“Musicwood,” a documentary from Maxine Trump about the market to procure wood for acoustic guitars, premiered last year at DOC NYC, and since then it’s done a bunch of festivals and is about to launch its theatrical run. But leading up to the theatrical, Trump arranged a number of music festival screenings to build buzz for the film. This insightful case study shows all the work she put into making sure the film was screening at all the right places and found all the right advocates. All filmmakers — but especially filmmakers that are making films about music — have much to gain.
“Musicwood” will premiere at Bonnaroo June 16, Solid Sound Festival in Massachusetts June 21 & 23, and Newport Folk Fest on July 26. The film opens theatrically in Juneau’s
Gold Town Theatre, Portland’s Hollywood Theater and further dates in
New York, Seattle and Chicago will be confirmed soon. For more information on the film’s run visit the “Musicwood” website here.
In the Fall of 2012, we finally finished our documentary Musicwood. Musicwood follows the world’s most famous guitar-makers as they travel together to a primeval rain forest on a desperate mission: to negotiate with Native American loggers before it’s too late for acoustic guitars.
I always wanted the film to be told in the many voices that were coming together for the story: the guitar-makers, Native Americans, environmental groups, and the acoustic guitar itself.
We were in production for five years, and we spent a lot of time securing acoustic artists to appear in Musicwood. In the end — from dogged hard work and continued appeals to managers, publicists, musicians and anyone who would listen to us — we managed to put together a stellar line-up for the film: Kaki King, Yo La Tengo, Steve Earle, The Antlers, Lambchop, Turin Brakes and Sergius Gregory.
We have had a very successful festival run, with exciting Q&A’s, some great press, and some fantastic screenings for our partners. But in today’s film world, as any modern filmmaker or reader of Indiewire knows, it isn’t enough to just play at festivals and hope for a distribution deal. Heck, at this point it isn’t really enough to just go down the newly emerging standard DIY paths for films (Tugg, iTunes etc).
Whilst we have just this week signed with Cinema Guild for our digital and educational distribution (which is amazing), we’re also trying a new way to connect to our audience — because our film is so music-based, we’re building a distribution campaign around music: music festivals, music towns, music events.
We’re screening at Bonnaroo, Wilco’s Solid Sound Festival, the Newport Folk (and Film) Festival. We will open in specific cinemas timed to music festivals: Pickathon in Portland OR, and to be confirmed, Bumbershoot in Seattle, WA; Riot Fest in Chicago, IL etc. We’re going to create a buzz around the film, and do some unsusal stuff like using buskers in every town to promote the film, and in a similar way (but maybe smaller!) to Mumford & Sons’ “Gentlemen of the Road” tour, we will work with local stores and businesses to keep the energy going. In short, Musicwood is going to have access to a whole new distribution path to reach one of our core audiences: musicians and music lovers.
So how did we get there?
1. WE BUILT A SUPPORT GROUP
As filmmakers working out of the basement of our apartment, it was really important to build a support group around us. Not only to make sure we wouldn’t go mad, but to make sure we were on the right path, objectively, with the film. In NYC we’re blessed with a bunch of great potential support groups like Thom Powers’s “Stranger Than Fiction” Tuesday night documentary screenings, the Women Make Movies panels and our Producer is also a member of The Filmshop (an indie filmmaker workshop group). We absorbed everything, absorbed, absorbed and absorbed. I keep inspiration books of cut-out articles (a Pinterest before there was Pinterest!) and one I still have is an article in The Guardian from 2009, entitled “The People’s Premiere,” about Franny Armstrong’s documentary “Age of Stupid”. It detailed how she found her audience through her hands-on fundraising and I liked that a lot. Pre-Kickstarter she did brick-and-mortar fundraising to reach her community.
We did a brick-and-mortar fundraiser too. It was a great way to let our community know about Musicwood, and I still love that we did it. A year later we ran a Kickstarter campaign to broaden our supporters out from family, friends and co-workers and invite more people along, and we raised $27,500. Make no mistake though, Kickstarter is a lot of work, and we had a team of supporters helping us run the campaign.
But I can’t praise Kickstarter enough for bringing in a whole new community; we reached out to blogs that our core audience would be reading and had some great support from them. We researched these blogs, we wrote to them with a press release tightly focused on music, we called them, and they posted. Our first interns, fresh out of college, had a ton more friends than we did on facebook and without their facebook friends we wouldn’t have reached quite as many people as we did. Thank you interns.
And Kickstarter gave us the funds to be able to hire and use consultants like director Doug Block and Paradigm Consulting’s Peter Broderick for a handful of incredibly valuable feedback sessions. Making a good film, after all, is what gets it talked about.
2. WE ACCEPTED (NEARLY) EVERY INVITATION
Ok, maybe not EVERY invitation, but you never know where invitations might lead. I heard a story from a fellow filmmaker who screened to an audience of 5 strangers but one of those strangers became his biggest sponsor yet.
Our Kickstarter campaign got us noticed by a Masters student at NYU who had been successful in pitching a panel idea to the SXSW Eco Conference. So we had to pay our own way to fly from NYC to Austin, TX to speak on this panel about tonal wood scarcity. But that’s exactly what Musicwood is about, so we couldn’t say no. It was a big expense but it was the inaugural SXSW Eco Conference and a big platform to get the film noticed.
I spoke on the panel, we screened some clips of Musicwood and the audience were entertained, fired up, they wanted to know more. After the panel I was approached by lots of people, and given lots of business cards, but also had a great conversation with a group called Rock The Earth. Every year, they curate a series called Green Screens, which is a series of award-winning environmental documentaries playing in the Cinema Tent at the Bonnaroo music festival in TN. Although they didn’t confirm then and there, it was the potential for a big door to open, to reach the music audience who we knew would love the acoustic guitar story.3. THROUGH OUR PREMIERE WE MET MENTORS
For those based in NY, the DOC NYC panels in the Fall are a fantastic way to meet some of the filmmakers you would otherwise not rub shoulders with. We are huge fans of Marshall Curry’s films (If a Tree Falls, Street Fight, etc) and Gary Hustwit’s “Urbanized”, “Helvetica,” etc. We sought these guys out after their panels and they’ve been immensely helpful with their advice and support ever since.
We also knew Gary was a huge guitar fan and so we invited him to our premiere in November 2012 at DOC NYC. He’s a master of social media and when he kindly sat down with us afterwards to give us some feedback about the film, we recognized that our audience may not use social media in the same way as his core audience of plugged-in design types. We realized we would need to go out and find the guitar lovers, we couldn’t do it from our basement. We had already started to do community screenings to possible partners — Musicwood is about a forest, so outdoor enthusiasts, and environmental and Native American groups were top of our list — but we needed to take the film on the road to the musicians.
4. WE ENLISTED MUSICIANS WHEREVER WE COULD
We approached a ton of musicians about participating in Musicwood. It was a very involved process, with day after day of emails sent, phone calls made, pitches presented. There were lots of close calls, with musicians expressing interest or wanting to be in the film, only to find that their schedules didn’t work. One of our closest calls was with Jeff Tweedy of Wilco. We knew Jeff would be interested in Musicwood because he’s been very outspoken about using sustainable materials in guitars, even going so far as to lend his name to a signature acoustic guitar made with sustainable woods.
Although it didn’t work out with getting Wilco in the film, we sent them a copy of Musicwood once the film was finished. A few months later, out of the blue, Wilco suddenly tweeted about Musicwood. It gave us a huge bump on social media and got the idea of the film out to Wilco’s sizeable fan base. And then, they asked us to take part in their Solid Sound Festival in North Adams, MA. We were thrilled, they loved the film.
Often, when making a documentary you’re trying to save costs, so for every trip and every bit of outreach, we would double up. August 2012, we tripled up.
Reverb, a partner we wanted to approach (a non-profit with similar goals as our own film) was based in Portland, ME, and it just so happened that Mumford & Sons would be playing in Portland on my birthday. So hitting three birds with one stone, we set out on a road trip. We had a Musicwood DVD in hand for Mumford & Sons (you always gotta try), a meeting scheduled with Reverb and a birthday to celebrate. We had a great weekend (what a town!) and managed to run into Ben Lovett of Mumford & Sons at a bar, where we handed him the DVD. We left beaming and with a ton of great ideas.
Mumford & Sons’ tour took over towns when they came through, making a real effort to patronize local businesses and get the towns involved in the tour to create a big event. It seemed like there was something about that excitement that we could potentially harness for Musicwood, albeit in a much smaller way.
5. WE BUILT A SEMI-THEATRICAL RUN AROUND MUSIC FESTS
All of these experiences coalesced when Portland, OR’s Hollywood Theater approached us to screen Musicwood as part of their Eco-Festival. Both Portlands will be forever engrained in our memories. This happened at the end of our film festival run this year and right when we were working on the idea of how to merge music festivals and theatrical screenings, if it was even possible. We knew it would take hard work and possibly a lot of money to do theatrical screenings alone. We knew we couldn’t four-wall theaters as we didn’t have the cash. So how could we really make it work in a way that would have an impact?
For some reason I had it in my mind to screen at 5 music festivals and 5 cities theatrically, if there was any crossover way to make this happen.
The Hollywood Theater were great. I talked to them about opening four days after Portland’s Pickathon festival (this year headlined by Feist), and they agreed, seeing the potential of promoting Musicwood to the Pickathon audience. And then everything snowballed from there.
Within six weeks, Rock The Earth came back and confirmed we would show at Bonnaroo. Wilco confirmed that they would have us screen at Solid Sound. And after approaching Newport Film with a pitch, they finally came back to us saying we could be screen there at the same time as the Folk Festival. It’s only the second year they’ve had films running in parallel with the Folk Festival, so we felt extremely honored and excited. The dream is coming true and it’s all starting to fall into place.
We’re still in the planning stages of putting together the Chicago opening alongside their Riot Fest, Seattle opening alongside Bumbershoot and a California screening timed with their Outside Lands Festival. But things are looking very good there as well. And heck we’ll bring the artists to our New York screening! We’ll make our own music festival right there! I can dream, right?