I Made a Feature and I'm Showing it in Theaters, Part 1: Why You Should, Too
For a filmmaker starting from the bottom, a theatrical run can be a career-defining moment. And now, using a model like Tugg, you can actually afford it.
When I embarked on making Brave New Wild eight years ago, I could care less about showing in theaters. Boy, have I changed my tune.
I don’t have a big distribution deal, nor is my film a superfan-funded success story. I am—like most of you reading this—a filmmaker who started with nothing but an idea for my first feature. It’s a lot of work to make a feature doc or narrative, especially with no budget. How many of you did all that work only to find, instead of pearly gates, a series of teeth-grinding hurdles to a nebulous distribution?
A stand-alone theatrical run is a great way to find and engage your exact audience, and to take hold of your destiny as a filmmaker.
In this saturated market, there’s no surprise that many independent films are DOA. I see it all the time. When you go through all that trouble to make a beautiful feature and it doesn’t go anywhere, the worst thing that can happen is what usually happens: you never make another.
Why you should bother with a theatrical release
After a lot of twists and turns, breakthroughs and disappointments, Brave New Wild has been through the film festival circuit and is on iTunes. It’s out there. So for all intents and purposes, I’ve made it to the feature director’s club. (Although I still have not received a membership card....)
So, at what point did I realize I was really a bona fide filmmaker? On top of helping us slowly build momentum for the film, the Tugg theatrical run for Brave New Wild has been the turning point for me.
Beyond marketing, this article reflects my perspective on the importance of transitioning psychologically and materially into a director, and how I think it can help you, too. That coming-of-age moment will be what you need to move on to the next film. Below, I've compiled some basics, case studies of my screenings, and some drawbacks of which you should be aware. (Be sure to read Part 2 of this series, coming later, for a complete breakdown of what to do if you decide you want to take this route.)
Here's a roundup of what you can get out of a theatrical tour:
- Organic word-of-mouth for your film
- Momentum for online release/continued sales over time
- Cultivate the right audience for your film
- Find out how an audience reacts to your film
- Reviews and press
- Control your distribution destiny (a least a little!)
- Come-of-age as a director
Why you should use Tugg to self-distribute
Tugg allows you to centralize your theatrical tour, seamlessly run screenings in actual movie theaters, and give people across the country a chance to host your film themselves.
I've also heard great things about Gathr, though I haven't had a chance to use their platform. (If you have, let us know your experience in the comments.) You can also certainly do your own screening tour without using any platform. (I’ll give you some tips for taking this route.)
Using the Tugg platform, I’ve made between $200-$500 per screening so far. I’m not striking it rich, but I’m not losing money either.
There are often instances where it will make more sense for you to run a screening outside the Tugg platform. But keep in mind that you’ll have to do everything yourself, from calling and booking (and paying) for the venue to finding somewhere to sell tickets online. I neither had the budget to pay for venues upfront nor the time or desire to do all this legwork myself. I didn’t get into filmmaking to be a booking agent, after all! And I figure you didn’t, either.
The crowdsourced aspect of Tugg
We’ll get to the nuts and bolts of this later, but the basic model of Tugg is this: you request a screening in a theater on a certain date. Once the theater approves your screening, you have until a week or so before the screening date to sell a minimum number of tickets. Tugg calls this the threshold. If you meet the threshold, the screening happens. If you don’t, the screening doesn’t happen. It’s all-or-nothing, like Kickstarter for showing in movie theaters.
How to decide if your film fits the Tugg model
Any film can work for a model like Tugg if you put in the work. Here’s my response to your hypothetical film descriptions.
You: I’d like to try Tugg, but what if…
- …my film is a documentary?
If your documentary has a specific subject matter that is of interest to people (like competitive swimming), or issue that people can rally around (like animal rights), then you’ll find it that much easier to secure an audience through Tugg. But what if your doc doesn’t have a clear issue or audience, and is actually a balls-to-the-wall zany flick about nothing and everything all at once? That sounds really cool to me, and I don’t see why Tugg still can’t work for you. You’ll have to work a little harder to find the best places to advertise your screening, but that is work that benefits you regardless of your long-term plan for the film.
- ….my film is a narrative?
The unique style and subject matter of your film are the clues you can use to find out what kind of person would want to come and watch it. Then you find out where those people hang out online—and tell them to come on out to a screening. My fellow No film School writer and talented directed in his own right, Chris Boone, is the pudding to prove this words. His first feature, Cents, had a number of highly attended (200+ sold out) screenings.
- …my film is great, but no one else thinks so?
I meet a lot of people who get pretty banged up after a barrage of film festival rejections that have eaten away at their confidence. I see that as even more of a reason to show in theaters! Some films are “film festival films” and some are not. I see plenty of good films all the time that didn't have festival runs, and in that case, you would owe it to yourself even more to have a Tugg tour where you can find out what people think.
- …my film is bad?
Well, shoot. Films have flaws, and sometimes the ratio of flaws-to-good-stuff might be a little off. But films—like art, politics, taste, and all of culture—is highly subjective.
I like what the co-directors of Claire in Motion said: "We have to stop thinking about films in terms of good and bad." Even if your film is flawed, how will you ever learn from the experience if you don’t give yourself the experience of seeing how audiences react to it? We’re supposed to learn from our mistakes, but how can we if we don’t know what they are? If you really think your film stinks, just don't go on a nationwide tour with it. Unless it's The Room.
What are Tugg's basic costs and profits?
You pay no money upfront, and you make some money back. Using the Tugg platform, I’ve made between $200-$500 per screening so far. I’m not striking it rich, but I’m not losing money, either. You have a built-in ‘screening fee’ that is factored into the ticket price and the minimum threshold of tickets needed; beyond that, you split profits with the theater, Tugg, and the promoter on all sales after threshold tickets. You don’t make any money on the threshold tickets, as those cover the cost of the venue, the screening fee, and the Tugg cut. But you do make 35% of ticket sales after the threshold.
Tugg is a great excuse to have your DCP made.
For example, if the threshold for the Brave New Wild screening in Austin was 50 tickets, and my screening fee is $100, I make $100 for the first 50 tickets. For each ticket after that until the event sells out, I make 35%.
When you sign up on Tugg, you can decide what the minimum screening fee is that you will require. I’ve seen anything from $0 to $350. For Brave New Wild, we settled on $100 because we didn’t want it to be cost-prohibitive.
Using Tugg to pay off your DCP
To do theatrical screenings using Tugg, you need a DCP. If you weren’t planning on having one made for your festival run or release, that's $900+ out of your pocket. Is it worth it?
Two years ago, I broke the story that for the first time in its history, Sundance had no more feature films being screened from 35mm prints. All features were being screened from DCP. As the head of Sundance projection pointed out, DCP is far superior to other digital masters. After schlepping Blu-ray around at film festivals—and having all kinds of projection nightmares, including having to stop the film and play from an SD DVD backup—I could see his point.
I was in no hurry to fork over $900+ for a DCP master if I really didn’t need one, but I told myself that after three screenings, we would have worked off our DCP master cost with ticket sales. And that’s exactly what we did. On top of that, I have never seen my film look so good. The film deserved to be seen at its best. I can honestly say what I thought was a cost-prohibitive condition is a real no-brainer to me today; Tugg is a great excuse to have your DCP made.
Maximizing Tugg by running multiple screenings yourself
You can wait around hoping someone will request your film, but you can benefit a lot more from taking the bull by the horns: use Tugg to plan your own personalized nationwide tour! Assuming you want to get the ball rolling (and pay off your DCP), you may elect to be the promoter yourself (in which case you get another 5% of the post-threshold revenues). Alternately, you can work directly with a promoter.
Allow an extra week on top of the one to two weeks Tugg suggests for getting your theater confirmed.
Every theater has different rates and seating capacity, which translates into the price of the ticket, therefore the threshold. I wholeheartedly recommend booking a theater that is likely to have a lower threshold/cheaper ticket price. You may make less money if fewer people come, but the work involved is significantly less strenuous. To illustrate this a little more, and to see what you can expect from a screening, let me compare two screenings I’ve done that are on opposite ends of the spectrum.
Case Study 1: San Diego Screening of Brave New Wild at the Landmark Ken Cinema
I went to the University of California, San Diego as an undergrad and always held the local Ken Cinema in high regard, so I was very interested in playing at that theater. However, because it is a single screen joint, the ticket price and threshold were the highest of any of our screenings, as we were essentially closing down the theater for slot. It took a lot of work, and we could not have gotten the tickets sold ahead of time if we had not solicited help from thematically-relevant organizations like the American Alpine Club, the Outdoor Women’s Alliance, UCSD, and the Allied Climbers of San Diego.
- Threshold: 135 tickets
- Ticket price: $13
- Attendance: 250+ tickets
- Net profit: $518
- We made more money on the post-threshold revenue
- We got a lot more media, either from the fact that we tried so hard to promote the event or that more people were going. (We were on Good Morning San Diego live and were reviewed on KPBS, among other outlets.)
- We waived our screening fee and our promoter waived his 5% cut so we could lower the cost of the tickets from the original $15 to $13
- A lot of work and constant nail-biting for just one screening
Case Study 2: Austin Screening of Brave New Wild, Alamo Drafthouse
The screening was hosted by a lovely Texas gentleman named Bill Horton who donated his 5% promoter fee to the Friends of Enchanted Rock. This screening was so effortless, especially in comparison to the San Diego screening right before it, that it ended up being the most fun for me.
- Threshold: 50 tickets
- Ticket Price: $10
- Attendance: 86 (sold out)
- Net profit: $213
- As Bill described it, his Tugg legwork consisted of two emails to secure the screening and a Facebook post—after which he promptly went on a rafting trip for 7 days. It was easy to get 50 people to buy tickets ahead of time
- Bigger is not necessarily better. It may have been a much smaller screening than San Diego, but we sold twice as many DVDs afterward, which paid for our trip out there
- We could have sold more tickets if the theater had been bigger, and therefore made more money
- Too easy. Wait, is that a con?
- Not all theaters are in the Tugg Network
I’m not sure why every theater isn’t in the network, frankly. Having seen my Tugg screenings jam-packed with people on a Thursday night, and the screening next door have maybe five theater-goers, this really seems like a model that could help indie theaters thrive in a time when they are treading water. Come on, super cool independent theater owners: get with the program!
- Some theaters are not ideal partners
Some make ticket prices and thresholds quite high. Some are only open to Tugg screenings on certain days and/or times.
- Some screenings take longer than others to book
Sometimes a theater will take forever to let you know, or turn you down and you’ll have to start over with another theater. If you can, allow an extra week on top of the one to two weeks Tugg suggests for getting your theater confirmed; otherwise, this can throw a wrench in your timing.
- If you do the screening yourself (or travel to it), it's a lot of work
I pretty much didn’t write for NFS for over a month because I had so little time left in between pulling off our first three screenings and real-life obligations like finishing videos, paying bills, taking my dog out on walks.
- It’s harder to get press for a screening that is up in the air
It’s hard enough to get coverage for a screening that is one-night-only, let alone one that isn’t confirmed until enough people RSVP. It’s not impossible, though, but keep it in mind when you reach out to the media!
How is this different from a film festival run?
Film festivals can be a great experience and an essential way to meet filmmakers and programmers, some whom will champion you or collaborate with you later on. With that being said, I don’t see festivals as filling the role of theatrical distribution. Here are the three main reasons why a theatrical run is different.
- Your film stands alone
At a festival, you’re often given a screening time and that’s as involved as you get. (Let’s just hope it’s not at 9AM in a conference room on a Tuesday in the least accessible venue the festival has!) In a lineup that includes dozens or hundreds of features that a festival has to promote, a film can get lost in the shuffle. When you use Tugg, you request the time and place you want. And for better or worse (mostly better), you control all the promotion for your film. This means that you can screen your film when and where you want, and market it exactly the way you want it marketed.
- You keep some of the profits
Don’t expect to see a lot of dough rolling in, but it can add up and it at least offsets the cost of all your work. Not to mention, all of these screenings can (and should) be opportunities to sell DVDs, merchandise, and other stuff paraphenalia.
- You keep the emails
Everyone who gets a ticket to your screen has the option to opt in to your newsletter. This is a huge step toward keeping this audience engaged with your film, and one that you wouldn’t otherwise get in the festival setting.
- You meet a whole new audience more likely to be "your people"
A film festival-goer is a beautiful creature, someone who comes out to see as many independent films as possible in the back-to-back span of time their badge allows. But this person is not exactly a representative sampling of the population. And it may very well be that the person who is most apt to love your film is not a film festival-goer at all. A stand-alone theatrical run is a great way to find and engage the exact audience members who will love your film.
A theatrical tour powered by Tugg is a great way to take hold of your destiny as a filmmaker. In an industry where we often rely on grantmakers to fund us, tastemakers to pick us, and distributors to put us out there, a theatrical tour is the most fun I’ve had doing things myself.
So far, I’ve had four successful Tugg screenings. I have two more on the books. (With any luck, a Berkeley screening on July 5 and a Brooklyn screening on September 8.) My goal is to have organized 10 screenings total by the end of September, so that’s four to go. If anyone reading wants to try it out, by all means, team up with me and request Brave New Wild. I’ll show you the ropes since I’ve committed, quite ludicrously, to attend every screening in person!
If you have a film you are passionate about, think about theatrical. If you’re already convinced, then keep an eye out for Part 2 of this installment where I break down everything you need to know to make your Tugg tour successful.
Have you had positive experiences with a theatrical tour? Please share your experiences and philosophy in the comments below.