Self Reliant: Buzz McLaughlin, center, with "Sensation" star David Strathairn and writer Aaron Wiederspahn.
It’s no wonder Buzz McLaughlin feels some pride and relief. His New Hampshire-based film production company, Either/Or Films, just signed a distribution deal for its first movie, The Sensation of Sight, during the last week of March. It’s been four years since fundraising for the film began and more than four months since the company he founded with Sensation’s writer, Aaron Wiederspahn, self-distributed the film in New Hampshire.
Monterey Media, one of the biggest outside suppliers of programs for PBS, is now handling the film’s limited domestic theatrical release in the U.S. and Canada. Monterey Media’s familiarity with Sensation’s lead actor, David Strathairn, perhaps best known for his Oscar-nominated role in Good Night, and Good Luck, was one of the factors leading to the deal, McLaughlin says. The company released another of the actor’s films, Steel Toes, last year, and knows “Strathairn draws viewers,” the filmmaker says.
McLaughlin and Strathairn first worked together in the theater, when McLaughlin was an artistic director. The actor loved the Sensation of Sight script and was attached to the project from the beginning. This helped with fundraising and attracting other actors such as Ian Somerhalder, Jane Adams, and Ann Cusack.
Expectations were high when the film, shot in the fall of 2005, began making the rounds on the international film festival circuit. Sensation made its world premiere at the San Sebastian Film Festival in Spain in September 2006, and its U.S premiere at the Denver Film Festival. It has since screened in 20 festivals on five continents, and is still on the circuit. But the film was not accepted into the few big venues that the distributors attend, like Cannes, Toronto, Berlin, Rotterdam, and Sundance, McLaughlin says. Thus, despite the festival momentum, Sensation initially failed to land a credible distribution deal. There were offers, McLaughlin concedes, but he and the other filmmakers always believed they could do better.
In the fall of 2007, the founding partners decided to self-distribute the film in New Hampshire, where the Sensation was shot, to see if they could generate some buzz. They knew it was their chance to prove to distributors that the movie could draw an audience. The New Hampshire premiere took place on November 9, 2007, in the 930-seat Colonial Theatre in Keene, a picturesque college town in the southwest corner of the state. The filmmakers promoted the event heavily, which ensure that it sold out on opening night. The movie ran for a few more days in Keene before moving onto Peterborough, the small town where Sensation was filmed. Then, it was on to the Red River Theatres in Concord, New Hampshire.
Because of the big turn-out in Keene, the per-screen-average for the film’s opening week came in at fourth in the nation, which drew the attention of industry insiders. Variety and Box Office Mojo published the numbers and the calls from domestic and international distributors, all of whom were looking for a good sleeper, started to pour in.
“Getting a film distributed is like a golf swing,” McLaughlin says today. “We’ve proven that we can follow through now that our distribution deal is signed and closed. That works tremendously in our favor for our next project.”
The bottom line: If your film doesn’t get into the major festivals where distributors will be in attendance, you need to do whatever you can to keep momentum going for your project. If you decide to self-distribute—and many independent film producers have no choice—you need to handle it very carefully and make sure people turnout for your movie.
Watch the Sensation of Sight trailer.
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