When I look at the current state of the independent movie industry, I would have to say that it is very confusing… I would like to compare it to a riddle or a puzzle, but there are answers for those, eventually. At no point—and I mean no point—in the six-plus years it has taken me to get to the place where we are now did I think I was destined to self-release Streetballers.
When I set out to make this film and met with a number of interested studios about the script, they laughed at the idea of this young kid, who didn’t go to film school, wanting to direct, produce and co-star in his first feature film. They also told me it would be impossible to produce an independent sports-themed film for anything less than $5 million. They probably would have diagnosed me clinically insane when I told them that my core team would consist of two producer-actors who had never made a film before, one of whom had never stepped a foot on to a set.
Streetballers hit the festival circuit in June 2008, making its world premiere in Beverly Hills, and has gone on to play in Saint Louis, Detroit, New York City, Nashville, Philadelphia and North Carolina. It has won multiple awards, including Best Dramatic Feature, an Audience Choice Award for Best Feature Film, Best Cinematography and a second place Jury Award for Best Feature Film. We were the highest scoring film in the 17-year history of the St. Louis International Film Festival, beating out previous winners Juno, The Wrestler and Slumdog Millionaire.
I’ve decided to embark down the self-distribution path because I think it’s the only way to truly showcase the picture the way it deserves to be seen. I’m confident that the model we’ve developed for Streetballers‘ release will allow us to recoup the money owed to our investors as well as make good on all our deferred payments promised to the wonderful artist, musicians and moviemakers who have spent so much time and creative-energy making this film what it is today. It’s important to note that this entire self-distribution process cannot be done alone. Three other producer-actors involved with Streetballers—Patrick Rooney, Craig Thomas and Vernon Whitlock III—have worked tirelessly to make this a success.
We researched a number of titles and started to realize how many great independent films, many of which premiered at the top-tier festivals, weren’t getting distribution. Indie distributors such as Maya, Sony Pictures Classics and Magnolia were offering less than 10 percent of their budget 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. My friend Jeffrey Goodman, director of the award-winning feature film The Last Lullaby and MovieMaker.com blogger, gave me that advice.
It’s important to make a distinction between “independent films with name actors and a budget” and “independent films with absolutely zero name stars or star power.” Great independent films with name stars are even having an extremely difficult time securing a place in the market. So if you have a film with no star power and are looking for a distribution deal, the odds may seem impossible. We met with MGM, Lionsgate and Universal; although they enjoyed our film, there were no stars attached, thus we received the infamous, “good luck.”
So what does one wanting to self-distribute a film do? Research.
Find as many case studies as possible to understand what you can and can’t do. I won a copy of Stacey Park’s 2008 film self-distribution Kit at a film festival in Hollywood, which provided some great information to at least put my mind in the right place. I researched a film titled In the Crease that utilized DVD on Demand technology through CreateSpace.com (an Amazon-owned company that allows artists to distribute their own books, CDs, DVDs, etc.). The moviemakers 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—and as a result were very successful selling their documentary directly from their Website.
I’m not a huge fan of the percentage CreateSpace takes, and the site is limited in how you can custom create your site and what merchandise is available to purchase, however, the case study assured to me that we could use a similar plan and target the basketball world. Another case study led us to a company called MagicRock.com and one of their subdivisions, Neoflix.com. This is where we created our own model, specific for our release. We needed to capitalize on all publicity and traffic to the site so I negotiated a pre-sell window with Neoflix that would not compromise the theatrical window timeline (most bookers don’t want DVDs to be available for three or even four months after theatrical release).
Nearly a year before we premiered in theaters in Saint Louis (on August 21st, 2009), we contacted local theater bookers in the city to attend our festival screenings here in town. We sold out our two festival screenings at the Saint Louis International Film Festival more than 24 hours in advance and happened to win the top Audience Choice Award, beating out The Wrestler and Slumdog Millionaire and ranking 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 Ronnies 20 Cine.
Ronnies is the largest grossing theater/mega-plex in Missouri. Once we booked Ronnies, 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 trailers site (much of our recent traffic and foreign licensing offers have come from people checking out the film through Apple trailers.) We wanted to open in only two theaters as not to compromise our per-screen average and it worked! We opened the same weekend as Inglourious Basterds and were the #2 per-screen average at Ronnies and #1 at the Tivoli. Opening weekend we grossed $11,580.75 with a per-screen average of $5,790.35. In Variety, we cracked the Top 10, coming in at #9 (out of 118) just behind District 9 and after a three-week run, we grossed close to $25,000 in the two theaters.
With such local success, we wanted to immediately move to the coast for two reasons: 1) We need to gain national attention for the film and 2) We realized it had to come from LA or NYC. Secondly, my goal was to get a week-long run so I could submit the film to the Academy for consideration. So we sent screeners off to the Mann Theatres probably a month before we premiered in Saint Louis, and told them we’d keep them up-to-date on our plan, strategy and—most importantly—performance in Saint 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 being released by Lionsgate.
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 in August and sent him screeners to start getting the word out in preparation for our Saint Louis release, and more importantly for our Hollywood premiere. We summoned Glenn Reynolds at Circus Road Films to be our sales representative in charge of making traditional distributors aware of the film, its progress, reviews, etc. Since then, we’ve had six offers on the film and I’ve turned down two of them. 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.
Keep your fingers crossed and please tell all your friends and family to check out www.streetballersthemovie.com for screening times, updates and DVD and soundtrack sales.