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MY ADVENTURE IN THEATRICAL SELF-DISTRIBUTION, PART 1
Or how I “invented” the two-month window and spent six months wanting to kill myself every day.

BY JON REISS

JON REISS'S BOMB IT. PHOTO BY: JON REISS

My story is not unlike that of most independent filmmakers these days. We bust our butts for years producing — in our minds — a great film, only to find the distribution landscape radically different from the one in our hopes and dreams.

For a number of years now I had heard a variety of filmmaker pundits declare, “Theatrical is dead, long live the long tail!” But until my own distribution adventure I refused to believe these pronouncements. Now, 18 months after the world premiere of my feature documentary Bomb It at the Tribeca Film Festival and six months after the launch of the film‘s theatrical release, I believe that while there still is a strong role for theatrical releasing in an independent film‘s distribution strategy, savvy low-budget filmmakers must be more creative in the ways they approach these releases. Theatrical is not dead, but the long tail is a lot longer and involves a lot more work than you might expect.

With the help of Cinetic, who repped our film at the Tribeca Film Festival, I had the fortune to secure a DVD deal with a company that has a reputation of paying filmmakers (!), Docurama/New Video, but the golden ring of an overall distribution deal eluded our film. “Too niche,” and, “we don‘t know how to get young people in the theaters” were the common distributor refrains.

Even though I had a home-video deal in hand, I wanted to explore the possibility of a theatrical release for several reasons:

1. I‘m a dinosaur. I was convinced that theaters are the best places to view one of “my” films and films in general.

2. Ego. I will admit that this is not a good reason to release your film in theaters — especially because theatrical releases can be humbling experiences.

3. I cut my film to be screened theatrically. Sure it‘s a doc that covers a ton of ground and while we don‘t have a strong personality, overt politics or a competition at the heart of it, it moves fast and has a strong narrative arc.

4. I know how to self-promote. Based on my experience with my last documentary, Better Living Through Circuitry, I was convinced that I could get twenty-somethings into theater seats — even without jokes about pot smoking or losing one‘s virginity — if I was smart about promotion.

5. A theatrical release would boost our DVD sales. And I (and New Video) believe it did. It is a very, very crowded marketplace for any piece of entertainment, and anything you do to create a presence for your film helps.

With no theatrical offer I investigated service deals. These used to carry a fair amount of stigma: “Your film isn‘t good enough for someone to release it so you have to pay them to do it,” but in the current landscape, where theatrical is often (or only) seen as merely publicity for ancillary markets, service deals are less stigmatized and increasingly even the norm.

But we didn‘t have the money for a service deal. My extremely generous and supportive producer and investor, Jeffrey Levy-Hinte of Antidote Films, was realizing by now that recoupment wouldn‘t be quick, and so he wanted to minimize his losses.

Producer Josh Zeman of Ghost Robot, who had been very helpful in navigating the sales landscape, gave me a sample service-deal budget. I slashed and burned it and then convinced Levy-Hinte to give me just $13,000 to do a theatrical release of the film.

Why did I think I could release the film for so little money? After all, mini-majors spend six figures just to open New York City. Well, filmmaker Lance Weiler had reinspired me in the DIY process. Back in the early ‘80s I began my career in the mother of all DIY movements as part of the punk rock collective Target Video. One of my tasks was to book screenings throughout the U.S. and Europe. I was very good at it, but it was painstaking. I still remember going out at the middle of the night to use a telephone booth (yes, a telephone booth!) to make quasilegal phone calls to clubs and theaters in Europe. Those were the days....

So I had the money, and I had even written a DIY distribution manifesto for the film, but there was one new problem: I was getting burned out on Bomb It. At the same time I was planning to jump into self-distribution I was also spending my days dealing with delivery of the film to New Video, which involved, among many other things, replacing and then clearing 35 new music tracks due to monetary rights issues (another story). And my wife and two kids hadn‘t even begun to forgive me for the time I spent away from them making a movie about a bunch of criminals who spray walls with toxic paint.

In other words, even as I was strategizing my DIY release, I still longed for someone to take the film off my hands. One of my editing interns and former students told me that he was working with a small distributor specializing in hip-hop films. He said they might be interested in taking on the theatrical release of Bomb It.

I met with them and they convinced me that they had had success with making money on theatrical releases of films, plus they were working on a major sponsorship that my film could be a part of. I would also be allowed to do my own bookings. They would welcome my work on the project — in fact, that was part of the deal. It would be a collaboration. As working filmmakers they were there to help other filmmakers.

That they were okay to only release the film in theaters — with no money for them from ancillary sales — and that they were so excited and confident about it seemed too good to be true and, indeed, there were warning signs. The company had no central office; all of the principals were scattered around the West Coast. One of the principals did not have a cell phone. And being filmmakers themselves they were working on their own films.

It was now the fall of ‘07, and I knew I had to release the film by the spring because that‘s when New Video was putting out the DVD. Also, a similar film had just been acquired by a small distributor. I wanted to beat them to market, or at least run concurrently with them. (If possible I do recommend having your film come out at the same time as a similarly themed film — we had a great experience with Better Living Through Circuitry when three films about rave culture were released into the marketplace at the same time. This offered us not only higher profile reviews but also feature articles on the phenomenon of rave-culture films.)

So feeling the time pressure and desperate to move on with my life, I signed with the unnamed small theatrical distributor (“STD” henceforth) in October. In my deal I did wind up retaining the right to book screenings on my own, and I would not owe them a percentage of any of these bookings.

I began to get concerned in December when I had not heard of any play dates, or of any action at all. I knew theaters book up months in advance. And in order to get those dates you need to contact the bookers, give them time to watch the film, etc.

In January I realized that I had to take over booking the film myself, and if the STD could help with New York City and L.A. or any other cities that would be great, but I wasn‘t going to rely on them.

Here, then, are some of the lessons that I learned from booking my own film.

Do your research. Most information you need to book your film is readily available online. There are lists of theaters at places like workbookproject.org (Lance Weiler‘s wonderful DIY site). Obviously most theaters have Web sites, and in nearly all of them, the office number can be found if you look hard enough. To compile your list of theaters to contact, check out where other similar independent films have played. If possible, contact those filmmakers and find out how they did at the box office.

Make the call. When calling the theater, ask for the person in charge of programming. These bookers are generally very nice people who love film. Why else would they be involved with small theaters that make no money? And remember, it is important to call first before sending an e-mail. An e-mail cannot express your passion, nor will an e-mail exchange allow you to address the bookers‘ concerns about your film in a direct and instantaneous fashion. I always followed up my phone calls with an e-mail and not the other way around. You can find one of my standard e-mail pitches on the Filmmaker Web site (filmmakermagazine.com/fall2008/bomb_it.php).

Be persistent. And don‘t leave more than one or two messages. If the person isn‘t there, just hang up — it‘s as if you didn‘t call. Or, ask when that person is likely to be there and call back then.

Don‘t listen to naysayers. Many people told me, “the Nuart booker never returns phone calls and won‘t talk to you.” When an L.A. date was looking unlikely, I finally just called him. Turns out he loved Better Living and remembered that we did a $21,000 opening weekend. He would have loved to have booked Bomb It, but it was months too late. Note: Calendar houses book up months earlier than “regular” theaters.

Have a good pitch. Be able to tell the bookers who your target audience is and how you will sell the film to them. I was convinced that my film would appeal to theatergoers, and I made that belief infectious.

The two-month window rocks. Schedule your first theatrical screening two months before the release date of your DVD release. This window is just long enough to allow you a rollout of your film in a number of cities and long enough to reap the press benefits for your DVD release.

Our first theatrical screening was Seattle on April 4 and our DVD release was May 27. Shorter than two months might work, but it will 1) limit the number of markets you can release in; and 2) compress your release into fewer weekends, which will be harder for a small operation like yours to really promote and support properly.

Since most theaters won‘t touch you within two weeks of your DVD release, a one-month window is really just two weeks. It is very hard to handle even just New York City and L.A. in that time. A two-month window is in actuality only six weeks of screening time.

There has been a lot of talk about day and date lately, but unless you have an indie chain of theaters behind you, a.k.a. Landmark, I think day and date is a more difficult road for self-distributors. (There are some theaters out there that don‘t care about your DVD release, and we have had a number of theatrical bookings after our DVD release. But I think the real possibilities for after the DVD release are in what have traditionally been called non-theatrical screenings, but that is for a different article.)

It may be optimal to open in New York City or L.A. (not both!) the first weekend. But I did not nearly have enough time to pull this off. If you are self-distributing, starting properly in these cities requires two months of quality prep time. In retrospect I can see the advantages of having NYC or L.A. first. If you do well (especially in New York), it will help you get more bookings around the country, and you then have six weeks to pick those up. And if your reviews are good, you can use those to promote in other markets. (However, as I will explain below, if you don‘t do well, it can hurt you.)

I like to think of the two-month window as my own invention, although it is also used by studios who dump films they are contractually obligated to release theatrically but which they are convinced will fail.

The reason I think the two-month window is so important is it allows your theatrical publicity to roll over to your DVD. I cannot stress the importance of this too much. Based on my experience with Better Living and my narrative feature, Cleopatra‘s Second Husband, I learned that a long window between an independent film‘s theatrical and DVD releases was a kiss of death for the DVD publicity and hence your sales (Better Living did quite well on DVD, but I believe it would have done even better had the window been shorter). And while there are more press avenues for DVD-only releases now, nothing beats a theatrical release for generating press, even one as small as ours. And it‘s not just mainstream press and marketing (newspaper ads, posters) — it is everything you do to promote your film. In our case this included parties, street teams and e-mail blasts. If you think you have the energy to do this twice — once for your theatrical and once for your DVD — you are kidding yourself.

By having a theatrical release that will quickly roll into a DVD release, you will get more and larger reviews than you would have otherwise. Again, it is a very crowded entertainment landscape, and you need all the help you can to make an impression.

JON REISS (RIGHT) FILMING A SCENE FROM BOMB IT. PHOTO BY: JON REISS

Festivals bring unexpected benefits. Festivals are essential for brand creation. Premiering at Tribeca was enough to convince people to at least listen to me, but surprisingly it was the San Francisco Indie Fest that was just as crucial for our theatrical release. Our press from this festival in February ‘08 helped convince the Red Vic to book us in April (I thank the amazing S.F. publicist Karen Larsen for convincing me of this in advance). We also incorporated festivals into our broader theatrical release, and while we did not claim them as cities in our 17-city count, they helped give us something to crow about.

Get that first booking. I can‘t stress enough how much getting that first respectable booking helps. Bookers are not unlike most people — they like to see someone else make the initial plunge. After the Red Vic booking the first thing out of my mouth was, “Our Red Vic booking is scheduled for....” This led to bookings in Seattle, Portland, Chicago and New Mexico.

Get a publicist started early. But publicists can be very expensive; we spent $8,000 for a publicist for just Tribeca, and that was a deal! When it came time for the release, I thought, “Since nearly everyone on our crew had deferral deals, why not try to apply this to the publicist as well?” I also thought outside of the box and hired someone who doesn‘t specialize in film. Lynn Hasty of Green Galactic does art, music and fashion publicity as well as some film. She did a fantastic job for us on Better Living and I convinced her to take me on again with Bomb It. She started in October for a spring release (most long-lead press needs five months at least). Since in October we still didn‘t know our exact release date, she committed to do six months of work so long as I guaranteed her six months of a fee (half cash, half deferred was our deal, with the deferred portion coming from first-dollar gross on the DVD distribution), and she would adjust her work depending on our release schedule.

Gimmicks work. In the tradition of ‘50s plate giveaways (theaters did this to combat the advent of television), we had a raffle at each of our Friday and Saturday night screenings in Los Angeles where one person from the audience won a signed Shepard Fairey Bomb It poster. We also gave everyone who came to these screenings either a free Bomb It poster or a free Bomb It iPod Gelaskin (See our online store — neoflix.com/store/Hyb10 — you can have one for only $5.95!). People got a kick out of me handing them out myself at the door and telling people to hold onto their ticket stubs for the raffle. We sold out all of these screenings. As I have indicated, Los Angeles was our most successful city.

Remember your supporters. Make sure to thank everyone who writes a nice review of your film during its festival run and save those contacts for your publicist to go back to during your theatrical run. Thank your theater contacts profusely.

Hire an assistant earlier than you think you need one. While I had invaluable support from James Debbs who works at Antidote Films, so much so that I made him an associate producer and then bumped him up to co-producer for all of his help in delivering the film and handling film festival submissions, I really could have used someone in Los Angeles with me to handle a lot of the nitty-gritty. This would have helped me be more on time with our promotional materials. To be fair to myself though, I didn‘t start this process thinking I would be the only person working on it — I had a distributor, remember? But as I realized the STD was doing less and less I had to scramble to do more and more and it wasn‘t until the first month of the release was over that I really caught up. For example, it took me awhile to arrange for the printing of posters and postcards. Part of the delay was finding a decent linen paper stock for our limited-edition posters, but this perfectionism turned out to be a very smart move; sales of those posters have been the most profitable part of the whole release.

Trying to work around my lack of an office staff, I was able to get the printer to handle the shipping of all the printed elements to all of the theaters. I paid his UPS bill and gave him $100 to hire an assistant to deal with the shipments. With Debbs handling the print shipping and the lab shipping the trailers using my Fed Ex account (easy to set up), I was at least able to outsource nearly all of the deliveries.

For all my griping about the STD, I do owe them a debt — I don‘t know if I would have self-distributed Bomb It on my own if I knew I was going to have to do it by myself. Again, as in all filmmaking, the biggest moment is when you commit yourself.

Make a budget and stick to it (within reason). This is as important as making your film. But you have to be open to spending extra money, within reason, when it makes sense. When I found out how cheap a trailer cost — $1,300 — I paid it. That‘s free publicity in every market. Fortunately our insanely supportive investor agreed to allow costs over the $13,000 to be taken from the film‘s box office receipts.

Don‘t forget to include paid ads. I thought I could get away with only “our kind” of promotion. This didn‘t fly with bookers in New York City or L.A ., who required us to buy paid ads. We kept it to a minimum though (see the actualized budget on pg. 115 for what we spent). Also, smaller market ads are much cheaper (again, see the budget) and we found it worthwhile to do one in San Francisco and one in Portland.

Be careful of your travel budget. All theaters would love to have you come. However, unless they are paying you (as a few might), you have to be cautious and weigh the costs and benefits. In retrospect I feel that I perhaps spent too much on travel. However if you have some version of your DVD for sale (as the wise Peter Broderick recommends), you can sometimes pay your way and even make a profit on the combined box office and DVD sales. Other types of merch are harder to deal with. I initially traveled with T-shirts, but you need to bring so many sizes that it may not be worth it.

Create a dynamic Web site. And do it long before your film is done. Old-style film Web sites are out — blogging and a constant flow of information are in. Blogging and tagging is what the little bots out in cyberspace will recognize and bring you up in the rankings. Thanks to my wonderful friend and Web site savior Michael Medaglia and a lot of great blogging by producer Tracy Wares, we were near the top of Google search on “graffiti documentary” even before our world premiere at Tribeca. See Lance Weiler‘s Filmmaker article, “Navigating The Digital Divide” (Winter, 2008) about this.

A great Web site also helps you cultivate your niche audience and further allows the theatrical to fuel your DVD release. Our biggest number of unique visitors came on the day we opened New York City and then again on the day we opened L.A. (There were other factors involved such as special webisodes that we released for the L.A. premiere that producer Kate Christensen wrangled bloggers to promote.)

By having so many people come to our Web site it gave real value to a couple of our sponsors, Fusicology and URB, who we did banner exchanges with and who in turn did e-mail blasts for us.

L.A./NYC or Multicity? I vote for multicity. Some people argue that all that matters is New York and L.A. I understand this logic if all you want are reviews out of those two markets. But without my smaller market bookings I don‘t know if I would have gotten NYC or L.A. dates unless I spent the money to four-wall (renting the “four walls” of a theater). In NYC this can cost $10,000 to $18,000 a week. We did not four-wall any theaters. From a theoretical and budgetary standpoint, I was opposed to it.

Starting with smaller markets allows you to learn from your mistakes before you get to your bigger cities. It also gives you more lead time for the preparation of your materials.

Frankly the first two months of our release was my learning curve. I don‘t think I really nailed it until our release in Los Angeles where we did $10,000. This was partly due to my greater experience and the fact that I had a full two months to promote the film. I recommend this time frame for all of your important markets.

There is one huge drawback to starting with small markets, however, and it concerns the weeklies. In the last couple of years, many alternative weeklies have been bought up by the same publisher and now share a small pool of reviewers. So you can get stuck with a bad review from a small market weekly that will live with you and be reprinted in every larger city where that weekly has an outlet. So instead of the Village Voice (the alternative weekly in one of the birthplaces of graffiti) commissioning one of its own reporters (like the one who loved our film and was dying to write a review on it), the paper used the bad review that ran in The Seattle Weekly. Win some, lose some.

Embrace one and two-night screenings. To be honest I initially did this out of necessity. A number of venues would only give me one or two nights. But in general, we did much better on those one offs or extremely short runs than we did in our week-long engagements. It makes the screening more of a “must-see” event as opposed to “I don‘t need to see it now, I can see it on Monday,” and then when Monday rolls around, “I can see it Thursday,” and then when Thursday comes, “I‘ll add it to my Netflix queue.”

I am now a firm believer that short one or two-day runs are the future. Hopefully theater owners will be more and more open to this. Your ego might protest at the shorter run, but you‘ll probably make more money.

Give yourself eight to 12 months to release your film. Because of the difficulties with the STD, I only had four months to book the film. I lost a lot of long lead press that Lynn Hasty had set up because we didn‘t have enough hard dates five months before the release. I also did not have enough time to pursue sponsorships. We established a number of sponsorship arrangements with All City NRG/Arizona Iced Tea, URB and Fusicology, but I believe we could have had more with more time.

And really think hard if you want to spend eight months or more doing this instead of other things you could be doing with your time — like starting your next film.

Expect to lose money. Even after getting a very generous take of the box office from Laemmle in Los Angeles where we grossed $10,000 for the week, we still lost money after factoring in all the promotion we did.

Know what you want. Perhaps this should have been lesson No. 1. So far I have been recounting my experience of a multicity theatrical release. My goal was to do as many cities as possible. But it boils down to what you want from your release. If all you are after are large market reviews — and you don‘t have a ton of time — maybe it does make sense to just go after New York and L.A. However once you create all the materials for NYC and L.A., and if you do well in those markets, it is not very hard at all to pick up more cities — and more cities helps your DVD and gets you more reviews.

Other items that helped a great deal:

1. We cut several great trailers and changed them over time. But to sell to bookers (and for the 35mm trailer) we always went back to the best one (you can view it at: bombit-themovie.com/trailer).

2. Use online printers for your postcards; $100 for 5,000 is the going rate. Print 11x17 mini posters for promotion and sale: $300 for 1,000. Stores are more likely to post an 11x17 poster than a full-size poster.

3. Use offset printing for your posters. It is much cheaper; $1,200 for 2,000 posters if you can live with them being 24.5”x37.5”. (Another delay for the printing — I had to research whether theaters would accept these posters. They do.)

4. Post your photos, key art (in ai and pdf format) and press kit online so that anyone can download them. This way you don‘t need to continually attach this material to your e-mails.

5. Use e-mail signatures for all kinds of repetitive e-mail tasks: e.g., putting in all your press quotes, even for form letters (however don‘t forget to personalize and make those letters specific!).

6. Call everyone you know for advice and help. No way could I have done this without the support of wonderful filmmaking friends. Chances are someone you know has done something like this.

Next Issue:

The Long — Very Very Long Long Long Tail of Distribution Part 2: DVD Distribution

Learn more about the film at bombit-themovie.com



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