There is nothing to compare to the shared experience you find in a theater, screaming and laughing as a collective, crying quietly in unison with 200 strangers, knowing that everyone is feeling what you are feeling.
No matter if you’re four-walling your film yourself, or have the help of a distribution partner, when your film is ready to make its theatrical debut, you’ve got to give it the greatest chance for success. Here’s how.
1. Research films with the same genre, similar talent level and release dates close to yours. If you’re working with a distributor, insist on being in the conversation with your partners as to where the film is placed on the calendar and in the country. Studios no longer have the final word on placement—creators have so many options for outlets these days that the balance of power has shifted.
2. A smaller film or first-time filmmaker needs room to be discovered. Do not let your work get lost amongst too many other releases, no matter how sexy the time slot sounds. Films work 52 weeks a year, and good films find an audience no matter the month. A less-crowded play time gives a title more room to continue to gain word-of-mouth and grow at the box office. Discuss play time and gross levels with your exhibitor partners as the release is being set. Often, an exhibitor will hold a well-reviewed, lower-grossing film over a higher-grossing film that has a low cinema score—they see the long-term benefit.
3. Your exhibition partners can work together in marketing for each other and the film. While some theater circuits have gone on record refusing to play films with shortened windows, or concurrent releases on VOD or subscription channels, other circuits have taken a different view. Great projects—such as Going Clear and Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck—appear on Netflix, HBO, Showtime, Amazon etc. and many theatrical circuits still want to show them to a theatrical audience. Positive buzz about the film helps all ships rise.
4. A theatrical release requires work to get the message out. You must do everything you can to promote the film in the press, and your distributor must support you. Look beyond expensive traditional marketing and advertising. Consumers are inundated everywhere they go with big-budget, corporate advertising campaigns, so indie moviemakers must find a way through the noise by rolling up their sleeves and getting creative. Work your film in niche publications and blogs. Get the community that’s tied to the film talking about the film.
5. Exhibitors want your film to be as successful as you do. Don’t be afraid to ask for outreach through their social channels and membership programs. Targeted marketing can go to moviegoers who have purchased tickets for similar films. Get those lists created, and use the exhibitor’s website and in-theater communication to reach those guests. Many exhibitors have such a loyal guest following that a recommendation from one of their employees really means something, like a special message just for them.
6. Getting into the theaters and talking to audiences has never been more important for independent moviemakers than it is today. Set Q&As for the film in advance so that they can be advertised. On the other hand, surprise greets in auditoriums can mean wonders for the social traffic on a film. Require this time of your talent and team.
7. At Q&As and discussion panels, audiences love to hear about the moviemaking process. Ask them to post about the film and the post-screening conversation. Be honest about what the project meant to you and how fans can be partners in its success. We’ve all heard low-budget success stories of first-time filmmakers getting initial audience and word-of-mouth working in their favor. People love to feel that they played a part in something special becoming a hit. MM
Gretchen McCourt is the executive vice president of cinema programming for Pacific Theatres Entertainment Corporation, overseeing film programming, marketing and communications of ArcLight Cinemas and Pacific Theatres. Gretchen developed initiatives for ArcLight with the Women in Film organization and Slamdance, and is the founder and content curator for the biannual ArcLight DocFest. Previously, Gretchen was executive vice president and head film buyer at AMC Entertainment. Gretchen received her bachelor’s degree in Economics from Washburn University, and lives in Los Angeles with her husband and four children. This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Complete Guide to Making Movies 2016.
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