Back to IndieWire

Here’s How These Filmmakers Self-Distributed Their Documentary…And Actually Made Money

Here's How These Filmmakers Self-Distributed Their Documentary...And Actually Made Money

“The 78 Project Movie” is an outgrowth of a music documentary web series that my partner Lavinia Jones Wright and I first launched in the Fall of 2011. Focused around cutting 78 rpm records with contemporary musicians on a 1930’s Presto direct-to-disc recorder, in one take, and shot and distributed digitally, it’s a project that spans a hundred years of technology. It’s also an ongoing multi-platform experience we produce and distribute ourselves.  

READ MORE: Why a Grassroots Screening Tour Might Be Right for Your Documentary

We’d been doing the web series for about a year when we decided we wanted to make a feature-length documentary that would be a road trip across America to cut 78 rpm records with musicians in their own homes and hometowns, and that would be an intimate look at how musicians from around the country, and from seemingly disparate cultural backgrounds, are united in a shared cultural legacy.  The resulting film, “The 78 Project Movie,” would also contextualize our fascination with the recording process, and explore the archives and work of folklorists such as Alan Lomax and Moses Asch, folks who have inspired our project.  
So we put together what turned out to be a successful Kickstarter campaign which, along with a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts, provided the $75,000 budget for the year-long production, and we set out on the road in a tiny Kia Soul loaded to the roof with cameras, our Presto record cutting machine, spare tubes, blank acetate disks and sleeping bags. Shooting started in September 2012 and was completed in October 2013; for most of the production, we were a two-person crew. The film had its world premiere at the 2014 SXSW Film Festival, which was for us a dream come true.

For me every phase of directing a movie is tremendously rewarding and fun and there’s nothing that makes me happier than being in production and making movies. But making movies and getting them out there for audiences to see are two completely different fields of endeavor.

The distribution phase of my previous films has always been the most difficult to contend with. It’s the point at which the film is turned over to other folks to manage, and it’s the part that a director, who is used to a fair amount of creative control, suddenly has the least say about. That lack of control can make an otherwise reasonable person, well, insane. So part of our decision to self-distribute was to try to see if I could prevent myself from descending into Jekyll and Hyde levels of craziness.

More importantly, though, we felt that with such a modestly budgeted film, one that was a real labor of love and had been funded through the generosity of spirit of our Kickstarter backers, we owed it to our little movie and its supporters to pursue a course that would remain true to the spirit of authenticity of the film and of “The 78 Project” as a whole. And the best way to do that might very well be through some form of self-distribution. 

READ MORE: Attention, Filmmakers: Know Your Non-Theatrical & Educational Rights
The choice to self-distribute was partially based on my having experienced firsthand the cataclysmic changes in the entertainment economy over the last 15 years, and the shifting relationship of artists to the content they create. It seemed to us, based on our successful experiences with the web series, that filmmakers now had access to tools and technologies that might make self-distribution a viable option.

Granted, then, I’m not a first-timer, and we’ve gotten a lot of invaluable help with “The 78 Project Movie” from folks with whom I had been able to forge relationships in the course of making my previous films. But in the area of self-distribution, we’ve definitely been first timers, and so we’ve made mistakes, have made some good judgment calls and have had our own share of good and bad luck.   

I should also say that what we’re really talking about is a hybrid self-distribution model that would have never been possible without essential partnerships and support from Emerging Pictures, IFP, Kickstarter and SXSW. We were also extremely reliant on, and indebted to, the generosity and passionate support of programmers, musicians, arts organizations, friends, family and loyal followers of “The 78 Project” web series.

From the very moment that the SXSW lineup was publicly announced we started getting requests to book the film. Arthouse theaters, independent cinemas and non-traditional venues from around the country, and around the world, began approaching us directly about how they could book the film. Before we could even formulate what self-distribution would entail exactly, we were lining up screenings for the film ourselves, and all of this helped inform many of the conversations we would then have at SXSW once the festival was underway. We did get a few distribution offers out of SXSW from very reputable companies that were offering advances that were respectable but small-ish, so in the end we decided to roll the dice and see if we could make self-distribution work out. 

READ MORE: Attention, Filmmakers: Here’s What You Should Expect from Grassroots Marketers

After a few more festival screenings, we launched a U.S. theatrical release of “The 78 Project Movie” with a tour across America that kicked off in Washington, D.C. on September 5th, 2014 with a prestigious event and screening at the Library of Congress and continued through more than 20 cities. We booked many of the screenings ourselves, while at the same time working closely with Emerging Pictures to put together additional screenings at various venues along our route. Emerging has a very innovative system for streaming digital files of a film to any of their large network of arthouse and indie screens around the country. Once our mini-tour ended in November, Emerging continued booking the film nationwide, while we also handled distribution directly with other venues both in the US and abroad.  

As of this writing, the film has played in over 70 cities. The next stage will be an SVOD release through VHX, as well as physical DVDs handled through Revolver, the good folks who distribute our albums of music from “The 78 Project.”

Unlike many theatrical releases, we actually made money showing the film theatrically. Here’s some of what was learned along the way:

1. Live events:  Be willing to travel.

We started planning our 20-city tour several months in advance, and approached it as a band might, routing through many of the same communities where we’d originally filmed portions of the movie and already had local support. We also relied heavily on artists and other local cultural figures we already had relationships with to introduce us to local venues whenever possible. In each town we identified what we thought might be a good local venue for a screening, and we approached them with a proposal for an evening of a screening plus record-cutting session with a local artist. Without a doubt, one of the main draws for theater programmers was our willingness to be present at the screenings, and turning it into an event screening with recording session was something that made it special and also involved the local artists in promoting the evening to their fanbase.  

READ MORE: Attention, Filmmakers: 8 Things to Know Before Making a Music Documentary

2. Publicity and promotion: Partner with arts organizations. 

One of the main things a traditional distributor provides is a marketing budget and a publicity team, but distributing ourselves meant we had to handle both. What we found is that by partnering with local arts organizations to put on a screening event, we could have the benefit of their own marketing teams. This turned out to be a huge resource. The arts organizations we worked with, such as the Acadiana Center for the Arts in Lafayette, Louisiana or The Oxford American (who produced our screening in Little Rock), already had extensive mailing lists and a subscriber base, and since our screenings were one-off events with a performance component, the organizations could promote it as something a little more out of the ordinary. Arthouse cinemas like Ciné in Athens, Georgia, International House in Philadelphia and the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge also did an incredible job putting us in touch with artists and promoting the screenings to their regular clientele. The Blue Ridge Music Center actually booked several screenings of the film in various theaters and non-traditional venues throughout Virginia and North Carolina, and got us a lot of local press. There was simply no way we could have done this on our own.

3. Be prepared for press challenges unique to your project.

We did find a couple of obstacles related to press which were difficult to overcome: it’s really hard to get a review of your film in major market press if your film is only playing for one night. Most press outlets want at least a one-week run in order for them to review your film.  It was hard for us to accept, but in the end it was our reality. We did get some nice press out of SXSW, and later a nice mention in USA Today and a few nice feature articles in local press outlets, but for the most part we had to be happy with smaller mentions in local weekly events guides and newsletters.  

The other obstacle we faced was differentiating our film from the ongoing web series. A lot of folks still think the film is a feature length version of our web series, when it’s actually almost entirely all new material and an emotionally engaging feature-length road movie. One of the challenges of an ongoing multiplatform project like ours is keeping it fresh and relevant from a press perspective.

4. Be selective about festivals: and remember, you can get paid by festivals.

Needless to say, the major festivals such as SXSW, Sundance and Toronto provide tremendous exposure and serve as great launching pads for your film. There are also great smaller festivals that can really put the spotlight on your film. It’s tempting to show your film at every festival that will take it, but festival screenings are not a substitute for a viable distribution strategy.

My first feature, “Prey for Rock & Roll,” premiered at Sundance, and then went on to play at close to 80 festivals. By the time it came out commercially in theaters, it had been overexposed and a huge section of the paying audience had already seen it. Those thousands of festival ticket sales didn’t show up where it would have mattered most – in the Variety weekend box office reports. On the other hand, contrary to common wisdom, it turns out that if a smaller festival really wants your film many of them do have budgets for renting your film and, if you’re self-distributing, income from these fees can actually add up. You just have to ask.

5. Scarcity creates desire, and desire creates value.

I’m not one of those folks who believe that we should upload all of our original content on every free platform available for everyone to see just because the exposure will be “good for your career.” If you repeatedly give away for free all the stuff you create, pretty soon you don’t even have a viable career. I believe we should reinforce the societal expectation that if a consumer wants to enjoy our creative work, something that we’ve sweated and bled to create, that it should come at a price. If original content is made available at a reasonable price, and the demand is there, folks will pay for it.  We also share any revenues with our artists from dollar one, so we’re all incentivized as co-creators.

I really believe that the key to our getting as many theatrical bookings as we have is that for the last nine months is that if someone really wanted to see our film, the only way they could was to book it in a theater. One of the things we experienced self-distributing in partnership with Emerging was that, unlike a traditional distributor who pretty much has to make a release succeed on opening weekend, we found that interest in our film kept growing the longer it played in theaters. People would hear about the film playing in another city, and ask us how they could arrange a screening in their own hometown. In fact, the majority of our bookings were from theater programmers who just wanted to see our film, and thought that there must be other folks in their community who also would want to see it. Seen in this way, the theatrical life of our movie was months rather than weeks.  

6. Find a sponsorship partner.

Finding a sponsorship partner can be really helpful in promoting your film to a constituency that you might not otherwise reach. In our case, we forged a really fruitful and fun sponsorship relationship with Goorin Brothers Hats. I happen to be a bit of a hat geek, and throughout “The 78 Project Movie” I can be seen wearing various hats, almost all of which are Goorin Brothers hats. Not product placement, I just really favor them. In the course of planning our tour, we noticed that Goorin Brothers had shops in many of the cities where we’d be screening the movie. Since Goorin Brothers is a fourth generation family business that emphasizes traditional authentic craftsmanship, they felt like an organic fit for our film, and so we approached them to see if there was a way we could partner up. We were thrilled when they said “yes,” and together we came up with a plan where they would promote the screenings to their email lists in each town where they had a shop, and on screening days we would do in-shop appearances during which we would do a 78 DJ set, play music from the web series and the movie, and in a couple of instances, artists from the movie were gracious enough to also do a short live acoustic set. Goorin Brothers have been amazing to work with and it’s turned out to be a really nice way to spread the word about the film, and broaden the audience for “The 78 Project” as a whole.

7. Don’t forget non-traditional venues and the power of niche.

When thinking about theatrical screenings, it’s important not to overlook non-traditional venues – we had very successful screenings at museums, performing arts centers, universities, libraries and music venues. We even had a great screening organized by the Blue Ridge Music Center at the Floyd Country Store in Floyd, Virginia.

Throughout, the power of the niche appeal of our film was a positive. Our film was able to fit into film programming series centered around music themed films, but we also appealed to niche audiences interested in recording technology, ethnomusicology, anthropology and folklore, as well as indie film production and transmedia. A good thing to do is to recognize the different niche audiences your film can appeal to, and organize different presentations around that.

READ MORE: 10 New Ways to Think About Audiences for Social-Issue Documentaries

8. Remember that it’s hard out there for theater owners. 

The single biggest revelation in the course of touring our film was the startling realization that it’s really, really hard to be a theater owner.  I mean, there were nights where we’d be showing the film in a multi-screen venue, and there would be no one – and I mean zero persons – watching the first run major release playing in the next room. And, in all candor, there were some evenings where turnout for our film was under 20 people. But they were the 20 most passionate audience members we could have ever hoped for, and some of our greatest experiences were getting to interact with those folks in such a direct way.

We came to also really respect the passion of arthouse and indie cinema owners. It takes a tremendous love of the medium to try to keep going in the current climate. But it was really cool to see the innovative ways that these folks have turned their cinemas into gathering places, with areas to lounge in and socialize, good food to be enjoyed, drinks to be had, and a desire to create stimulating and exciting cinematic events.  Plus, we got to see some really cool theaters around the country – places like the Texas Theatre in Dallas, the Hollywood Theatre in Portland, the Music Box in Chicago, the Luna in Lowell, MA and Ciné in Athens, just to name a few.

And here’s the thing: in spite of how hard it is for these theater owners to turn a buck, they were all (with one exception, who shall go nameless) incredibly straight up and honest. Often times, they would insist on paying us right away after the screening. There was an almost unspoken understanding that we’re all in this together, that we need to sustain and support each other in our love for the medium. If self-distributing our movie taught us anything, it was that we’re all just people who share a deep and passionate love for cinema.  Perhaps most significant of all, just getting to experience the humanity of everyone involved at every step of the way was the best thing to come out of this.

Alex Steyermark’s feature films, “Prey for Rock & Roll” (2003), “One Last Thing…” (2006), and “Losers Take All” (2013) have been acclaimed at dozens of U.S. and International film festivals from Sundance to Toronto to Tribeca, and are distributed throughout the world. He is a creator, producer and the director of “The 78 Project” web series, and directed, shot and edited the feature doc, “The 78 Project Movie,” which had its world premiere at the 2014 SXSW Film Festival and is now playing in theaters worldwide. He started his filmmaking career as a documentary cameraman and editor, before segueing to feature film picture and music editing. 

The 78 Project Movie and bonus materials are also now available to stream online on Vimeo On Demand and VHX TV in rental and purchase packages and deluxe Soundtrack bundles. The DVD is available to order on The 78 Project website

READ MORE: How Steve James Finds Silver Linings When Things Don’t Go As Planned

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Toolkit and tagged ,

Get The Latest IndieWire Alerts And Newsletters Delivered Directly To Your Inbox