If You Build It: Four-walling Your Way Into Theaters

When researching the gamut of distribution strategies, it can be tough to figure out the best way to get your film to audiences.

Do you hold out for a conventional theatrical release (where a distributor buys your film and brings it to theaters), or do you go the DIY digital VOD route, forgoing any chance of an advance in favor of bringing your movie directly to viewers’ homes?

Well, what if there were a third option? What if you could have the best of both worlds—the individualized control of VOD and the prestige and drama of the theater—all rolled into one?

You can. Enter four-walling.

Every traditional theatrical release, at root, is just an agreement between a distributor and an exhibitor to share the box office take. The distributor provides the content, and the exhibitor provides the venue. If the exhibitor isn’t sure about the viability of a given film, but knows that the average revenue for a single slot in its screening schedule amounts to (for the sake of example) $500, that theater may rent the content owner/licensor said slot for $500. The theater is guaranteed not to lose money, and if the moviemaker can promote the event well enough to sell more than 50 $10 tickets, he’s in the black, too. This is called “four-walling.”

Four-walling has been a distribution method since before cinema (a theater company renting a stage to put on a play is a form of pre-celluloid four-walling), but a new crop of social network-employing intermediary companies—amongst them Tugg and Gathr—have sprouted up to help moviemakers demonstrate to theater owners that little films with even smaller P&A budgets can still put a lot of butts in seats.

To get a good look at the contemporary self-distribution landscape, we sat down with four experts who are either successfully utilizing available four-walling tools, or innovating new ones.

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Meet the Experts:

Amardeep Kaleka // Director of Sirius // Principal owner of Neverending Light Productions // Producer, cinematographer, editor, and all-around movie man

Gary King // Writer and director of How Do You Write a Joe Schermann Song?, What’s Up Lovely?, and several other titles

Gayle Ferraro // Director and producer of documentaries To Catch a Dollar: Muhammad Yunus Banks on America, Ganges: River to Heaven, and others

Mark Rabinowitz // Co-founder of IndieWire.com // Producer and partner in WeVu, a new alternative brick-and-mortar distribution company launching this fall

1. Finding the best Distribution Model for Your Movie. Four-walling is just one option in a series of possible models—but it’s a powerful one. “I wouldn’t say that four-walling is a better option (in general) than selling to a theatrical distributor,” says King. “However, it’s great for indie films that have a dedicated following.”

As Rabinowitz notes, “Traditional distributors are limited by the current business model. The bottom line is that the vast majority of films don’t have the option of selling to a traditional theatrical distributor.” So rather than leaving your film locked up in a closet, never to see the light of day—or the dark of a theater—take matters into your own hands.

2. Employing Intermediaries: Four-walling intermediaries exist to help you with the process of getting your film into theaters. Rabinowitz’s start-up, WeVu, aims to develop a new method of screening films to the public, utilizing alternative venues like restaurants, art galleries, and private homes. Other companies, like Tugg and Gathr, contact and reserve theaters in areas where films are requested. In order for a screening to officially occur, a minimum amount of tickets must be purchased in advance. Reach your ticket quota and the theatrical viewing takes place.

King has personal experience with Tugg, which he used to help negotiate and secure screenings for his film How Do You Write a Joe Schermann Song? Tugg also handled the shipment of the Digital Cinema Package (DCP) to participating theaters, “so all I really had to do was show up with my promotional materials, cast, and crew.”

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3. Employing Yourself: Using intermediaries is almost always going to be helpful. It’s also always going to cost you part of the profit. Luckily, you can four-wall by yourself—or at least with the help of a small crew. After all, you managed the incredibly difficult task of making the film, so who says you can’t persuade a theater or two to screen it? Amardeep Kaleka, along with three others, successfully four-walled their documentary, Sirius, in New York and Los Angeles for an entire week and turned a higher profit than if they’d used Tugg or Gathr—but only because they were able to pack their screenings. “We talked to the theaters, paid them money, gave them our marketing materials, and then we put the movie on.” But, continues Kaleka, “There’s always risk in taking on the rental liability yourself.”

4. Research: As King puts it, “Each film has its own path,” so you have to start planning ahead of time. He suggests collecting as much advice as possible, noting “there are no right answers because, if there were, everyone would have a hit film.” Look for what King calls “golden nuggets” of information, and use what’s most applicable to your film.

Ferraro also stresses the need for research. “You really need a strategy for getting people to see the film, because no one has the money for the amount of publicity and advertising you need to compete with a studio P&A campaign.” Anticipating your public isn’t the easiest task, but taking the time to try will help the process of making and distributing your film immensely.

5. Marketing: Kaleka urges all filmmakers to understand marketing before writing the script. Is there an audience? What are your target demographics? “Start with marketability and branch out from there,” he suggests. Crowdfunding is one of the best methods for early brand-building. “You’re already marketing your film as if it’s going to come out, and that allows you to understand if your movie can actually make it in the market.

6. Finding Your Audience: Your audience may not be the whole United States, but four-walling gives you the opportunity to reach a specific geographical viewership—one that might appreciate the unique qualities of your film. For example, Kaleka shares, if you’re marketing toward college students, you could look up the undergraduate populations by school or area. “If you know the University of Illinois, Champaign is the largest undergrad population for your film, go there first.” Los Angeles and New York may not be the best locations just because they’re the most industry-populated cities. Catering to smaller, more focused demographics may be the wiser choice.

7. Financials: As Ferraro puts it, many films are “labors of love,” never intended as cash cows—though making a bunch of money is never an unwelcome outcome. Kaleka directs moviemakers to start thinking about whether they have a large enough audience to offset the risk of a significant initial investment. “The game we play is not cheap. It’s an expensive and very dangerous one. It can cut both ways. You could make a million or lose one.” When you’re calculating the potential returns from your various distribution models (four-walling included), it’s always important to be honest with yourself about the best—and worst-case—scenarios. You might be able to net $50,000 on four-walling alone, but $1 million? That’s a taller order.

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8. Social Media: Social media plays a major role in getting viewers into four-walled screenings. Kaleka, accordingly, talks to his social media following constantly. “We tell them we’re having a viewing somewhere and they show up.” He suggests making your screening your own by bringing in some of the cast and crew and holding Q&A’s after the film. “Create movie ambassadors,” says Kaleka, “and people will push your film even farther.” Providing the personal story that your followers can spread easily will pay major dividends.

9. Academy-qualifying: In order for your film to qualify for an Academy Award nomination, you’ve got to play in certain theaters. Says Ferraro, “Besides earning revenue, there are so many other ways to have your film seen. The only reason you need to go the theatrical route anymore is if you’re gunning for an Academy qualification.” Four-walling can satisfy this criteria. Kaleka communicated with the Academy of Arts and Sciences to make sure Sirius met the rules and regulations for a nomination. When choosing theaters, they made sure to select those that fit within Academy qualifying specifications.

10. Work Hard: Just like the rest of the moviemaking process, four-walling isn’t easy. “It was always an enormous amount of work,” says Ferraro. Rabinowitz concurs. “You can’t four-wall as a hobby while you’re prepping, writing or shooting your next film. You have to work very hard to promote your screenings, get press, book theaters, and often travel around with your film. It’s a tough row to hoe.” Have hope, though. As King says, “Self-distribution is a scary ride, but totally worth it if you commit yourself fully.”

For more info on our experts and their filmic ventures, visit sirius.neverendinglight.com, joeschermannsong.com, tocatchadollar.com, and wevu.com

For more info on Tugg and Gathr, go to tugg.com and gathr.us

To subscribe to MovieMaker Magazine, click here.

1 Comment

  1. Chaca murphy

    September 16, 2019 at 12:00 pm

    I have a movie called hoodpranks…I want it released to anywhere from 100 to 150 theatres..I have been told so many diff numbers by middle men..I need realistic numbers so my investors and I can get this going…

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