November 3, 2016

Why We Didn't Wait for a Festival Premiere to Release Our Feature

Cents - Angela and Sammy
Not getting into film festivals was built into the business plan.

Like many indie films, the road to distribution for CENTS, my first feature as writer/director, has been full of twists and turns. Only now that our film's release is imminent across almost all major VOD and Digital platforms do I have a better perspective on our journey and a deeper understanding about what I've learned along the way. This is the first post of a two-part case study sharing the lessons learned as we've worked to distribute CENTS. In this post, I'll explain our approach regarding the festival circuit and why we ultimately chose not to wait for a festival premiere to release our film. My goal as always when talking about CENTS is to be as transparent about our process as possible in the hopes of giving other filmmakers guidance on their own journeys.

We applied to the major festivals, but we didn't expect to get in

Before we even made CENTS, we created our business plan. Our business plan goal for applying to major film festivals was to attract a distributor for our film. You may think that's the obvious goal of every filmmaker applying to festivals, but I don't believe that's the case. Many filmmakers, for very good reasons, apply to as many film festivals as possible to gain exposure for their films and to find their audiences. Our festival strategy was built specifically around finding distribution for our film.

We decided to narrow our festival applications to a very specific set of festivals that we thought we give us the best chance of attracting a distributor. Those festivals were: Sundance, Berlin (Youth section), SXSW, Tribeca, San Francisco International Film Festival, Seattle International Film Festival, and Los Angeles Film Festival.

 The odds of getting into any of these festivals were stacked against us. In the year we submitted, Sundance received 2,309 dramatic features and accepted 79. 

We knew from the outset that all of these festivals would be a stretch for our small film about a young girl learning to embrace her own brilliance while navigating the rough and tumble world of middle school. Our film features outstanding performances, but we have no name actors, and our story about a Latina math whiz and her frenemies using math to revamp a school penny drive isn't exactly the subject matter you find at many of the major festivals. Plus, the odds of getting into any of them were stacked against us. In the year we submitted, Sundance received 2,309 dramatic features and accepted 79. That's a 3.4% acceptance rate for those of you playing at home, and if you want to slice it even further, only 12 of those features were in the U.S. competition, or 0.5%. Given those odds, acceptance would be a long shot, but we knew if we were lucky enough to get into one of these festivals, our chances of finding a distributor would increase dramatically.

Because of those odds, however, it came as little surprise when we didn't get into Sundance, Berlin or SXSW. We had higher hopes for Tribeca. We had applied for a grant from the Tribeca Film Institute (TFI) Sloan Filmmaker Fund because of our film's focus on mathematics. We did not receive it the first three years we applied, but each year the grant committee sent us notes saying that ours was the type of project they like to support, and encouraging us to reapply the following year as our project progressed. We applied one final time to the fund after our successful Kickstarter campaign and completion of the film to request funds to support our distribution and marketing efforts.

Sammy counting pennies during detention in 'Cents'
Sammy counting pennies during detention in 'Cents'

On the eve of the TFI Sloan Filmmaker Fund announcement, I received a personal email from the grant committee. The purpose of the email was to let me know, before I received the form rejection letter, that our film CENTS had been considered until the very end of the grant process, but ultimately wasn't chosen. As disappointing as it was not to receive a grant from the TFI Sloan Filmmaker Fund, I am grateful for their words of encouragement over the years. I truly believe CENTS exists as a completed film today in large part because we had to demonstrate significant progress between TFI Sloan grant applications.

Shortly after we received word about not getting the grant from TFI Sloan, we heard about our rejection from the Tribeca Film Festival. Perhaps we would have played Tribeca had we received the grant, but we'll never know. Rejections from San Francisco and Seattle followed shortly thereafter.

 I was ready to move on to the next step of our business plan: prove the marketability of our film to distributors by building our audience directly.

Assuming our shot at a major festival premiere was probably over, I received a call from a programmer with the Los Angeles Film Festival. He had watched CENTS and loved it, but in order to program it for the festival, he needed to convince a majority of the programmers to vote for it. He asked for our direct screener link so he could pass it along to the rest of the LAFF team and start making his case for our film.

A few weeks later, I received an email from the LAFF programmer: CENTS unfortunately did not make the final programming cut. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't upset, but I still wasn't surprised. I was ready to move on to the next step of our business plan: prove the marketability of our film to distributors by building our audience directly.

Film festivals always want your premiere, so we kept it for ourselves

Our business plan for CENTS always recognized that we had a slim chance at acceptance into a major film festival, so we made contingency plans. At this point in the process, we could've fired off our film to dozens of film festivals, racking up the entry fees and hoping for a festival premiere, but for what? Screening at festivals would certainly help build our audience, but what exactly would we get out of these festival screenings? These festivals likely wouldn't pay us a screening fee because we hadn't premiered at one of the top tier festivals, and obviously we wouldn't participate in any box office receipts. Instead, we would pay the entry fees and probably the associated travel costs to attend these screenings. Would we get a distribution deal as a result of screening at one of these festivals? Maybe, but most likely not, and distribution was still our goal. And were the attendees at film festivals really our target audience?

If our premiere was so valuable to film festivals, why shouldn't we take advantage of that premiere ourselves to earn some money and prove to distributors that our film was marketable?

As an aside, I'd like to point out that I'm a huge fan of film festivals, big and small. I love discovering new films at festivals and meeting fellow filmmakers and film lovers. I've had wonderful experiences screening my short films at various festivals around the country, none of which are any of the festivals I've mentioned so far. Film festivals offer great exposure for films as they find their audiences, so I don't want our experiences with CENTS to come off as a knock against film festivals. Nothing could be further from the truth. But I'm not so myopic to believe our film would only succeed if we had a festival premiere and laurels to put on our poster.

Is submitting to dozens of film festivals a bad strategy? I'm not making that argument either, but it's a strategy that we ultimately decided not to pursue after weighing the costs and the benefits. If our premiere was so valuable to film festivals, why shouldn't we take advantage of that premiere ourselves to earn some money and prove to distributors that our film was marketable?

Cents screening in Albuquerque
When you sell over 200 tickets, you get bumped to the 300-seat auditorium.

With this in mind, we shifted our focus to planning a short roadshow using Tugg, targeting key cities where we had networks and believed our film would find its audience. We premiered in Albuquerque and Santa Fe since we shot CENTS in New Mexico where the entire cast and crew lives. We sold out both screenings. In fact, Tugg moved us into three different theaters in Albuquerque as we kept outstripping the seating capacity, eventually landing in the multiplex's largest non-IMAX auditorium. We then took the film on a Northeast tour through Boston, New Haven, Wilmington, DE, Baltimore and Washington, DC. For each screening in the Northeast, we found partners to co-host and promote the screenings to their audiences based on their affinities for our film's themes.

Instead of losing money on festival fees and travel costs, we actually made money from our Tugg roadshow and raised money for our co-host organizations in the process. Even better, we added several more addresses to our email marketing list from our Tugg ticket sales—something we never would have received from a festival screening.

Traditional theatrical screenings aren't the only way to find an audience

Shortly after our roadshow, one of our partners, Latinas in STEM, hosted a special screening of CENTS in Los Angeles, bringing in Ford En Español to sponsor the event. Thanks to Ford's generosity, 120 girls from two different community organizations—DIY Girls and Los Angeles Promise Neighborhood—arrived via charter buses at Universal Studios CityWalk for this special screening. Ford's sponsorship also covered travel costs for me and our lead actress Julia Flores and her family to attend, as well as a Ford engineer to tell her story about pursuing a career in STEM. We showed a short film about women engineers at Ford prior to the screening and fielded questions from the audience afterwards. Two of our other actresses, Jy Prishkulnik and Claire Carter, made it out to the screening on their own to support the event.

Actresses Julia Flores, Claire Carter and Jy Prishkulnik at our Latinas in STEM screening in Los Angeles, sponsored by Ford En Español.

Building on this success, we worked with various Girl Scout councils around the country to schedule community screenings through Tugg Educational. We created a CENTS discussion guide for the Girl Scouts based around the themes of friendship and relationships between middle school girls, using the film as a way to start conversations among the girls. Girl Scout councils continue to program CENTS through Tugg Educational as they plan their event calendars for the year.

Key takeaways from our successful screenings

Getting your feature film out into the world to attract the attention of distributors takes a lot of work and planning. Here are the key lessons we learned along the way:

  • Know why you're applying to film festivals and budget accordingly. Seeking distribution deals and building your audience are two different goals. Decide which strategy you plan to pursue when considering film festivals, then research festivals to determine which ones will be the best fit for your film and your goals. Finally, make sure you have reserved funds to apply to festivals and ultimately to attend should your film get accepted.
  • When your festival strategy doesn't go as well as you hoped, move on to Plan B. Major festival acceptances can be like winning the lottery, and with the numbers stacked against you, you need a backup plan. Your plan might be expanding your festival applications beyond your initial targets, or it may mean looking for alternative ways to screen your film to find your audience, like we did through our Tugg roadshow, special screenings and community screenings. Draw up how you will tackle Plan B even before you launch Plan A, so you know you will have the time, money and resources to execute what will likely come to pass.
  • Find key partners to help you put together screenings and build your audience. Should you decide to move beyond a festival strategy and strike out on your own with screenings, be sure to collaborate with partners that have an affinity for your film and can bring their audiences to your screenings. Building partnerships should start as early in your planning stages as possible. Crowdfunding campaigns like Kickstarter, Seed&Spark and IndieGoGo not only raise money for your films, but help you identify your audience and champions within that audience. Find those champions that want to help you bring your film out into the world and lay the groundwork for co-hosted screening events well in advance. You will discover that your partners typically need a lot of lead time to create a successful event.

A new player in indie film distribution shifted our perspectives

Throughout the process of booking and promoting our screenings, we learned both the value and the challenges of marketing our film to find its target audience. Once we shifted away from film festivals, our goal was to demonstrate our film's marketability to a distributor that specialized in VOD and digital downloads. When we began our journey, the only way to access the largest VOD platforms—like iTunes and cable/satellite—was through a vetted distributor or aggregator in exchange for a distribution fee. Then, a new player in indie film distribution emerged that changed our entire approach. That's the focus of Part II of our CENTS Distribution Case Study, coming to No Film School next week.      

CENTS is available now for pre-order on iTunes and Vimeo On Demand. On Nov. 15, 2016, CENTS arrives on iTunes, Google Play, Amazon, Microsoft, Vimeo On Demand, VHX and 130+ cable/satellite VOD platforms.

Find CENTS on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and our website.

Your Comment

18 Comments

Ooo! Cliffhanger! I love it. Rock on, you fine people.

November 3, 2016 at 12:54PM

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Patrick Ortman
I tell stories. Sometimes for money. Sometimes, not.
395

Chris, I'm really digging this case study! It's super important to hammer home that message that there are more paths to filmmaking success than just major festivals and traditional distribution.

Also, I'm curious what steps you took to publicize your Tugg screenings, particularly in cities where you didn't really have much of an established audience already. Was it just tapping into your list of Kickstarter backers and having them spread the word, or was there more to it?

Oh, and I finally got around to watching Cents a few months ago. You and your team did a fantastic job!

November 3, 2016 at 1:19PM

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Robert Hardy
Founder of Filmmaker's Process
4195

Hey Robert,

The key to successful Tugg screenings was finding a partner in each city to host/co-host the event before we scheduled the screening. Even with partners, we spent a lot of time educating them on how they needed to reach out to their networks repeatedly to remind them to buy tickets before the Tugg deadline.

We also did a lot of outreach on our own. For example, using Google Maps, I found all of the middle schools surrounding the theatre where we were having our screening, looked up email addresses for principals, counselors, social workers, math teachers, STEM/STEAM leaders, etc. and sent them personal emails to invite faculty, staff and families to our screenings. This led to some larger blocks of ticket purchases by schools in certain cities.

We actually had one screening not reach its ticket threshold in Brooklyn, mainly because we couldn't find a partner before launching, but it was geographically between two other stops on the tour. Even though the screening didn't happen, our outreach for the screening led to two community screenings with two separate Girl Scout troops in Brooklyn at their schools, so that failure actually turned into a win.

And thanks for the kind words about the film. Glad you liked it.

November 3, 2016 at 10:05PM

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Christopher Boone
Writer
Writer/Director

Our indie doc film 'Time is Art' also had a very successful Tugg run in 7 US cities including Australia. We entered a few festivals but not much luck. For part two of the series we will totally skip entering festivals accept the ones contacted us and premiere with Tugg again (our NYC screening also sold out but we never got bumped to a larger theater sadly). We premiered in two other cities in the same night which was too much. Next time we'll plan some time between each premiere. We also have had a ton of sales thru VHX. The close captioning costs $900 (wish it wasn't so pricey!) so when we finally get more funds the plan is to put it on Amazon and iTunes through an Aggregator.

November 3, 2016 at 1:42PM, Edited November 3, 1:42PM

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Use Amazon Video Direct to publish your movie on Amazon and Amazon Prime without spending any money now that you have captions. You don't need an Aggregator.

November 3, 2016 at 5:12PM

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Anton Doiron
Creator/Filmmaker
521

Amazing how we all have somewhat similar, but different paths. Our doc "Church Of Felons" is in the festival circuit now, been accepted to several mid-level fests, but rejected from others. It does seem that premieres do mean a lot to festivals.

Since the beginning we've been taking things into our own hands, marketing it as if we won't get a free ride from anyone.

2 Premiere screenings sold out (600 seats each), follow up screening sold out (450) and now we're booking the largest auditorium in our area at 620 seats for 3 showings, that'll sell out too. The festival circuit is absolutely cut-throat, but that doesn't mean you can't have massive success with your film on your own.

November 3, 2016 at 2:00PM

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Jordan Mederich
Documentarian / Filmmaker
1168

Thanks for the great article, Chris.
Are you open to sharing the financials behind your screenings? What kid of revenue do these screening generate?
Thanks!

November 3, 2016 at 3:26PM, Edited November 3, 3:26PM

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Matt
Director / Producer
6

Hey Matt,

Good question. Tugg has each content provider set their own content fee. This is the amount the content provider will receive once the film reaches the minimum ticket threshold. Then, the content provider receives 35% of all ticket sales beyond the minimum threshold. Hosts receive 5% of the total box office, so if the content provider is also the host, the content provider receives this 5%.

We purposely set our content fee low -- $100 -- to make it easier to hit ticket thresholds. In Albuquerque and Santa Fe, we blew past our minimum thresholds, so we did quite well on those screenings. For our Northeast tour, we had a mix of really well-attended screenings and screenings that just hit the minimum. After the Tugg tour, we focused on Community Screenings with Girl Scout councils and middle schools.

Someday, I'd like to reveal our financials to be as transparent as possible, but we're not quite there yet. I can tell you that between the Tugg screenings and Community Screenings plus additional Educational licenses, we generated box office revenue in the five-figure territory.

November 3, 2016 at 10:13PM

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Christopher Boone
Writer
Writer/Director

Chris,
Thanks so much for your reply, and willingness to share. Very helpful.
Wishing you the best of luck as you continue your run.
-Matt

November 4, 2016 at 12:46PM

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Matt
Director / Producer
6

I like that these filmmakers didn't waste a bunch of time with Festivals. It sounds like they had a very calculated and well thought out plan.
There was a time, let's call it the 90's, when festivals might have mattered. Now that we have online platforms like YouTube, Amazon, Vimeo, etc. Festivals seem like an outdated way to suck money out of filmmakers.
Make your movie, rent some theaters or use something like TUGG (Be sure to sell DVD/BLU-Ray copies in the lobby) then go directly online.
I put my movie "Space Trucker Bruce" (https://amzn.com/B00JL5M1TS) in a couple of festivals. They actually expect you to travel to the festival and even promote the movie once there! So spend a thousand or more dollars to travel to a festival to show your movie to a few hundred people? It doesn't make sense. Also as pointed out in this article, attending the Festivals that matter for distribution is like winning the lottery.

November 3, 2016 at 5:26PM

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Anton Doiron
Creator/Filmmaker
521

Maybe you should have just made a better quality movie.

November 3, 2016 at 7:46PM

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Bill Bernstein
Bill
74

As the biggest critic of my work, I couldn't agree with you more, Bill. I'll be the first one to say I needed to make a better movie to get into the major film festivals, and I own all of the flaws that I see in the film. I'm grateful that I've had the opportunity to make my first feature to learn what worked and what didn't so my next film can be better.

That said, I'm really proud of the work that our whole cast and crew did. While I own the failures, I share the successes with our whole team because I owe those successes to their creative inputs and tireless work. I'm humbled by the positive responses we have received both at theatrical screenings and community screenings, particularly our young cast.

I think our film will have much greater impact outside of the festival circuit, and that's more than fine by me.

November 3, 2016 at 10:21PM

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Christopher Boone
Writer
Writer/Director

Great response and it feels so familiar as I also feel like that about my latest short.
I think you made a great choice to go outside the festival circuit.

November 4, 2016 at 11:10AM

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WalterBrokx
Director, DOP, Writer, Editor, Producer
8340

Quality is overrated. You produce the best you can without spending too much money or time. People watch crappy movies and still like them.

November 4, 2016 at 5:09PM

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Anton Doiron
Creator/Filmmaker
521

Great read and insights!
I love how they really thought about their strategy.
"Know why you're applying to film festivals and budget accordingly. Seeking distribution deals and building your audience are two different goals."
This is so very true.

2 Months ago we made a 48HFP short in Rotterdam. Some teams made the choice to apply to film festivals (and not put it online yet). Others just put it online.
We chose to put it online and try to get as many eyeballs on it as possible (IMO filmfestivals wouldn't easily pick it up as there are some flaws AND it contains pretty strong language.) It's a dark comedy about sexism: a lot of women seem to like it, but still the stats show that 80% of the audience is male. But it is a 48, so we didn't think about demographics and audiences before we started: we had to make it in 48 hours. (Yet it shows that thinking who would like or share a video, might be different in reality.)

Anyway, we made the right decision: yesterday it got picked up by a website full of (funny, weird and shocking) videos and it got over 58K views in 1 day.
(On Youtube we are near 2600 views after 2 months: what a difference a platform makes.)

We wanted views and we got them :-p

For perspective:
the winner in Rotterdam, 'Underdog', is now approaching 2700 views on Vimeo (they had some attention from a variety of press and the 48HFP newsletters).
On YouTube we are approaching 2600 views with very little attention from the press (one local newspaper in my hometown added about 50 views :-p), but we got lucky and now went beyond 60K in total.
Yes, we got lucky, but we put some effort in it. Without putting in the effort to attract views, it wouldn't have been picked up like this.
( the short with NSFW subtitles in CC: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YQVL0bWNFL0 )

November 4, 2016 at 11:05AM

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WalterBrokx
Director, DOP, Writer, Editor, Producer
8340

In the meantime we had our international premiere screening in London. Which was a great excuse to go to London and meet local filmmakers!
We also added Italian and German subtitles: it is partly an experiment to see whether or not we can reach more people in Italy and Germany this way. It means we will need to find out what platforms are there. Somehow it is a bit strange to search the internet in another country.
More languages will be added.

And we surpassed 3000 views on YouTube, which was a goal :-)
Our next goal is 3,500.

Hopefully all of this will teach our team a lot about videomarketing. Knowledge we'd like to use next time :-)

December 18, 2016 at 11:17AM, Edited December 18, 11:17AM

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WalterBrokx
Director, DOP, Writer, Editor, Producer
8340

Thanks for sharing the journey! Couldn't agree more, I feel that this is a very valid road for marketing. Love the idea that you can actually capture emails from Tugg, makes it much better to solidify an audience around your film.

November 4, 2016 at 7:00PM

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Nick Kelly
IBeAFilmDude
231

Wonderful posting guys. I especially appreciated the take aways of supplementing film festivals with your own local screenings.

I just did this with my debut feature Son of Clowns (http://sonofclowns.com) and in addition to doing several festivals around the US and UK we did some in North Carolina where we shot the film. Those screenings had the best turnout of all just because of the local connection and we made a little cash to offset the costs of some of our festivals. Now we release SoC on Amazon Prime on the 15th and couldn't be more excited to see where the VOD platform takes us. Like you said I also agree that it seems thats where a lot of new content is being found these days.

So at the end of the day please don't write off the local connection to your films!

November 5, 2016 at 11:22AM

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Evan Kidd
Writer/Director
88