irectors Roni Moore and James Blagden funded their first film Midnight in Paris, a documentary about a 2012 prom night in Flint, Michigan, entirely out of pocket. Without even the help of crowdfunding—now common amongst tiny upstart film projects—they pulled their savings together from day jobs to fly from Los Angeles to Flint, where they spent two weeks filming the thoughtful and elaborate preparations of Flint Northern High School seniors ready to mark their transitions into adulthood with one last hometown hurrah. From the school halls and family-filled living rooms, to specially hired and borrowed luxury cars and party busses, to the sparkling dance floor, the kaleidoscopic Midnight in Paris takes a playful yet urgent view of both being and becoming.
After a decade of production, including planning, filming, and editing, the doc premiered at the True/False film festival and played at BAMcinemaFest in 2019. It is now beloved in if-you-know-you-know film circles, but still yet to be distributed. When I saw Midnight in Paris late last year, I was struck by its mix of free form and groundedness; it’s a slice-of-life documentary that allows the varied and connected lives of young black people from Flint—who are usually pitied, demonized, or ignored by mainstream press because of their class and race—to loom energetically and spiritually large. With no grant funding and having expressly avoided the conventional documentary narratives that compel industry benefactors, will the film get the audience it deserves?
When I spoke to Moore and Blagden, they told me that they were in the midst of weighing options for distribution with their producer Laura Coxson, who, Blagden told me, so far hasn’t been paid. And they all have day jobs that pay the bills, which, particularly in the midst of a virus pandemic, will take precedence over any marketing efforts to get the film noticed. “[Laura] has been helping us for a year and a half now, and it’s definitely not her job,” Blagden explained. “If we get distribution or we get a deal, she’ll get her percentage, [but distribution is] not something that any one person is really working on full-time to figure out.”
But the nature of their efforts has changed after COVID-19 has confined many salaried workers to their homes and stretched hourly workers thin. Instead of a big streaming or production company payday, would it make sense to go gonzo? “There must be an avenue where we can get it out, put it out ourselves,” Blagden pondered, worried that it may comprise the ability for it to be seen by a “much wider” audience. “Could we be jeopardizing the life of the film?”
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In fact, a recent offer for distribution did come through, but with one major hitch: the filmmakers will have to secure and pay for music rights clearance before the distributor takes the film on. This could spell trouble for Moore and Blagden if they’re unable to invoke fair use laws, since the music is popular, and thus expensive. Midnight in Paris features a diegetic soundtrack (meaning it comes directly from the footage, and was not added in post) of songs of the era by 2Chainz, Kelly Rowland, Lil Boosie, Beyoncé, and more, as well as a marching band performance that they re-cut throughout the film “as a sort of score,” Moore told me. “The music was very key to what was happening in the present time when we shot the film. We just can’t come out with [it] being compromised, which is why sort of going rogue style might be something to think about because you don’t want to change the body of work.”Going rogue style might be something to think about because you don’t want to change the body of work.
Still, the main reason for doing the festival circuit in the first place was to get traditional distribution, which would potentially allow their film to be seen by the wide audiences they were hoping for—even in theaters. Of course, now with most major theaters in the U.S. having shut down to avoid the spread of coronavirus, streaming seems like the best option. “You know, what I think was so funny was that Roni [Moore], before we ever got into the [True/False] festival, said, “We’ll get it on Black Twitter and then everything else will follow. Now I feel that’s more true than ever.”
They got a taste of the kind of response they are hoping to engender from the film while traveling the country with it last year, and so a distribution plan that’s able to cast a wide net while rallying the support of the very kinds of communities depicted in the film feels essential. “We were in Columbia, Missouri, and then Brooklyn, New York, and then we showed it at the MoMA. We got every kind of person from all walks of life being like, ‘Hell, I fucked with this film,’ or being like, ‘I don’t know what I really just watched, but I was intrigued by it,’” Moore told me. “There’s still those kinds of things that you want to hear as feedback.”
As the new rhythms and timelines of the pandemic are showing the industry and the world, in the end, it will take as long as it takes. “[Producer] Laura [Coxson’s] perspective is, ‘Don’t worry about it,’” Blagden said. “‘However long this takes, it ends up just being part of the story.’”