel knows about movie distribution. For more than 30 years, he has worked on the distribution side of Hollywood, with his current company, Ariztical Entertainment, focusing on producing and distributing quality LGBT, independent and art house films. Curious about this often opaque side of the industry, we took advantage of his expertise to find out more about trends in distribution and how the rise of streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and even tello are impacting the ability of filmmakers to get their voices heard. 

Your company, Ariztical Entertainment, is both a production company and a distributor, focusing exclusively on LGBT releases. As a distributor, what is the process for acquiring your inventory? Do production companies come to you and ask you to be a distributor, or do you actively pursue ancillary distribution rights?

The model is completely changing. Originally our business was focused on DVD and we knew fairly well what would be purchased by the thousands of retail outlets throughout the country as well as licenses to similar business worldwide. Now it is for the most part one licensing deal or another to various streaming and broadcast platforms in the form of Pay Per View (like iTunes), SVOD (subscription-based like tello and Netflix) and cable/television deals like Comcast and DirectTV. Our acquisitions are very cautious currently, with a preference towards LGBT romances, which always tend to put a smile on my face, and ultimately I want to enjoy and feel proud of what we do. Filmmakers reach out to us with finished films. We produced the very popular, predominantly gay male comedy film series “Eating Out” originally based on the DVD model, and its strength and popularity has transitioned to the newer formats.

What film festivals do LGBT film distributors typically attend in order to scout new acquisitions? 

Frameline, Outfest, Sundance, European Film Market (Berlin) tend to be the primary festivals, followed by regional LGBT film festivals of choice.

How has Amazon changed the distribution industry, given that it offers over 5,000 products tagged LGBT in its movie and TV section? How do you see Amazon and other streaming services like Netflix and Hulu changing the industry in the future?  

Of the three, Amazon is the most accessible for independent films, currently. That said, they recently have significantly adjusted the cut provided to the supplier. It’s too new of a change to really know how it will turn out, but ultimately it’s not enough to be exciting for people to make new films; the return sadly isn’t there yet, although with more and more platforms springing up, I’m hopeful for a stronger future for independent LGBT films.  

Some of the content in your inventory is available for streaming in multiple locations (for example, “S&M Sally” and “Heterosexual Jill” are on tello and Amazon Prime in addition to your own site). For producers and distributors, is there a downside to trying to get their movies in as many places as possible, or is there a benefit to exclusively putting content in one location?

Exclusives (preferably with a limited window of time) from some of the major players like Amazon and Netflix are most likely a good thing for the producers; generally they could be for more money than a producer might see from all other outlets combined. That said, they are few and far between and offered less and less. Looking at the trends in the streaming industry, more and more of the platforms are seeking to produce their own content rather than acquire.  Given that reality, and presuming a significant guarantee offer from a likely platform is not secured, it is best to be spread out on as many platforms as possible.

Ariztical has distributed over a million videos and DVDs in major national retail and independent stores. Are you seeing fewer bulk orders from stores as US society has moved more towards an instant streaming culture, or is there still a strong market for physical copies of movies? 

With few exceptions, they are practically non existent at this point in time.  The bulk of the remaining retail outlets for DVD are for the most part Walmart, Redbox, and one large chain (Family Video) which rarely purchases LGBT films.

What trends have you seen in terms of your queer female-specific content? For example, does a certain genre tend to be most popular among buyers? Are you seeing more internationally-produced content? Are buyers more likely to rent or buy the content through your Vimeo OnDemand site or buy an individual physical copy? 

Male product tends to sell more than female. That is a consistent reality from my observations over the years. In my opinion, I’ve always felt that what we (independent LGBT-focused suppliers of film content regardless of venue) bring to the table is authentically queer perspective and images. Originally, it was genuine kisses and affection combined with a story that made audiences relate to and most often cheer for the characters. Now that images like that are less absent from mainstream entertainment (particularly in television), there is a little less thirst for what we offer. That said, there is a limit to what mainstream Hollywood entertainment is going to include of our stories and sensibilities, and the more we can differentiate our work in terms of LGBT authenticity, the more our niche (LGBT) will be able to continue to thrive. Another thing to note is audiences desiring authentic LGBT films need to be supportive and recognize that often without the Hollywood dollar, the budgets and subsequent production value will often not come close to what one may be used to seeing when watching mainstream entertainment, but the heart and soul of the work often can overcome the recognizable budgetary restraints.

Typically, distribution agreements either use a leasing model, in which the distributor pays a fixed amount for the rights to distribute a film, or a profit sharing model, in which the distributor gets a percentage of the net profits from the movie. For LGBT movies, which are almost exclusively “indies,” is one of these models more popular than the other?        

When it’s available, a lease (exclusive license for a very large fee for a lengthy term) is optimal. Rarely, depending on the following of the film and filmmaker and at times the festival following of the film, a filmmaker may be able to secure such a deal directly. Often when there is a deal, it will need to go through either a sales agent or a distributor that acquired the rights who in turn negotiates an exclusive deal. Lots of people involved, all requiring a cut.

What is the best way for independent filmmakers to make LGBT films attractive to distributors?

Good writing and acting, some kind of known performers, either unique stories or unique gender placement in stories never told from an LGBT perspective, and—sorry to say, but—films with traditionally attractive people sell better, unless you make the rare art film that wins awards and gets reviewed well. As far as preferences from LGBT distributors, we all have different tastes. It’s good to look at what other films a company has distributed to get an idea. Personally, aside from my awareness of the commercial appeal of a certain amount of eroticism built into a story, more than that, I personally want to see a kiss, because our kisses have so often been left out of the bulk of the narrative throughout the history of film.

Lesbian movies have a historical reputation for being underwhelming, whether in terms of plot, production values or both. Do you think that’s changing and lesbian-centric movies are improving? 

Yes, watch our recent release like “S & M Sally” on tello!

How do you see webseries and videos uploaded on Youtube changing the entertainment industry given that individuals can make and distribute them cheaply and privately but without an easy way to monetize them?  

Watching closely. Intrigued by the high quality of projects I’m seeing. Perplexed, because how long can good films be made for no financial reward? Some say that it is a launchpad for a filmmakers to eventually get a paying gig after their work has been seen, but I don’t see how this can create consistency. On the other hand, the industry is constantly transforming itself, and maybe when there is a genuine indie hit that crosses over and attracts an audience so large that corporations will want to sponsor it at rates similar to what happens with network TV, we might see another new shift, which then brings all the various self-censorship issues that come along with sponsorship. Or enough queer people will subscribe to queer focused SVOD platforms like tello and we will all be able to fund productions of our own.

Finally, where are the gaps in the LGBT movie market? A demand that’s not being filled or a subject matter that remains so far untouched?

Back in the days of VHS, we often couldn’t get into the large retail stores with LGBT films. Now the platforms that pay for product aren’t bringing in enough of a cross-section of LGBT films, and tend to bring in the most notable, almost mainstream in acceptance films like” Moonlight,” “Call Me By Your Name,” “Carol,” and one or two more independent films, but there are so many more films that never see the light of days on those platforms and right now it’s a tragedy for our filmmakers that have stories to tell and budgets even minimal to fulfill. During the era of DVD, although it wasn’t regularly on the same scale as major motion pictures, completely independent LGBT-focused films could be successfully made and bankrolled for anywhere from $10k to $250k without having to be fit into the traditional structure of Hollywood requirements. The sales of DVD combined with a few foreign sales covered the film. Until something new evolves to capture the dollars from the same viewers who rented and bought those independently made DVDs, LGBT films will be at the mercy of what the larger players are willing to risk their time and resources on. They are certainly doing more than they did 10 years ago, but I think there is much more consumable new LGBT-themed films that can be made when a pathway to greater distribution is more strongly evolved. Cheers to Tello for paving a part of that new road!

For more about Michael and Ariztical Entertainment go here!