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Passion River Leaves Filmmakers Up a Creek
They messed with the wrong people.
"Grand Canyon: Bright Angel Creek - Cottonwood Campground 0171" by Grand Canyon NPS is licensed under CC BY 2.0.
They messed with the wrong people.
This is the resolute refrain of several filmmakers who were impacted by the fallout from distributor Passion River Films’ abrupt and unexpected sale of the majority of its assets to BayView Entertainment on January 1, 2023. One of them is Kim Laureen, who, along with her co-director and daughter Megan Nicole, expended personal resources and years of her life to make selfless, a documentary that explores the detrimental effects of social media and technology on the younger generation. The film was a passion project they felt called to make. “We wanted to impact people's lives, inspire them,” explains Laureen.
Sound familiar? As filmmakers, especially doc filmmakers, we understand from the get-go that we will be investing a lot of ourselves — resources gauged not only in units of creative and intellectual labor but by the amount of emotional energy, financial resources and time diverted from other pursuits — all because we believe in a film's message. Unsurprisingly, after years of sacrifice, we want our films to reach audiences, and we want to be respected and treated fairly as creators.
The anodyne press release “BayView Entertainment Acquires Passion River Films Assets” may not have caused much of a ripple in the larger filmmaking community when it was published at the end of March 2023. Nonetheless, we at Distribution Advocates believe the Passion River Films sale and subsequent imbroglio is a useful story for all of us. It offers a clear example of the unbalanced dynamic inherent in existing systems of distribution that leaves filmmakers reliant on the professional capacity of distributors to place their films with exhibitors since few exhibitors have the logistical bandwidth to interact with individual filmmakers directly. But the Passion River saga is more than just an example of a bad system malfunctioning and lack of transparency on the part of distributors. It shows how an impromptu coalition of filmmakers can offer a glimmer of hope for our community by working together.
More than 300 filmmakers were impacted by Passion River’s deal to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Perhaps more importantly, each of the “assets” involved in the sale are unique, vital stories told by flesh-and-blood individuals who have borne the impact of this transaction. That's why we want to shine a light on the people and stories behind the headlines.
The Dream of Distribution
Walking through the streets of Lisbon on the final evening of a late-winter trip, director Pat Murphy recalls that he was “devastated” upon receiving news of the Passion River sale. After spending 10 years making Psychedelia, a doc about psychedelic drugs and their ability to induce mystical and religious experiences, Murphy had wanted to make sure his labor of love found the widest audience possible. After a successful DIY educational campaign, a distribution consultant had connected him with Passion River Films. Murphy had entered into the deal with eyes wide open. He had known that even in the best of situations the dynamic between distributor and filmmaker could be an “inherently predatory relationship. They're a middleman between your film and [exhibitors] and you're relying on them to be honest about what sales are happening, where the film is, and there's no way to really know. There's no transparency.”
Murphy was right to be wary. Once he had signed, communication was poor. He received his first check in 2022 only after repeatedly asking Passion River for sales reports and information about past due payments as outlined in his contract.
That experience had made Murphy vigilant about his upcoming payment. He knew that one of his film’s buyers had paid the second half of a $25K licensing fee to Passion River in late 2022, but quarterly payouts were not contractually due until 60 days after the fiscal quarter ended -- early March 2023. The possibility that this revenue could fall through the cracks because of Passion River's sale was particularly upsetting to Murphy because he had been the one to bring the licensing deal in question to Passion River while he and Passion River were finishing their distribution agreement. Even though Murphy could have asked to carve out the $25K as a pre-existing exhibition license, Murphy felt that handing off the deal to Passion River was the “right thing to do” rather than negotiating directly and excluding Passion River.
Sure enough, March came and went with no payment from Passion River. Murphy felt powerless and cheated: “I faced so many obstacles just getting my film made as a completely independent person with no major backing, doing all the editing and the writing and the directing myself when I had spare time from freelancing in the industry. To overcome so many obstacles and then be taken advantage of somebody like [Passion River president] Allen Chou? It really hit hard.” And the loss of money is tangible for Murphy. While he says he hadn't earmarked the expected revenue to keep the lights on or pay off debts, it could have been used for “two years of a retirement account [contribution], a high-end camera” or, like so many filmmakers, for “the next project.”
After his initial shock regarding the sale and the lack of information or payment, New Jersey-based Murphy began doing what documentarians do best: he dug for information. Murphy recalls, “Basically the first thing I did was to start contacting as many people as I could find” in an attempt to figure out what was going on. He sought out online forums about predatory distributors, cold-called fellow filmmakers with titles on Passion River's website, and researched public records involving Passion River Films and its president Allen Chou.
Meanwhile, on the opposite coast, Vancouver-based Laureen was never directly notified of Passion River's sale. She discovered the news during an online search after frustrations mounted because she never received a report she'd been promised in October 2022. Laureen's award-winning selfless had played a number of family and Christian festivals. After the film screened at Female Eye Film Festival in Toronto, Passion River reached out to her about a distribution deal. Laureen recalls that she was “cautious” and did a lot of research before signing with them. Laureen had been contacting universities directly to no avail, but she remained convinced that the college and secondary education market would be receptive to a film that could serve as a discussion piece for the deleterious effects of social media and technology on teens and young adults. Ultimately, Passion River's experience and reputation in the educational market is what convinced her to sign.
Laureen was initially optimistic about the partnership, but her positive sentiment dissipated quickly due to a lack of transparency and communication on the part of Passion River. Laureen says that she had to keep nagging Passion River “from day one” to obtain contractually obligated quarterly reports and payments. Moreover, Laureen's suggestions of “other ways that we could be pushing the film out” were not heeded: “We hardly sold any educational licenses. [selfless] got in the catalog and that's where it sat.” Through this experience, she adds, she was beginning to learn how little control she had over her film once she entrusted it to a distributor: “I've heard that that could [happen with] many distributors. They're not marketing companies -- so, another learning curve.” Passion River's apathy and lack of responsiveness were top of mind for Laureen as she began making a list of stipulations were she to renew her contract in mid-2023. Once she learned about the sale, however, she switched gears and began reaching out to other filmmakers in the Passion River catalog, seeking answers.
As they made contact with fellow filmmakers affected by the Passion River sale, both Laureen and Murphy kept hearing a similar reaction: That happened to you, too?
A photographer, hydro engineer, self-taught filmmaker, and jack-of-all trades based in Hawaii, John Wehrheim, whose film Edge of Paradise documented Camp Taylor, a 1970s hippie village founded by Elizabeth Taylor's brother on Kauai's North Shore, concurred that even before the sale to BayView, he “never got paid unless I hassled [Passion River].” Wehrheim estimates that he's missing about $8-10K for each quarter unpaid and, as he puts it, “that's not nothing.”
Director Alex Liu earned a degree in molecular toxicology but found that he enjoyed “talking about the science much more than I like doing the science.” By pivoting to journalism and then filmmaking, Liu decided to pursue his “big dream that if I could make scientific literacy actually entertaining and interesting, ... then maybe people could start to see the world a little differently.” In a quest to “right the wrongs of his all-American sex education,” Liu made A Sexplanation with the intent of laying bare what his “13-year-old self” would have loved to know about sex and sexuality.
Liu, like many other filmmakers who signed with Passion River, had been impressed that the rep courting him really seemed to get his film's message and that their catalog appealed to general as well as educational audiences. A Sexplanation, he had thought, would be in the right hands. And yet, as for many others, Liu says, “when the film started landing on platforms, the silence started on the accounting side.”
The Collective Disillusionment
As the filmmakers began to recognize their common dilemma, one-on-one calls evolved into group emails and chats and ultimately manifested as a Facebook group, Slack channel and shared database of Passion River titles, filmmakers and contact info.
Via their newfound collective, the filmmakers began to parse the scant communication available from Passion River. Some, but not all filmmakers in the Passion River catalog received a mass email between January 31 and February 3, 2023 from Josh Levin, the head of sales and acquisitions at Passion River stating, “the parent company of Passion River lost the ability to meet its obligations and ... [sold] the majority of its assets to BayView.” Levin extolled BayView's reputation and urged filmmakers to make an appointment to speak directly with BayView to discuss “what this transition means for your films.”
As the filmmakers compared notes, they realized that the majority of them hadn't been paid for either Q2 or Q3 in 2022, and they couldn't expect the Q4 report from Passion River to actually materialize because the company was completely incommunicado. And yet, as they soon discovered, Passion River collected revenue from their films up until the end of 2022 without any disclosure whatsoever that the company would soon “[lose] the ability to meet its obligations.” This euphemistic turn of phrase only served to galvanize the collective. What it meant in plain English was that Passion River was collecting revenue for the films in its catalogue but not paying the filmmakers their cut.
Since Laureen never received Levin's email announcement about the sale, she tried contacting him directly once again because he had been her liaison at Passion River. An automated email response stated that Levin was now with BayView. When Laureen finally reached him there, Levin explained that he would be happy to “move things forward” with BayView, but he couldn't speak for Passion River. Exasperated by the lack of answers, Laureen posted a straightforward tweet to @PassionRiver: “Still awaiting contact and an explanation from you as to why we’ve not received any up to date reports or payments for our film in your catalogue. I know others are in same position. Waiting on some honesty and transparency as distributor.”
Shortly thereafter, Laureen received a call from BayView’s VP of Acquisitions Peter Castro. Laureen characterized Castro as “defensive” at the beginning of their exchange. When he asked how he could earn her trust, Laureen responded that she wanted “truth and transparency for [herself] and the other filmmakers.” She suggested that both BayView and Passion River establish clear communication with all filmmakers impacted by the sale regarding delinquent reports and payments and about their options going forward. Although Castro never issued written communication along these lines, he did offer Laureen a deal during their phone call.
Laureen responded that she would consider the offer but emphasized that “other people need to speak with you” and that's how they came to schedule a Zoom meeting for March 14, 2023. She and Murphy posted the meeting information to the collective, and approximately 40 people showed up.
Laureen described Castro as being “quite surprised to see so many boxes popping up” on Zoom. During the meeting, Castro made it clear that Bayview's acquisition of some of Passion River's assets did not include the transfer of liabilities, including payments collected by Passion River in 2022 that had not been paid out as revenue to the filmmakers. According to Castro, revenue that came in before January 1, 2023 had nothing to do with BayView. Castro's account of the sale made it clear that filmmakers who were owed money from 2022 had been effectively left high and dry by Passion River. Castro did offer, however, to pay out 2023 revenue for titles that BayView had acquired from Passion River even though there was some confusion among filmmakers over which titles they had actually acquired.
Aside from reckoning with Passion River’s lack of communication and apparent theft of revenue, the filmmakers had to wrestle with what to do next. Even as many wanted to focus on legal recourse for past wrongs or some, such as Laureen, simply wanted Allen Chou to “step forward and be honest about what happened,” they all had to figure out how to go forward with new distribution plans for their respective films.
During the zoom meeting, Castro encouraged filmmakers to sign an agreement to continue with BayView. While some filmmakers did elect to sign with BayView, several decided to strike out on their own. Laureen recalls that the deal points Castro offered to the group were less favorable than those he had proposed to her individually during their prior call. The discrepancy in terms once again made her realize that “there's never any consistency.” Between that and the fact that Levin was now working at BayView, Laureen decided not to sign. “I felt a lack of truth and transparency, and I felt [that Levin] didn't look out for us [at Passion River], so why was he going to look out for us now?” she recalls.
Filmmakers seeking an alternative to BayView faced several hurdles. Filmmakers like Murphy and Laureen who approached other distributors or aggregators directly soon realized that they needed proof that they owned their film rights because unless their contract had expired, their titles were still technically under contract with Passion River. A group of filmmakers banded together to investigate how to obtain confirmation that their film rights had reverted to them. Emmy- and Peabody-winning and Oscar-nominated producer Amy Hobby, who co-founded Distribution Advocates, offered the organization's resources to support legal fees drafting a request and termination letter. After seeking legal advice, the group sent a letter to Chou via BayView's Levin requesting formal letters of release for each of their respective films. Five days later, Levin forwarded a pdf with a generic response from Chou addressed to “Filmmaker” stating that "Passion River Productions, Inc. is now closed, and your film's rights are reverting to you.” Chou suggested that filmmakers have two choices going forward — either sign a new agreement with BayView or retain their rights. Filmmakers who opted not to sign with BayView were instructed to contact BayView to have their films taken down from platforms with whom Passion River had negotiated deals.
At this juncture, some filmmakers ultimately decided that, despite their mistrust, the best option in terms of time and money was to continue with BayView. Others have recovered the rights to their films and are pursuing individual deals with platforms or reaching out to new distributors. For many filmmakers in this latter group, setting up a new distribution strategy has been a tedious slog. Some platforms allowed an account to be transferred from BayView to another distributor or to a filmmaker directly. Others required a resubmission of the title, which entailed third-party delivery at the filmmakers’ expense. And many filmmakers found that when Bayview was instructed to request platforms to take down their titles, some were removed but others were not. For instance, Hobby’s The Last Laugh, a film about what is taboo for humor in a society that prizes free speech, was available on at least 58 platforms, including usual suspects like Google Play and Kanopy, but also on more obscure sites such as Filmzie and Xumo. The take-down request didn’t mean that titles were removed overnight. Months after submitting requests, filmmakers still discovered outposts online where their titles were still available.
Castro did deliver on his promise to report Q1 2023 revenue to the filmmakers. By May 15, most filmmakers received their long-awaited statements but were disappointed. Murphy characterized his report as “vague” — without detailed information about what platforms Psychedelia was on and how much revenue per platform. Overwhelmingly, filmmakers commented that reported revenue was a fraction of what they had expected.
Some filmmakers are still trying to collect from Passion River. But overall, the experience cut deeper than the loss of a couple of quarters of revenue. Wehrheim emphasizes, “the thing that's really killing me is the waste of time. The amount of time that I've invested in trying to straighten this mess out and find another distributor has been crippling.” Wehrheim is ready to put his time into his next project, a film and book project he's doing at the invitation of Bhutanese monks about “their great yogis and hermits and llamas.”
The cavalier attitude Passion River exhibited toward individual filmmakers can be emblematic of the larger dynamic between those who put their lives and passion into meaningful films and those who work the business mechanisms to engage an audience. Let’s not forget: many of the films exploited by Passion River are social justice stories, and many filmmakers took pains to treat their subjects with a duty of care. To then find themselves and their projects not only bilked but belittled adds insult to injury. As Murphy points out, “[Allen Chou’s] Twitter bio says, ‘empowering filmmakers.’ That's the persona he puts out.” And yet, Murphy found the whole experience to be a breach of trust that left him feeling betrayed.
For Laureen, not only are Passion River's actions insulting, they contradict the central theme of selfless – that people need to “be present in the moment” and appreciate the precious connections that life has to offer. She explains, “[Passion River] completely disregarded what we have done. And that's not OK. You can't treat people like that. The money helps you with your next project, but that's not what this is about anymore. This is about [Passion River having] taken advantage of hardworking people, and it's not right. It's not ethical.” She had poured her heart and soul and money and time into making something that she wanted to share with the world and Passion River preyed upon that.
Liu went a step further and spoke of how it made him feel about being a filmmaker and the industry overall: “It would be easy to become disillusioned after an experience like this. How could it not make you more cynical? It takes a huge effort of will to begin a new project. If a filmmaker feels that certain segments of the industry, from the top studios down to independent distribution houses, don't care about the people who actually bring stories to life and are simply doing whatever they can to make a quick buck, they may stop making movies.”
And yet, as Liu points out, the best part of the whole fiasco has been “meeting other filmmakers and forming this little community. That has been a nice silver lining.” When filmmakers are working to earnestly make films that matter and wind up being cheated, Liu found that the personal connections are “something to hang on to when situations like this happen.” And it’s through this new-found community that the filmmakers will learn that some people in distribution don’t “have artists’ best interest at heart.” Murphy echoes, “I would still love to recover [the money] if I can, but at the very least, I want to turn [this experience] into something positive, and I think that getting some sort of restitution and informing others about the situation could be turning it into a positive.” In sum, as Murphy says, “They messed with the wrong people.”
What Murphy means is that he and many filmmakers of his ilk approach their lives as they do their work: with the goal of bringing truth to light for the good of the greater community. They're tenacious and resourceful, and together they're working to devise a metaphorical paddle to get themselves out of that creek. After they trusted and were failed by Passion River to distribute their precious work ethically and transparently, they banded together to be sure that the injustices they suffered would not go unheard. Perhaps more importantly, they are taking steps to create a community to support one another and help guide future filmmakers through the fraught landscape of distribution for independent films.
As Laureen points out, “There's so much heart and soul and depth inside” Passion River’s catalog. Whatever happens to each individual film, a new community has arisen that will harness their passion for filmmaking and raise a voice of warning and advocacy, helping to spread the word that the system is badly broken but new, different opportunities exist. Filmmakers, artists, and those who support them will go further by sticking together to make their voices heard, bringing the same passion and tenacity to distribution that they bring to telling the stories that matter so much.