Screenings & ReleasesAlthough it can be harder for indie films to get reviews in some markets with a short run, this trend seems to be changing as traditional media changes.  For example, as newspapers scale back the scope of their coverage and reduce size—making it harder to get reviews—non-traditional press through tweets, blogs, and online announcements can attract more attention to a screening or debut than a high circulation traditional review.

Another factor to consider is the time and financial investment involved with a week long run.  Often, short run films make more money than week-long releases, and the abbreviated time frame can make the film seem exclusive, making it a “must see” event.  Some film makers are capitalizing off this aspect with the “One-night Only” showing, which also enables indie theaters to maintain a more active rotation schedule and attract more customers.

Creating the “Live Event” Experience

Because of the traditional, week-long, structure for film openings, it is quite a feat for film makers to generate “buzz” around debuts.  One way to accomplish this is to treat each opening city as its own, separate event, complete with theatrical release.  This will help break into the crowded media landscape, giving news outlets a reason to feature you, and generate an overall media presence in a regional or national sense.  Additionally, this separates your debut from the other films currently showing at the same theater.

The other advantage of live events is the relationship that can be built with audiences and fans along the way.  By redefining theatrical release as a personalized, tour event, filmmakers reclaim their relationship with their audience and can have a lot of fun, too.  These direct experiences also enrich the film making experience and provide fodder for future creative endeavors.

Creating Buzz Around the Release

Whether or not your screening runs for one day or one week, it is important to generate buzz around the event.

Plan Personal Appearances by Filmmaker/Cast Members. Having stars from the film attend screenings is a good way of reaching out to the audience and generating attention for a screening.  Additionally, some openings have even employed live bands to play the intro or closing credits or offering a mini-concert of the soundtrack, giving audiences a sense of being a part of an exclusive artistic event.

Invite a CelebrityWhether or not they are cast members, inviting relevant or influential celebrities to attend and speak at screening events is another way to generate interest.  Even if the celebrity cannot be on site, scheduling a satellite broadcast to accompany the film can have the same effect.

Make it a Party.  Particularly for a week-long run, one way to maintain interest is to schedule one or more parties.  The more creative and innovative the premise, the better.  This may require some research and planning in order to avoid a hefty bill without a lot of pay off.  It is recommended that, unless there is a local partnership handling the logistics for the opening, consider limiting the party to one event.

Screen local talent for acts, artists, or DJs that charge a modest rate or will volunteer their time and talent; look for culinary or beverage sponsors who are willing to donate product; if the city has a university or culinary school, see if there is a tourism or event planning program willing to donate student interns who need experience.  Additionally, it is better to become part of an existing, promoted party than to offer a competing event, so check the city’s calendar before making arrangements.

Partner with an Organization. Fundraising events are a good way to generate positive press for a movie screening and encourage attendance.  There is also the added benefit that the charity partner will assist with promoting the screening with their own staff and advertisement campaigns.

Sell Advance Tickets.  The act of having tickets for advance sale promotes the idea that your event might be popular enough to sell out and can encourage attendance.  It also gives the impression that your screening is an event worth looking forward to.

Encourage Audience Participation.  Giving the audience an outlet to respond to and engage with the film creates a social event surrounding the film, offering more reasons to attract attention and attendance. The Rocky Horror Picture Show has been around for nearly 40 years; and yet, audiences around the world turn out in scores, full-costumed, to experience local screenings, even if they’ve already seen the film a dozen times before.   The modern equivalent of this is Tommy Wiseau’s The Room, which has been referred to as one of the worst films of all time; the audience attends in order to react accordingly (!)  

Transmedia Aspects of Screenings 

At a transmedia event, the audience interacts with the film through multiple media platforms, including the Internet, mobile phones, and gaming devices, creating an experience that extends the original narrative beyond the projected image. Transmedia events encourage audience attendance because it is the only way the viewers will have a complete experience of the artist’s vision for the narrative.  Below are a few successful examples:

Live Musical Remix. DJ Spooky has gone on tour as part of transmedia screenings, the most famous example being his remix of the D.W. Griffith controversial classic, Birth of a Nation.  This kind of event requires advance prep and coordination with the musical talent and is not recommended on a short timeline.

Live Film Mixing.  Peter Greenway veejays his current film, The Tulse Luper Suitcases, mixing scenes and elements of the film while live and on site, ensuring every screening is unique for each audience.

Live Storytelling. Indie filmmaker Joe Swanberg is considering a design for his next screening which would involve only theaters where the actors can travel with the film and perform parts of the story as the film is being shown.  With his film Head Trauma, Lance Weiler took this concept one step further, interacting with his audience via text message, integrated within the live performance component.

One-Night Only Releases

One of the primary goals of issue-oriented documentaries is to raise awareness and create controversy.  By timing the screenings of a film to coincide, and augmenting this event with additional interviews, celebrities, fundraisers, etc., the film can generate national attention.  For example, I.O.U.S.A. sold 45,000 tickets and was screened in 430 theaters on the same day; because of the schedule, the filmmaker was able to broadcast a town hall meeting from Omaha, Nebraska, featuring Warren Buffet.  Peter Broderick cautions, however, that these types of events are just as expensive to organize as any large-scale national theatrical and require at least four months of prep-time to adequately prepare for.

Tour Releases

Using their counterparts in the music industry as a model, a number of filmmakers are experimenting with the tour-style release model.  Todd Sklar has reinvented the touring model for modern independent filmmakers.  Hitting the road with four-film package events, each film screens one night in each city visited.  He is even developing his company, “Range Life Entertainment” into a marketing and distribution venture based on this model.  Below are some suggestions he has passed on to me:

Book Your First Screening Close to Home.  Since Sklar’s movie Box Elder was made in Columbia, Missouri and he had a great deal of support there, it made sense to head off the film tour with Columbia.  The film was so popular it played there for a month and set a box office record.

Select Theaters Strategically.  Book only theaters where your target audiences go to see films.  For Sklar, this meant looking for art house theaters near college campuses and working with local marketing partners to develop a media strategy.

Build Relationships.  Because Sklar was targeting small, art house theaters, he had to approach and correspond with them over the phone, building a relationship with the venue management and programmers. Additionally, involvement with local film festivals helps build a relationship with other filmmakers and the community at large.  These types of relationships impact the success of not only the current but future tours.

Don’t Compete.  Knowing your demographic means knowing how they spend leisure time and when they would elect to go see your film.  Sklar realized that his fans had plans on the weekend but would make time to see his films on a weeknight after work or school; therefore, he schedules screenings between Monday and Thursday.

Don’t Worry About Terms.  Whether the door wants 35% or 50%, don’t worry about it.  Volume is more important and it is better to get seen in more places than to do financially well in fewer places.  The value of building an audience base cannot be over emphasized.

The Journey is the RewardMore specifically, the reward is the relationship a film maker builds with his audience while on tour.  In Sklar’s approach, film-going is more than private recreation.  It is actively becoming a part of a community and conversation, and Sklar and his team make a point of being a part of both. For example, Sklar met a kid in Santa Fe, New Mexico that fell in love with the tour’s films.  They bonded and, as a result, the kid went all the way to San Francisco to see the films again and help out with the tour.

At that same San Francisco show, Sklar met a couple outside the theater and convinced them to see one of the films, free of charge.  Later, they returned with friends, who all bought tickets, and the couple even bought a copy of the film DVD.