How They Did It: Bringing an Art-House Indie to Rural Audiences in a Montana Screening Tour

From the moment we entered pre-production on my first feature, Bella Vista, in Missoula, Montana, I knew I wanted to do a statewide screening tour.

It felt important to show Bella Vista in the place that inspired it, but regardless of how distribution panned out for us, it was clear it would be a challenge to reach our state’s heavily rural audience. Following our premiere at Rotterdam in 2014, my producers and I began plotting.

Call it entrepreneurial or just plain practical. First and foremost, however, it was an experiment. Could we bring in audiences in Montana, where few independent theaters exist? Could we do it on a tiny budget, without the help of PR professionals? And then, how would our movie—a long-take, landscape-centered narrative—be received? These days everyone talks about “knowing your audience,” but aside from the amorphous “art”/”art-house” category, we didn’t fit into an obvious niche or genre. But we believed Bella Vista could appeal to a Montana rancher as much as a European festivalgoer, so we took a leap of faith. We were going on the road.

Kathleen Wise as Doris in Bella Vista

Kathleen Wise as Doris in Bella Vista

Setting Short- and Long-Term Goals

We wanted to expand the audience for our film, but also saw this as a chance to help develop an in-state audience for independent film. Online streaming has given people access to a wider variety of movies than ever before. Still, we felt that a community-based viewing experience offering first-hand engagement with the filmmakers would captivate more viewers, and have the potential to make a more lasting impression.

Our obstacles were the usual indie suspects: money and time. We made Bella Vista on a microbudget and didn’t have a lot of extra cash on hand. Generally speaking, funding for arts and culture is modest in Montana. Local independent features are rare, and there was no guarantee of a strong turnout outside of our home base of Missoula. We all had other jobs and commitments during the planning and execution of our tour, so our own time was limited as well. We aimed to keep our budget under $5,000.

(L-R) Producers Jeri Rafter and Brooke Swaney with director Vera Brunner-Sung outside the Johnny Arlee/Victor Charlo Theater at Salish Kootenai College in Pablo. Photograph by Vera Brunner-Sung

(L-R) Producers Jeri Rafter and Brooke Swaney with director Vera Brunner-Sung outside the Johnny Arlee/Victor Charlo Theater at Salish Kootenai College in Pablo, Montana. Photograph by Vera Brunner-Sung

Planning Logistics

We had several issues to take into account as far as scheduling went. Winter weather is unpredictable in Montana, so no one really wants to be on the road then if they can help it. Many people leave town in the summer, or their communities are full of tourists, which would defeat our goal of reaching locals. Spring or fall is ideal in places with colleges and universities; we could connect with visiting artist opportunities, which help secure an audience and funding. We wanted to build on our festival momentum and get started sooner rather than later, so with the fall of 2014 too short notice for most places, we settled on spring of 2015. This left us a year to plan. Still, many places were already finalizing their events schedules already by the time we started. If you’re looking to bring your film to different independent venues, I’d call a year the bare minimum margin to start calling.

Building a Route: Friends, Partnerships, Practicalities

So we didn’t have the funds to blanket the state with advertising or hire a publicist. But we did have our own personal connections, and figured these would go a long way toward audience turnout. Jeri Rafter and Brooke Swaney, my producers, grew up in Montana and have strong ties to several communities; we had crowdfunding campaign supporters to tap into; and a number of people hailing from across the state had helped us through development and production. We also had our local independent cinema in Missoula, who’d given us an open invitation to screen. These relationships helped us make our first list of destinations: Missoula, Helena, Kalispell, Choteau, Pablo, Bozeman. We then made an effort to distribute our stops geographically—this was a state tour, after all! We added Butte, Billings, and Miles City, stops we could integrate efficiently with our existing list.

No one knows a community better than the people who live there. In approaching specific venues, we prioritized established organizations with membership bases. This included art museums, community nonprofits, and educational institutions. These places could assist us with promotion by reaching out to their existing audiences. They could also offer us tips on scheduling our event (weeks, days, times) in order to maximize turnout. In addition, we looked out for local sponsors, who could mention us in their calendars, newsletters, and social media, or allow us to use their names in our own promotions.

Finally, we wanted to be realistic about the size of our venues. For example, the historic Mother Lode Theater is a stunning venue that regularly hosts quality cultural events in Butte. But considering its more-than-1,000-person capacity, we were concerned about both our audience draw and ability to ensure a meaningful, engaged post-screening discussion. So we didn’t mind skipping the glory and screen size of the Mother Lode for a smaller space we could be more confident about filling. We booked a date with the Imagine Butte Resource Center, a terrific arts nonprofit that offered us their gallery with space for up to 100.

BELLA VISTA screens at Imagine Butte Resource Center in Butte.

Bella Vista screens at Imagine Butte Resource Center in Butte. Photograph by Brooke Swaney

Wait, What About Movie Theaters?

From the outset, we knew that focusing exclusively on movie theaters would not be practical for us. As in the rest of the country, most theaters in Montana are part of franchises and have little financial incentive to show films outside their existing commercial distribution arrangements. We did, however, end up booking a few bona fide cinemas: the aforementioned independent theater in Missoula, The Roxy; another Roxy in Choteau (no relation); and Helena’s Myrna Loy Center, the state’s premiere cinema and performing arts venue.

Negotiating Terms: Where to Draw the Line?

We did our best to find personal introductions to each venue we approached, and our state’s small population (around one million) came in handy here. We cold-called other places and had less luck with them. In general, however, people were responsive: We were offering them ready-made content for their programming schedules, and the facts that our film was Montana-made and we would be appearing in person were strong incentives for attracting a local audience.

As we negotiated terms, we stayed flexible but eliminated places that insisted on flat rental fees. In order to be viable, we needed partners, not cut-and-dried business deals. We asked that each venue offer us assistance with publicity, in addition to payment in the form of a share of ticket sales, donations, or—in the case of academic institutions—honoraria, meals, accommodations, and mileage reimbursement (standard accommodations for visiting artists). We also made sure they’d let us set up a merch table to hawk our DVDs and posters.

The movie theaters on our list offered us their regular box-office splits (mostly 50/50). A couple venues asked us to guarantee a minimum take in lieu of a rental fee, and since these were modest (in one place representing 15 viewers, in another, seven), we accepted. Most of the schools and one museum came through with honoraria, mileage, room, and board packages. In places where we didn’t get comped for hotel or meals, our venue contacts sometimes cooked for us, or connected us to friends with an extra bedroom. At our final tour stop in the state capital of Helena, one of our major supporters, the Montana Film Office, sponsored a catered reception. (Happily, while our previous screenings were all one-off events, our venue there, the Myrna, invited us for a week-long run.)

In the end we weren’t able to secure consecutive dates for all our stops, but this turned out to benefit us: We were able to organize the tour into legs, such that if one place didn’t offer us a mileage reimbursement it could be incorporated en route to another that did. (We also wouldn’t have to interrupt our lives for more than three consecutive days.)

Ugh, Can We Really Afford This?

By the time we confirmed our venues—three movie theaters, three colleges/universities, two museums, and one community arts space, for a grand total of nine stops—we were halfway funded. We needed to make up the difference, or this dream was going to die. We were reluctant to embark on another crowdfunding campaign. Part of what made our earlier campaign so successful was that we let it take over our lives for six weeks, and we just couldn’t afford to do that this time.

Enter grants. We looked for regional funding opportunities and narrowed them down to the Montana Arts Council and our state’s NEH grantor, Humanities Montana. Our tour’s public outreach and market expansion goals fit perfectly with the Arts Council’s funds-matching Strategic Investment Grant. This grant also came up every month, so we had a flexible window of time to apply; we’d also previously won a grant from the Arts Council for post-production, so we thought they’d have a strong incentive to continue supporting us. Humanities Montana offered more money, but was a longer shot: they had fewer granting opportunities throughout the year, and tended to fund writers before artists, and documentary over fiction film. Still, we applied to both. The Arts Council grant came through. Though we’d have to sacrifice somewhat in screening fees and honoraria, we were in business.

Understanding Who We Were Promoting To

This is probably obvious, but Montana is not New York or Los Angeles—or for that matter, any densely populated urban center. Generally, people use Facebook more than Twitter, but many still rely on print, TV, radio, and plain old word of mouth for their information. With the help of our venue contacts, we secured newspaper coverage and events listings in each town, and worked our connections through friends, family, crowd campaign supporters, and cast and crew. We posted away on social media, got on the phone, and sent out e-newsletters and emails.

Our main expense here was printing fliers and postcards. We mailed these to each venue in advance of our screenings and their staff or volunteers placed them around town. And as we’d hoped, venue contacts came through with listing us in their event calendars and otherwise promoting us to their members via email and social media.

Theater owner Sue Schilling runs the box office at the Roxy in Choteau

Theater owner Sue Schilling runs the box office at the Roxy in Choteau. Photograph by Vera Brunner-Sung

Field of Dreams

So… Did They Come? Short answer: Yes! More than 300 people experienced our film across the state, a respectable turnout for Montana. We received some nice press coverage, augmented our mailing list, and generated social media content (always good).

Attendance varied from place to place. Our smallest audience count was seven; our largest, 72. As expected, communities where we had personal connections produced higher numbers. We also noticed that co-sponsorships paid off, whether we knew people locally or not: We had sizable turnouts at Montana State University (where our event was integrated into class curricula and promoted to an audience beyond campus thanks to the Bozeman Film Society) and the Yellowstone Art Museum (the state’s major contemporary art museum, who connected me with a visiting artist opportunity at MSU-Billings).

Happily, our multi-pronged approach to funding worked. Our expenses were covered and we each came away with modest honoraria. (We distributed honoraria to each other based on screenings attended, as not all three of us appeared together at every location.)

But these results are quantitative, and our biggest rewards went beyond numbers. We built connections with a network of people in-state, who are interested in locally made films and filmmakers, and care about making space for our work within their own communities. In this way, we contributed to our long-term goal of developing audiences for independent film and for our burgeoning film community in Montana. I also got to see places I’d never been to, and get to know them from a perspective more intimate than would have otherwise been possible. And, of course, I got to meet a group of wonderful new people.

Truthfully, our smallest audiences offered some of the most memorable post-screening discussions. I gained far deeper insight into the way my film affected people from a variety of different backgrounds. Days after our screenings, people sent emails to thank me for the experience, expressing how it stayed with them.

Which brings me back to the second part of our experiment: namely, the question of whether our little art film could fly outside the big city. Was our unconventional approach accessible enough to keep people engaged? I’m happy to report: yes and yes. From small ranching communities to college towns to an Indian Reservation to the state capitol, we found that our core themes of isolation and migration in the West resonated. We had few to no walkouts, and nearly everyone in our audiences stuck around for discussion.

The audience poses for the camera at the Yellowstone Art Museum in Billings before a screening of BELLA VISTA

The audience poses for the camera at the Yellowstone Art Museum in Billings before a screening of Bella Vista. Photograph by Vera Brunner-Sung

My own experience brought me back to one of the most basic reasons I make films: to connect with others. Call me an idealist, but I need my audience to be anyone and everyone—otherwise making films feels cynical. Our tour gave me courage. There are people who are under-served when it comes to film outside the mainstream, who are hungry for the experience that communal viewing conditions can offer. For now, it’s up to us to meet that need. MM

Vera Brunner-Sung has shown her films at festivals, museums, and galleries in the U.S. and abroad. Her first feature, Bella Vista, premiered at the International Film Festival Rotterdam in 2014 and received the George C. Lin Emerging Filmmaker Award at the San Diego Asian Film Festival. She is a 2015 Center for Asian American Media Fellow and assistant professor at The Ohio State University.

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