The dream of a national theatrical release still burns bright for most feature documentary filmmakers, but the reality is that traditional releases with week-long runs across the country have gotten much harder. Exhibitors complain that too many movies are opening, while viewers are increasingly watching documentaries at home via Netflix, PBS, HBO, iTunes or Amazon.
Knowing how challenging theatrical has gotten, it’s exciting to discover an innovative alternative model for releasing documentaries, which I call “Hybrid Theatrical Distribution.” It combines full runs in selected cities where seven-day engagements are viable and single special event screenings in many other cities.
Richard Abramowitz, one of the earliest and most successful pioneers of this approach, has been utilizing a hybrid approach to achieve remarkable results, most recently with “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years.” During a series of in-depth interviews, Abramowitz revealed why, and under what circumstances, Hybrid Theatrical Distribution can be the optimal method for releasing a documentary nationwide.
One Night Engagements
In 2011 Abramowitz had a significant breakthrough with “Pearl Jam Twenty,” Cameron Crowe’s documentary on the 20th anniversary of the rock band. He arranged full-week runs in six cities and one-night engagements in 55 locations. Abramowitz chose markets by geo- targeting the band’s fan club and utilizing the band’s touring schedule and airplay results. Even though not a penny was spent on paid ads, the film grossed $471,000, exceeding all expectations.
This release showed Abramowitz the true potential of one-night theatrical engagements. Their key benefits include:
Urgency: Films that can only be seen on a single night are more compelling to attend than films that will have many screenings daily for a week or more. Too often friends tell Abramowitz they can’t wait to see one of his films but then miss all theatrical screenings and end up watching it at home.
Community: A special event screening in a theater provides a unique opportunity for viewers to experience a film with other members of their core audience or tribe.
Cost-Effectiveness: The economics of one-night engagements are significantly better than those of full-week runs. Instead of having to pay a Virtual Print Fee for a whole week, the fee is prorated for a single screening. Abramowitz and his clients receive 50% of ticket sales for single engagements, which is a better split than they get for week runs, which is around 43%. Abramowitz emphasizes that the lack of an ad spend is what really increases the margin, as social media is utilized in place of paid advertising.
He is also able to make a persuasive case for single screenings to exhibitors, arguing that a special event will bring in more people than usually attend on a Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday night, and sell more tickets and more concessions.
Abramowitz combines these one-night engagements with full-week runs in two or more markets, including New York City (where there is the most prominent media) and Los Angeles (which is a tough market but can enable Oscar-qualification in tandem with New York). The benefits of this Hybrid Theatrical Distribution include:
Flexibility: If a single screening sells out in advance, it is usually possible to schedule a second screening the same night in that theater. If a film has a very strong opening nationally, it is often possible to convert successful single engagements into full seven-day bookings the following week.
National Release: A rollout mixing two or three full runs with many single night engagements will be perceived by the press and the public as a national release. Two or three full runs without complementary single engagements won’t be.
Awareness: The challenge of every film is how to achieve a critical mass of awareness. While major studios can afford to buy an audience for the first weekend, independent filmmakers cannot. Independents need to target core audiences. The more members of a core audience who see a film, like it, and spread the word within that audience, the better. The excitement and buzz they generate will help a film in each subsequent stage of its distribution, including non-theatrical screenings, educational sales, television, digital and DVD.
When a Hybrid Will Work
Abramowitz emphasizes the importance of being clear about the goals for a theatrical release. Many of the films he has worked with have focused on maximizing impact rather than revenues. Recent social issue films have included: “This Changes Everything” (which played full-week runs in New York, Los Angeles and three other markets, and single engagements in 92 other cities) and “Time To Choose” (which had 19 full-weeks and 78 one-nighters).
In other cases, the primary goal was marketing. For “Pearl Jam Twenty,” the objective was to keep the band visible when it was not touring and didn’t have a new album. It was important for Pearl Jam to maintain a personal connection with their fans. The fact that Abramowitz could send their record label a check for a couple hundred thousand dollars was an unexpected bonus. Abramowitz learned from “Pearl Jam Twenty” that you can work with music-related films in a very cost-effective way. Since then he has handled several music films, including “Zen of Bennett” (Tony Bennett), “In Your Dreams” (Stevie Nicks) and multiple Neil Young films. What he has learned from these is it is better to have more of a character-based music film, rather than a straight concert film.
When Abramowitz analyzes the theatrical possibilities for a film, he considers how “tribal” it is. Music-related films can appeal directly to a performer’s loyal fan base. Political films can appeal to individuals and organizations engaged with specific social issues. Mind-body-spirit films can appeal to people devoted to certain beliefs.
In 2014 Abramowitz handled the theatrical release of “Awake: The Life of Yogananda,” which was very successful, grossing $1.4 million. Counterpoint Films, the North American distributor of the film, hired Abramowitz to book the film into theaters. He began with week runs in three cities, and ten single engagements. Many of the single engagements were so successful they turned into multiple-week runs. “It was an exceptional release,” said Abramowitz. “It was not an amorphous New Age movie, but a film about a specific person with a specific organization — the Self-Realization Fellowship — supporting the release. We could call SRF’s office and request that devotees attend a 7pm Friday night show with three friends, and they would be there with three friends.”
Last year he opened “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years” theatrically while it was available on Hulu at the same time. He began with 60 full-week runs and 90 one-night engagements. The film was overwhelmingly successful, enabling him to bump up at least a third of the one-night engagements into full-week runs. The film grossed $2.9 million theatrically.
It benefitted from director Ron Howard’s active promotion of the film and 30 minutes of rare bonus footage of a Beatles Shea Stadium concert that was only available in theaters (not on Hulu or the DVD)
“Never underestimate the Beatles, who are the exception to every rule,” said Abramowitz, who noted that film’s uniquely multi-generational audience, spanning from grandparents to grandkids.
Abramowitz cautioned that maximizing a hybrid release requires at least four months of outreach. He emphasized the importance of social media in attracting core audiences and the need to make single engagements special events rather than just screenings. He organizes post screening discussions as often as possible. For “Mr. Gaga” he arranged for instructors (Gaga is a movement language developed to help dancers reconnect to the way they move) to lead the audience in five-minute exercises after screenings.
Allowing lead time for the bookings is also essential, more so for the full-week runs than the one-nighters. Abramowitz noted that theaters are less eager to work directly with filmmakers than with experienced bookers. “Exhibitors are too busy to go through ‘Distribution 101’ each time,” said Abramowitz.
Filmmakers who would like to arrange single-night engagements, but are not working with a booker, may not be able to negotiate no-fee bookings with a 50/50 split. Instead the theater may require renting the theater, which is known as “four-walling.” If so, rental costs are lowest on Monday and Tuesday nights and filmmakers keep 100% of ticket sales.
It is also possible to use Tugg or Gathr, which can arrange single theatrical screenings if a minimum number of tickets are purchased in advance. Another option is to organize single screenings outside of theaters—on campuses, in libraries and museums, and at churches, JCCs, and other venues.
For films with a substantial core audience that can be activated, Hybrid Theatrical Distribution can be the best way to maximize a national release. It’s more cost-effective than a full traditional theatrical release, and has a built-in flexibility if a film exceeds expectations. Any documentary filmmaker considering a US theatrical release should explore whether Hybrid Theatrical Distribution is the best approach.