Before we decided to go down the challenging and empowering path of creative distribution, my producers and I did our homework. We talked to other directors and producers who had released their own films outside traditional models, we read everything we could find on the subject (which wasn’t much), and we consulted many other advisors who possessed an understanding of our film and the general distribution landscape.
In this era, filmmakers have grown used to the fact that this line of work requires a wide knowledge base and a willingness to tackle things beyond the creative sphere. Distribution is no different. But just as in production, there are as many different approaches as there are filmmakers. Depending on your existing skills, the amount of your own time you can devote, your distribution budget, and the scope of your imagination, anyone can devise an independent release strategy that will work for them.
In our case, we’re a pretty scrappy bunch and we were coming in with a lot of ideas and enthusiasm, but we also realized that collaboration could bring us to a whole new level. After evaluating our own strengths and weaknesses and having conversations with a lot of candidates, we ended up expanding our team to include the following people:
MIA BRUNO: Distribution Strategist, Theatrical Booking & Impact Campaigning
THIN PIG MEDIA: Digital Marketing & Social Media Management
BRIGADE MARKETING: Publicity
GIANT INTERACTIVE: Digital Delivery
ANNA FEDER: Academic Outreach
We determined that we wanted to do a limited theatrical release in order to garner reviews and raise our film’s profile, but we’d never had much immediate access to individual theatrical programmers when we’d worked with traditional distributors. We began asking around for someone who could target appropriate venues and pitch the film to line up bookings for our release. Our goal was to find someone who had knowledge of the theatrical landscape as well as a genuine passion for SADIE and ability to speak intelligently about both the film and its themes. We ultimately found these qualities, and many more, in Mia Bruno. Mia has a background in distribution, having started her career at Gravitas Ventures. She now works as a distribution strategist, helping filmmakers navigate their opportunities in the marketplace and release their films in creative ways. When we spoke to her, we were thrilled to find a collaborator who could offer much more than booking services. Mia had an enthusiasm to dig deep with us to crack the codes of distribution and a lot of innovative ideas on how to do that. She advocated that we support our theatrical release with an “impact campaign,” meaning that once theaters were booked, we would work to connect directly with people in each region who might resonate with the themes of the film. We made SADIE to start a conversation, and Mia’s immersive, grassroots approach felt like an ideal way to bring volume and depth to that conversation.
Digital marketing and social media are some of the most powerful ways to reach an audience for an independent filmmaker. We are not a big studio--we aren’t able to mount international junkets, put ads on taxis, or air Super Bowl commercials--but we still need to find an audience. We have to do a lot with very little. We were looking for someone who understood this and had a strategy tailored to making the most of the ad budget we had available. We also wanted someone who could think in jargon but talk in English. It’s key to find someone who can communicate effectively to the average audience member since this person will become your film’s voice in many ways, but they also need to be happy to get into the weeds on things like search engine optimization, the Facebook Pixel, and Instagram's ever-changing algorithm. We partnered with marketing agency Thin Pig Media, who loved the film and got what we were trying to do. Ben Rapson & Katherine Boehrer from Thin Pig displayed a strong passion of their own for the creative distribution approach, which had become a very important factor to us as well. Finding others who wanted to learn and grow in these somewhat uncharted waters meant that they would be driven not only by their connection with our specific film, but also by their enthusiasm to make this model work for many other filmmakers in the future.
Of the roles I listed, people are probably most familiar with the job of a publicist. This is the person (or team) who represents your film to the press. A publicist can pitch stories about your film or members of your cast & crew, book appearances on various talk & radio shows, angle for placement in broader pieces, manage the red carpet experience during your premieres, and generally alert the press to the fact that your film is the next big thing. We wanted someone for this role who knew the landscape and had realistic but aggressive goals for putting us on the collective radar of the movie-going public. We had already worked with Adam Kersh at Brigade for our SXSW premiere, so he knew the movie and its history well. He knew what critics had reviewed it already and who we could still tap, he knew us and our actors, and was able to start a few steps ahead to help us ramp into our release. Plus, he is a well-established name in the industry and someone to whom connecting the dots between filmmakers and press is second nature. And he’s not afraid to make a dirty joke when the time is right (and sometimes when it’s not).
Which brings me to aggregators, the companies that help consolidate the work of digital delivery to various streaming platforms. Most of these platforms don’t deal with individual filmmakers, so this is a tough thing to take on by yourself. With an aggregator, you provide a list of deliverables, then they facilitate things like encoding, metadata and basically just preparing your film for delivery to each outlet. Depending on who you work with, these folks can also handle "merchandising," or negotiating for placement & visibility on each platform. Merchandising was the factor that led us to select Giant Interactive. Any of the prominent aggregators should be able to make your film available to stream or download, but we responded to Giant’s excitement about maximizing SADIE’s changes of being seen once it landed on each platform.
Going into this process, we knew that we weren’t going to be able to afford a wide theatrical release. Theatrical is where most movies see the smallest return on their investment (and often lose money.) We wanted to be strategic and find ways to raise the film’s profile and get ourselves in front of the largest number of people without spending/losing a fortune. And since our main goal with the film is to encourage a deeper conversation about kids coming of age in a violent culture, it only seemed fitting to take it directly to those who might best understand its themes: youth. To aid in this quest, we connected with Anna Feder, the curator of the Bright Lights film series, a program of the visual and media arts department at Emerson College. Anna has worked in higher education for over a decade, and exhibition for over two decades. She offered to utilize the relationships she’s built with colleagues through University Film and Video Association (UFVA) and the Arthouse Convergence to identify academic partners who would be interested in bringing SADIE to their schools. She also helped us draft a guide to share with our academic and cultural screening partners which outlines ways to best connect with local partners and talking points for discussion after the film.
In order to avoid burnout during this extended period of intense work, we designated some funds so that one of the film’s producers could be on board at all times as a project manager to handle things like print traffic, the various accounting needs we would encounter with each prong of our release, finalizing and booking travel for college and community screenings, and all the unexpected details that come along with this DIY approach. And though a lot of the graphics and editing work are things we can handle ourselves, we’re also working with some contractors for any jobs that we felt would benefit from specialized knowledge. Shout outs to Yen Tan, who designed our poster, Michael Lange, who cut our new theatrical trailer, and David Robbins, who wrangled our technical deliverables, for bringing their considerable skills to the table over the last few months.
And lastly, we found an amazing intern, Bobbin Ramsey, an up-and-coming filmmaker in her own right who was excited to get a close-up view of this process. Bobbin has done some editing work, helped create our academic discussion guide and has worked with Mia to connect with various organizations and build partnerships with those who deal on a daily basis with the issues of the film (things like youth & violence, parenting, families of active military, and the opioid crisis).
These are the people who make up our creative distribution team. We are fortunate to have a budget to fund our effort thanks in part to our own forethought (a portion of our production budget was already set aside for this eventuality) and in part to the incredible generosity of our executive producer, Eliza Shelden, who agreed that the non-recoupable bonus we received from Amazon through their Festival Stars deal would be best applied directly to the film’s release. She came on board as our sole investor due to her passion for the film, and shares our goal of reaching and starting a conversation with as many people as possible.
Most of the team members above will be contributing posts to talk in greater detail about their work over the coming weeks and months. Our next blog will come from Lacey Leavitt and Jennessa West (SADIE’s producers) and Jonathan Caso (SADIE’s co-producer) and will break down the costs associated with our creative distribution effort.
Thanks for taking this journey with us, and as always, please follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, and at our website. And join our newsletter list to have the news delivered right to your inbox!