Independent Chicago filmmakers, take note: there’s a new distributor in town. Cow Lamp Films is the indie features division of long-running Questar Entertainment. Their goal is to procure locally made films for a national audience via cable television and major streaming platforms. Among their acquisitions so far are James Choi’s acclaimed Empty Spaces and Greg Dixon and McKenzie Chinn’s eagerly anticipated Olympia. I recently spoke to Cow Lamp’s Director of Acquisitions Josh da Silva about how the company was formed and what its ambitious plans are for the future.
MGS: Cow Lamp is a new player on the national distribution scene. How did the company come to be and what is its mission statement?
JD: It’s a “new player” but it’s part of an older player, Questar Entertainment, which has been around for 32 years. We have over 5,000 titles in our collection. We’re on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and we do a lot of stuff with public television and a lot of digital platforms. Cow Lamp, the independent distribution division, started pretty much when I started as full-time employee at Questar as Digital Content Manager. I was finishing up my thesis film at DePaul, which is a feature-length documentary, and I realized there are a lot of people who have films. I didn’t really know how the process worked of being in festivals. I thought you would enter a festival and Netflix would see it and they’d give you a big check and you’d be good. You know, maybe I could pay off my student loans! But it doesn’t work like that. So it came about as a need. I saw there was a place in the market: Midwestern and Chicago films receive almost no representation. Unless you’re on the East Coast or the West Coast, it’s really hard to get legitimate distribution. So we decided to start a new division. We were acquiring more independent films by really great local filmmakers: James Choi, Greg Dixon, Mike Reiter, Pamela Sherrod Anderson, Susan Kerns. So we saw we had this great collection of films and we wanted to come up with a title for our distribution company, something that was quirky and also Midwest and Chicago-centric. That’s how we came up with Cow Lamp Films – the cow that kicked over the lamp that burned down Chicago.
MGS: You’re title now is Director of Acquisitions. What are your duties in this position?
JD: So as Director of Acquisitions, I find films, I approach filmmakers and I spend a lot of time just trying to find the best films and create a nice catalogue that we can take to buyers. I also try to educate by talking at universities about how to protect yourself as a filmmaker and how to get an equitable deal.
MGS: What is the relationship between Cow Lamp and the Chicago Comedy Film Festival?
JD: My film, Something Out of Nothing, got into the Chicago Comedy Film Festival and I saw an opportunity to have a bit of synergy. I contacted (festival director) Jessica Hardy and we talked – I had met Jessica before and she’s always a pleasure to work with – and we wanted to emphasize Chicago films. There are a lot of festivals in the Midwest but they don’t necessarily help filmmakers by helping them get buyers. It’s a great business for other people to be in but at the end of the day filmmakers should be able to make some money off of their films, especially if they’re at a festival. So we were invited to their festival, Cow Lamp and Questar, and our President Jon Plowman came, as well as a lot of our other employees, to meet and mingle. We’re currently working on acquiring a title from the Chicago Comedy Film Festival. The directors are actually out of the California area but it’s a good film and I think it’ll do well. We actually don’t have too many comedies so hopefully this will help. Then we’ll also be working with the Chicago Independent Film and Television Festival in April, which is run by Jessica’s husband, Brent Kado. So we’ll definitely be working with them and looking for some new acquisitions.
MGS: There are seven films listed on your website. What, if any, common threads are there between them? What are you looking for in terms of the kinds of films you distribute?
JD: Ultimately, that they’re good films, which can be subjective. We’ve just signed a new documentary about music festivals so we have eight films locked. We have turned people away. I use my staff to watch the movies and get their opinions. I don’t always trust my opinion because, as a filmmaker myself, it’s hard for me to watch some things sometimes. We have to have standards because we’re investing a lot into these films as well.
MGS: How are these films going to be made available to watch?
JD: It’s important to think about films as a product, something tangible. Part of getting the maximum amount of revenue, which seems contrary to what people believe, is to be very specific in your release. If I have one title and I put it out everywhere it loses its value. It loses its value financially and also to viewers because it doesn’t seem special, it’s just YouTube fodder. We’re starting right now with television. We’re working on a nice little cable television deal to get our films out there. Buyers want exclusivity. When you’re a young filmmaker and you want to just get it out there, you have to be patient. Don’t just put it on Amazon because that destroys its value. We’ve experienced that with films. People want something exclusive first. You get more money if its exclusive, if its considered a new release, and then you work your way down the food chain. You start with television and then you go to exclusive streaming platforms like Netflix then (digital) “rentals” and “buys.” We are considering doing some theatrical releases as well for some of our films.
MGS: How would you recommend local filmmakers submit their films to you for distribution consideration?
JD: www.cowlampfilms.com. You can submit your film and I will personally take a look at it and make sure other people take a look at it. I also love a good trailer. Trailers are so important. Beyond just signing filmmakers, we give them good deals because we’ve learned from other people who have been signed by large names that it can be very predatory. Our goal is to create a lasting film scene. We believe the next great directors are here in Chicago. It’s basically like building a house with every film (that we acquire). We have very equitable deals: we take the financial risk and your film will hopefully receive some nice revenue. We’re more competitive than a Fox or an A24. We’re going to give you a great deal because we’re willing to take the risk and make the investment.