Writer-Director Andy Mark Simpson discusses his journey through the world of self-distibution for ‘Young Hearts Run Free’
The last year or so has seen the rise of, the niftily named, ‘Theatrical-on-Demand’ models led by companies such as Tugg and Gathr. It was the evolution of these platforms which inspired me to bring my self-funded UK indie film Young Hearts Run Free to the US this September 2014. The film had a successful self-distribution tour of UK cinemas in 2011, however, despite these new platforms it was not all plain sailing. This article explores my personal experiences with Tugg and suggests some tips for using these emerging platforms.
HOW DOES IT WORK?
Films are entered into a library on the Tugg website by filmmakers, production companies and even distribution companies. They supply DCP package or Blurays alongside artwork. Fans (called promoters) can then chose a film, venue and date, then the platform arranges the event(s) with their partner cinemas, and will handle the shipping. Tugg create an event page on the website for Promoters and if they sell enough tickets in advance (the minimum threshold) then the event goes ahead, if not enough are sold before the cut-off (about a week before) then the event is cancelled, and no one gets charged (similar to the Kickstarter model). If it worked to its full potential it should allow cinemas to program independent films without risk, and as the diverse range of films in their library demonstrates, it could be a strong platform for filmmakers to get their work seen and recoup money.
WHAT ARE THE FEES FOR?
The threshold is derived from a fairly complex calculation of all the fees involved. So what are the financial arrangements? One of the cool things about Tugg is that the filmmaker, production company or distributor gets to set their own minimum screening fee that they’d like for each event. I was planning to travel to each event for Q&As so I set my minimum at $100 to help cover those costs. You can set it higher (the Tugg average is $100-$150) and you can also set it lower. Some filmmakers choose to set very low, or even zero price minimums which will lower the minimum ticket threshold, slightly, and make it a bit more likely that the screening will go ahead.
If the threshold is met, you keep 35% of box office on extra tickets sold later. However, I calculated that financially this doesn’t work out. Using my example; at $10 a ticket, if I set my fee to $0 instead of $100 then that only knocks off about ten people needed from the minimum sales, not a huge difference. Also, had I done that, met the threshold and sold those ten extra tickets later at $10, I would get only $35 (my 35%) of the extra, rather than my $100 minimum, so I didn’t think it was worth giving up my screening fee.
The cinemas which partner Tugg probably complete a similar process of entering a minimum fee when they sign up, perhaps having options for various rates for different times of the day. I can’t confirm, but I suspect some of the cinemas have entered minimum rates which are higher than their usual house ‘nut’ or average for that day of the week. Most of the partner venues are large multiplex chains such as AMC and might be more insistent on higher ticket sales, rather than independent cinemas which are more likely to be geared towards independent and art-house films. After that I’m not sure how much flexibility there is in the system, and currently neither party can adjust their minimum fees on a one-by-one basis.
SO WHO BENEFITS?
Here is something cool. The Promoters (which can often be your fans) are financially incentivized to make a success of the screening and they keep 5% of the box office (before and after the minimum). This is a good tool to help with the marketing, but of course Tugg takes it’s percentage and that culminates in some quite high minimum thresholds. At the events I arranged, the audience thresholds were in the 70s. I’ve had some big screenings in the UK, topping 100 a few times but my screen average is 43 people across 55 public screenings, pretty decent for my zero-budget drama with an unknown cast, but to try to get more than 70 people (especially across the Atlantic) is a very tough ask. It’s worth being realistic and possibly arranging smaller non-Tugg screenings yourself, as I did, if you are aware of the size of your audience. Never-the-less, large Tugg events are possible if you’ve got your marketing right. So, how do you arrange screenings and ensure they go ahead?
BUILDING A BUZZ
Filmmakers and Production Companies are also able to suggest an event themselves, becoming their own Promoter, meaning they’re doing the driving and get the Promoter 5% on top of their screening fee and 35% post-threshold box office. This is what I did to arrange and plan my US tour. This works great if it’s in your city but trying to do it in a city you don’t know, if you haven’t started building a buzz early enough, is very hard (I found it impossible). It’s better to excite and incentivize Promoters who have a lot of friends in the city, or even better, connect with a large film organization or a group connected to the subject matter of the film. Start building the buzz early in the process.
So how do you create the buzz? Tugg host a vibrant ticket page for each individual event and also offer help by providing sample emails which you can use to contact potential partner organizations to inspire them to arrange screenings and to help you gather an audience. However, a significant drawback at present is that Tugg doesn’t give you access to the very strong traditional methods of cinema advertising. Because the screenings are one-offs and events aren’t confirmed until a week before, you will not get preview trailers in cinemas, posters outside or even, in a lot of cases, any prominent space on the venue’s webpage, not until after you’ve met the threshold. This means you’re missing out on the key ways that most cinema-goers access upcoming films and crucially, what gets the venue’s regular customers turning up. This means your grassroots and social media campaigns need to be strong, alongside a good email list you’ve accumulated during the course of the making of the film. These will be your best tools. If you’ve started the process early, especially if you’ve done crowd-funding, then you’ll already be up and running.
If you believe your film has a large fan base in a certain city, big enough to meet a high Tugg threshold, then instead you could four-wall hire a cinema, take advantage of some reasonable hire rates and keep all the box office yourself, rather than paying percentages to others. Four-walling is risky, (I’ve personally been burned with a couple of hires in my self-distribution journey) but here’s where Tugg comes into it’s own, they take some of the financial risk away; no one loses money if the tickets aren’t sold.
TO SUM UP!
Through my interest and involvement in self-distribution I’ve realized that social-issue documentaries tend to be the ones which make the most of the various platforms. They’re great at marketing and finding their specific audience. To this end, Tugg offers them a lot of help with its parallel section of Community screenings (similar to innovative UK distributor Dogwoof, which is currently also setting up shop in LA and New York) where Promoters can request screenings in any venue related to the film, for example churches or vegan restaurants, rather than in AMC theaters. Whilst this is great for social-issue docs, I think that for narrative feature films there needs to be synergy with a wider range of cinema venues in order for Tugg to be the game-changing tool for independent film that it would like to be.
In the end, I didn’t meet the thresholds for any of the Tugg screenings where I acted as my own Promoter and instead all my screenings were arranged privately with smaller venues. Is this Tugg’s fault? No; whilst this article has hopefully highlighted a few kinks that Tugg could resolve, it is up to filmmakers to reach out to their audiences. (I just haven’t built a large enough fan base in the US yet.)
I believe platforms like Tugg and Gathr are a great idea and could put more independent films in front of the paying public, but there is still a lot to learn as these platforms continue to grow. From my self-distribution experience I have developed four principles that I aim to live by, and that I think are crucial to the filmmaker of today working across traditional and emerging distribution models.
- Make the film you want to make, saying exactly what you mean to say.
- Know your audience, understand where they work, live and socialize.
- Know how to talk to them, specifically, and start doing it NOW!
- Make an excellent film, not just a good or okay one. This is a lot of work, and you’ve got to have the right work to make it worthwhile.
Anyone who has made a film knows it isn’t as simple as it sounds but these principles are a good place to start. Good Luck.
Andy Mark Simpson is a Writer and Director living in England, and produced this article for The Independent in October 2014.