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Detroit firefighter doc BURN uses grassroots distribution methods

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It's not something you necessarily think about when you go to the movies, but getting a film into cinemas for theatrical exhibition is a huge deal.

For Hollywood movies, there's an entire industry dedicated to the process. Film studios, distribution companies and cinema owners work together to deliver the product you see on the big screen. Independent films that make it to the cinemas usually merge into that freeway at some point as well, getting picked up by smaller distributors who put films into smaller art houses.

But things are changing in the digital age. BURN: One Year on the Front Lines of the Battle to Save Detroit is an award-winning independent documentary screening exclusively at the Six Forks Station Cinema in Raleigh tonight and tomorrow. It's a film that has effectively made an end-run around the usual film distribution process. Local firefighters are knocking on doors to ask cinema managers and owners to screen the film.

Full disclosure: My wife is a firefighter in Cary, and I'm very familiar with this business. I also grew up in Detroit, and my uncle Mike was a Detroit firefighter for 30 years. I'm emotionally invested in this film, but have no connection to it otherwise. BURN is playing here thanks to hard work by the filmmakers and local cooperation by volunteer firefighters. That it's actually a really good documentary is gravy.

BURN has thrilling firefighting footage—captured by way of digital helmet cams—as well as interview segments that explore public policy in Detroit. The film features extended interview sequences with city officials, including Executive Fire Commissioner Donald Austin.

A year ago this month, the film picked up the audience award at the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival. But what seemed like a ticket to a conventional distribution deal turned out to be an unforeseen challenge. The terms of the deals the filmmakers were offered were so poor that self-distribution became an attractive alternative.

Director Tom Putnam and producer Brenna Sanchez, speaking from their offices in Los Angeles, said distribution of this film was a challenge.

"Tom and I are both filmmakers and we have relationships with all the cable networks," Sanchez said. "So we shopped it around and each one of them said: 'What a great story!' But each was very clear with us that there was no audience for a firefighter film or series. We didn't agree with that and we decided to test it. We put a big red 'Donate Now' button on our website and started accepting donations. The donations quickly told us that there was an audience and we were right."

Firefighter Rick Childs was one of those guys that clicked on that button. Childs—a volunteer with the Bay Leaf firefighting squad that covers Raleigh's rural areas—also used the film's website to figure out how to get a local booking. He found a willing exhibitor in Six Forks owner Doug Cooper.

It seems singular, but it's actually a pattern that's been playing out for more than a year. A nationwide network of firefighters and first-responders is getting this film in theaters. BURN will screen at more than 170 theaters this year.

"I just want people to see it," Childs said.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Firestarter."

Related Film

Burn: One Year on the Frontlines of the Battle to Save Detroit

Official Site: www.Detroitfirefilm.org

Director: Tom Putnam and Brenna Sanchez

Writer: Tom Putnam and Brenna Sanchez

Producer: Denis Leary and Jim Serpico

Cast: Donald Austin, Brendan "Doogie" Milewski and Dave Parnell

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