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ADVENTURES IN CREATIVE DISTRIBUTION: The SADIE Case Study

Written by Lacey Leavitt (originally published via Dear Producer)

“We’ve spent a lot of time as a culture trying to reckon with the effects of the intense exposure to violence faced by soldiers, but what about the effects of similar exposure on those at home? How does this steady diet of violence (from the real-world carnage of war, mass shootings and police brutality, to the fictional, cartoonish bloodshed filling our screens) impact those coming of age in this era? When all they see are adults solving their problems with force, what does that teach kids about how to solve their own problems?” - Megan Griffiths

Sadie is the story of a girl who will stop at nothing to preserve her father's place on the home front. Sadie is the 13-year-old daughter of a soldier and models herself after his military example. When her mom Rae begins dating a new man, Sadie vows to drive him out by whatever means necessary. He is the enemy, and if she’s learned anything from the world she inhabits, it’s that the enemy deserves no mercy.

THE ROAD TO GREENLIGHT

Making the film was a long, challenging process. Writer/director Megan Griffiths wrote the script in 2009 and showed me the first draft to see if I’d be interested in producing. Megan is one of my favorite directors to work with, as well as one of my favorite overall human beings, and I really resonated with the characters and themes of the script. It was an easy, automatic, enthusiastic YES for me. Unfortunately, throughout our process, nothing else would ever come together that quickly again.

The next eight years was a journey that included me attending the Sundance Creative Producers Lab and the Rotterdam Co-Production Lab and both Megan and I taking the film to IFP’s No Borders Market. Raising money was a challenge, as film financiers thought a drama for adults, but starring a young girl, was too risky an investment. (And, in those early years when the cultural climate was slightly different, we were asked several times if we’d consider making Sadie a boy.) During the long development process of SADIE, Megan and I made 9 other feature films between the two of us! But we’d always come back to SADIE after each project ended and wonder when and how the stars would align for us to be able to make the film.

We eventually attached Melanie Lynskey (HBO’s TOGETHERNESS, THE INTERVENTION) as our adult lead, Rae. Melanie is the kind of actor who attracts other talented actors to want to come aboard your project, so soon after we also attached John Gallagher, Jr. (THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST, HBO’s THE NEWSROOM) as Cyrus, the new man in Rae and Sadie’s life.

Melanie Lynskey as ‘Rae’ and John Gallagher, Jr. as ‘Cyrus’ in SADIE

Melanie Lynskey as ‘Rae’ and John Gallagher, Jr. as ‘Cyrus’ in SADIE

As we neared the end of 2016, a critical mass had hit to get the ball rolling: there was a break in Megan, Melanie, and John’s respective schedules and it seemed like it was now-or-never to make the film. Jennessa West (LANE 1974) joined the team as my producing partner and Jonathan Caso (OUTSIDE IN) as a co-producer. We re-approached a film investor who had long been a fan of Megan’s work and this script, Eliza Shelden, but who had formerly passed on the project because the timing wasn’t right. But it turned out that the stars now aligned for her as well, so she came on board as our sole investor and we were officially greenlit and finally off and running.

Above and beyond the film’s modest $650k budget, we raised and set aside an additional $50k to contribute to the eventual distribution marketing campaign. This was something we prioritized because we knew that putting SADIE into the world would require some special handling whether we partnered with a traditional distributor or decided to distribute it on our own, and we did not want to become powerless victims to a boilerplate distribution plan.

We set dates for the shoot for January 2017 and Tony Hale (VEEP, ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT) came on board in the role of Rae’s other suitor and guidance counselor at Sadie’s school. Danielle Brooks (ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK) joined the cast as Rae’s best friend Carla. And despite doing a nation-wide search, our perfect Sadie turned out to be Sophia Mitri Schloss who, like Megan and me, lives in Seattle. We shot for 19 days in Washington State.

PREMIERE/PRESS REACTIONS

SADIE Cast and Producers at 2018 SXSW Pizza Hut/Getty Images Lounge  Photo credit: Getty Images

SADIE Cast and Producers at 2018 SXSW Pizza Hut/Getty Images Lounge
Photo credit: Getty Images

The film premiered at SXSW 2018. The screenings were packed with enthusiastic and engaged audiences who asked insightful questions. Press reactions were incredibly slow to come out, especially annoying considering we’d chosen to host an advance screening in New York for press. After leaving our premiere, we saw that only one review had posted and it was mixed. Having that be the sole review for the days following our premiere was torturous (and likely harmful to our distribution prospects). But once the other reviews did come out, they were overwhelmingly positive. Almost surprisingly so, considering our difficult subject matter and controversial ending!

“Equal parts coming-of-age story and slow-burn thriller, writer-director Megan Griffiths’ quietly absorbing and methodically disquieting drama is a genuine rarity… Griffiths and Schloss tease and disquiet you with the possibility that Sadie will stop at nothing to get what she wants. But even that’s not sufficient to fully prepare you for what happens when they make good on that threat. Or for what happens next.” - Joe Leydon, Variety

“Griffiths exhibits a strong grasp of tone, filming the proceedings in a visually gloomy fashion befitting the characters' hardscrabble lives. And the performances are uniformly first-rate. It's no surprise that Lynskey, who has quietly establishing herself as one of indie cinema's finest actors, is once again superb in her emotionally complex turn. Gallagher delivers career-best work as well, infusing his portrayal with subtle shadings that keep us intrigued throughout. And Schloss is a revelation as the emotionally disturbed teen, her performance all the more impressive for its restraint.” - Frank Scheck, The Hollywood Reporter

Sophia Mitri Schloss as ‘Sadie’ and Keith L. Williams as ‘Francis’

Sophia Mitri Schloss as ‘Sadie’ and Keith L. Williams as ‘Francis’

DISTRIBUTION OFFERS

The core reason behind making the film was Megan’s desire to add to the cultural conversation about youth and violence. All of us producers, including our executive producer, were unanimously on board with that goal. Like most filmmakers, our two main objectives in finding the right distribution path were: getting as many people to see the film as possible and to recoup our budget/turn a profit for our financier. A third objective, which emerged after a particularly inspiring Seattle International Film Festival screening for high school students, was to be able to screen the film to as many young people as possible in order to bring the conversation to those it would impact the most. We felt that an academic tour of SADIE to colleges and community groups (especially those with a teen and/or violence prevention focus) would be the best way to achieve that goal.

Cut to: lackluster market conditions. Distribution offers came in with the best one being from a reputable, name brand film distributor that offered a 10 city day-and-date theatrical and VOD release, with a minimum guarantee of only about 25% of the film’s budget. Team Sadie was faced with a decision: take a loss financially, but have a reputable film distributor behind a 10 city theatrical push, or follow the creative self-distribution playbook outlined by films like Shane Carruth’s UPSTREAM COLOR and Kogonada’s COLUMBUS. The latter might turn out to be a financial loss and would require additional time spent on “producing” the distribution, as well as significant capital to fund the release, but it would mean that we as filmmakers would have creative control over the marketing and distribution of the film, empowering us to make decisions about how our film was presented to audiences.

As Megan and my fellow producers and I have all worked with various indie film distributors over the years, we have had a variety of experiences with how our films have A) have been marketed to audiences and B) have connected (or not) with those audiences. With SADIE’s nuanced drama, we knew it was incredibly important to frame the film properly and be thoughtful in our strategy. The discussions we had with our potential distributor made us realize that we had very different ideas for how to market this film; they wanted to go with more of a BAD SEED-like approach and market SADIE as a thriller starring a young girl (how far will she go?!). While it was possible that marketing this as a more traditional thriller genre film might get more people to rent or buy initially, we felt we’d severely risk audience backlash. In other words, if someone paid $4.99 expecting to see a thriller/horror film, they would likely feel misled after watching the dramatic slow-burn of SADIE and review the film accordingly. In turn, those negative reviews could drive down the overall rating, counteracting the marketing messages of the film and potentially alienating a larger audience than it would attract. It’s possible it would’ve netted more money for the film, but it wasn’t a guarantee, plus we would definitely be throwing one of our main goals (creating an environment for meaningful audience discussion about youth and violence) out the window. While we asked for mutual approval over poster and trailer, the distributor was only willing to give us “meaningful consultation.” And as we all know, that is not very legally meaningful at all. So knowing we were starting in two pretty different places, we did not have faith that our opinions would be heeded much–or at all–when it came to marketing the film.

Producer Lacey Leavitt and writer/director Megan Griffiths at the Geena Davis Institute screening of SADIE, Photo credit: Credit Mary Schwinn

Producer Lacey Leavitt and writer/director Megan Griffiths at the Geena Davis Institute screening of SADIE, Photo credit: Credit Mary Schwinn

Lastly, the distributor did not want to entertain our idea of an academic tour at all. Not only did they not want to mount one (understandable, if it’s not already part of their services), they didn’t want us to take the film to colleges or high schools even if we were doing all of that work and covering our costs. They felt the screenings would cannibalize the film’s sales with those audiences. We felt that an academic tour would raise awareness within the 18-25 year old demographic, who we didn’t see as naturally discovering the film with the distributor’s vague marketing plans.

So ultimately, we decided to walk away from the traditional distribution offers and instead take the $100k non-recoupable bonus from Amazon Prime Video as part of their Film Festival Stars program (a program which ended in December 2018), pair that with our $50k we had set aside for marketing, and mount a creative distribution strategy for our film ourselves.

DISTRIBUTING SADIE

Megan and I, along with my producing partner, Jennessa West, and co-producer Jonathan Caso, committed our late spring and summer of 2018 to developing our creative distribution plan. Jennessa and Jonathan were shooting another feature that fall so Megan and I cleared our fall schedules to work full time on SADIE’s theatrical release. But there was no way to handle all of the aspects of the distribution ourselves. We needed someone with the contacts and access to book theaters, someone who could help us navigate and price out the academic bookings, a publicist, and a social media and digital marketing agency. To get a more detailed picture of the breakdown of roles, you can read our detailed blog post at SadieFilm.com.

  • CORE TEAM

    • MIA BRUNO: Distribution Strategist, Theatrical Booking & Impact Campaigning

    • THIN PIG MEDIA: Digital Marketing & Social Media Management

    • ADAM KERSH/BRIGADE MARKETING: Publicity

    • ANNA FEDER: Academic Outreach

    • BOBBIN RAMSEY: Distribution Intern

  • ADDITIONAL DISTRIBUTION PLAYERS

    • GIANT INTERACTIVE: Digital Aggregator

    • MICHAEL LANGE: Trailer Editor

    • YEN TAN: Poster Design

    • DAVID ROBBINS: Deliverables

    • SIMPLE DCP: DCP and Blu-Ray creation

Everyone on the team was a genuine supporter of the film, worked very hard to position the film to succeed, and was a lovely person to boot. While the core team all had specific titles, there was some overlap of roles. If anyone had a personal connection to a college, they put us in touch directly. Adam did several reach outs to theater programmers he knew personally. Mia was incredibly helpful with positioning the film. In other words, a dream team. We had weekly calls between the core team, adding other individuals if necessary.

Producer Lacey Leavitt, actress Sophia Mitri Schloss, actor Keith L. Williams, and writer/director Megan Griffiths at the SAG-AFTRA Foundation LA screening, Photo credit: Amanda Edwards/Getty Images

Producer Lacey Leavitt, actress Sophia Mitri Schloss, actor Keith L. Williams, and writer/director Megan Griffiths at the SAG-AFTRA Foundation LA screening, Photo credit: Amanda Edwards/Getty Images

We started assembling the team in May of 2018. We had a hard Amazon Prime VOD premiere date of February 28, 2019. Reverse engineering from there, we landed on a fall theatrical date, which eventually solidified as October 12, 2018. This lead us to a TVOD (iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, Vudu, etc.) window that started with iTunes on November 6, 2018, an inDemand window that started January 1, 2019. We also licensed our airline rights to Alaska Air via the SIFF channel and officially started airing in the friendly skies in April 2019.

In the lead up to these theatrical release dates, we built out our social media and digital campaigns. Adam/Brigade targeted key reviewers in LA and NYC and we created an influencer screening strategy wherein we had various screenings with organizations that we felt would help boost our signal to our target audiences, such as the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and the Screen Actors Guild in Los Angeles. And in NYC we had another SAG screening as well as one with IFP during IFP Week.

Running parallel to all of this, we booked academic screenings across the country, mostly woven throughout the lead-up to our theatrical premiere and again in the winter, between our TVOD and SVOD premieres. Ultimately we screened the film in 22 states and collectively attended 53 post-screening discussions between September and December 2018.

SIFF Cinema Uptown Marquee in Seattle, Photo credit: Megan Griffiths

SIFF Cinema Uptown Marquee in Seattle, Photo credit: Megan Griffiths

RESULTS

SADIE did get the robust academic tour we hoped for, which was both profitable and immensely gratifying. Not only did we get bookings at individual universities, we were fortunate to be selected for the 2018 fall tour of the Southern Circuit. This program brings films to rural universities and towns in the south, providing under-served audiences with access to independent films and filmmakers with screening fees and per diem to travel and engage with students via post-film discussions and classroom visits. The conversations Megan and I had with students and community members from Tennessee (Johnson City, Maryville), Georgia (Oxford, Athens, Statesboro), and South Carolina (Clinton) were some of the most rewarding experiences we’ve had in our entire careers.

Financially, the film has not yet recouped its production budget, which is obviously disappointing. We were really hoping to not only create meaningful conversation around the film but also build enough awareness and a large enough audience so that the film could turn a profit. First and foremost to allow our financier to recoup, but also to prove that making a smart, nuanced drama is not a lost cause in this indie film landscape. We wish we could point to SADIE as an example of a film that challenges its audiences and makes them think without cheap thrills or gimmicks but yet still succeeds financially. As filmmakers, it’s honestly disappointing to “fail” in that way, especially because the audience response, when we do get the film in front of people, has been so overwhelmingly positive.

Even in this crowded marketplace and with our limited means, we do feel that SADIE made an impact on those who saw it, and we hope that it will continue to find its audience as time passes and people discover it on Amazon Prime, iTunes, and other digital platforms.

THE METRICS

WAS IT WORTH IT?

At the end of the day, Megan and my fellow producers (including our financier) and I all agree that yes, we are glad that we self-distributed SADIE. Of course we wish we would have had more financial success, but we do believe we had greater success in bringing the film to audiences than the distributors we were speaking to would have had. There’s no way to know that for sure, but with the thoughtfulness of our marketing materials and campaign, and the personal interactions we had with audiences across the country, we just don’t think that a traditional day-and-date theatrical/VOD release would’ve garnered more engaged fans than we did ourselves. 

Danielle Brooks as ‘Carla’ in SADIE

Danielle Brooks as ‘Carla’ in SADIE

So yes, we feel that it was worth it. We are proud of the work and care that we put into SADIE’s release and we are grateful to now have a more detailed understanding of the distribution process. Not only do we feel that we did right by  SADIE, we are much more educated on the issues and difficult decisions facing distributors. Even if we never self-distribute again, we feel our increased knowledge base will be very helpful when working with future distribution partners.

We decided early on that we wanted to share as much information as we could in order to lift the veil on the self-distribution process for other filmmakers, so we started a blog about our experiences which we added to throughout our theatrical, TVOD and SVOD releases. Those blog entries can be found here {https://www.sadiefilm.com/blog}.

As a producer, this experience has given me a lot to think about in terms of what projects I can sustainably take on in the future. I don’t want to solely think about money in the choices I make, as a major part of the reason I am in this business is to tell meaningful stories, but financial return is an undeniable part of the decision-making process. A producer needs to raise money, and that becomes more challenging when your prior films have failed to break out in a financially significant way—unfortunately, a slew of good reviews will not make an investor whole. I love SADIEand I’m so proud of it—the last thing I want to do is run scared from films that make space for important conversations to take place. Which isn’t to say that audiences don’t have an appetite for the D-word (drama); but viewing options and habits have changed dramatically over the years and episodic work seems to be where most of us get our fix for stories about well-drawn characters in authentic, realistic worlds. (In fact, we entertained the idea of converting SADIE into an episodic during our long development process). So until audiences are ready to reward these types of films with their box office dollars, I can’t say it won’t impact the projects I commit to (and the avenues I pursue in getting those projects made) in the future.

All that said, films with specific and niche audiences, especially documentaries, tend to fare well in the self-distribution space. Even without the support of organizations like the Sundance Institute’s Creative Distribution Fellowship (which was instrumental in helping narrative films like COLUMBUS and Jim Cummings’ THUNDER ROAD succeed), films can connect with community groups and build an audience through grassroots methods, where not everything depends on a broad and expensive ad campaign.

In other words, if you find yourself with a film that you believe in but without a distributor who is willing to formulate a plan you feel confident will connect to an audience (at a fair price to you, of course), you do have options. This is true especially if you plan ahead as we did, and set aside money early to support your own release. Creative self-distribution can be incredibly empowering and can serve to connect you directly with audiences that may continue to follow your films for years to come.

Just don’t say I didn’t warn you as to how much work you’ve got ahead of you.


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