Independent Review: Theatrical Runs – An Independent Decision

In a world of constantly changing distribution tactics, there is one that stands head and shoulders as the end-all be all format for viewing movies.  One that can never be replaced by a disc, a computer harddrive, and I don’t care what you say, even a nice HD projector.  There is something about the communal experience that people go through in a packed theater on a busy night that they’ll just never get in any other venue.  Even the drive-in, mostly dead in many places in America, is a different animal altogether.

In a business that is mostly dominated by headlines of which movie stole the weekend, which has legs, and which are steady growers, people often forget that so much more goes into the theatrical experience.  However, all these elements that make a movie special to an audience are a giant headache for the people releasing the film.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2  opens tonight, and being the last of the series, it’s likely to be one of the biggest box office smashes of all time, already setting the record for pre-sold tickets.  The weekend will see a good $100 million+ put into the pocket of Warner Brothers.  Still, independent producers can bleed and sweat all they like, but many think the theatrical experience is closed to them, either because of budget, content, or genre.

Image Entertainment has acquired the distribution rights to the long-awaited horror anthology from Adam Green, Adam Rifkin, Tim Sullivan, and Joe Lynch titled Chillerama and recent press releases put out by them have expressed interest in doing a limited theatrical release followed by a possible roadshow of screening dates.

Kevin Smith, unable to find funding for his first horror movie Red State went the independent route and spent only $4 million to make the movie.  He has a national limited release planned for October 19th, but in the meantime, he took the film on a roadshow tour across the US, hitting only certain cities, and says he has made his budget back already.

It’s not like this is a new release model.  The roadshow release was common in the lat 60’s and especially during the 70’s, where horror, action, and exploitation films made the rounds at small theaters (those good old fashioned “grind houses”) and the drive-in curcuit.  With a small amount of local promotion (usually in newspapers), many very cheap films were able to be seen across the country by large audiences, if not all at once.

The practice of doing a roadshow release died off with the advent of the multiplex theater chains that started to spring up across the country in the economic boom of the 1980’s.  The funny thing is, this is not the first time the theatrical experience went through a change.  In the early, Golden Age of Hollywood, studios owned stock in theaters, or just owned entire chains outright.  As many chains as you could buy up, that’s how many screens your release can reach.  This all ended when the studios were forced to sell of their shares in theaters because it was considered a monopoly at the time.

Now, major theater chains, even national ones, are relegated to territorial enclosures.  While you may find AMC theaters in most corners of the country, there are very few in the south.  The same can be said for Regal Cinemas, who have a large presence in the south, but limited visibility everywhere else in the country.  Most people are unaware of the brand they are supporting, instead, just going to the place that’s playing the movie they want to see.

In a landscape full of different types of releases, from arthouse limited releases that play in less than 50 theaters, to mid-range budget movies that get a limited release on 400 screens, to the revival screening at places like the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas, and New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles, owned by Quentin Tarantino.  Few people, outside of the cinmea die-hards, are aware that many of these small run theaters still exist, and many are showing alternative programming.

Companies like Magnet Releasing have begun to make regular use of these theaters, opening first in bigger cities, and then expanding or retracting screens as needed based on performance.  IFC Films is doing the same thing, and both are incorporating all formats for their releases.  Magnet’s typical release platform is to release a film (like the recent Hobo With a Shotgun and Trollhunter) on VOD across all platforms (such as iTunes, cable/satellite systems, and Amazon Instant) giving it the widest availability possible without pressing up either DVD’s or Blu-Rays.

Typically a month after the VOD release, they’ll hit anywhere from 20-500 screens for the theatrical week.   How many get subtracted or added depends on the performance of the movie.  Typically two months after this limited theatrical release, we’ll see a DVD/Blu-Ray release of the film, like we did with James Gunn’s Super.

This release pattern has worked well especially for genre films that have a very specific audience to begin with.  Releasing Rubber on 4,000 screens is an obvious mistake.  First, these films are often modestly budgeted to begin with.  Most fall under the $10 million mark for production.  Meanwhile, it has become typical for a major release (think Pirates of the Carribean 4) to spend upwards of $200 million on marketing alone.  That type of advertising budget is the only thing that really sustains these sort of mega-blockbusters that cost $200 million plus.  So when people hear that Green Lantern was a box office disaster because it didn’t make $500 million, that’s not entirely wrong.  Really, the company is only putting up $500 million on production and advertising because they think they can possibly grab $1 billion worldwide.  Anything less is then considered a failure, silly as that sounds.

So when an independent producer hears Green Lantern is a failure with a $145 million international gross, it can be disturbing.  How can your $50,000 movie even begin to compete with that?  Fortunately, less and less independent producers seem to be taking these distribution models as a fact of life, and are instead researching their own release patterns.  In pure numbers, it’s much easier to make a $50,000 film profitable.

Your film doesn’t need a large flurry of marketing to become profitable.  However, if you have a good movie on your hands, if you send out screeners, the love will come.   Respected horror bloggers can get you wider exposure than Hulu if they love it enough.  Most remaining independent theaters off “four wall” services, which means they’ll rent you a screen for an alloted time to show whatever you want, and bring whomever you like or can sell tickets to.  Many theaters that offer four wall services do so because they will set a price for the service based on what they need to cover costs and make their slice of profit.  In a lot of cases, this means less than $1,000 for a four wall.   In a theater seating 200, $5 a head will cover your costs, $6 will turn you a profit, and so on, depending on if you can sell all the tickets.

The key in this matter is promotion.  Now remember, promotion is not always the over-saturation the studios seem to think works, pasting a poster for your movie on every street corner is not necessarily going to draw a new crowd for you.  Especially for indpendent producers, think in small terms.  Have screenings in cities where you have friends or family, or any group of people you know will want to see your film.

The main thing that an independent procuer has to consider is they don’t have the horribly repressive overhead to consider.  The sad fact is, doing a wide enough theatrical release to fulfill your whole budget may be out of reach at $50,000, but it’s great marketing and word of mouth for when your movie hits DVD, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, etc (more on how to get there in a later column).

The thing to remember is you can have a national theatrical release by just booking 10-15 theatrical dates.  Often, if one date can be sold out, it can afford the next date if you have a roll-out planned.  Great urban areas with good local theaters that won’t charge you an arm and a leg for a four wall screening that I’ve found are:  Detroit, MI, Chicago, IL, Mesa, AZ, Austin, TX, New York, NY, Los Angeles, CA, San Francisco, CA, Dallas, TX, and Lexington, KY.  I’m sure those aren’t the limit of great areas to have a screening with a real chance of drawing a crowd.

As an independent producer, you’ll be used to adversity and tough spots.  A national theatrical roadshow is no shortage of work in its own right, like your movie it will be a series of trials and errors, and when it comes to advertising your screening, there are many creative ways to do it.  First, the plight of the newspaper publishers has resulted in plummeting advertising costs, for a local screening, this can still be a great way to draw a crowd in a territory you aren’t from.   Even young people that don’t normally read the newspaper can get it mentioned to them by parents or other parties that know they are into your genre or independent film in general.

Of course, the internet has the widest reach for any film, but at the same time, it can be hard to organize a mass gathering  in a place where you don’t have anyone to help you.  Fliers are still a good thing to pass out, if you can find the right locations that your crowd would normally patronize.  Bars, head shops, alternative clothing stores, record stores (if the town still has them), local video stores (again, if they have them), and concerts are great places to find people that go out looking for a good time.   If your movie is of a more serious nature, places like museums, cultural centers, even the local community college can be great places to pass out fliers.

As with anything, marketing a film is pure numbers.  The largest number of people exposed to your screening can only help you.  At the same time, recognizing key demographics (like horror fans) in the community you are going to have your screening in can really boost your ticket sales quickly.  I still remember the word of mouth campaign that was spreading news of the Bubba Ho-Tep road show tour back in 2003 at a local comic shop.  So while the widest exposure can only help, exposure to key demographics is more important, and ultimately, probably cheaper in the long run.

At this point, you may ask, “Why don’t more independent films use this route?”  The fact is, a lot do.   Many locally-produced films will have a local premiere, but beyond that, not many really reach for anything wider.  Most fear the cost, but for someone who can pull together a low budget independent feature, theatrical exhibition will ultimately be one of the easier, cheaper things you do in the grand scheme of your film.

Shawn and Jonathan Lewis, creators of the now-infamous Black Devil Doll, were able to take their film on a 22 city tour made up of four wall, festival, and convention screenings.  It helped that the trailer for Black Devil Doll quickly became a viral video, but smart planning, efficient marketing, and harsh dedication took them across 3 countries on a series of successful screenings that segued into their DVD release nicely, keeping the film fresh in the minds of those who had seen it to recommend to their friends (or buy themselves) and attract people that maybe couldn’t make the screening.

Also, one disasterous screening doesn’t mean anything if you diversify your audiences.  People may hate it in Washington, D.C., but it might play well in Dallas.   This is just another reason to try to expand your theatrical output even further.   Even if you can’t pull off a hugely successful road show release, you might be able to attract fans to the eventual DVD or VOD release (another category in and of itself, sure to be a future column topic).

If you are able to raise enough money to get your film made, surely you can find enough to do at least 2 theatrical screenings.  Even a single screening can play into your favor, it buys a certain sense of legitamecy (if the screenings go well of course) rather than one day the film just popping up on someone’s Netflix queue.  If you are willing to put the same amount of work into the release of your movie as most put into the production, you’ll be able to manage a few screenings in cities you’re not from.  Or think of it this way:  For the price of 15 average-priced film festival entries, you can put on a four wall screening where your film is guaranteed to play, and any money that comes from the screening goes back into your pocket.  For those with the cash to do it, a few free screenings in key areas can really boost the word of mouth on a small film.  Also, don’t limit your scope to American theaters.  Canada, England, Sweden, Norway, and even South Korea have theaters that will offer four wall events.  If you think your film can find an international audience (and if there’s an American audience, there’s an international one) then you are no longer limiting your possible consumers to 300 million, you’ll open up to the billions that live outside the US, a good portion of whom like to go to the movies.

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