Distribute and Conquer: How the Director of "2500km" Landed Her $500 Short Film an HBO Premiere

My name is Daniela Arguello. I’m the director, writer, producer, camera operator and cinematographer of my short film “2500km.”

“2500km” is about a Guatemalan mother that must decide between staying with her abusive husband or running away to the U.S. in the hopes of finding a better life for her and her two daughters.

The Production

We only had $500 budget for the entire production. My crew consisted of my parents and my younger sister, whom I taught how to use the microphone and sound mixer. A part of the budget went into accommodations for the actors, food for the production, two drone shots and a hard drive.

We filmed over five days in Guatemala City with 12 actors, 60 extras, and seven locations. Many of the locations and the most of the equipment, which included a BlackMagic 2.5K Camera, three cinema Rokinon lenses, a sound mixer and the microphone, were given to us by people who also believe in our vision and understood the importance of the story.

A day before starting production, the actors from Mexico where going to be flying in. I sat outside a local TV station in Guatemala waiting for a meeting with the owner to pitch him the project. I was feeling very nervous about the meeting. How was a 19-year-old who looks like she is 14 going to convince him to join our almost no-budget, no crew production? I showed him a lookbook and a storyboard and walked him through the story. I told him why I believed this was going to work, and why I’ve been passionate about this story for many years. He then offered to help us out with the camera and let us borrow it for the next five days.

With such a little budget we had to get creative. Toward the end of the film we have an action sequence, in which our husband chases chases down our main character with her kids. We were going to shoot the run inside a crowded market and then go out into the street in between another crowd and get on the bus, and we needed many extras to pull this off. My grandmother volunteers at a local orphanage in the city, who they also happen to have a bus. We talked to them about the project, and all the kids were very excited to be in a movie. Over 60 kids ages 13 to 22 volunteer a couple of ours to come do the film. We filmed in the street outside the orphanage and used their bus. We didn’t have time to rehearse or plan the scene out. I thanked and talked to the extras before starting to film explaining what we were about to do, and also to each actor to remind them their objective within the chase. As soon as the sun set down we took out our wheelchair that was going to be used as the stedicam for the night. My dad pulled me down the street as I screamed directions to the extras and pointed the camera at the actors. We ran the sequence many times to make sure I could get enough coverage to cut the scene. After every take we will have a playback of the shots to make sure it was working, discuss the scene with the actors and we had what we needed before moving on.

“2500km” director Daniella Arguello watching a playback with extra while shooting an action sequence. Photograph courtesy of Daniela Arguello

The entire production consisted of stories similar to the “wheelchair stedicam” sequence. At every location we were shooting, I was there for my first time, and I had just a couple of minutes before every scene to improvise and figure out how I was going to light and film the scene. Our usual day started with me walking around the new location while my sister did the make-up and wardrobe for the actors and my mom decorated the set. Then when we ran through the scene, I would explain to them the set ups I had in mind, and my sister would move from make-up to sound. The first couple of takes were our rehearsal time. I was working with many first-time actors so it would take a bit of time to get the momentum and pacing of the scene right.

We had a scene with our main character telling her sister she is leaving while they were working on a wedding dress together. Our main actress (Cinthia Vazquez) had extensive experience acting in Mexico for over 20 years, but for the sister this was her first movie. As soon as we started filming it was very clear the scene was not working. Our lead actress was doing a terrific job take after take, but the sister was feeling very nervous and was having problems approaching the film. She kept repeating the lines without feeling what she was saying. I decided to take the script away, and tell her to forget the lines. I gave her a simple objective for the scene, then we turned the lights off and we ran the entire scene three times in the dark for her to feel less nervous, and have the opportunity to feel vulnerable enough to just feel the scene. Later when we started shooting the scene the lines became natural, and she began to react to our leads performance and feeling more comfortable with her characters emotions.

At first he lack of budget seem frustrating and limiting but it only pushed us to take more risks and be more creative. We became a family, all pitching ideas, and trying to solve every problem we will bump into to be able to tell the story the way it was meant to be told. One of the most valuable lessons I learned through production was that it doesn’t matter if you have money or not, or if you are 19 or 50 years-old if you are passionate in what you are doing, and you give everything you have to make it happen the people around you will fall in love with that passion and will want to help you out like when the TV owner gave us the camera or when the 60 showed up for the scene, or the lead actors from Mexico and El Salvador taking a chance flying to Guatemala.

Film Festivals and Distribution

When the film was finished, I was warned by many fellow filmmakers, and mentors about the length of my film. This is because film festivals find it very hard to program films this long, but for us there was no room to cut six minutes off the film without hurting the story. But before I embarked on my journey through distribution I had to define what I considered success with this project. For me success with “2500km” was going to be getting the film to as many people as possible. Starting a conversation about domestic violence and illegal immigration was our motivation for making the film to begin with. For us, we knew we would feel the same level of impact if the film was accepted into the Sundance or a local film festival as long as people were watching the film.

Arguello and Cinthia Vazquez shoot a scene on the set of “2500km.” Photograph courtesy of Daniela Arguello

My first mistake was to start sending the film early to film festivals when we were still working on the color, music and sound. Nowadays you are competing against thousands of films and you want to make sure your film is the best it can be at the moment of submission, especially if your film is over 15 minutes long, because your chances of getting selected after that mark drastically drop. After many attempts, I started to realize that the film festival run was not serving my film, and decided to take matters into my own hands and do a self-distribution through a theatrical screening and sales.

Theatrical Release

I started by targeting our main audience, which was people from Latin America, especially Guatemala. We organized a premiere to take place, and there we would show the film and later have a panel discussion with the cast and crew. I created the posters, the invitations and any other marketing materials we needed to sell the event, including contacting local press and newspapers to cover the event. We contacted the local theater chain in Guatemala to set up the premiere, and they sent us to the Department of Arts and Cultures in Guatemala where they watched the film and gave it an official rating. As soon as we got the certificate, we were ready for the big night!

On the day of the premiere we sold out the theater and we had an attendance of over 350 people. Some people were even sitting on the ground because there were no more seats left. I edited a special programming for the night that included a music video from one of the girls (Victoria Morales) who appears as the oldest daughter in the film, some movie trailers from other short films from my production company and then the film. The screening began with the music video. I was standing in the back of the theater when we noticed that there was something wrong with the projection: The person in charge forgot to put the right specs on the projector and everything was blurry. In the middle of the crisis, my sister replaced the projectionist and we were able to fix it before the trailers began. After that the show ran smoothly and it was one of my most rewarding and terrifying experiences as a filmmaker so far. Usually when you screen at a festival there are other films playing after yours, but this time, the 350+ people had paid and attended to only watch my film. It was the first time that “2500km” was going to be seen by anyone else other than my family and the production crew. Part of our profits from ticket sales went toward the orphanage in Guatemala that helped us shoot our action sequence with the bus, and to pay back the theater.

A scene from “2500km.” Image courtesy of HBO

After the premiere we started selling DVDs and digital copies of the film to everyone that attended the event. We also started to organize more premieres in other cities in Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico. It was then when I received an e-mail from HBO asking for a screener of the film. A couple of months went by and we didn’t hear back from them until one morning when I received the call saying that they wanted the film.

Television

Immediately after agreeing we stopped our digital sales from our website and started preparing the deliverables for Television. “2500km” premiered on HBO, HBO Now and HBO Go May 1, 2017 becoming the first film in history of Guatemala to ever be broadcasted on HBO. This gave us the opportunity to fulfilled our original goal of bringing the film to as many people possible. Ironically, now that the film started playing on HBO, we began to receive invitations from film festivals—even ones that had rejected us previously. Even though the film is now on HBO I’m still working on coming up with different ways and venues to distribute the film. This fall we are going back to Guatemala to do a second screening of the film—this time in support of different local charities that help empower women and girls who’ve been through abuse. The screening will be in a much larger theater, accommodating up to 600 people. We will also be selling a book about how the movie was made and promotional t-shirts.

Here are some tips on what to do before you begin the distribution of your film:

Define Your Success

Ask: What does success, for this particular project, mean to you? Is it to win many film festivals? Raise awareness? Get distribution? Expand your portfolio? Focus your distribution goals to meet with your definition of success.

Target Your Audience

Find who is the audience of your film, and define your target audience and start to gear all your marketing efforts towards them. For example if your film is educational try to sell DVD’s to libraries, and do school presentations. Or if your film is within the genre of sci-fi and fantasy looking for conventions of similar topics and offer to screen or promote the film at the event.

Do Your Research

Research film festivals that had accepted films similar to yours, and have a tendency of programing shorts over 15 min. Also research organizations or events related to your film. These could be non-profit organizations that deal with a similar topic that might be interested in helping spread awareness of the film.

Self-Distribution

Decide if you want to go the film festival route or come up with your own distribution plan, be it through screenings, promoting in schools and libraries, selling books, digital copies, DVD, etc.

Another route for short film distribution would be to license the film to a streaming service or television. There are many companies who are looking for short content, including Shorts HD TV, the Sundance Institute Channel, Shorts of the Week and PBS.

Marketing and Promotion

Have a website and social media profiles set up to be able to promote your events directly to your fans. The more events and press coverage you are able to get to promote through social media, the more your followings will start to increase.

My biggest lesson I learned with “2500km” is to become creative when it comes to distributing your film, and knowing that film festivals are not the only option for short films—that there are other venues and possibilities to get your film seen by an audience. If you put in the work and have the passion, people will notice your film, no matter which way you choose to distribute it. MM

“2500km” is now available on HBO, HBO Now, HBO Go, and Cinemax. For more info on the film, visit its website here

2 Comments

  1. Tom Luca

    August 28, 2017 at 3:25 pm

    Loved reading this, great article! Passion is very important and so is persistence.

    • Lucky Goldberg

      August 31, 2017 at 2:05 pm

      What a fantastic tale of the tale!! Overcoming the actual life situations, to securing and manifesting the production requirements for energy, enthusiasm, emotional adrenalized focus and adding distribution, marketing and all the rest demands a giant of a person! Daniela, I a stunned and amazed by your fortitude, knowledge, talent and relentless passion to tell your story to the global audience. It’s a blessing to learn of your ability to overcome all the obstacles and succeed where even Hollywood can often fall short of the mark – to reach the audience’s Heart, Soul and Mind – in the Spirit of showing the World that Good must learn the evil to have the power in knowledge to overcome it. Thank you for your Heart of Gold and your Nerves of Steel!!!

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