It was 2 a.m. and snowing heavily the first time we met 87-year-old Bill Knight. Earlier that day, Bill found out that he had prostate cancer. Yet here he was at the Bangor International Airport in the middle of the night, a worn-out blue hat declaring “WWII Veteran” sitting crookedly atop his head.
What was this elderly man doing at a tiny, central Maine airport at such an ungodly hour? He was there to shake hands, give hugs and lend support to incoming young men and women on a day he most certainly needed some support himself.
Knight is a Maine Troop Greeter, and has dedicated the last six years of his life to greeting the nearly one million soldiers and Marines who have passed through Bangor on their way to and from Iraq and Afghanistan. Knight is also one of the three subjects profiled in our first feature-length documentary, The Way We Get By.
It was this late-night encounter back in December of 2004 that convinced us to dedicate the next four years of our own lives to telling his story.
What we saw in Knight was a persistent man who was unwilling to give up on life. He simply would not quit—not six years earlier when his wife passed away and everything fell apart, not as he sank deeper and deeper into crippling debt and not now that he had cancer. Not while he could still do his part to help others. We knew that if we were going to make this film, we would need to adopt the same “no quit” attitude Knight lived by every day. But we’d still need a little luck.
GETTING BY WITH NO DEBT
The first rule we implemented was “no debt.” We would be willing to take calculated gambles, but at no point would we go into debt making our film. We’d read and heard far too many stories of moviemakers maxing out credit cards and then spending the next 10 years paying off their debts when their films failed to score a big deal.
Instead, we worked full-time jobs for the first three years of production, paying our bills, growing our savings and pouring every extra penny into our movie.
We were creatively cost-effective with everything we did. When we needed to hire an entertainment attorney to “get our house in order,” we knew we didn’t have the money for a good one… or even a bad one. What we did have was a story that really appealed to veterans who had come home to no greeting, who felt that what the Maine Troop Greeters provide to today’s soldiers is hugely important.
In our search for an affordable attorney, we stumbled upon a lawyer at one of the country’s top law firms who was dramatically out of our price range, but who happened to be a Vietnam veteran. After watching our trailer, he offered to take us on as clients, pro bono. The first time we visited his impressive office in the middle of Times Square, we knew we had more than just luck on our side.
By the time we moved into post-production, we had just enough money to take the ultimate risk of quitting our jobs and going to work on the film full-time. We knew we could only survive for one year on our savings, but decided that having that looming deadline would be a powerful incentive, because it would force us to stay on schedule and finish the film.
WE’RE FINISHED… NOW HOW DO WE GET STARTED?
Almost four years to the day after our first airport encounter with Knight, we completed The Way We Get By. With production and post-production behind us, our biggest challenges were still ahead: Marketing and distribution.
With no studio backing, we had to figure out how best to release the film on our own. One thing we realized we had in our favor early on was geography.
Mainers possess a tremendous sense of pride in homegrown products, be it a piece of furniture, a boat or a movie. We hoped we could find a way to tap into this “Made in Maine” support early on, especially considering that there aren’t a lot of movies coming out of the state.
While still in production, we had begun talking with some people at Bangor Savings Bank with the hope that they could help us with post-production funding. They ultimately decided against helping to finance the film, but bank reps asked if, upon the film’s completion, we would offer them right of first refusal as exclusive sponsor for any distribution in Maine.
At first, this seemed like just another “no” in a long series of rejections. We needed finishing funds and that was our priority. Without the money to complete the film, there was nothing for them to help distribute. What we didn’t know at the time was that we had just laid the groundwork for a tremendous opportunity down the road.
Around the same time, we read an article about John Sayles’ Honeydripper, which mentioned how he’d successfully used students from an Alabama college marketing class to help develop the film’s marketing strategy for that state. Not only did the class develop a strategy, but when the film played in Alabama, Sayles now had a group of people with a direct connection to the movie’s success.
We thought this was a great idea, but why stop at one school? What if we could find colleges and universities in states all over the country interested in developing marketing strategies for our film?
So we began reaching out, asking colleges and universities to help us figure out how to promote and distribute the film in their cities and states. We were thrilled by how many professors quickly agreed to use our film as a class project. Though the quality of the projects varied from school to school, each one delivered some tangible ideas, resources and methods for us to determine how successful the film would be in that state.
We had all of this data, but we didn’t know how to best take advantage of it. So we called a professor at Harvard Business School who we knew had close relationships with several studios and who had done a number of case studies on effective film marketing and distribution.
After a few phones calls, she agreed to have a group of students work on our larger business model for The Way We Get By. The students researched other successful documentaries, interviewed successful businesspeople in the industry and came up with a road map of opportunities at least worth investigating, given our limited budget. The students’ comprehensive plan was a living document for our film, and included a forecast for profit potential, a breakdown of direct sales versus store distribution and detailed research on DVD fulfillment companies.
MADE IN MAINE
Once the film was completed, we sent a screener to the Bangor Savings Bank. We had big plans for screening the film all across the state, but no money with which to do it.
We knew there were many different things we could ask for in our negotiations with the bank—screening fees, appearance fees, promotional materials for bank-sponsored screenings—but none of that mattered to us; it was all shortsighted profit potential. Instead, we looked down the road. What would we need to succeed throughout the entire life of the film? What would provide the bank a tangible return on its investment?
In the end, what we asked for was goods and services. We asked for the bank to pay for the costs of a film negative and 35mm film prints of The Way We Get By, which would make it easier to screen at bank-sponsored events at theaters in Maine. More importantly, the prints would make it much easier for us to mount a national theatrical run this summer.
We asked the bank to pay for the cost of 15,000 DVDs, 5,000 of which they could hand out to valued customers at a predetermined later date and 10,000 that we could sell for pure profit from our Website, at screenings, on a fulfillment site, etc.
After many negotiations, the bank agreed to make the largest financial commitment in its history and became the sole sponsor of The Way We Get By throughout Maine. To date, Bangor Savings Bank has spent more than $100,000 on in-kind and direct services for the film.
With five 35mm film prints in hand, we are now in the middle of a 16-city theatrical run throughout Maine, with the revenue from our cut of the box office helping to fund the larger theatrical roll-out in New York, Los Angeles, Boston and beyond. We’re also planning the best time to make our 10,000 DVDs available, and how both the theatrical and DVD release can best promote our upcoming television broadcast.
THE MISSING PIECE OF THE PUZZLE
In January, we received great news: PBS’s “P.O.V.” had selected The Way We Get By for its 2009 season. This was extremely important to us, because from the beginning we knew that television was the only major piece of the entire distribution puzzle that we could not realize ourselves.
Having a national television broadcast on PBS means a large audience viewing the film, which will increase awareness of the film and, more importantly, give a boost to all of the grassroots marketing and self-distribution strategies we have been developing from day one.
Knight was the first person we called to report the good news.
Throughout production, post-production and now distribution, we’ve had days when we’ve questioned whether or not the battle to get this film made has been worth all of the rejections and heartache we’ve dealt with on this long road. Truly, what has kept us going is the memory of that undefeated attitude we saw in Knight on that fateful night in 2004. If Bill could find a way to get through all of his struggles, who were we to complain? Who were we to say there was no way around a problem like dwindling funds or distribution challenges?
Thinking of Knight always succeeds in putting everything in perspective and has made us double our efforts. Telling his story is the least we can do. MM