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DIY Theatrical Distribution

This has become a common topic of conversation in the world of distribution for Directors and Producers.

There are several reasons for this, among them: a) More filmmakers are doing this and getting press, and b) More filmmakers are realizing that to stand out from the crowd of thousands of movies vying for distribution when looking for DVD/VOD and other deals, this is one way to do that. To be able to show your movie had a theatrical release, and you achieved box office numbers of 'x' per week, this can do a lot for one's "pedigree." There's also the chance that your movie may make some real money at the box office.

One of the great challenges of launching your own theatrical run, is that it takes time and money. And if there's no money, it takes exponentially more time. Another challenge is that if you don't have money, it's harder to book the best theaters. More on this in a moment.

Those of you who've been to my Master Class know that I released my first movie into selected theaters myself, before landing some distribution deals. I was not able to secure distribution before doing this for two reasons: 1) I had hurt my options by going after certain distributors before I'd built my pedigree (something too many filmmakers do); and 2) I had crashed and burned badly by working with two different producer reps (at different points). Ultimately I recovered and turned a losing situation -- what appeared to be the end of the road for me -- into a winning one.

You may also know that I don't recommend this route of Self-Theatrical for everyone. It is not for the faint of heart, and is frequently a "loss leader" financially. So you need to be able to withstand potential losses until you secure the deals that can make you whole again.

Of course, if you do really well, this can be parlayed into a city by city rollout.

I could write a book on this subject alone, and there are now other options many filmmakers are utilizing in their quest for theatrical exposure. One approach is to book one- or two-night runs rather than an entire week, or one-night house screenings/parties. Robert Greenwald has popularized this latter approach with his first political documentaries.

The upside to this approach is it only allows people one or two nights to see your movie. So you create a sense of urgency and leverage to get people to come now and not put off going for another day -- which people can do when you're playing for a week or longer. The downside is if you do really well and want to extend the run, the theater is likely to be booked with its next engagement. (Another downside is getting press to care about your one-night screening, and getting press is extremely important for many reasons.)

Today, however, I will offer some important and practical tips to getting your movie booked into theaters -- the first step to releasing theatrically -- should you go this route.

What are the key points you need to know?

(Note: the following info is geared toward booking full runs, where you're screening multiple times daily for a week or longer.)

1. TYPE OF BOOKING: 4-Walling or Deal w/Theater?
There are two ways to get booked into a theater. One is called "4-Walling," where you pay the theater 'x' dollars per week for your run, and you keep all the box office revenues. You're buying out the theater. There are some theaters that don't want to share any risk, so they get their money from you upfront. If you only sell 50 tickets for the entire week, it's no skin off their back.

The other way is to strike a deal with the theater, where you've pitched them so well, they believe your run will make them money. So they'll share the risk with you, no money is paid to them upfront, and you make a deal to split the box office revenues. Of course, they have to like your movie as well, BUT, this is not the sole criteria. Many theater owners may love your movie, but if they think it (and you) won't get tickets sold, they're not going to book it. Which leads to point two:

All theater owners & managers are in the theater business to make money. Yes, they love film, but they're there to make money. This is first and foremost. So how do you talk to them? How do you convince them to take a risk on your movie? If you want to make a deal and not 4-wall, you must sound professional in your pitch on the phone, as best you can. Take off your creative hat, and put on your businessman/businesswoman hat. Try not to sound like an indie filmmaker. Speak with them as though you understand their concerns and issues.

These owners know what their weekly "nut" is, what they have to make to stay in business. If they think you get that, they'll respond to you better. If they think you're a dewy-eyed idealist, who's into filmmaking for the art or culture of it, then they don't think you'll fill the seats. (And if you are an artistic idealist, that's TOTALLY OK, many great filmmakers are! Just don't let them think that's all you are or can do.)

There is another option, and that is hiring what's known as a booker, to get your movie booked into theaters. It will cost you money to do this, but if a booker likes your movie (or likes the salary they're getting), they can be effective. Just don't buy that you must use one of them to get into theaters.

Let's get specific now. What do these theaters want to know? Simple. How are you going to get butts in seats? How are you going to sell this movie? Do you have any money for marketing and advertising? If you have the answers to these questions -- even if you're not asked first -- you will go a long way toward establishing trust with the theater owner. And I wouldn't wait for a theater owner to bring up this part of the conversation -- you bring it up.

Stay grounded and sound grounded in your calls. (This is part of sounding like a business person.) You can't say with unbridled enthusiasm, "We'll sell lot of tickets, we just know we will! We killed at the Podunk film festival!" They'll be polite, but good luck getting them to return your next call. This doesn't mean you shed all your passion when speaking with them either. But you should at least have some semblance of a plan mapped out -- of how you'll reach your audience, how you'll get them to come to the theater, what your PR efforts will be and so forth. If you do this, you'll be off to a good start with convincing this theater owner that you're going to work hard, sell seats and are risk-worthy.

If you have a budget for advertising in the usual places this theater's ads run, this will make the owner happy to book you. The more money, the better. If you don't have any money, or very little, then your pitch has to be that much better to overcome this liability. It is surmountable, depending upon the theater and your movie's subject matter, but the less money there is for advertising, the more energy one must spend to compensate. And theater owners know this.

If, however, you are trying to book into one of the so-called "calendar houses," who have a monthly or bi-monthly calendar of upcoming movies that gets distributed, then having money for ads is a little less crucial. These theaters rely on their printed calendars (and email lists if they use them) to inform the public and fill seats. However, some of the higher end calendar houses will also want ads in the papers, so if you have some cash, being able to do this can help you get booked.

Try to learn what the typical box office numbers are for the theater you want to book in. Why would I suggest this? Because if you know what they typically do, then you know what you need to aim for to make them feel comfortable taking a risk with you. This can be part of your pitch, and if your plan is realistic in being able to reach that theater's typical numbers, you'll probably secure your booking.

Also, the numbers will be different, depending upon the movie (of course) and the time of year. So when looking at a theater's numbers, you're not going to compare a run of an indie film in September with a run of a studio blockbuster over the 4th of July or Christmas.

One additional tip: Theaters are more inclined to take a risk during those times of year when box office attendance is historically low. So if you call pitching to have your movie run over Christmas, forget about it. But if you say to the theater -- as part of your pitch, for example -- "I know your box office numbers are probably lowest in September, so this is when I'd like to book with you," you've got their attention.

How do I know? This is how I got into one of the best theaters (and a major chain) in the heart of New York City. So you can too, if this ends up being a route you want to take.

Once a theater is interested in booking your movie, negotiations are the next step. What kind of a deal can you make? Some theaters will make a deal whereby they get their "nut" covered first, before splitting box office revenues. The higher-end theaters and chains will frequently do this. Some theaters you'll be able make deals where you and the theater both participate from first dollar. The percentage you get and the theater gets is up to your negotiations. If you have money for advertising, this will boost your position. Just remember, everything is negotiable. But whatever deal you make, get it in writing, including the dates of your run.

Your next step after negotiations are complete? Preparing for your release and gearing up for marketing!

Some final words. Not every single theater owner out there in America only cares about business. You may find some who love your movie or the issue your movie deals with, and book you. If so, congratulations! You're off to an "easy" start when that occurs, but don't let that lull you into complacency in working your theatrical run.

Also, for those producers who actually have a "war chest" of funds to put their movie into theaters: You may consider striking a Service Deal with a distributor, where you retain control over the release and the revenues, but utilize their distribution infrastructure.

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