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6 Ways to Maximize Theatrical Distribution in the Age of Digital On Demand

6 Ways to Maximize Theatrical Distribution in the Age of Digital On Demand

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As On Demand and digital viewing platforms continue to conquer the distribution world, theatrical distributors have found themselves in a life-threatening situation. The answer of how to keep up and stay alive against digital competitors isn’t an easy one to come up with, but the five panelists at the “Hacking Theatrical: What Does the Future Hold for Theatrical Distribution?” event during IFP Film Week did their best to calm fears and provide solutions to the future of theatrical releases. 

Moderated by Colin Brown, Editorial Director at Slated, the panel included Jack Craven, Gathr Films’ Head of Acquisitions & Business Affairs; Brian Parsons, Director of Content Partnerships at Tugg, Inc.; Amanda Salazar, Fandor’s Film Acquisitions Director; Dan Nuxoll, Program Director at Rooftop Films; and Jake Perlin, Executive Director at Cinema Conservancy/Artists Public Domain.

Over the course of the 45-minute discussion, the group took turns sharing tips on the best ways of preserving theatrical distribution. Check out some of the most important highlights from the discussion below.

Target “user personas” first.

The biggest advice the panelists agreed on was starting small with distribution and working your way out. “The films that we often work with are titles that speak to a clear, engaged audience. It’s not a general demographic that we’re speaking to,” said Craven. “We’re really honing in on that key user persona. That could be a cause-driven film that speaks to a certain issue or is trying to advance a social issue. It could also be a film that speaks to a sub-sect of society and culture that is moved by the opportunity to come together collectively and watch a film in a theater and turn it into an engaged, exciting event.”

Craven’s examples included targeting films about women’s rights and girls’ education to specific female-oriented audiences first. “The movies you think don’t have huge potential across the country, they’re the ones that all of a sudden have 100-200 screenings,” he said. He explained that if you had a movie about hula dancing, for instance, you would start a theatrical release by targeting Pacific Islanders first with the hope they would begin to build word of mouth and spread positive buzz. From there, you’d “circle back” to broader audiences, starting with people who like dancing, then people interested in Pacific Island culture and so on. “You’re broadening that scope, but you’re starting with that core group and getting them to champion the film in their hometown so you can then scale across the country,” he concluded.

“Every film wants to reach as broad of an audience as possible, but you have to start somewhere before you can be everywhere,” added Parsons. “That’s the key. You have to build momentum, especially as an independent filmmaker who lacks a marketing budget at all. You have to start by directly engaging with your core audience and interest groups to build that momentum. You target that success and you bring it to people outside of that core group. The superfans are the ones who are going to drive your movie.”

Ask yourself, “why go see this film in theaters?”

“For theatrical you have to answer the question: Why go see this film in theaters? Why see this in a community setting?” said Parsons. “If you’re not able to provide that answer, that’s the bigger issues and that’s what you have to solve first. We’re doing a film that comes out On Demand this Friday, and we’re doing about 60 screenings the night before. It’s this film about mustangs and that community is able to use it as a time to get together and see a film that they love. The next day it’s up on iTunes and the positive word of mouth will crescendo into that next phase of the digital release.”

Choose your location wisely.

“Something that might work on the beach in Coney Island might not work on a quiet roof in Park Slope or on a rooftop in the South Bronx,” noted Nuxoll of programming events through Rooftop Films. “We move around for a number of different reasons, but the big reason is so that we can reach out to a number of different communities. Different communities have different cultural needs that they respond too. When we pick our films, we’re really looking at what the communities will respond to. There are some films that don’t work well outdoors — like a 3 hour experimental film. But, with that being said, there are places where you can show a horror film and places where you can show quiet, lyrical meditations and places that work best for raucous comedies. We try to find enough different venues so that we aren’t constricted in terms of programming.”

Target underserved communities.

“There are some neighborhoods that are especially dominated by a particular culture, so we try to program directly to that. The films that get the most audience members are the ones that meet the needs of an underserved communities,” said Nuxoll  noting how incredible films like Khalik Allah’s “Field Niggas,” “Five Star,” “Romeo is Bleeding” and “Fresh Dressed” performed in venues in East Harlem, the Bronx and Brooklyn. Nuxoll found that films that directly dealt with urban issues sold out immediately and needed no community outreach to promote the screenings. 

“The top 20 indie releases of any given year, there are the big films — the pseudo-indies and a couple genre films — and all the rest are those indies servicing ethnic minority communities. They don’t have huge promotional budgets, but they are films that people in communities want to see,” concluded Nuxoll.

Think about distribution from the very start.

“A lot of filmmakers put everything into production and get a film in the can and are out of money to submit it to festivals, out of money to hold screenings for critics and distributors,” said Perlin. “A lot of films we’ve done have had such luck with critics out of festivals, so we already know, let’s say, if we open this movie in Chicago, there are people there who already like it.”

“When you’re beginning a production of a film, and you already have a desire that the film will work in a theatrical setting, I know it’s hard, but it’s nice to keep that in mind from the beginning and earmark a couple of dollars for what’s going to be necessary to get that done,” he continued. “It’s emotionally hard for filmmakers to struggle, struggle, struggle to get the film done, and then pick themselves back up again to get it some theatrical life. You have to mentally plan it in and plan a long view, and that’s psychologically easier for them. The last thing a filmmaker is thinking about after putting so much into the making of the film is booking distribution, so do it early.”

Start catering towards events.

Each panel member agreed that the traditional way of distributing films by targeting the top 25 markets is pretty much dead. Instead, work at building events that will force audiences to come together to watch the film and hopefully build word of mouth. “It’s all going to performance based and events. Something like ‘one night only’ screenings,” said Parsons of the future of theatrical distribution. “The urgency around an event that’s only there for one night is similar to a concert, and that’s becoming more and more popular and becoming more economical for booking. You drive people to one engagement, as opposed to saying, ‘The film is opening in this city, get your tickets here,’ but in that case there’s no direct call to action. When Thursday at 7pm is your only opportunity to see something, there’s a call to action that drives people to that event.”

READ MORE: ‘Carol’ Producer Christine Vachon on the Past, Present and Future of Indie Film

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