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by Peter Knegt
May 29, 2009 5:35 AM
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A DIY Emperor: The Rise of "Valentino"

A scene from Matt Tyrnauer's doc "Valentino: The Last Emperor." Image courtesy of Truly Indie.

On March 18th, Matt Tyrnauer's doc "Valentino: The Last Emperor" - which follows the closing act of fashion icon Valentino's celebrated career - opened in New York's Film Forum to incredible numbers. By the end of it's first weekend the film has grossed $39,106, including $21,784 for the three-day weekend, making it one of the theater’s top-grossing premieres in over three decades. The film also broke Film Forum’s single-screen midweek opening day record with $5,963.

Cut to 10 weeks later. "Valentino" - without ever going over 38 screens - has grossed more than $1 million and still is routinely finding weekend per-theater-averages above $2,000. What's more, it's opening today at the Angelika Film Center in New York, one of the city's premier destinations for specialty films. To have a film run for that long and then open at the Angelika is a rarity, and a testament to "Valentino"'s remarkable staying power.

"We've been powered by word of mouth and community," Tyrnauer told indieWIRE yesterday, "and I've never seen that in a way as profound as at Film Forum. We would sell out matinees on a Tuesday. That [word of mouth and community] has been kept alive in New York City for more than 10 weeks. Especially downtown, which is a crossroads of sophistication, of fashion, of gay culture, of indie film culture... It's ground zero for us, so it's really welcome and appropriate to go back on a major screen."

The unique way the film was released makes "Valentino"'s success story all the more interesting. Back in February, after successful screenings at the fall festivals in Venice, Toronto and then the Hamptons, it was announced that the Tyrnauer and his producers would opt out of traditional distribution offers that had been put on the table, instead releasing the film independently through Truly Indie - a company that helps filmmakers act as their own distributors by providing access to all the services of a professional theatrical release.

"Valentino" director Matt Tyrnauer at the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival. Photo by Brian Brooks.

"After deliberating and looking at the offers we had coming out of the festivals," Tyrnauer noted, "we decided that we would like to be very involved in the release and made an alliance with Truly Indie and did a platform release with them. That allowed us to have our hands on the levers, basically, rather that kicking the baby goodbye and crossing our fingers and hoping for the best. We were deeply involved in marketing strategies and patterns of release and press strategies."

After the film broke records at Film Forum, a collaborative partnership, orchestrated by Submarine’s Josh Braun, was announced between Truly Indie, Vitagraph Films and the filmmakers - Tyrnauer, executive producers Carter Burden III and Adam Leff, producer Matt Kapp, and co-producer Frederic Tcheng. The film would expand to 14 additional markets. The partnership obviously proved successful. The film has opened virtually nationwide since, and, as noted, broke $1,000,000 and is still going strong.

Beyond the obvious though, there were many details within this elaborate do-it-yourself situation that helped "Valentino" find its audience. The films stars - Valentino and his business partner and lover of 50 years, Giancarlo Giammetti - helped the film considerably by doing a lot of press.

"The relationship I have with them is very unique," Tyrnauer said of Valentino and Giammetti. "And I'm not saying it was all smooth... They didn't like the movie at first. But, after a lot of sparks flying, they came around and embraced the film. And I know this wouldn't have worked as well with a traditional distributor."

A scene from Matt Tyrnauer's doc "Valentino: The Last Emperor." Image courtesy of Truly Indie.

Tyrnauer and his team partnered with publicity firm 42 West to leverage the availability of Valentino and Giammetti, and the strategy really paid off. Oprah Winfrey got a hold of the film, and without being pitched anything, decided to do a show on the film and its "stars."

"We used that as a big game changer," Tyrnauer said. "We had great hopes but we thought, 'this just doesn't happen to most movies.' That made me even more glad we kept everything in house. We realized we were about to climb aboard a wave."

They carefully plotted the next cities while Valentino toured promoting the film, on Oprah, on Charlie Rose, on "The View," even on Ryan Seacrest.

"That really put up us in the zeitgeist," Tyrnauer recalled. "People really connected to the film, and we've been being really careful to select markets that would respond. What I've noticed is there are what we call "the first responders" - usually educated woman of a certain age who have some relationship with fashion, as a fan or participant. And from there, if we get those "first responders," they multiply in enormous numbers. People go see it two or three times. It's a word of mouth movie, which was really the key to everything after we got that launch."

Another key for Tyrnauer was Q&As, which he participated in aggressively across the film's expansion. Filmmaker Andrew Jarecki ("Capturing The Friedmans") told Tyrnauer this was "a must."

"He said, 'you go, and you keep going, and when you get sick of doing it, do it more,'" Tyrnauer laughed. "It's viral marketing at its most basic. If they can connect with the filmmaker in 2nd or 3rd tier cities it means a lot and word spreads... And seeing the audiences and seeing who shows up is the most invaluable market research you can do."

The experience has given Tyrnauer - and, I'm sure, many aspiring filmmakers who have watched the film's success - hope that "there still is community and word of mouth and a desire for quality." "To see a movie that is in two foreign languages and English with wall to wall subtitles take off in communities where most distributors would probably accept that this movie would not work is so gratifying," he said.

Tyrnauer's gratification isn't likely to end anytime soon. In addition to opening at the Angelika today, Tyrnauer and company have dozens of markets planned in the coming weeks - including many that most truly independent documentaries rarely set foot in - Fort Collins, Colorado; Norfolk, Virginia; Shreveport, Louisiana; Wilmington, Delaware; Concord, New Hampshire... It's likely this do-it-yourself success story has yet to see it's final chapter.

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