In the spring of 2013, Missoula filmmaker Vera Brunner-Sung raised $31,000 online to make her first feature-length film, "Bella Vista."

This weekend, the movie will have its Montana premiere at the Roxy Theater.

In between the wrap party and Friday's first screening in its home state lay the difficult work that small-budget independent films face: finding an audience and a distributor.

That meant Brunner-Sung, who teaches in the University of Montana media arts department and has a background in experimental film, shifted – by necessity – from artist to marketer.

"You have an obligation to the work once you make it," Brunner-Sung said.

Brunner-Sung shot "Bella Vista" around the Missoula area, Polson and the Mission Valley in four days in winter and eight in spring on a "shoestring" budget. Brunner-Sung, whose background is in experimental documentary, describes it as a movie about "place and belonging."

New York City-based actress Kathleen Wise plays the lead character, Doris, a recent transplant to the area who struggles to adapt to her new home; a cast of international students from the University of Montana played Doris' students.

Once the film was completed, Brunner-Sung and co-producers Jeri Rafter and Brooke Swaney had to work hard to find an audience for their film.

Improvements in technology have made it cheaper and easier for independent filmmakers to shoot feature-length films using digital equipment. "Bella Vista" is one of at least four feature-length dramatic films shot in the Missoula area during the past two years, drawing on the state's established crew base.

When it comes to finances, online crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo can help secure funding without courting faraway production companies or reliance on a single private backer.

But changes in technology have also disrupted old channels of distribution and viewing, and created an increase in competition for audiences' attention.

"One of the things that we've learned is that there's no standard anymore," Brunner-Sung said.


In "the olden days, meaning five years ago," she said the model strategy for independent films was to apply for festivals, including the marquee events such as Sundance, hold a premiere, and hope to sign a distribution deal.

Now there are myriad options, including video-on-demand services such as Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, "which anyone can do," Brunner-Sung said.

Some independent filmmakers release their movies straight to DVD. If they raised money via crowdfunding sites, Brunner-Sung said they might share the film with their backers and hope that online community of supporters generates broader interest in the film.

The Holy Grail of a theatrical release is becoming more rare because of the expenses involved, and isn't a realistic goal for a small, art-house-style film such as "Bella Vista."

Instead, Brunner-Sung and her producers have focused on the national and international festival circuit.

"Bella Vista" has been screened at Filmfest Hamburg, had its U.S. premiere at the Northwest Film Forum's Local Sightings series in September, and the Northwest Filmmakers' Festival in Portland, Ore., at the beginning of November. It was screened by invitation at the San Diego Asian Film Festival in October, where Brunner-Sung won the George C. Lin Emerging Filmmaker Award.

Its largest boost thus far was the International Film Fest Rotterdam, a festival held in January that's comparable in size to the more well-known Cannes.

That attention helped secure a sales agent who promoted the movie at the American Film Market in November. Some 8,000 industry professionals gathered in November in Santa Monica for the eight-day conference. In contrast to a film festival, the film market is designed for production and distribution deals.

In addition, Rafter and Swaney also traveled to Sundance this summer to speak in panels and talks.

"You show the world, the industry, whoever is in charge, that you have an audience," Brunner-Sung said.

"Bella Vista" filmmakers also are planning a DIY tour of home-state screenings, a technique that proved successful for "Winter in the Blood," the Montana-made adaptation of James Welch's novel.

Filmmakers Alex and Andrew Smith booked theaters in the Northwest and Montana for "Winter in the Blood." The two, who were family friends of Welch's, were especially concerned with how the film would be distributed because of its connection to Welch's work. They shopped the movie around and screened it at 30-some film festivals before signing a distribution deal for North American rights with Kino Lorber in August.

Brunner-Sung also would like to generate interest from schools, since the film deals with issues such as the World War II internment camp at Fort Missoula and the Salish tribe's forced movement to the Flathead Reservation from their home in the Bitterroot Valley.


The Montana Film Office paid for the display room at the American Film Market for five movies that had been awarded funds through the $1 million Big Sky Film Grant.

The office, which falls under the Department of Commerce's promotions division, pitches the state to the film industry through advertising, public relations in industry trade publications, and helps support the statewide cast and crew base. It's funded with money from the tourism tax.

Included in their work is backing homegrown productions.

"Part of the mission for the office is nurturing our resident filmmakers and supporting them as much as we can," said Deny Staggs, state film commissioner.

That means offering assistance in each stage to get the films shot, completed and distributed.

This is the first year the office brought movies to the film market.

Staggs considered the experiment a success - he said every major distributor from around the world attends the market.

Montana filmmakers were able to meet peers and see their projects and how they package them. What's more, they can seek investments for future projects.

While there, Staggs also promoted Big Sky Country to producers.

"By being there I was able to pitch Montana’s locations, incentives and crew base. I believe that trip could possibly net five films that will shoot in Montana within the next 15 months that already have worldwide distribution," Staggs said. 


Another western Montana movie in attendance at the American Film Market was "Love Like Gold," a "modern country film noir." It is Kier Atherton's first full-length film, directed from a script co-written with producer Skye Bennett. The two film buffs grew up together in the Trego area.

Atherton has seven years' experience in short- to long-form documentary around Montana.

Bennett worked on Broadway for two years as a star dresser, the costumer who helps with quick changes during productions. She also worked in Los Angeles on some film projects before coming back to Montana for the project and to shift into the role of a producer.

The film was shot in the Missoula and Eureka areas in 31 days earlier this year with a 17-person cast and crew. Bennett said that including extras and support from the community, 57 people are credited for the production.

Brick Patrick, a Butte native now based in L.A., plays the lead role of Gage, a ranch hand/drifter. Starring as Lola, a singer who's fallen on hard times, is Alexandra Henrikson, a New York City-based actress.

Like "Bella Vista," the "Love Like Gold" filmmakers view their project as an art-house movie. Their ideal distribution deal would be a limited theatrical release of 300 screens or so.

In a phone interview from New York, Bennett said "we're going through every channel we can. And the best way to distribute is to get it seen by the right people."

They've submitted the film to the Berlin International Film Festival, Cannes, and the Los Angeles Film Festival. Adding another layer of strategy are specific premiere requirements that some festivals include - meaning no one else can see the film if it's accepted.

Bennett herself attended the film market, which she compared to "speed dating." At their room, buyers could view the trailer, poster, and make inquiries among the thousands of other films.

"We had a buyer next door to us who had purchased 1,000 movies in a week," she said.

Also in attendance to aid Montana filmmakers was Ari Novak, CEO of Oracle Film Group, which relocated to Bozeman from Los Angeles and New York. Novak was able to introduce the filmmakers to distributors he's worked with over the past year, Staggs said, and help the filmmakers vet any contract offers to make sure "nobody gets a raw deal."

Bennett said the process requires some caution and patience - whatever distribution deal is signed could represent the filmmakers' sole payment for the film. Or if a distributor doesn't aggressively market the movie, the filmmakers can lose control of their work for up to a year during the crucial early stages.

Among the other Montana films was "Subterranea," a psychological thriller based on a concept album by English progressive rock band IQ.

After securing permission from the band, UM Media Arts graduates Mathew Miller and Brandon Woodard shot the film at the Daly Mansion, Glacier National Park and the Milltown Dam area.

They cast Bug Hall, best known as Alfalfa in the 1994 version of "The Little Rascals," in the lead role. Other nonlocals in the cast include William Katt ("Carrie") and Nicholas Turturro ("NYPD Blue.")

Missoula filmmaker John Nilles also was in attendance for his film, "Saving for the Day," an action-adventure feature that draws on 15 different genres. 

Also included was "Travis," shot in Whitefish by Bad Fritter Films, and "The Triangle," shot in Winnett.


If no leads pan out on trips to Paris and Berlin, Bennett said she'll bring her film back to Montana and hold screenings at independent theaters such as the Roxy and the Wilma.

She has a completed script for a followup that she's shopping around. If she sells it, that can add another flourish in the pitch for "Love Like Gold," part of the narrative that helps filmmakers try to sell their work.

She said the entire process requires patience and the ability to "feel out what the best thing is for the film."

"(We're) trying not to take the first thing that comes along."

For her part, Brunner-Sung plans on spending the next year on the festival circuit, through a combination of invites and applications.

The process has been new, but she said she's excited to shoot another feature-length film in western Montana.

"The crucial thing is having the support to do it. It seems like the feasible model is making a very small-budget project," she said.

And she's eager to see the response this weekend from residents in Missoula, where it was made.