As I refine the marketing and distribution strategy for my feature film CENTS, I have done a lot of research on theatrical releases, specifically theatrical tours using on-demand services like Tugg. During a recent conference call with Tugg about their services, the company put me in touch with filmmakers Kimberly Dilts and J.T. Arbogast who used Tugg to launch a theatrical tour of their narrative feature film Angel's Perch in 2013.
Many documentaries have used Tugg in conjunction with coordinated outreach campaigns to their target audiences that resonate with the subject matter of their films -- Honor Flight, Blood Brother, Cowspiracy, and Touch the Wall, to name a few. I'd like to emulate this model for our film CENTS, because of our story's topics and themes around girls in math (or STEM -- science, technology, engineering and math), bullying, and middle school, but realize audiences approach narrative films and documentaries differently.
So, I was excited to talk to Kimberly and J.T. about their experiences creating an outreach strategy, finding screening partners, and using Tugg to get their film into theaters for their target audiences. After learning about their approach, I realized I needed to share their story with the NFS audience, so I circled back with a few interview questions via email after our initial conversation.
NFS: Angel's Perch takes place in a small town in West Virginia and the film was shot in Cass, West Virginia. Tell us about how you worked with this regional audience to set up your initial theatrical tour screenings.
We had spent a ton of time in West Virginia during development and had grown a long and loyal list of contacts both from our crowdfunding campaign and from one-on-one meetings on the ground. That list, along with the strong partnership we had formed with the WV chapter of the Alzheimer's Association, made it possible for us to pack houses during the first leg of our theatrical run in West Virginia. (The run was a combination of 4-walling, traditional runs in some of the theaters, and Tugg screenings in others).
It may have been frustrating for us that it took us so long to pull together the resources to shoot, but in retrospect, that long lead time allowed us to build up a lot of interest in advance of the release. We also had a very visual website and socials up and active very early in the process -- this was important because it made the project feel real, and like it was going to happen, for folks looking up our work early in the process.
NFS: The protagonist of the story, Jack, returns to his hometown in West Virginia when his grandmother's health takes a sharp decline due to Alzheimer's disease. You established a partnership with Alzheimer's Association to build awareness for the film and the theatrical tour. How did you create this partnership and how did Alzheimer's Association help with your tour?
Initially, we reached out to the national chapter, but were told they didn't like to be involved until a film or project is ready for distribution. We then decided to try for the local chapter, because we thought we might get more traction there -- thinking they might be less inundated with material, and might be excited about something set in their backyard essentially.
And we were right. The WV chapter was not only receptive, but they became fiscal sponsors, helping us to apply for grants and receive tax-deductible donations. When the time came for the tour, not only did they help us spread the word on the ground in WV, but they also sent out dozens of emails on our behalf to chapters across the country to introduce us and the film to their colleagues. It was incredible!
NFS: You worked with Tugg for many of your screenings. What were some of the advantages of using Tugg?
Pretty early in our festival application process, we decided to pivot, abandon that path, and strike out on our own theatrical tour. We knew we had an audience, we were confident in the film, and we didn't want this audience who'd been following us for years to have to wait another year or two to see the film because it had to finish a festival run first.
Tugg was the tool that clinched that decision for us. While it requires a tremendous amount of time and energy to run a campaign (similar in feeling to a crowdfund), it costs nothing, allows your film to be seen in major theatre chains, and if you run a smart campaign, it can make the film decent money, especially if you attend and sell merch. We could see a clear path forward that put us directly in touch with our audience and made us money, so it was a no-brainer. And it became a tool for local chapters of the Alzheimer's Association to use for awareness-building and fund raising, which was a huge, amazing bonus. Plus, it helped us land our VOD deal with Gravitas Ventures!
NFS: What challenges did you discover when using Tugg to create your theatrical tour?
Most of the challenges of using Tugg come from the mental shift required to get people to buy their tickets in advance. It was challenging to get people to think of it as an "event" as opposed to a movie where they could just buy their tickets at the door. There was a ton of time and energy that we had to pour into the screenings for that reason -- just getting people to get their tickets ahead of time. There were also times when the theater chains were slow to respond to Tugg, so sometimes by the time they'd get back to us with a confirmed date, it was too late to promote the event. We feel like as Tugg grows though, that process will smooth out.
NFS: During our initial call, you talked about the importance of going on tour with your film and the ability to sell merchandise at screenings. Can you share with us why you feel it was so important for you travel with your film?
It was important for a number of reasons:
- Psychologically. So much of indie filmmaking is lonely and challenging and thankless. Getting to see an audience's reaction to the film and engage with it was balm for the soul.
- The Mailing List. We collected hundreds and hundreds of email addresses while we were on tour -- and these are the folks who helped us spread the word when we got to VOD and will hopefully follow our future films.
- Merchandise Sales. The merch sales represented a SIGNIFICANT portion of our revenue on the tour. The impulse purchase principle should not be underestimated! Plus, folks loved to have their merch signed, and we loved to sign it!
NFS: You also screened at some independent theatres separate from your Tugg screenings, including some weeks-long runs. Tell us how you were able to book those particular screenings and what you learned from the process.
Most of this process was cold-calling, and a lot of it was individually negotiated. No two deals looked alike, but we only four-walled in two locations, and those were locations that we KNEW we'd pack and would make the money back. The theater chains in WV knew that we'd be a local draw, so we were able to do a split with them. Alamo Drafthouse was particularly rad at taking a chance on us -- in those circumstances, we played in towns where we knew we had support. We ran for 5 weeks at a theater in Florida, and in that instance, one of our fans was living in a retirement community that had its own chain of movie theaters and requested us. We performed better than many of the blockbusters for that audience, so we got this incredible run!
In terms of what we learned, we would say don't be afraid to ask because independent theaters are looking for alternative content, especially for Monday - Wednesday nights. But you need to be able to prove that you've got an audience in their area. In a few of these circumstances, we had a really tiny turnout, and that was stressful. If folks aren't buying tickets in advance, you have no way of knowing how many people will actually show up!
NFS: Angel's Perch was initially crowdfunded on Kickstarter. Now you are crowdfunding your next project, Auld Lang Syne, on Seed&Spark, which ends this Monday. Tell us a little bit about your new project and why you chose Seed&Spark for crowdfunding.
Our next project is actually much smaller than Angel's Perch. It's a micro-budget $56K dark comedy that we're shooting in 7 days!
Kim wrote it in some ways as a response to the process of making Angel's Perch because that film, as small as it was, took us three and a half years to fund, shoot, and release. We wanted our next project to be something so small that we could make it NOW, and with less pressure to recoup.
We met Emily Best from Seed&Spark at SXSW last year and were immediately taken with her passion for independent film and with her idea to create a one-stop shop for filmmakers to crowdfund through the release. We loved the transparency of the way the wishlist is set up, so your backers can see exactly where their money is going. And if a film reaches 500 followers, it gets automatic distribution to the VOD platforms for something like a 7% fee, which is well below industry standard. Films are also required to reach 80% of their goal before the film is "greenlit," so there's still the pressure of the all-or-nothing approach that's so effective on Kickstarter. And just as stressful!
My thanks to Kimberly and J.T. for sharing their lessons learned on their narrative film's theatrical tour. If you found this post helpful, consider supporting Auld Lang Syne on Seed&Spark before the end of the campaign this Monday, Apr. 13, 12 noon PDT/3pm EDT. Here's their pitch video: