A while back, I wrote a post about theatrical-on-demand services like Tugg, Gathr and OpenIndie that let individuals program one-night theatrical screenings of festival darlings, current documentaries and even catalog classics at their local movie theatres. Personally, I think these services will change how independent filmmakers use theatrical screenings as part of their release strategies: think theatrical tours after or conjunction with the festival circuit instead of or prior to traditional theatrical releases. Also, since I hope theatrical-on-demand services will survive so I may be able to use them one day when I have a feature film to share with audiences, I wanted to test out one of the services as a promoter. Today, I'd like to share the lessons I learned as a promoter of a successful Tugg screening in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
1. Know Your Audience When You Pick Your Film
You may have dozens -- nay, hundreds -- of films you would like to see on the big screen, for the first time or for the hundredth time. When choosing a film to screen for one night theatrically from a theatrical-on-demand service, you need to know which film you can successfully attract several people to attend to meet your minimum threshold. I wanted to see the documentary Bully with an audience followed by a Q&A and discussion for three main reasons:
- Many parents and teachers missed the film the first time it was in theatres, despite positive reviews.
- I think this type of documentary deserves an engaged audience that can discuss the issues in the documentary further to see how they impact their own community.
- I have a daughter who is rapidly approaching middle school where bullying and relational aggression have become serious issues (even appearing in our elementary schools, too).
Tugg currently offers Bully as one of its more than 1,350 titles available for one-night only screenings, and Tugg also has a partnership with Cinemark, which owns several multiplexes in the Albuquerque area. As an involved parent at my kids' elementary school, Manzano Day School, I thought I could find enough people who would share my desire to see this documentary and have a frank discussion about it afterward. Additionally, Tugg allows you to make special requests like adding discussion and Q&A time to the end of your screening.
Based on seeing a previous Tugg event listed in Albuquerque at a Cinemark theatre, I knew I would have to get 94 tickets reserved to meet our minimum threshold for the screening.
2. Find a Partner
The only way I was going to be able to reach parents, teachers and students at my kids' elementary school was to partner with the school. To that end, before scheduling the screening, I reached out to our school counselor, Dr. Rebecca (Becky) Bone, Ph.D., to see if she would like to join me to promote the screening. I also told her that we could make the screening a presentation of the school, not me personally, and I would immediately donate the 5% of tickets sales that Tugg gives a promoter back to the school. Becky was very enthusiastic about the idea of screening the film, and reached out to the head of school for approval. Upon receiving approval and at the request of the head of school, we specifically did not promote it as a school fundraiser because the main purpose of the screening was to engage our community and the community at large in a conversation about bullying.
3. What to Expect When You Initiate with Tugg
When you want to schedule a screening with Tugg, you need to create a Promoter account via its website. When you request a screening, you need to provide your preferred screening date plus at least one back-up date, the theatre where you would like to screen the film, the time you would like to screen the film, and how many people you expect to attend. Tugg offers you suggestions during this process to get theatre approval. Theatres prefer Tugg screenings to occur Sundays through Thursdays, and screening starting times should be 5:30 pm, 7:30 pm, or 9:30 pm. This does not mean you can't request a Saturday matinée of The Goonies at 1 pm (which I'm very tempted to do), but you have to be prepared for the theatre to decline the request as that's primetime for them, or for the theatre to ratchet up the minimum reserve.
Also, the selection of your film and particular theatre may cause issues if the film you have chosen was ever available via video-on-demand prior to or in conjunction with its theatrical screening window. For example, Cinemark has a strict policy not to screen any films that have launched on VOD prior to or during their theatrical releases.
Once I had submitted my request for Bully, I received an email from Kevin Carlson at Tugg a few days later. Tugg is currently in beta, so after you make your request, the website lets you know that they're very busy and you may have to wait five business days for a response. I made my initial request in early February, originally for a date in late March. Due to school event conflicts, we had to request two date changes with Tugg to push the film back to Apr. 4. Luckily, according to Kevin, our event couldn't go live on Tugg's website until 28 days prior to the event, so our date changes were not an issue because we weren't live on Tugg yet (also, in reality, events can go live on Tugg's website 35 days before the event, but you must reach your minimum threshold one week prior to the screening to give theatre owners enough time to schedule their theatres for the coming week).
4. Prepare the Audience
I can't say enough about my promotion partner, Becky. Once we got the screening approved, but before our event was live on Tugg, Becky got on eBay and bought two Bully posters to put up outside our fifth grade classrooms to promote the screening. She also wrote about it extensively in her weekly column in the school's newsletter well before we went live on Tugg.
Our Tugg event for Bully went live on Fri. Mar. 1 after Kevin at Tugg realized that he had slightly miscalculated our window (he had originally told me we would go live 28 days before the screening date, or Thu. Mar. 7). Thanks to Becky's initial promotion, though, we were ready to go, even six days earlier than anticipated.
Also, as you may know, Bully made waves with the MPAA for its inclusion of multiple f-words (six in total, I believe), which caused the MPAA to give the film an R-rating initially. The Weinstein Company flatly rejected the rating, citing the context in which the f-words were used in the documentary as well as the Iraq war documentary Gunner Palace, which successfully challenged its R-rating and received a PG-13 rating despite 42 uses of the f-word. The Weinstein Company used the publicity well and released Bully unrated initially, which raised the film's national profile, but also severely limited the number of theatres willing to show the film because large theatre chains have policies against showing unrated films. The MPAA eventually issued a PG-13 rating after three f-words were censored, but a key scene with strong language, including f-words, remained intact. Beyond the use of the f-word, the film tackles very difficult subjects, including the suicides of a 17-year-old and an 11-year-old as the result of bullying.
I bring this up because we decided to promote this film to parents of fourth and fifth graders, and invited parents to bring their kids to the film if they felt their kids could handle the content. In fact, I brought my fourth-grade daughter because I think she and her classmates need to see and discuss this film with their parents before they get to middle school. Personally, I've only let my daughter watch three PG-13 movies prior to this (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and Star Wars: Episode III). This meant preparing parents for the content of the film so they could make informed decisions about bringing their own children or not. This also meant that teachers and parent class representatives needed to know this information if they were going to ask parents to bring older students who are not yet 13 to the screening.
On this last point of preparing the parents, I will say that we could have done better. Emails detailing the PG-13 rating and the difficult subject matter were sent out to teachers and parent class representatives, but some of those emails were then truncated (understandably) when added to weekly newsletters and other mass emails. The same information was spelled out on our Tugg event site along with the film's trailer, which highlights the difficult subject matter, but you can't make someone read the event page when they go there with the intent to reserve tickets quickly. Also, Becky included specific details about the film's difficult content in her weekly column, but not every parent reads the school's Friday Bulletin cover-to-cover (guilty). As a result, I don't think many parents really knew how difficult the content was going to be to watch, both for themselves and their kids.
In hindsight for this particular film and our target audience of parents with students, I would have done more to stress the difficult content to parents repeatedly because some older students went to the screening with friends and without their parents in attendance, something as a promoter and parent I had not anticipated.
Remember, as the event's promoter, you are essentially the film's publicist and advocate. Make sure you prepare your audience appropriately for the content of the film.
5. Recruit Your Recruiters
Similar to a crowdsourcing campaign, you need to recruit your recruiters - the people who will champion your event to their contacts. In our case, this meant working with each of the teachers from pre-K through fifth grade with an emphasis on the older grades (primarily, fourth and fifth grade) as well as parent class representatives to spread the word.
We made our first big email announcement to faculty and parent class representatives on Mon. Mar. 4 that our event was live on Tugg. On that first day of promotion, we sold 16 tickets. We sold 14 more tickets over the next three days before our school went on Spring Break thanks to our team of recruiters.
Despite slow sales over Spring Break, we were able to reach a total of 59 reserved tickets before classes resumed. With the help of teachers and parent class representatives, plus flyers placed throughout campus, we sold a total of 37 tickets in two days when classes resumed, pushing us over our minimum threshold.
6. Get More Tickets
Upon reaching our 94 ticket minimum reserve, we discovered we only had six tickets left before we sold out! We promptly sold out a few hours later, but still had two-and-a-half weeks until the screening. Because we were screening at a multiplex, I contacted Tugg to find out if we could move into a larger theatre. A few days later, Kevin at Tugg emailed me to let me know that we received an additional 75 tickets. We eventually sold all but 11 tickets. We certainly could have sold out the screening (twice), but I stopped sending out regular emails to avoid spamming people because the screening was already confirmed.
Below is a graph that shows the progression of our ticket sales for the event.
7. Manage the Message
Running a Tugg campaign relies heavily on email, Facebook and Twitter to get the word out since, like Kickstarter and IndieGogo, you want people to be able to click a link and go straight to your event's page to reserve tickets. Just like crowdsourcing campaigns, you need to find a balance between getting the word out and spamming your target audience.
Every day, I would try to send emails to specific people or groups (school counselors at other schools, fellow Quakers at our Meeting, close friends whose kids attend both our school and other schools), but I was always cognizant not to send repeated emails to the same people. They may have received multiple emails from different sources to encourage them to reserve tickets, but I personally spread out the time between each of my emails to particular people and groups.
Tugg also lets people become followers of your event, and you can now message those followers directly so your ticket buyers can become your main promoters.
8. Prepare for the Show
Shortly after your Tugg screening is confirmed, your Tugg contact will send out a one-page info sheet about the logistics for the night of the event. You can sell tickets on Tugg up to four hours before the show begins. Most theatres will expect you to check off attendees as they arrive. You will receive an email from Tugg Logistics as soon as ticket sales end with an attached attendee list plus the names of the theatre managers that night. Tugg Logistics also provides you with a contact name and toll-free number to reach Tugg in case you have problems at your screening.
Tugg prints barcodes and QR codes on its tickets, but those codes meant nothing to the ticket system at the Cinemark theatre where we held our screening. This meant I had to check in people manually as they arrived at the screening. If I were to do another screening, I would have recruited a helper to check people in at the theatre door so I could stay in the theatre to greet guests and ensure that we started the show on time.
At our screening, one of the theatre managers, Amy, worked very closely with us. She found an electrical outlet behind the screen to plug in our microphone and speaker (which we didn't need, thanks to the theatre's soundproofing), and radioed the projectionist as soon as we finished our five-minute introduction to start the film.
9. Enjoy the Movie
Tugg sent the theatre a DCP of Bully along with a short PSA about bullying, which screened just prior to the film (but no additional trailers), so our audience saw the same DCP as audiences of the original theatrical release of the documentary. After the screening, we had twenty minutes to have a discussion and audience Q&A with Dr. Becky Bone.
After the screening, several parents and teachers approached me to say thank you for putting together the screening. In the end, I believe the Bully screening was a very positive experience for most people in attendance, and certainly sparked conversations about bullying and relational aggression among virtually everyone there. Ultimately, that was the goal.
10. Reviewing Tugg
My personal experience with Tugg as a promoter was very good. The biggest challenge Tugg seems to have at the moment is the human resources to handle the initial requests for screenings. Also, our contact, Kevin Carlson, was very helpful, but I learned quickly not to expect an immediate response to my email questions. To his credit, Kevin almost always responded to me within 24 hours, which I believe is quite reasonable, but sometimes feels like an eternity in our instant messaging culture. Kevin also worked directly with our theatre to secure 75 more tickets within three days of our initial sell-out, which was huge for this event.
The communication from Tugg upon confirming the screening, verifying logistics the day of the screening, and the follow-up for promoter payment (which, as I said, I'm donating to Manzano Day School as it was their presentation) was prompt, succinct and helpful.
Personally, I look forward to working with Tugg again in the future, both as a promoter and a filmmaker, and I hope this model survives and thrives to make theatrical tours a reality for more independent filmmakers.
Have you promoted a Tugg screening? What additional questions do you have about Tugg's services, both as a promoter and as a filmmaker? Please share your thoughts and questions with us in the Comments.