JUMPING OFF BRIDGES. PHOTO BY: MEREDITH VOLK
Self-distribution wasn’t our first choice. Just like every other one of the thousands of indie filmmakers who completed a film last year we wanted a distributor to come to our very first screening at the 2006 South by Southwest Film Festival and offer us a deal we couldn’t refuse. Our film would get picked up quickly; soon we’d have DVDs for sale, along with a cable pay-per-view deal while we were hard at work securing foreign distribution. Our film would be right where it belonged: in front of an eager audience.
That didn’t happen.
We shot Jumping Off Bridges on location in Austin, Texas in the summer of 2005. Inspired by writer-director Kat Candler’s own adolescence, the film tells the story of an adventurous group of four best friends deep in the trenches of adolescence who experience a loss and how that loss impacts their friendship and their relationship with their families. Shot on Super 16mm, the film features actors local to Austin as well as Emmy winner Michael Emerson (now featured on the hit television series Lost).
We can list the strengths of our film easily. Despite an ultra-low budget, the film has high production values. Reviewers have described the performances as “inspired,” “a knockout,” “authentic” and “solid.” Our soundtrack features alt indie favorites Jose Gonzalez, Sufjan Stevens, Explosions in the Sky, American Analog Set, Jeff Hanson and Amina. Critics have said the film is “truly wonderful,” “refreshingly naturalistic,” “a powerful fiction,” “an emotional, smart movie” and “as realistic a narrative portrait of love, death, and human debris as anything you’re ever likely to see onscreen.” Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?
We had hopes early on. There were phone calls, e-mails, and requests for screeners. We burned DVDs from my trusty iMac and mailed out screeners along with our carefully prepared press kit. The distributors loved the film, but, they’d tell us, “it’s a hard sell.” “It doesn’t have any stars.” “It’s a downer.” “It’s gonna be tough.” “Foreign is... hmm, yeah, pretty unlikely.” And my favorite: “It’s definitely not theatrical.”
MICHAEL EMERSON IN JUMPING OFF BRIDGES. PHOTO BY: MEREDITH VOLK
The distribution world waits for no one, and we decided we couldn’t wait any longer to get our film in front of an audience. We’d already done the hard work of producing a low-budget indie film — on film — complete with stunts and SAG actors. We had a great festival run, we had some great press, and now we were ready to take our film on a targeted, limited theatrical run.
We started with the basics. Who was our audience? How would we get the film to them and make sure they showed up? While our film has fans who love indie rock bands, Lost or stories of adolescence, we had another audience, too, and they were easier to target. People who have suffered loss, counselors, therapists, people who work in the fields of suicide prevention, mental health and awareness, professors of psychology and social workers all embraced our film. They came to more than one screening, brought their friends and told their co-workers, their clients, and their students about the film. They wanted copies to use in classrooms, in support groups and at conferences. They were an audience we could target and an audience we could get our film to in screenings across the country.
We compiled a list of 20 cities where we wanted to screen the film. We made another list of people we knew in those cities and venues where we might play. We spent the summer of 2006 nailing down dates and venues. Our primary tool was a massive 20-page spreadsheet that cross-referenced cities with indie-friendly theaters, film society contacts, other filmmakers, film festivals and suicide prevention and mental health awareness groups. One page was devoted to a city-by-city list of contacts that included fellow filmmakers, friends, family and anyone we knew there who might be able to help — including some of our ex-boyfriends.
While we were setting up screenings, we were also making changes to the film. We recut and fixed the color and sound. To pay for the costs of the additional postproduction work and the “hold” fees at the venues, director Kat Candler and I led workshops on independent filmmaking in pretty much any town within driving distance of Austin. We also continued to sell copies of our other films from our Web site.
Our indie-friendly venues were creative in the screening arrangements. Some offered reduced rental rates for a percentage of the box office or a stipend in lieu of box office. Some even offered free screening space based on availability. Each week more cities were checked off the list, and by Aug. 1 we’d locked screenings in almost 20 cities.
Sept. 13: Broadway Performance Hall, Seattle, Washington We began our theatrical run in Seattle on a rainy Wednesday evening. My friend Meg runs the hall and offered us the space for free. The screening space is top-notch technically, featuring amazing acoustics and a fabulous projection system. After a massive publicity effort, we crossed our fingers and hoped for a good crowd. For this screening, we didn’t officially partner with a mental health organization. There wasn’t time. So while we e-mailed the local organizations, our focus was broader. We were rewarded with a crowd that was small, about 30 people, but interested. They all stayed afterward for a Q&A, and after the screening we had possibilities for three additional screenings in the Seattle area.
Sept. 15 and 16: Southwest Film Center, Albuquerque, New Mexico In Albuquerque we screened as part of a suicide awareness event sponsored by the Agora Crisis Center at the University of New Mexico. Our deal included free use of the theater and a portion of the box office. We had a total of four screenings, with the audience ranging in size from an almost full house on Friday night to four people who attended the 1 p.m. screening on Saturday. Again, we had the right people in the audience and made more contacts for future screenings.
Sept. 30: Historic Guadalupe Theater, San Antonio, Texas In San Antonio we battled an old projection system and bad parking but still had a solid, enthusiastic crowd. We were able to get some local press, and this time we partnered with a local suicide awareness group. We had an amazing panel discussion after the film that went on for over an hour. Panelists included grief counselors, therapists and experts in the field of psychology.
Oct. 3: Alamo Drafthouse South, Austin, Texas We sold out our Austin screening and had to turn people away at the door. We partnered with a local suicide prevention organization, and our postscreening panel included a high school guidance counselor as well as suicide prevention experts and people who focus on grief and recovery. This screening led to a contact with the American Counseling Association and the idea of targeting school districts.
Oct. 5: University of Alabama, Huntsville, Alabama The universities began contacting us for screenings as word spread about the film. The University of Alabama set up an afternoon screening for students and professors, along with support groups, panels and discussions as part of a campus-wide suicide prevention day.
Oct. 6-10: All Saints Cinema, Tallahassee, Florida Kat went back to her college town for screenings arranged by the Tallahassee Film Society. They had a total of four screenings, offering us an advance on the box office. In return, we contacted our usual crew of local suicide prevention and mental health groups, university professors and filmmakers. The screenings were well attended. Jeb Bush even sent a representative. We’re setting up a second run in Tallahassee for early 2007, with several suicide prevention groups and lobbyists for the state of Florida.
Oct. 14: Belcourt Theater, Nashville, Tennessee One of our lead actors, Savannah Welch, grew up in Nashville, so we were thrilled to secure a good rate for a screening at the lovely and historic Belcourt Theater. We put her family to work posting fliers and doing local press, and we continued to contact the universities, film societies and Lost fans. We played on a Saturday afternoon during fall break for the local universities, but we still had an audience of more than 100 people, including college students who didn’t go home for fall break, professors, film buffs and members of suicide prevention groups.
Oct. 14: Rice Media Center, Houston, Texas In Houston, our friends at the Southwest Alternative Media Project (SWAMP) helped secure a free theater, and we partnered with the Houston Suicide Prevention Coalition to arrange a panel afterward. We had a passionate crowd mostly comprised of the Houston mental health community, who stayed long after the panel was supposed to end to ask questions and tell their own stories of loss and recovery.
Nov. 2: Montclair State University, Montclair, New Jersey Our second university screening actually came about because of our film’s connection to Lost and our lead actor, Michael Emerson. One of his fans heard about our film on MySpace and contacted us for a screening. She was affiliated with the school of social work, so the fit was a good one. They flew Kat to New Jersey for the screening and again arranged a full day of suicide awareness activities for over 130 students, which included discussions with the university counseling center, school of psychology and students who suffered from mental illnesses.
Nov. 3 and 4: Pioneer Theater, New York, New York We arranged our New York screening right after our New Jersey screening so we could save on travel costs. I flew up to join Kat. As always while in New York, we arranged meetings with people for our future projects as well as for Jumping Off Bridges. Our first screening, on a Friday night, was well attended by people we didn’t know at all. We expected to see a few friends but were pleased we could pack the house through our publicity efforts alone. In addition to people who’d heard about the film through the Pioneer Theater, we had university professors and mental health professionals. Saturday night’s screening had an even bigger crowd and included many of our friends but, again, more than a few people we’d never met. The theater is well run, the projection is excellent, and they gave us free popcorn while we sat outside in the lobby during the screening.
Nov. 12: Fine Arts Theatre, Los Angeles, California There are so many theaters in L.A., you’d think it would be easy to book a screening there. Wrong. The theaters are pricey, and many are booked well in advance. We were thrilled to find the Fine Arts Theatre and to learn that they were willing to book us on a Sunday afternoon without any up-front costs for us. The theater is beautiful, and the owner, Michael Hall, keeps it spotless. He took his time on the projection and managed to make the little DVD look like a million bucks on his big screen. We partnered with the Didi Hirsch Community Health Center, an L.A.-based organization that provides mental health services to people regardless of their ability to pay. They arranged an amazing group of panelists and helped us with the publicity. Kat and I attended, making the most of our time in L.A. as we did in New York. Michael Emerson attended also, on his break from the new season of Lost. We had a crowd of approximately 200, not bad for 12:30 on a Sunday afternoon. More important, we had a new friend in one of the panelists, who loved the film and runs a foreign distribution company.
Nov. 15: AFI Silver Theatre, Washington, D.C. This screening was one we’d been waiting for as much as our screenings in New York and L.A. Associate producer Leslie Langee had been tenacious about securing a screening in D.C. She went even further by making a connection to the National Institutes of Health’s “Science in the Cinema” program. There were two screenings: an afternoon screening specifically for high school guidance counselors in Montgomery County, who were receiving continuing education credit, and an evening event that included lectures, our film and a panel discussion — all in tribute to noted psychologist and film lover Dr. Wayne Fenton. The afternoon screening had an educational component, complete with PowerPoint presentation and a detailed discussion about the characters in the film. The evening screening ended with brief lectures by two noted psychologists and a Q&A that went on so long they had to kick us out of the theater.
It’s not over. We’re following up and arranging more screenings that were launched by our early ones. We’ve just screened at the Colville Washington State Reservation as part of a program put on by the United States Public Health Service, which is directly under the Surgeon General’s office, and there are other government-sponsored screenings in the works. We’re also finalizing two screenings for high school guidance counselors and upcoming conventions. Right now, after adding up all the costs for the tour, including theater rentals, travel, DVD duplication and publicity expenses and comparing these costs with our income for box office receipts and rental fees, we’re in the black.
As for distributors, we’re in talks with several who specialize in the educational market with the goal of having a deal in place in 2007. We’ve also seen that our film has the potential to help people start talking about a difficult subject that affects people of all ages, races and economic statuses. Not only is that a big market, it’s one that distributors should note and address; we’re just going to make sure they have the opportunity.
It’s been a tough several months, and we’ve learned a lot. We have a new respect and understanding for distributors. We know how risky this is, we know how hard it can be to reach an audience, and we’ve discovered how to reach ours. It takes an incredible amount of persistence to get an indie film made in the first place, and there’s no reason to back down when the final step, distribution, starts to look too hard. Recently a friend showed us the final version of her social issue–driven documentary. After the screening she sat back and said, “Thank God it’s almost over.” Kat and I just smiled at her, shook our heads and said, “Your work has just begun.”