16 Jul Why We are Using Gathr to distribute Who Took Johnny
Anyone who has made a movie knows what a Herculean task it is to get it shot and edited. However, getting it the attention you think it deserves can often make one feel more like Prometheus than Hercules. My partners at Rumur and I have been making films for over two decades. We have 6 features under our belts, and a half dozen more in process. All of our films have gotten mostly positive reviews, wowed audiences, and won awards (two have even been short-listed for the Oscar). They have also all been self distributed. We are once again going the quasi self distribution route via the Theatrical on Demand platform Gathr.us. While we’d love to have more organized support and resources to blast our film into the public sphere, we’re excited to have the opportunity to make the film available on the big screen. At the bottom of the post we explain Gathr- so scroll to the bottom if you want to skip the story of how we ended up taking this route. The good news is that we have been working with Gathr for a week now- and so far so good! The best news is that almost anyone- anywhere- can set up a screening. Theatrical on Demand is a fairly new concept so I know that we are going to have to do a lot explaining. Each of the Gathr events is a one time screening rather than a full week run, and when they get set up they are usually about 6 weeks away. I have a hard time planning that far in advance myself, so if you can’t commit right now, try to put it on your calendar! More importantly because it’s a new distribution platform and concept it’s difficult to get the press to cover these events. The distribution relies on people sharing the links and inviting each other- so please share away. At the bottom of this post I explain how gathr works a little more directly.
Before making films, I was in an underground rock band that was part of a DIY movement. We started out by booking our own shows and doing our own press, so when we started making films it was only natural for us to follow a similar path. When our first film “Half-Cocked” was rejected by all of the festivals we applied to, we took it on the road and showed it at rock clubs with a 16 mm projector. Writing about the film when we brought it the rock club Jabberjaw, a young film critic named Manohla Dargis wrote in the LA Weekly: “Why wasn’t this film at Sundance?” Happily, our second film, “Radiation” was invited to Sundance and that paved the way for a year of travel to festivals all over the world. “Radiation” almost got distribution, but the potential distributor turned it down when an important theater in New York, Film Forum, declined to show it. At one point we even set up a distribution company and released one of our films “Horns and Halos” and that of a friend’s “Occupation: Dreamland” – both of which were short listed for an Oscar (O:D won the Independent Spirit Award). Having done everything ourselves for all these years, we’ve learned a great deal, but we have also had to deal with the harsh realities that the process has entailed. Not only is self-distribution time-consuming and expensive, but it also carries a stigma that makes it hard to get a film written about, and much harder to get it booked in theaters. Unfortunately, finding distribution is even harder to get when you can’t get past the first row of gatekeepers.
The problem has only gotten worse. While the internet makes it easier to find people and to reach audiences, the increased access to the means of production has led to a glut of good content, making the competition for eyeballs and audience quite fierce. While some people have argued that the internet has democratized distribution, our experience has proven contrary to this dictum. At the end of the day the gatekeepers – the high profile fests and the writers who cover them – build the pipeline which flows into the second set of gatekeepers: the distribution channels. If a film doesn’t premiere at a high profile fest, it has a very low chance of getting written about, traveling to other festivals, or finding distribution. We saw this pattern very clearly with our 2011 film “Battle For Brooklyn”. After an amazing debut at Hot Docs, where we got great reviews, had sold out screenings, and ended up 16th in the audience poll (out of over 200 films), we were not accepted by another major US festival. So we leapt over the gatekeepers by arranging to have it open the Brooklyn Film Festival (it was a Brooklyn film and we had a long history with the festival) as well as play at Rooftop Films the same week. We hired a top publicist and got reams of local press, and opened it theatrically ourselves in New York the following week. We did fantastically at the box office and ran for 3 weeks. Then no one else in the country would book it. Many bookers told us they thought it only did well in NY because it was a local story. Luckily we had already booked the Laemmle in LA (they have always been supportive of our efforts). We once again hired a top publicist on the West Coast, and we got some good press. Again, we go no interest from other theaters. Playing New York and LA got us qualified for the Oscar, and we actually got short-listed. Even still, we were only able to arrange a handful of screenings until the Occupy movement happened. The themes of the film dovetail with the themes of that movement, so all of a sudden people seemed to get it. We ended up being invited to a lot of regional festivals, but it still has not played in Europe.
When we finished “Who Took Johnny,” we submitted it to Sundance, Full Frame, and SXSW but it did not get in. We were wary of waiting to apply to the other top festivals because we didn’t want to not get accepted and lose a whole year. So when Slamdance called wanting to show it, we said yes. We think its a great festival and also thought it was a good idea for us to be out in Park City where all the press people are. However, as we have made a lot of films, and Slamdance is committed to supporting first and second time directors, we were told we could not be in competition. We underestimated the negative impact that playing out of competition would have. We know a lot of press people and we sent about 100 of them a link to the film in advance thinking that we could make our film part of the Park City conversation. We got a few nice mentions from people like Alonso Duralde, and Brandon Harris, in their festival round-ups. We also got a few nice blog reviews. However, we did not get any press that made people pay attention. While the film got a good response at a bunch of smaller regional festivals, picked up awards at CUFF, Brooklyn Film Festival, and Newport Beach – and even made John Waters’ 10 best list for the year (#6, in Artforum) – it still flew way below the radar of the indie film world. As a contributing editor for Documentary Magazine, I see how many amazing films there are out there. I saw dozens of other top notch films while we traveled with our film as well, many of which are in the same boat as “Who Took Johnny”.
Anyone who knows me understands that I can be a little tenacious. I refused to give up on our film. While a lot of people just wanted us to put it online or put out a DVD we understood that this would make it even less possible for it to get attention from film press. After about a half a year of trying I finally got it a review in Hammer to Nail. Then almost a full year later I finally got it into a European festival; Thessaloniki documentary festival. Happily, the response was amazing. Not only did we end up with an fantastic review in the Hollywood Reporter, we also had several international reps offer to represent the film, and we got invited to other festivals in Europe. Shortly after I got home, we decided to move forward with our “Inside Out” distribution strategy. Most films open in NY or LA because that’s where the press is centered. Then they slowly roll the film towards the center of the country. As our story was centered in the Midwest, and we couldn’t get traction in NY or LA, we decided to open the film in Des Moines. The response was overwhelming. In just two weeks, we got 2000 people into the theater and grossed around $16,000. Armed with these numbers and the wildly positive word of mouth, I reached out to other theaters, but got no takers. After a couple of months I got a theater in Omaha to show it. The 240 seat theater sold out well before it even opened.
At the same time, I started to look into theatrical-on-demand. The previous year when I showed “Who Took Johny” at Big Sky Documentary Festival, I met a representative from Gathr and reached out to them. I also talked with the people at Tugg, but they didn’t seem all that excited and never followed up. When I got in touch with Gathr, they had a very strong sense of what they were doing. Gathr is a little bit like kickstarter in that they help to set up possible events that only happen if enough people sign up. If the event reaches the goal, then it “tips” – the people get charged and it takes place. The downside of Gathr is that, like self-distribution, it seems frowned upon by the industry because it doesn’t involve gatekeepers who make people comfortable enough to write about the events, so we’re going to have an uphill battle to get press for our screenings. The upside is quite strong though. Our biggest hassle in distribution has been getting past the bookers. Gathr takes care of that hurdle, and makes all the arrangements with the theaters. Again, some people want us to put out the DVD, but we understand how important it is for us to get press for the film in order to get it seen, so that will only happen once the theatrical winds down.
An individual clicks on the link to our film. This page lets them know if a screening is taking place in their area. If not, the person can request one. This person then becomes the screening captain- responsible for helping to get the word out about the event (they also get in free for their efforts). We work with them to promote the event- and try to get press and reviews as well- while they utilize their local networks to make sure it tips. If enough people sign up it can even turn into a regular run.
If enough people don’t sign up, no one gets charged and the screening doesn’t take place. While this model might not work for all films, I think it can work well for “Who Took Johnny” because there are so many people who know the story of Johnny Gosch and are interested in seeing the film. We launched the process earlier this week and we have about 15 events in the process of getting set up. Six of these events are live on the site, and one of them has already tipped.