After winning the Grand Jury Prize at the SXSW Film Festival, director and star Jim Cummings was underwhelmed by the distribution offers he received. For a film based on a short that won Sundance in 2016 and cost $200,000 to make, Cummings was looking at offers that required him to hand over global rights for $100,000.
However, “Thunder Road” was one of the three 2018 films to receive a Sundance Creative Distribution Fellowship grant of $33,333. This was earmarked for the cost of self-distribution, while also gaining access to the Sundance Institute’s expertise and connections to explore the still-uncharted territory of self-distribution. In exchange, filmmakers agree to be completely transparent, sharing their data and experiences to create a Sundance case study.
“Sundance encouraged us to try all these different things a smaller distributor would have never done,” said Cummings. “It’s been a total learning experience — some things I never would have guessed would work have, some haven’t, and we adjusted.”
One thing Cummings never imaged was “Thunder Road” would become a theatrical hit in France. After playing as part of The ACID (Association for the Diffusion of Independent Cinema) program at Cannes in May, Cummings found a small French distributor, Paname, that recommended he apply to the Deauville Film Festival.
“I’d never thought about Deauville. Over here all we think about in terms of French film festivals is Cannes, Cannes, Cannes,” said Cummings. ”Paname explained to me that Deauville is geared toward the moviegoers in France. So we planned a small 10-20 theater release for right after the film played at the fest.”
So Cummings travelled with the film to Deauville early this month, where “Thunder Road” was very warmly received. Suddenly, Cummings and Paname were in demand: Exhibitors wanted to open on 67 screens. In the first week, the film grossed $210,000 in France, exceeding the film’s cost and doubling Cumming’s best distribution offers out of SXSW. In its second week, the film will grow to 76 French screens.
Cummings said that the biggest lesson he’s learned from Sundance and the self-distribution process is that he’s well positioned to market his own films. Cummings once ran a Kickstarter for his work, and developed a sizable following on Vimeo (currently 38.4K followers) for his shorts. He also had experience using Facebook advertising to target his audience, something Sundance pushed him to do more. Cummings said the social media site’s ability to microtarget has been eye-opening.
“I know from previous experience with the short that ‘adults who like Pixar’ and Danny McBride movies are a real sweet spot for us,” said Cummings. Initially, he played up the comedy angle using a quote from Variety in his Facebook ads. The trailer for “Thunder Road,” a film about a cop (Cummings) coming to grips with the death of his mother, is somewhat heartbreaking and the disconnect of playing up the comedic angle led to limited engagement. “I’ve learned you need to get inside the mindset of how people are absorbing the posts,” said Cummings, who started experimenting targeting fans of the NBC family drama “This Is Us.” “When I started playing up festival accolades with the trailer, my engagement shot through the roof.”
Cummings also found it effective and financially efficient to limit his ads to people who are within 10-15 miles of the theaters playing “Thunder Road.”
“I talked to a friend of mine who works at a smaller indie distributor,” said Cummings. “He told me they would have likely decided to spend thousands airing our trailer during episodes of ‘Law & Order.’ All that money that would have cost would have to be repaid to the distributor before we saw a dime. Meanwhile, the really cool indie distributors took a meetings with me and it was a really friendly. They were honest that they couldn’t add any value to the film, and that I had already built the audience I’d be targeting.”
It was confirmation to Cummings that he could do at least as good of job putting “Thunder Road” out into the world as the smaller companies that provided lowball offers.
“The democracatization of indie film distribution is coming,” said Cummings. “When people read the case study of my film, it’s really going to open eyes, just like when I read one for ‘Columbus’ [a 2017 Sundance’s Creative Distribution Fellowship film].”
“Thunder Road” will have a one-day engagement on 20-30 screens in the U.S. on September 23, Arthouse Theater Day.