Crashing the Gates: When Festivals Say No
While funding films is as difficult as it ever was, technology has lowered the hard costs of production to such a degree that there is now a literal deluge of movies inundating the gatekeepers who oversee festivals and distribution. A lot of these films are fantastic, but with such a flood of them, it's now even harder for all the good films being made to get the attention they deserve.
Last year, I wrote an article for this publication about our successful crowd-sourcing campaign to raise some finishing funds for Battle for Brooklyn. Now I'd like to share our story of doing whatever it takes to get our film seen. We faced some major hurdles in getting our film in front of audiences. We overcame these hurdles and believe that others can as well. When the gatekeepers keep telling you that your film doesn't fit into their festivals, sometimes you simply have to jump over the gate.
Battle for Brooklyn follows an unlikely activist as he struggles to save his home, and community, from being seized and bulldozed for a massive real estate development and arena project in the center of brownstone neighborhoods in Brooklyn. We started shooting a week after the project was announced and followed the story for over seven years, editing full-time for nearly two years. As such, we were invested in making sure that we got the film out in a big way.
We knew that premiering Battle at a top US festival would be the best way for us to get industry attention for the project. However, the cut just wasn't ready when entry deadlines began to crop up (which all seem to fall in the first few months of the year), so we had to deliver rough cuts. One major festival after another sent us rejection e-mails. As the festival season started to pass us by, we tried to come up with a new strategy: book the film in theaters ourselves. While we would have liked to have a distributor take it off of our hands, we didn't feel like we could wait for that option.
In a wonderful turn of events, we were invited to Hot Docs. Still, with all of the major US festivals already past, we realized that it might make the most sense to take the film directly to audiences. We saw Hot Docs as an opportunity to put Battle on the map and let people know that it was coming out. We had previously distributed our own films theatrically, as well as those of some friends, so we knew it was possible (if not ideal). While the Internet makes it possible to get films out in a wider way, it is still clear that the system of “legitimizing films” is strongly based around theatrical distribution. Without a theatrical launch, it’s very difficult to get papers to review--let alone write features--about a film. At this point, it seems anachronistic, but it’s still the media law of the land. Since the film didn't have a strong industry profile, we knew that a powerful theatrical launch in New York would be one way to get people to pay attention to it.
With our invite to Hot Docs in hand, we decided to reach out to the Brooklyn Film Festival to arrange the US premiere. We lobbied to have the film considered for opening night because we knew that having our Brooklyn film as a centerpiece would be a great way to get attention for the film and the festival. We have a long relationship with BFF; we've been judges for many years and have been overwhelemed by the recent programming. While we were working that out, Rooftop Films asked to screen the film only a few blocks from where we had shot it. With these two events lined up, we knew that we could get a big response from the New York press.
Our next hurdle was getting a theater to book the film. The managers at Cinema Village, with whom we had worked in the past, agreed to book it the week after its Brooklyn Film Festival premiere. At this point, press management became a big issue. In addition to the great publicists working for Brooklyn Film Festival and Rooftop Films, we needed to hire someone to help coordinate coverage. We wanted to get a lot of features timed around the festival--and make sure that the reviews came for the theatrical release. With Cinema Village booked for June 17, which was six weeks away, we hired publicist Julia Pacetti. It's important to work with a publicist who not only has contacts, but has the time, and a background with similar films.
Working under a time crunch, we were doing everything about 200 percent faster than normal, so the tension was very high. So high, in fact, that by the time we opened the film, my back and hip were locked up in spasms, making it difficult to even walk. We believed so strongly in Battle for Brooklyn, we were intent on getting it qualified for Academy Award consideration. The tight time frame made this very difficult due to all of the rules that have to be followed. The digital cinema package requirement was cost prohibitive in terms of renting projectors so we decided to make a single film print. (The DocuWeeks option was beyond our means financially. However, we had taken this route with a previous feature, Horns and Halos, and found it to be a very valuable way to go.). Technicolor in LA has a machine called the Cinevator that will generate a single print (no negative involved), and they were very easy to work with on a short turnaround. Our fiscal sponsor, MPI, leapt to action and found the $10,000 we needed to make the print. We were also able to get the Laemmle Music Hall to book the film, so we were on our way in terms of meeting the qualifying requirements.
With everything lined up for the US premiere and release, we went to Hot Docs and got an incredible response from the international audience. This confirmed our belief that we could do well in a theatrical setting outside of Brooklyn. We had two sold-out screenings and after the first weekend Battle was the fifth most popular film in the audience poll. In addition we got a slew of great reviews in Toronto. Indiewire called it one of the eight essential films to see at Hot Docs. We returned to New York energized and excited.
With our attention now turned to press for the New York premiere, we strategized about how we would get people into the theater. Every film has different groups that are primed to support it. Battle for Brooklyn deals with issues of politics and urban planning, and we reached out to professionals and students in those fields. The leaders of community groups who represented thousands of people who had fought so hard against the project also became our allies and were thrilled to spread the word about the opening.
We had two main goals. First, we needed huge crowds on opening weekend to prove to other exhibitors that there was a strong audience for the film, and second, we to wanted to get all the important New York newspaper reviews. In conjunction with Rooftop Films and the Brooklyn Film Festival, our publicist was able to get a deluge of features, reviews and television and radio appearances. Awareness of the film was very high going into opening weekend.
We had an amazing opening; over 1,000 people showed up, giving us a gross of over $11,000 for the weekend, which is pretty astounding for a self-distributed doc at a small theater in New York. We did Q&A at every screening--and my back got worse and worse. By the end of the weekend, I could barely walk. But Battle for Brooklyn wound up as the number 5 indie film in the country in terms of per-screen average.
The launch thrust the film into the public consciousness, and we have now been able to book several other cities. In addition, other festivals have begun to request the film, including Michael Moore's Traverse City Film Fest (one of the most filmmaker-friendly festivals out there!). Unfortunately, the stress really got to me, and my back gave out completely. After getting wheeled to the gate at the airport en route I got turned away because I couldn't sit up straight. My partner Suki, however, went ahead and was greeted by sold-out screenings and and a marathon Q&A. The next day, Mr. Moore called me. After jokingly chastising me for not making it to the festival, he told me, "A film like this only comes along every few years." He's one gatekeeper I'm very glad we didn't have to leap over.
When we make documentary films, we have to be open to where the story takes us. I believe the same is true with distribution. If we stay open to all of our options, we can always find ways of getting our films to their audience. If I had to do it again, I'd likely do it the same way. I'd just try to manage the stress a little better.
More dates are added each week at http://battleforbrooklyn.com .
Michael Galinsky is partners with Suki Hawley and David Beilinson in award-winning production studio Rumur. They are currently working on a film about the connection between stress and pain