How Quarantine Actually Helped Us Get a Theatrical Release

Fivel Stewart in 'The Never List'
Fivel Stewart in 'The Never List'
We finished our movie, then COVID hit. But we didn’t let that stop us!

Releasing your feature film theatrically is something many independent filmmakers, including myself, have dreamed about since they started making films.

I’ve been very fortunate to have a career as a working writer/producer/director whose work can be seen on cable TV and streaming platforms. But I had never quite reached that perceived pinnacle of success as a filmmaker that I had always wanted—having a movie I directed on the big screen!

In the fall of 2018, I directed The Never List from a beautiful screenplay by Ariadne Shaffer that I hoped would help me reach that milestone. I had optioned the screenplay in 2015 with hopes of getting it made with a much bigger budget. I chose this project because of the story. I thought the premise of a “goody goody” teen girl who decides to honor her late best friend’s memory by completing a list of naughty things they swore they’d never do was unique, inspiring, and had a lot of heart.  

I worked closely with Ariadne to make the story as tight and representative as possible. We made our lead female character Eva and her mother Jennifer Asian American and we made a significant supporting character LGBTQ+. Then we set out to raise money for our bigger-budget feature film.

Sadly, the millions of dollars we sought never came.

Fivel Stewart and Andrew Kai

So, I decided to fund the film myself… which is something industry people will tell you to never do. Unfortunately, this meant our budget was very, very, very modest, but what we lacked in budget, we more than made up for in persistence and good old-fashioned sweat equity.

We brought on Anna Margarita Albelo to produce because we knew she understood how to make quality films on our budget level. We also loved Anna’s focus on diversity, not only in casting but behind the camera as well. We wanted as much female, minority, and LGBTQ+ representation on- and off-screen as possible.

Our production ended up having close to 70% female/female-identifying representation in our crew. In fact, our entire camera department, headed up by our kick-ass cinematographer Janine Sides, was female/female-identifying. In addition, we had over 83% representation of women, minorities, and LGBTQ+ above-the-line. Honestly, I’m even more proud of this fact than I am of getting the theatrical release.

So, how did we manage to get our little indie film in theaters?

It had taken us over a year to finish post-production on the film due to funding. Thankfully, our two executive producers, Donna Cole and Bob Berryman, helped secure the funding we needed to finish the film in January 2020, and just as we were beginning to submit the film to film festivals, COVID-19 hit.

A scene from 'The Never List'

Film festivals were canceled or postponed, movie theaters were shut down, our entire industry came to a virtual standstill.

The producers and I met to discuss our options and realized we had one at that point in time—streaming. We wanted to get the movie into people’s living rooms as soon as possible since everyone was quarantined at home.

We submitted the film to Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Originals. Remember, at this point, most of these streamers were shutting down their own productions worldwide due to the pandemic, so we thought our completed film might have a  good chance of getting a premium streaming deal.

Alas, this was not in the cards for our movie. So, we had to rethink our strategy.

We could either upload the film to platforms where we could release directly, like Amazon’s Prime Video Direct, knowing if we did, we would likely never make our money back. Or we could wait out the pandemic and try submitting to online film festivals. I was still hopeful that we could make our money back in the international marketplace if we had a respectable theatrical run.

Fivel Stewart, Anna Grace Barlow, and Andrew Kai

Our writer/co-producer Ariadne was the one who suggested we submit the film to the AMC Indie program. I knew it was a long shot, but what did we have to lose at this point?

She submitted and we got accepted! The irony is that the pandemic probably helped us get a wider theatrical release. Studios and mini-majors were pulling their films from theaters and began releasing them direct-to-streaming or just indefinitely postponing the theatrical releases. So, that left a lot of theaters scrambling for new content.

Once we got into AMC theaters, other regional chains began to program our film as well. Before we knew it, we had booked over 125 theaters across the country. Unbelievable when I think about it.

But that still left one big question—should we release theatrically during a rise in COVID-19 across the country?

This was not an easy decision to make, and we went back and forth discussing the pros and cons for weeks. Our target demographic is 18-24, an age group that is at lower risk for COVID-19. Movie theaters have been doing everything they can to keep audiences as safe as possible, such as enforcing mask-wearing, social distancing, leaving spaces between seats in theaters, using electrostatic disinfectant sprayers, and upgrading their air filters.

Brenda D'Amico and Fivel Stewart

Ultimately, we decided to move forward because, unlike the studios, we didn’t have the luxury of marketing a new date, new locations, etc. We had spent tens of thousands of dollars to market the theatrical release date. It was "release on Dec. 11 or bust."

So yeah… not exactly the dream scenario.

I’m hopeful after seeing some of the returns on similar films released theatrically during the pandemic that we will at least make some of our P&A money back. I guess we’ll find out if our big gamble will pay off or not in the coming weeks. If not, at least I can always say my movie was released in theaters. With many of them expected to shut down in the coming year, I can’t help but think it’s an opportunity that I may never have again.     

The Never List opens in select theaters Friday, Dec. 11, 2020.

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