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The 5 Tips for Managing Self-Distribution from 'Middle of Nowhere' Director and Entrepreneur Ava DuVernay

By Jon Fougner | Indiewire February 6, 2013 at 2:59PM

The distribution teams behind “Middle of Nowhere” and “Bones Brigade,” both of which premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, unveiled details of their windowing and marketing strategies at a two-hour panel at the Sundance Filmmaker Lodge earlier this month.
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"Middle of Nowhere"
"Middle of Nowhere"

The distribution teams behind “Middle of Nowhere” and “Bones Brigade,” both of which premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, unveiled details of their windowing and marketing strategies at a two-hour panel at the Sundance Filmmaker Lodge earlier this month.

READ MORE: Six Reasons Topspin Believes In Direct-to-Fan Distribution for Film after 'Bones Brigade' Deal that Beat Traditional Deals

Indiewire caught up with Middle of Nowhere director Ava DuVernay after the panel for more advice on distributing films to targeted audiences. Here are five hard-earned tips from her experience.

1. Set Your Goals Upfront

After coming to Sundance for seven years as a publicist, DuVernay won the Best Director Award for Middle of Nowhere, her second feature, which follows a medical student in Compton, CA whose husband is incarcerated. DuVernay revealed how she built a team of volunteers passionate about independent film, Black culture, and social justice to achieve her goals for the film.

DuVernay aimed to accomplish five key goals in the first year of monetizing her film:

Recoup production expenses ($200,000)
Recoup P&A ($150,000)
Pay deferments, including those to producers, actors and herself
Retain select rights
Most importantly, make another film

2. Build a Likeminded Army of Volunteers

She met the goals, DuVernay says, by creating the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AFFRM), working with experts on the African-American film market in major U.S. cities and niche film festivals. “I wanted to reach Black folk, and we're not a monolith, so Black people that were really interested in drama, in something that might be a little more elevated than what the studios are giving them” were her target market. “There are riches in the niches,” she says.

The lifeblood of the Middle of Nowhere campaign were 500 “Mavericks,” volunteers recruited around the country to promote AFFRM’s films in their communities. Their efforts ranged from putting on an exhibit in a Harlem loft with pieces commissioned by local artists inspired by themes from the film, to handing out flyers with release date information, to diverting people in the theater who were considering seeing another film. “I have no shame!” she says. For each contribution a Maverick makes—even just attending an organizational conference call—she earns points, which increase her status and her chances of winning a trip to Sundance.

Winner Melissa Kay Anderson told us how she was recruited: “I had the chance to see the film at the Los Angeles Film Festival, and I loved it. It was really moving and heartfelt and I’m already a fan of independent films, so I immediately signed up to be a volunteer with AFFRM.” She says it was easy to vouch for a project she was passionate about. “I would go to Starbucks in Leimert Park in L.A. and just be like ‘Hi, how are you doing? Check out this film!’” She added, “If they weren’t Black, I would still talk to people and say, ‘Hey! Do you like independent cinema?’”

Ava DuVernay
Ava DuVernay

3. Bring Your Game Plan, and Game Face, to Festivals

In addition to face-to-face marketing, “You’ve got to use the festival circuit,” DuVernay recommends. Middle of Nowhere played at both major prestige festivals and niche African American ones. By the time the film premiered at Sundance, its release date (October 12, 2012) was already set with AFFRM, so both in Park City and around the circuit her team was able to deliver targeted calls-to-action to festivalgoers. “I came into Sundance with my date already, like what!”

Nevertheless, while at Sundance, DuVernay remained opportunistically open to attractive market-specific distribution offers. She praised Ben Weiss at Paradigm for securing several traditional offers, but she ultimately stuck to the game plan and took a deal whereby Participant fronted P&A in exchange for a back-end profit share while AFFRM retained control of distribution. “What we ultimately did was acquire our own film,” she says.

4. Go Overboard on Social Media

While DuVernay’s street teams were pounding the pavement in their respective cities, they were buoyed by a team of 70 volunteers doing nationwide digital outreach. A “Tweet for Tracks” promotion offered a free soundtrack download to anyone who tweeted an opening weekend ticket stub to @affrm. Don’t hold back, DuVernay urges: “The actors were participating on Facebook, everybody was on Instagram, we were using LinkedIn, we were using Foursquare, we were using Snapchat.” The key was to do the cast authentically involved rather than just pushing out automatic updates.

5. Don’t Forget about Traditional PR

Despite her success with volunteer-led community engagement and social media, DuVernay is not ready to disown her former life working with print and online press. She highlighted press from The New York Times, Access Hollywood, and Indiewire, among others, as key to driving broad awareness of the Middle of Nowhere.

The director also recommends soliciting endorsements from tastemakers in your target markets. “It might happen to be Oprah. I didn’t know she was going to tweet. I sent her the movie and she tweeted about it.” She explains: “Seeing someone that you know and trust say ‘This is not a piece of crap—go see it’ helps so much. Just think about how it affects you.”

Part of the traditional PR push meant getting DuVernay’s social justice message to the right potential viewers. Her fellow panelist Andrew Herwitz of The Film Sales Company advises that “as soon as the film seems, for lack of a better word, medicinal, nobody is interested,” but DuVernay qualifies that advice, recommending that filmmakers “micro-target” a film’s weightier themes to the audiences who care about them. “There are people who care about the prison industrial complex, and Black men being warehoused in prison, and what’s happening to the families of the incarcerated.” As a result this outreach with Participant, the FCC broke its long-standing silence on phone call rates to prisoners, as much as $2 per minute in some states, she says. If that wasn’t a goal DuVernay had set upfront, it was one that came into relief as a team of volunteers rallied behind her film.

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Middle of Nowhere stuck to its release date and opened on six screens to $13,005 per screen. It expanded to 60 markets, DuVernay says, focusing on cities where Mavericks had spent the summer drumming up interest. While building a roster of 500 volunteers may sound daunting, she emphasizes that just 10 to 20 dedicated advocates can make the difference. The concept behind AFFRM was to create “a coalition that’s left there standing for the next film.” That coalition will be crucial to promoting AFFRM’s fifth pick-up, “Better Mus’ Come” (the first under its multi-platform distribution label ARRAY). “The bottom line is community, and creating a community around your film,” DuVernay says.

This article is related to: Distribution, Filmmaker Toolkit: Distribution