by Lacey Leavitt
This past weekend I spoke on a Dear Producer panel at the Los Angeles Film Festival, where SADIE was playing. Curated by Dear Producer founder Rebecca Green (IT FOLLOWS, I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS), the other panelists were Steven J. Berger (THE FEELS, SLASH) and Avril Z. Speaks (JINN, HOSEA). It was a wonderful conversation in front of a sold out crowd and the topic of distribution eventually came up. All four producers had similar stories about experiences where distributors had promised to be good partners in the negotiation phase but wouldn’t put anything more than “meaningful consultation” rights in the contract. That almost never turns out well for the film/filmmakers. This isn’t because the distributors don’t care about films, it’s because a lot of them have to deal in bulk numbers in order to be financially solvent. So they might only have the bandwidth to truly focus on 2-4 film campaigns a year, with the others getting a more standardized treatment: new trailer, new poster, the occasional social media blast, short and perfunctory theatrical run, and then straight to VOD, hoping the cast and reviews alone can drive sales. They rarely do.
With these kinds of experiences ringing in our minds, our SADIE team made the decision in the early phases of pre-production to set aside $50k of our budget specifically to supplement the marketing campaign of our eventual distributor and ensure that our film had a fighting chance. Our executive producer Eliza Shelden recognized the intrinsic value of this strategy and was very supportive of it. What we didn’t realize at the time was that we would ultimately be handling the theatrical distribution ourselves, and that $50k was not going to get us where we needed to go when it came to hiring our team, traveling our actors, "eventizing" our theatrical screenings, and most importantly marketing the film outside of our existing sphere. Luckily, by the time we actually made this decision, we had another purse to draw from in the form of a $100k non-recoupable bonus from Amazon (which we opted into through their Festival Stars program). This gave us roughly the same distribution budget as the other films we’d researched that had taken this approach, and gave us the confidence and resources to proceed. But I’m getting ahead of myself…
BACK TO THE BEGINNING
I have been working on this film for nine long (and wonderful) years. Megan first showed me the script while we were still trying to make our first feature together, THE OFF HOURS, in 2009. THE OFF HOURS was the first feature that I’d produced, Megan’s second feature as a director. We’d been on many film sets by the time we started making that film, as we’d both made our living as crew members on various films before making the full time leap into producer and director. When we set out to make THE OFF HOURS we’d never raised money for a feature film before. We’d never budgeted a feature film before. We’d never cast actors out of LA or NY before. So our strategy was to reverse-engineer the process. What format do we want to use? Let’s call the rental houses (even though we’re nowhere near ready) and get quotes on their packages. Who created the contracts for other indies locally? Let’s hire them to do our paperwork. Who funded recent Seattle independent films? Let’s see if they’re interested in our project. Who were the casting directors of some of our favorite films? Let’s hire one of them to cast THE OFF HOURS. I’m a big fan of reverse-engineering/research. In our modern, digital age, there is no excuse for neglecting to educate yourself on the business (and art) of indie film as you wade into it.
Since THE OFF HOURS, Megan and I have both packed in almost a decade of feature film experience. I’ve been fortunate enough to produce and co-produce some projects by some of my favorite filmmakers and people: Megan, Lynn Shelton, Todd Rohal, Colin Trevorrow. I’ve experienced films getting standing ovations and bidding wars at Sundance and films where our sales agents have had to beg somebody, anybody, to give us any kind of distribution deal. This is the experience I took into SADIE’s festival and distribution run, and it’s been a valuable bedrock to have. I also had an amazing producing partner, Jennessa West. Jennessa has twenty years experience as a producer and had just come off of a producing SJ Chiro’s beautiful feature LANE 1974 (also starring Sophia Mitri Schloss--our Sadie--in the title role). This was not the first rodeo for any of us.
So yes, we had all taken multiple feature films through the distribution process. But we had never actually run a distribution campaign before. We didn’t even know everything we didn’t know…still don’t! But, as we did when we started making THE OFF HOURS, we reverse-engineered the process and found three ways to close the gap and inform ourselves how to budget our time and money.
Christopher Horton, Director of the Sundance Institute’s Creative Distribution Initiative, has been doing fantastic, groundbreaking work for independent filmmakers for years through the Artist Services program. Recognizing the changing (mostly for the worse) landscape for independent film distribution over the last few years, the Creative Distribution Initiative launched its grant program with supporting the Kogonada film COLUMBUS, produced by Danielle Renfrew Behrens and Giulia Caruso. They then created a case study detailing that process and released it on the Institute’s website. Whether you are a first time filmmaker or experienced Sundance alum, the case study is available online and is an invaluable resource. (It also inspired us to blog about our distribution process, in the spirit of continuing to illuminate the creative distribution process for other filmmakers!)
We used the case study as our starting point, and took notes on the film’s distribution budget, timeline, and team. This was our “rough draft” and touchstone for strategy and budget, and I still go back and review the case study from time to time.
2. ASKING FOR ADVICE
Not too many narrative filmmakers we know have gone down this road before. I had met Danielle Behrens at the Sundance Creative Producing Summit years ago (when she was there with the fantastic doc THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES) and reached out to her to see if we could ask some questions about the COLUMBUS distribution after we’d sifted through the case study. She was incredibly generous with her time and advice, and helped clarify some questions we had after putting together our rough plan. She also gave us a great heads up: it is SO MUCH work. Be prepared for how much work self-distribution is. Going into this process with a clear vision of the road ahead was very important.
Courtney Sheehan, Executive Director emeritus of the NW Film Forum in Seattle, was another valuable resource as we planned and budgeted our distribution strategy. Her background as an exhibitor, and her connections within the arthouse theater world meant that her feedback and advice was coming from a much different place than most of the industry professionals we knew and that was incredibly helpful. She helped us recognize how useful academic screenings could be for us in cultivating conversations with youth about the film’s themes, a big goal of ours.
We spoke to Kathleen McInnis of See-Through Films, a savvy publicist and distribution strategist who specializes in documentaries. She was also incredibly generous and helpful, giving us a different perspective than we’d heard before and opening us up to ideas on how to connect with audiences that she’s utilized in the subject/audience-specific world of docs.
Megan had a conversation with writer/director/editor/composer Shane Carruth (UPSTREAM COLOR, PRIMER) about his experiences. Shane is a passionate and intelligent filmmaker who not only makes groundbreaking films but was a trailblazer in his self-distribution of UPSTREAM COLOR. He was generous and transparent in that conversation, sharing what he learned in his journey and recommending vendors to speak with.
Megan also recently spoke with Jim Cummings about the decisions he’s making on the creative distribution campaign for his film THUNDER ROAD. Like SADIE, THUNDER ROAD premiered at SXSW 2018 and is mounting a creative distribution campaign. Like Shane, Jim is a vibrant multi hyphenate (writer-director-actor) and is almost evangelical in his dedication to the distribution of his film. It was great to talk and compare notes with someone else going through a very similar process, on a very similar timeline.
3. INTERVIEWS WITH VENDORS
We had a budget in mind at this point in the process, and then started reaching out to the various positions we knew we’d need (theatrical booker, social media marketing, etc) to start those conversations. We interviewed many more people than we eventually hired. Although not everyone was the right culture fit, it was helpful to hear their take on our project and what they would do if they had the opportunity to work with us. And these conversations also allowed us to adjust the budget based on everyone’s quotes, as we’d overestimated in some categories, underestimated in others.
We are four months into this process and still have yet to see exactly where it will lead us as we ramp into our October 12th opening weekend and then our digital launch. As we navigate through the remaining months of our release I’m sure there will be many, many lessons. At this point, I’m not sure that I’ll ever be this hands on in the distribution process again but I do know one thing: I will always make it a point to raise additional funds at the outset for the marketing campaign. Even if you don’t go down the Creative Distribution path, it gives you a true seat at the table with your distributor, and leverage during the negotiations. With us, it gave us enough leverage in the negotiation phase to feel truly excited and empowered to leave subpar distribution deals on the table. And it’s brought us on this exciting journey. While the road has been challenging, it’s also been one of the most rewarding experiences of my producing career so far.
Next week in the blog, our distribution strategist Mia Bruno will be taking the reins to talk about how to utilize strategic outreach to support your theatrical release and how to use your connection with the themes of your film to empower yourself in creative distribution.
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!