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'Exit Through the Gift Shop': The enigma known as Banksy

The guerrilla artist knows how to attract attention. Will that be good enough on this do-it-yourself film-distribution project?

March 30, 2010|By Steven Zeitchik

Hardly anyone knows what he looks like and only a handful of people have seen his art.

But at January's Sundance Film Festival, the little-known documentary "Exit Through the Gift Shop" -- featuring the enigmatic English guerrilla artist Banksy -- created a fan and media frenzy not seen in Park City, Utah, in quite some time. Hundreds lined up hours before the premiere in 15-degree weather for a chance at a much-coveted ticket.

The story, told by Banksy -- known for keeping his real identity secret as well as for his spontaneous, politically disruptive and at times hilarious street art (think of graffiti stencils of two male police officers making out or the queen of England as a chimp) -- chronicles the beginnings of the guerrilla art scene and its most prominent creators. The film, which concurrently follows the artistic rise of Banksy's videographer, Thierry Guetta, quickly becomes a sly satire about the world of art, celebrity and consumerism.

Despite all the Sundance attention, though, the movie didn't sell to a distributor. But that won't stop audiences from being able to see it in theaters next month -- at least in a handful of cities, including Los Angeles -- now that Cinetic Media, the sales agent that represented North American rights to the film, has formed a company called Producers Distribution Agency whose express (and, for the moment, sole) mandate is to release this movie.

Cinetic principal John Sloss says that the film received several sales offers, but his feeling is that his DIY ("do-it-yourself") model would be a smarter way to release it. Cinetic's move fits with the recent trend of DIY releasing in the troubled indie sector; filmmakers or their representatives essentially circumvent a traditional distributor to place films in theaters themselves -- a gambit that's one-part innovation, one-part desperation.

But as "Exit Through the Gift Shop" looks to sidestep the traditional distribution process, it faces many of the usual obstacles of a self-release as well as an additional challenge: How can you promote a movie when your star and filmmaker never appear in public?

Part of the approach, says Sloss, is to turn the mystery of Banksy into the film's selling point. The sales campaign, which distribution veteran Richard Abramowitz will help lead, will also make use of Banksy's expertise.

"This is a person who really knows how to create awareness for what he's doing and at almost no cost," Sloss says.

In the film, Banksy, credited as the director, essentially turns the camera on Guetta, a gregarious Don Quixote type who, to the chagrin of much of the mainstream art world, becomes a sensation with a show he mounts in Los Angeles under the name Mr. Brainwash. His rise raises the question: Is Mr. Brainwash for real, or is he one more remarkable Banksy creation? Indeed, it's this very mystery that keeps the film's engine churning.

Marketing will be key if the film hopes to move beyond the young, alternative newspaper-reading crowd into the general consciousness. Although there are a number of minor DIY success stories, including past Sundance titles such as Andrew Wagner's road-trip comedy "The Talent Given Us" and Lance Hammer's Southern drama "Ballast," some independent film veterans say many people underestimate how hard DIY releases can be.

"I don't think a lot of people who practice the DIY approach really understand how difficult it really is to get people out of their homes and into movie theaters. It's not just about being good at things like social networking," says Ira Deutchman, a longtime film distribution expert who has formed an independent movie company called Emerging Pictures.

That said, there are advantages to going the DIY route -- like being your own boss. PDA principals acknowledge that tension could have flared up between Banksy, a savvy marketer with plenty of ideas about promoting his own work, and a potential distributor of the film, making self-distribution the smoother path.

And the DIY model will allow for an unusually quick turnaround for a Sundance film, which can take a year or longer to reach general release.

"It wasn't like Banksy was going to do a media tour," Sloss says. "So we figured, 'Why wait?' "

steve.zeitchik@latimes.com

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