Today I thought I would bring in two other moviemakers who have decided to self-release this year. Both have had significant success on the festival circuit and are two of the most dedicated and hard-working people I know.
The two movies are Matt Krentz’s Streetballers (http://www.streetballersthemovie.com/) and Blayne Weaver’s Weather Girl (http://weathergirlmovie.com/). I highly recommend checking out both of their movies (they’re both currently still in theaters.) And, man, are some of their ideas and stories below inspiring! Thanks so much, guys.
Jeffrey Goodman (MM): What are your thoughts on the current state of the independent movie industry?
Blayne Weaver (BW): I believe that independent film is in a place it hasn’t been since the ’70s. It is possible to not only shoot and edit a film on a tiny budget, but then to actually reach an audience through the Web. There are theaters in every major city that cater specifically to independent film, so we don’t always have to compete with Transformers to sell some tickets.
Matt Krentz (MK): It’s confusing… I would like to say it’s like a riddle or a puzzle, but there are answers for those, eventually. The independent film industry is like 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle, framed in your grandmother’s house unsuspectingly in the kitchen, that fell from the wall and shattered into 2,004 pieces after a minor earthquake. You’re left with a broken frame and 1,000 shards of glass to pick through while gathering the 1,000 dismantled puzzle pieces.
To top things off, the original box, showcasing the only remaining image of the completed puzzle, has been transformed into kitty litter. Grandma really liked that picture up on the wall, even though she can’t remember what it looked like, and asks you to put it back together. So you build a new frame, cut your fingers all up separating the glass from the jigsaw pieces, finally assemble all the puzzle pieces and bolt it back up on the wall so it never falls down again… Trying to figure out where the independent industry is heading and what avenues for distribution are available for independent filmmakers is about 1,000 times more frustrating, confusing and time-consuming than putting that puzzle back together. But hey, at the end of the day, we’re all suckers for our Grandma.
MM: You decided to do a theatrical self-release. What was the strategy for your self-release? And how did you come up with this strategy?
MK: Research, research, research… At no point—and I mean no point—in the six-plus years it’s taken me to get to this point with the film did I think I was going to have to self-release Streetballers. I’ve decided to take this road because I think it is the only way to truly get the film out the way it deserves to be, and it’s the only way I am going to recoup all the money owed to my investors and the wonderful artists, musicians and filmmakers who have spent so much time making this film what it is today.
It’s important to note that this entire process cannot be done alone. Three other producers/actors involved with Streetballers (Patrick Rooney, Craig Thomas and Vernon Whitlock) and myself pulled this off together. You have to have a team! This is a tremendous amount of work and these guys are warriors. I decided to self-release after researching a number of titles and realizing how many great independent films, many of which premiered at the top-tier festivals, weren’t getting distribution. Of the few, and I mean few, that did receive offers from a Maya [Entertainment], Sony Pictures Classics, Magnolia or another indie distributor, they’re being offered less than 10 percent or even five percent of their budget, as far as an advance, with no real hope of ever recouping any money back. Every film is different and it’s important for people who are thinking about self-distributing to look at as many models as possible, and create one that fits their film. Self-distribution is not for everyone. Talk with other directors and producers and learn from them. It’s these types of relationships that are going to provide you with the most information. Big shouts out to Jeffrey Goodman for his help and advice before we theatrically premiered Streetballers. Jeffrey and I met while in competition together at the 2008 St. Louis International Film Festival.
For a moment, I think it’s important to make a distinction between independent films with name actors and a budget, and independent films with absolutely no name stars or star power. Very good independent films with name stars are having an extremely difficult time securing a place in the market. There are way more good films out in the market than there are distributors willing to distribute them. It’s simple economics when you leave yourself to the mercy of a distributor: They have choices and you don’t. If you have a film with no name stars and are looking for a big distribution deal, or even a small distribution deal, the odds are stacked even higher against you. By this I mean almost impossible. The Streetballers team has met with MGM, Lionsgate, Universal and they all say, “We really enjoyed your film, but there are no names in it. Good luck.” If you have any sort of budget, you have to have names. Unless you make your own moves, it’s going to be a very expensive home movie. We have no names in Streetballers but are relying on the fact that it’s a genre film with a built-in audience.
This is where research comes into play. Find as many case studies as possible and begin to understand what you can and can’t do. I won a copy of Stacey Park’s 2008 “Self-Distribution Starter Kit” at a film festival in Hollywood, and that provided some great information to at least put my mind in the right place. I also researched a film titled In the Crease that utilized DVD On Demand technology through CreateSpace.com (an Amazon-owned company that allows artist to distribute their own books, CDs, DVDs, etc.). The filmmakers behind this project, Michael Sarner and Matthew Gannon, bypassed the festival circuit, traditional distribution and any sort of theatrical strategy and targeted a very niche market, youth hockey. They were very successful selling their documentary directly from their Website. I’m not a huge fan of the percentage CreateSpace takes, and this site is limited in how you can custom create your site and what merchandise is available to purchase. This case study gave me a lot of confidence that we could use a similar plan and target the basketball world.
Once I learned that companies existed for independent filmmakers, with the ability to distribute, ship and track all e-commerce, we quickly started researching what other types of models of DVD distribution and fulfillment existed. This led us to a case study by Jon Reiss, on his documentary Bomb It. Jon’s case study in theatrical self-distribution and setting up DVD distribution has been the most important model for Streetballers. I’m thrilled that he posted his experiences and give him all props for sharing these experiences. I truly thank him for all the information he has openly shared. This case study led Streetballers to a company called MagicRock.com and one of their subdivisions titled NeoFlix.com. We have set up the Streetballers distribution and fulfillment center with NeoFlix and have also used them for the production of our soundtracks and DVDs. This is where we created our own model, specific for our release. The film opened just a few weeks ago in theaters and we have our Website up to sell the soundtrack and pre-sell the DVD (this will be up and running for our September 25 opening at the Mann Chinese 6 in Hollywood). We need to capitalize on all publicity and traffic to the site, and negotiated a pre-sell window with NeoFlix that would not compromise the theatrical window time line (most bookers don’t want DVDs to be available for three or even four months after theatrical release). We will set a December 1, 2009 ship date for the Streetballers DVD, just before the holidays. In the meanwhile, you will be able to order autographed posters, soundtracks and, in the spring of 2010, the official Streetballers shoe will be released nationwide by the popular indie shoe company Greedy Genius.
As far as setting up the Website: We looked at 50 or so company Websites that were self-distributing their films and took notes on which sites seemed to be the most practical, simple and effective, and designed the new StreetballersTheMovie.com. Nearly a year before we premiered in theaters in St. Louis (on August 21, 2009) we contacted local theater bookers in the city to attend our festival screenings here in town. We sold out our two festival screenings in St. Louis over 24 hours in advance and happened to win the top Audience Choice award at the International Film Festival beating out The Wrestler and Slumdog Millionaire and ranked higher than the previous year’s winner Juno. The head booker of the largest family owned theater chain in the U.S. (Wehrenberg Theatres) happened to attend the screening and brought his teenage son. They both loved the film and couldn’t believe the reaction of the 420-seat Landmark Tivoli Theatre in which we made our St. Louis premiere. This was huge in getting us booked at the Wehrenberg Ronnie’s 20 Cine. Ronnie’s is the largest-grossing theater/megaplex in Missouri. Once we booked Ronnie’s, we were also able to book the Landmark Tivoli Theatre in the city of St. Louis.
Once those dates were confirmed and literature about the film was up on their sites, we quickly got our trailer up on the Apple.com trailers site. Much of our recent traffic and foreign licensing offers have come from people checking out the film through Apple. Those guys are amazing. We wanted to open in only two theaters as not to compromise our per-screen average. We would need a good opening average to convince other bookers outside of St. Louis that we knew what we were doing and that we had a plan. And it worked!
We opened the same weekend as Inglourious Basterds and had the number two per-screen average at Ronnie’s and number one at the Tivoli. Opening weekend we grossed $11,580.75 with a per-screen average of $5,790.35. Our P&A budget for St. Louis was $1,500 dollars. (I could do another entire case study on how we achieved a five-figure release for $1,500. For example getting the trailer to play at Busch Stadium on multiple occasions for crowds of 50,000-plus while throwing out the first pitch at the ball game.) Both theaters had the ability to project digitally and we mastered the film in a DCI-compliant JPEG 2000 2K file (using my friends Mac Pro… 3 months of testing and pulling our hair out, be we pulled it off). The Wehrenberg Theatre was amazingly supportive and I learned a ton from them about how the system works and how to approach bookers. We had our trailer playing in a digital format on 90 screens across the Midwest, promoting the 21st opening at Ronnie’s. It was super cool of Wehrenberg. We are in the middle of our third weekend running in St. Louis and will gross close to $25,000 in the two theaters. We’re very fortunate and thankful to have been held over at both Ronnie’s and the Landmark Tivoli.
For our plan, we wanted to start in our home town and then immediately move to the coast for two reasons. First off, we need to gain national attention for the film—and that has to come from Los Angeles and New York City—and second, my goal was to get a week run so I could submit the film to the Academy [of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences] for consideration. This is much more than a basketball film. We just have to market it as one. Our 2008 festival tour and the multiple awards we won in L.A., N.Y., Detroit, Philly, Nashville and North Carolina helped not only build our confidence but add legitimacy to the project. So you may ask, what’s next? We booked the Mann Chinese 6 for September 25, 2009. I can’t tell you how excited I was when I got off the phone with the head booker for the Mann 6. There may have been some kung-fu maneuvers involved. We sent screeners off to the Mann Theatres probably a month before we premiered in St. Louis and told them we’d keep them up to date of our plan, strategy and, most importantly, our performance in St. Louis. We performed well and they liked our marketing plan for L.A.
For eight months my plan was to get to Hollywood and premiere the film one week before the LeBron James documentary More Than a Game is released by Lionsgate. Historically, writers like to compare and discuss like films (so I’ve researched and am hoping), and our hope is to piggyback off of the indie basketball film hype associated with this film. Maybe we can even create a David vs. Goliath story around the films. We’ve strategically lined up Josh Powell, of the world champion Los Angeles Lakers, to present the film in Hollywood on September 25. It is a great way to localize the film, and Josh thinks the film is amazing. He’s a huge supporter of the film and we’re hoping the rest of the Lakers will join in to support.
BW: We had a lucrative offer for our television rights, which was great, but our talent signed on to do an indie, not a television movie. We turned down the offer initially, telling them that we were after a theatrical. They came back 20 minutes later with an offer of more money and a six-month theatrical window. Well, I jumped at that. We took a portion of the extra money and set out to do our theatrical through my company, Secret Identity Productions.
The strategy was simple: Our goal was to establish Weather Girl in the indie market and to spend no more than our allotted funds… but we could spend the whole
thing, so as money came in, we threw it at another city. We spent a great deal of the money on PR coming out of the Los Angeles Film Festival (a great platform to
launch from) and opening in Los Angeles. We then took the money that came in from L.A. and slid it over to Chicago, our other big city, while doing smaller art house
theaters in between (Shreveport, Oklahoma City, Sonoma). We did 10 cities in all.
MM: What’s the best decision you made in your self-release strategy?
BW: By far the best thing we did was hire a publicist two months before the release. The publicist and a supportive cast are crucial to getting the movie out there. When we opened in Los Angeles we were right up there with the big boys.
MK: One of the best things I think I could have done getting ready for our theatrical release was to hire a publicist in Los Angeles to create awareness about Streetballers. We hired Andrew Scott of ASA-PR on August 1 and sent him about 25 screeners to start getting the word out in preparation for our St. Louis release, and more importantly for our Hollywood premiere. I’ve also attached Glenn Reynolds, at Circus Road Films, as our sales representative. He’s in charge of making traditional distributors aware of the film, its progress, reviews, etc. We’ve had three offers on the film since our St. Louis theatrical release (just three weeks ago). I turned down two offers after our 2008 festival premiere and unless someone comes at us with something worth discussing, or with a plan that allows us to self-distribute the title along with their efforts, I feel very confident in sticking with our game plan. We’re scheduled to premiere in Harlem on October 10 and are currently communicating with bookers in Kansas City (AMC), Dallas (the Sports Commission), and Chicago (???) for late October. Keep your fingers crossed and please tell all your friends and family to check out StreetballersTheMovie.com for screening times and updates.
MM: What are some of the things you’ll do differently the next time you make a movie?
MK: The next time I make a picture I will be sure to include P&A [promotion and advertising] money in the initial proposal.
BW: I would open in Los Angeles and another big city the first two weeks. We spread them out so as not to spend all our money at once, but then we had lost some momentum by the time we hit Chicago. I would spend the big money first, then hit the smaller cities that don’t cost as much. Then, when the money comes in from the big cities, it can give an extra push… plus, that would give you a real shot at being extended and having a longer life.
I would also get a booking agent. Having someone the theater is familiar with booking your movie is incredibly helpful. They always deal with you skeptically when you’re the filmmaker. And that’s really irritating.
MM: Would you self-release again? Why or why not?
BW: Absolutely. The amount that I learned is staggering and I can’t wait to put it to use.
MK: I’ll let you know in January… Haha…
After living in Los Angeles for seven years, Jeffrey Goodman returned to his hometown of Shreveport, Louisiana to direct The Last Lullaby. Co-written by the creator of Road to Perdition, and starring Tom Sizemore and Sasha Alexander, The Last Lullaby was filmed entirely in and around Shreveport and financed by 48 local investors.