"We got so many 'No's from the industry immediately after saying the word 'soccer,'" said "Pelada" co-director and producer Ryan White. "I can't tell you how many times I've heard the sentence, 'Americans aren't into soccer, thanks anyway.'"
After looking for production partners, film festivals and distributors, the "no American market for soccer" refrain haunted the filmmakers of "Pelada." The film ("pelada" is the name for pick-up games of soccer in Brazilian Portuguese), which explores the role of impromptu soccer matches across the world, premiered at SXSW last March. "From prisoners in Bolivia to moonshine brewers in Kenya, from freestylers in China to women who play in hijab in Iran, ‘Pelada’ is the story of the people who play," described the festival's program.
However, for the filmmakers the anti-soccer bias stands in their way. While they are still holding out for a DVD distributor, they are selling the film online in digital formats with help from Cinetic's FilmBuf and are also selling copies of the DVD to visitors of their website.
In an email interview, White told indieWIRE how he and the "Pelada" team got their film in front of a sizable national and global audience and made some money back along the way.
1. Find powerful advocates for the film
"David Courier from Sundance saw an extended trailer a year before it was complete and was impressed, so he was very supportive during our final months of editing and post as we began the application process to festivals. We ended up eventually not getting into Sundance, which at the time felt like a huge blow. In hindsight, it all worked out for us. David was extremely supportive of our film and personally recommended it to many other programmers. That was very lucky for us, because it made sure our unknown film by unknown filmmakers did not sink to the bottom of the DVD pile at festival offices."
2. Take your film places that would be good nurturing and networking venues.
"Getting into IFP Film Week in September of 2009 was also really important for us. We were a tiny movie being made by unknowns, so our connections in the festival world and especially the indie distribution world were virtually nonexistent. IFP is where we made our first connection with PBS International (who would go on to take international rights to 'Pelada') and it's also where we first encountered SXSW. [SXSW programmer] Jarod Neece recognized Gwendolyn (co-director and star of the film) out at a party one night and came up and gave us his card. He said, 'Honestly I thought it was going to be crappy, but I was really impressed. Shoot me an email when you're ready to apply.' That conversation paved the way for our world premiere six months later."
3. Get a review from a major publication once you're at the right fest.
"At Sundance, the U.S. doc program was jam-packed with big names and topics. Our movie would have gotten lost in the shuffle, crickets chirping. SXSW is the perfect type of festival for films that don't really have that profile yet — it felt like audiences were out to find films they had not heard any buzz about. Jim Dobson did our publicity and we got a lot of great coverage through him. Peter Debruge from Variety happened upon a screening and wrote 'Pelada' a great review, and that was our first review in in a big publication – it got us a lot of phone calls."
4. If you can, have a smart tentative distribution calendar while you're finishing up the film.
"We timed our movie's entire three years of production to be finished by the World Cup in the summer of 2010, so it was always sort of a ticking clock we had in the back of our minds. After the premiere at SXSW in March, we only had a few months before the target time of our movie's release. We got PBS on board to do everything outside the U.S., and domestically we signed a deal with Cinetic/Filmbuff to do a VOD and digital release of the film timed with the World Cup. That allowed us as filmmakers to focus exclusively on our own theatrical and DVD release beginning at the start of the World Cup."
5. If all else fails, do it yourself — and be creative about finding cheap exhibition venues.
"Very few distributors were interested in doing 'Pelada's' theatrical release, so we decided to do it ourselves. And I think that was probably the wisest decision we made yet. Because we had a built-in niche audience, we kind of followed Gary Hustwit's ('Helvetica,' 'Objectified') strategy of self-distributed theatrical release. We four-walled theaters around the country and sold tickets to them ourselves — and because we were able to sell out almost all screenings with audiences often at 400 or 500 people, we were able to make turn great profits. We also sold DVDs after screenings, which was a huge profit-maker.
"In cities like New York where four-walling was super-expensive, we found alternative venues to host the screenings. In New York, for example, there was a massive sports bar that allowed us to use the venue for free and charge an admission price that we kept — they were thrilled with us bringing in 400 people for two hours who would buy food and drinks the whole time. Screenings like these in 75 cities around the country allowed us to pull ourselves out of the disgusting amount of debt we were in when we completed the film. In other markets, we hired Michael Tuckman, an independent booker, to convince several theaters to run our film (on blu-ray, no way we had the money for a 35mm transfer) and we did all of our own publicity and used word-of-mouth to fuel the audiences. Several of those runs were very successful and so certain theaters starting recommending to the film to other theaters who wanted to run it."