Choosing the DIY Approach: The Risks and Rewards of Putting 'Asses in Seats'
For a filmmaker, there's nothing like watching one's film unspool in a theater. My partner, Suki Hawley, and I recently made a documentary called Horns and Halos, about the re-publication of a discredited biography of George W. Bush. At the tail end of the film's festival run in 2002, we were in a very interesting position. Due to a kick in the pants and fiscal sponsorship from the IDA, we had managed to raise money for a film print. Cinemax had purchased the film for Reel Life, and we had several offers to distribute the DVD. However, there was no serious interest in releasing the film theatrically. Due to our deal with Cinemax we were limited to distributing the film in 12 markets. This made it nearly impossible for us to get a theatrical distributor involved.
However, we were determined to make full use of our film prints. Having very few resources, we were limited in many ways. We couldn't afford many prints, large ads, a full-scale publicity blitz or even a theatrical booking consultant. Instead, we did some research and hit the phones, calling theaters and film bookers directly.
Theaters and film bookers are reticent to work with filmmakers who are self- distributing, for a number of valid reasons. Theaters are businesses, and as such want to eliminate as much risk and hassle as possible. Untested distribution companies, especially filmmakers with no prior experience distributing a film, are a tremendous risk. As such, if a filmmaker plans to self-distribute, it makes a lot of sense for him or her to find out as much as possible about what is required to make things run smoothly.
The first rule of distribution is "asses in the seats." If there's not an easy way to convince theaters/bookers that you're going to fill the theater, there's no reason for them to book your film. You may have the most important, life-changing film ever made, and even if the bookers agree, if they don't think that you'll be able to get people out to see it, they aren't going to book it.
Our film has a fairly "hot" political tie-in, and it had a strong festival run and press support. We felt confident that not only would we be able to get theatrical press interested, but we could also get grassroots political groups to spread the word about the film. Our previous film, Radiation, had no such hook, and while it's a wonderful film (really, it is), it's sitting behind my couch as we couldn't find a way to convince anyone that there was a rabid audience dying to see it.
We began to explore the idea of self-distribution right after the Toronto Film Festival. Upon getting into the festival, the first call we made was to the IDA to get advice about publicity companies. We contacted several and wound up working with TCDM and Associates. We had learned long ago that when you get into a larger festival, a publicist is very important. You're competing against a number of great films for even the smallest mention and without a guiding hand it's easy to get completely overshadowed by the bigger films. TCDM did a great job getting the film mentioned in a large number of the documentary round-ups following the festival. This meant that when I started to call the bookers, they had heard of the film. They weren't ready to book it just yet, but at least they took my calls.
This brings us to rule number two: Publicity is a hell of a lot more important than fancy ads or graphics. When it came time to open in our first theater, New York City's Cinema Village, we made our first major mistake. While I did bust my butt to contact every writer I could find and get them a tape, in retrospect, I realize that it would have been a good idea to hire a seasoned distribution publicist and hold a press screening. When the reviews came out just before the opening, I got a large number of angry calls and emails from writers who were disturbed about the fact that they hadn't been invited to a press screening. Another writer simply re-posted a review of an ancient rough cut with a current date (listing the running time at 97 minutes, when the final cut was 79). This snafu didn't lead to a disastrous turnout, but out of respect for the writers and the system in which they work, making sure that we did things properly would have been a good idea. Everything follows either New York or Los Angeles. Despite the fact that we got raves in The New York Times and the Village Voice, we didn't fill the theater the first weekend. We had a respectable gross, but it wasn't enough to convince theater owners across the country that they had to show the film. Which brings us back to rule number one: "Asses in the seats is the only thing that matters." In addition to the great press we got, we had postered all over the East and West Village for weeks in a row, and we emailed everyone and every group we could think of. But ultimately it's hard to get people into the theater, especially in New York or LA. If I had it to do again I might have stood on the corner and barked people into the theater that first entire first weekend. While reviews are important, grosses matter more than anything else.
However, armed with the strong press and the decent numbers, I continued to approach theaters in markets that I thought would appreciate the film. We've had some success and now we've opened in four cities, and we're tentatively scheduled in four more. At the end of the day, we'll probably cover the cost of making our three prints (but not the original blow up), our trailers (which seem to help a great deal), the posters, postcards and ads. More importantly, self-distribution has significantly raised the profile of not only the film, but ourselves as filmmakers. This notoriety has already been extremely helpful when discussing new projects.
Theatrical distribution is the Holy Grail. It's a sucker's bet, but we took it, and while the final results aren't in, I'd say it was the right, if not foolhardy, thing to do. Like every other bone-headed thing I've done (including making movies without knowing how) I'll probably do it again. I'll do it better, but it won't be as exciting.
Michael Galinsky is a filmmaker and photographer living in New York City.