SADIE Blog

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ADVENTURES IN CREATIVE DISTRIBUTION: Lessons from Our Theatrical Release

by Megan Griffiths

This year, our team made the momentous decision to turn down offers from traditional distributors and build our own distribution model. We accepted an SVOD deal from Amazon via their Amazon Festival Stars program, then set out to produce the theatrical and TVOD releases of SADIE on our own terms. We made SADIE to contribute to a cultural conversation about youth and violence, and we wanted to actively engage in that conversation in our release. We walked in with our eyes open, knowing we were facing a mountain of work, but also knowing that we wouldn’t be satisfied unless we finished the process of releasing SADIE without a single ounce of energy left on the table.

We have had highs and lows. Premiering at SXSW, engaging with audiences, reading our favorite reviews and getting featured on Variety’s list of the 10 Most Under-Appreciated Films of 2018 were amazing highs. Showing up to venues after doing everything in our personal and financial bandwidth to promote those screenings to find only a handful of audience-members in the seats, not so much.

2018 was an excellent year for movies, which is a wonderful thing for audiences everywhere. However, it made it a particularly challenging year to release a small film and find a way to register on the radar of the movie-going public without a huge advertising budget.

We started this blog in order to provide a glimpse behind the curtain of distribution. In that spirit, we wanted to reflect on some of the things we have learned on this journey so far--essentially the lessons of our theatrical release. We hope that these disclosures serve to both caution and inspire filmmakers who are considering the daunting, empowering leap of releasing their own films.

THE BARRIERS

There are many gatekeepers in this business--festival programmers, critics, distributors, and more. These people serve an important curatorial function, especially in light of the sheer numbers of films that are now made and released each year (an average of more than two per day). We knew going in that we’d need to pass through some gates--what we didn’t fully appreciate was that beyond each gate was another gate and another keeper.

An example: early in our theatrical booking efforts, we learned that two major national chains had expressed interest in releasing SADIE in their cinema networks. We were thrilled, knowing how many venues each chain included, thinking we would get to pick and choose the markets where we would play. It didn’t turn out to be quite that straight-forward, as once the chain’s programmer opened the first gate, we discovered we still had to await approval from every individual theater.

SADIE has never been a no-brainer--for financiers, distributors, or for audiences. It is designed to confront the viewer to consider uncomfortable truths. Yes, there are light moments and appealing actors giving beautiful performances, but there are also tough questions that many people just don’t feel like engaging with--particularly in this political climate. That doesn’t mean the film is less worthy but it certainly presented a challenge at each point in the process when we came to a new gate.

Some programmers are bold--they believe strongly in a film and take the chance on playing it even if they know it might be tough to fill seats. But the majority are struggling to stay afloat in this era of streaming services and can’t afford to roll the dice; they make choices based on what they know will provide a financial return and keep their doors open. It’s understandable, but it doesn’t always lead to the embrace of riskier work that may have a more difficult time connecting with mainstream audiences. And hey, some might just not dig your movie.

More frustratingly, even the individual programmers in those major chains that did express interest in SADIE did so on their own timelines. Most were not willing to confirm our film until mere weeks before our release date (presumably due to wanting to save space for larger titles or successful films that might hold over for another week), meaning we wouldn’t have any certainty of when or where the film would screen as we were mounting our promotional campaign.

Ultimately, we chose to book the film outside of these larger chains at smaller independent theaters. These venues worked with us to lock in dates far enough in advance of our release to leave a window for us to build buzz. They also did not require the long window the chain theaters would have before our VOD release, allowing us to better capitalize on the momentum from our theatrical press. We played at some fantastic independent theaters, including the Northwest Film Forum, where we sold out almost every screening over our opening weekend, and the Alamo Drafthouse in Winchester, VA, where the Winchester Film Club did an incredible job of promoting our event. Our Distribution Strategist Mia Bruno and our Creative Distribution intern Bobbin Ramsey worked with the venues to do outreach in each community where we played and forged some amazing partnerships (more on that in Mia’s blog here and Bobbin’s here).

Playing smaller theaters also allowed us to avoid Virtual Print Fees (VPF), which distributors must pay at all major venues where their films are screening. This article from Arts Alliance Media does an amazing job of detailing the history of these fees and why they initially became de rigueur (and why they may soon be moot), but basically in budget numbers VPF’s represent an additional $850 per theater. This probably goes without saying, but that is a lot of money for a small film. Especially a small film trying to reserve money for the two most important markets of them all...

THE IMPORTANCE OF NEW YORK & LA

When your P&A (prints & advertising) budget is limited, positive reviews in major market publications are your best chance of building awareness for your film. Given the fact that papers like the New York and Los Angeles Times only review films that are released in theaters, that makes it critical to secure a good date in a good theater in New York City and Los Angeles. Unfortunately, since there are a finite number of venues and screening times in those cities any given weekend, and 600-700 films a year vying for those spots, that puts the power securely in the exhibitors’ hands.

We had offers from some venues in NYC and LA that were in farther-flung reaches of the cities. Some of the more centrally-located theaters proposed programming SADIE in off-peak hours, like 5 p.m. and 11 p.m. nightly. At the time when we were making these decisions, our theatrical run was in front of us. Our hopes were high that our money and effort, coupled with positive reviews, would push the film into the collective consciousness and get people out for opening weekend. We decided to make an investment in booking the films in highly populated areas at prime viewing times, so we four-walled (bought-out in advance) our venue NYC and did a rental/box-office split for our venue in LA.

Should we have? The receipts from our week-long runs at each venue certainly didn’t justify it on a purely financial basis. We rationalized the cost as a publicity expense, since reviews were the primary factor in the decision, and in that regard we fared better--the reviews we generated from our time in those markets were majority positive (though nothing so rapturous that it tipped the scale in any major way and lit our box office on fire).

Would we have garnered the same number of reviews if we’d gone with the less expensive options of off-peak times or lower-traffic neighborhoods? Perhaps it just matters that you play somewhere, anywhere in each city, and proximity and venue name recognition don’t factor into it. Perhaps we didn’t need to play in those cities (or get those reviews) at all and that money would have been better spent on digital ads for our iTunes release. Certainly that is one school of thought. However, our digital sales have been generally higher in regions where we also screened theatrically, so maybe it was all worth it in the grand scheme. It’s truly hard to know what the perfect strategy would have been, even with 20/20 hindsight.

We encountered one other unanticipated wrinkle as we neared the end of this process. Since our LA theatrical arrangement only allowed for two screenings per night, we ultimately did not meet Academy qualifications (which require three screenings per night during your LA run), so we were unable to submit our composer Mike McCready’s incredible work for best score and song consideration. A good reminder to review the qualification checklists for any awards you might be vying for to ensure your decisions early in the process support your long-term strategy.

ACADEMIC SCREENINGS

In one of our early calls with a traditional distributor in the weeks following our premiere, we brought up the idea of an academic screening tour. The distributor dismissed the idea out-of-hand, saying they’d tried it before and found it to be more expense and trouble than it was worth. That ended up being a critical moment in our conversations around whether we’d take a swing at creative distribution. SADIE deals with themes around what our society is teaching our youth about violence and problem-solving, and we wanted to bring that conversation to those it might impact the most.

The decision to make academic screenings a cornerstone of our release strategy has been one we’ve never questioned. We took SADIE to 18 schools in 11 states (and one Canadian province). That’s almost twice the number of venues we hit on our theatrical run. Part of this effort was the Southern Circuit, which brings filmmakers to the South for a series of screenings at participating institutions within driving distance of each other. This model is something we wish existed in more regions, as it brought us to six schools in eight days and provided a well-organized framework and communication chain. But between our own university connections and the schools we reached through our academic outreach consultant Anna Feder, we built out a tour that brought us to many places that SADIE may never have reached otherwise.

Many of the schools we visited for our academic tour were in underserved communities that rarely had the opportunity to talk to filmmakers or even watch independent films on the big screen, so the events tended to draw large and engaged crowds and yield excellent conversations. And on the budgetary side, the schools covered travel expenses and paid a fee to screen the film, so our tour generated a decent profit as well.

Something else we took from our academic experience was this: the ability of kids to handle and process challenging material is dramatically underestimated in this culture. In the decade we spent trying to get SADIE to the screen, we had many, many people tell us that the barrier we faced was that we were trying to make a movie starring kids but for adults. If there’s one myth that’s been dispelled in this journey, it’s that one. By far the best questions we received during our many post-screening discussions came from young people. We had a screening at a high school in Washington State where 130 kids, mostly sophomores and juniors, came out at 7:30 a.m. to watch SADIE, engaging in a thoughtful and deeply inspiring conversation afterwards (when it was still only 9 a.m.!) We won the Gryphon Award at our international premiere at the Giffoni Film Festival in Italy, and it was awarded to us by a jury of 16- and 17-year-olds from 50+ countries. Kids get it. They understand what’s going on in our culture right now and they want to talk about it.

TAKEAWAYS

The odds are against those approaching the theatrical release process independently. Many excellent films released this year even via traditional distribution companies have struggled to register on the national radar. Which films will capture the American imagination and become critical or box-office juggernauts remains impossible to foresee. Bottom line: Every filmmaker wants to do what they can to connect with the audiences that will resonate with the story they’ve told, and as this industry continues to go through immense change, we’re all experimenting, pushing, and working to determine how to do that.

We probably won’t ever really know whether every choice we made was the right one. We followed conventional wisdom about the NYC/LA press, pushing for reviews in hopes that that press would publicize the film in a way that we couldn’t afford to do with P&A money alone. And while we received many great reviews (and likely gotten a bump in digital sales as a side benefit) we may have put too much stock in the belief that any single review would be a game-changer. But we also made a decision early on that we wanted to hand-deliver this film to as many audiences as possible and be active participants in conversations around youth and violence. After 53 post-show discussions with a diverse population of movie-goers from one end of the country to the other, we can say with all certainty that we accomplished that goal.

Exhausting though it may have been, it was so rewarding to travel around the country and attend our many screenings. We never knew who would be in the audience or what would come up for them after the credits rolled. The discussions we had when the lights came up at those screenings consistently helped to remind us of why we chose to embark on the nine-year journey of making SADIE in the first place. We learned something about the world we live in and the people who inhabit it at every stop on our SADIE tour. And we even got a little hope for the future via the intelligent questions and observations of the many young people we met.

A final anecdote: When we were in the South screening SADIE, there was a young woman in the audience who came up to talk to me after the Q&A. She told me she came from a military family and could relate to Sadie’s family life, but she was bothered that I portrayed Sadie playing violent video games in the film. She was a big gamer herself and bristled at the connection being drawn between Sadie’s gaming and the bad choices the character made. I explained my reasoning, as I have to others when this has come up: I don’t take issue with violence being portrayed in media (video games and beyond), but I do worry about how it affects our collective empathy and our feelings about violence as a problem-solving tool when we watch so many characters take lives without consequence and without any connection to the emotional ramifications of the act. She took that in and her whole demeanor shifted. She said she agreed and told me about two games she’d found which she thought bucked that trend--creating worlds that built empathy towards their flawed central character (like Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice) or where empathy towards an opponent and alternatives to violence were built into the game’s DNA (like Undertale). I felt like we both walked away having learned from the short interaction, and it stands out as a highlight of this journey.  

THE METRICS


We’re still in the midst of SADIE’s digital release, and will report back in a future blog with our thoughts on the lessons we’re still learning from that part of the process. In the meantime, thank you to everyone who attended a screening and engaged with us. We’re glad that we (and SADIE) found you. And if you’re a filmmaker enjoying this blog, please leave us a comment and let us know if there’s more you’d like to learn from our experience.

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