Real-Time Distribution Case Study, Week 2: Finding the Audience & Staying on the Fence

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This week, we have been working on marketing materials, key art, partner outreach, theater research and social media tests. We are starting to fill in a rough schedule and set initial dates for the Phoenix, Oregon Summer 2019 screening tour.

As we make plans, I find myself reflecting on the last three releases, analyzing and evaluating mistakes and successes.

I rifle through the attic of my brain, looking for clues in old files and dulling photographs.

What went wrong? What were the successes? Were mistakes due to the approach itself, inexperience or lack of execution? Could a similar approach using different components complete the puzzle?

I am afraid of making the same mistakes, and yet I have a unique opportunity to use knowledge learned from past failure.

Staying on the Fence

As a child, our property line was marked by a long white fence, a 2-inch child’s tight rope. I practiced for hours until I could walk the whole length of the fence without falling. During the most successful traverses, I floated, soared, yet was firmly grounded to the earth.

I find myself trying to stay balanced on the fence again, on the peak of a mountain, leading a release path we only catch glimpses of, putting one foot in front of the other.

Trying not to fall off towards fear on one side or unrealistic elation on the other.

Dipping my toes into the murky waters on each side, testing the limits of failure and delusion without faltering, falling, or jumping off completely.

Trying to stay grounded, balanced, right in the middle, reaching for the stars, but checking in with reality.

As we make decisions moving forward, we can neither be too scared nor too excited.

We must be conservative but not too conservative. Shrewd but not too shrewd.

Or as my friend says, when embarking on a new adventure, “ safe but not too safe.

Facebook Messenger Bot

This week I created a Facebook messenger bot (auto-response robot) to interact with followers, asking where we should screen the film.

The post received a high engagement rate and led to connections with individuals worldwide and a few potential screening dates.

After the over-stimulation of hours spent on social media, I needed some introvert recovery time. I had tipped over into elation / delusion and needed to rebalance.

And I needed a reality check.

The release is not about the next marketing gimmick…

The most crucial thing about releasing and marketing this film, the thing that will create good word-of-mouth (the most critical factor in a movie’s success), is not the coolness of the release tour or a decked out airstream.

The number one factor: are the right people seeing the film, the people who will be most impacted by the film’s core messages and content?

Finding the Audience

Finding a film’s true audience can be a challenge.

It takes time to test audience reaction. On each of our films, I’ve developed a vague idea of the audience, but I still can’t put their demographics into numbers or a Facebook ad targeted formula.

To find the Phoenix, Oregon audience, I think we will need to create overlapping segments, tackling audience engagement from multiple angles and converging on the audience.

In the Facebook messenger bot, I interacted primarily with bowling fans and fans of our cast. This tells me that so far, these segments, and our family and friends, are the only people following the film. While some of these individuals will love the film, it’s probable the movie’s true fans are not yet interacting with us.

On Calvin, we relied too much on the sports community, but the movie was not about baseball. Baseball was just a backdrop to a coming-of-age dramedy, and the athlete failed. Not your normal feel-good sports movie.

While working with the bowling community is a good start, we can not focus all of our efforts here. Again, sports is only a backdrop to a deeper, character-driven dramedy about friendship and relevancy at mid-life.

Finding the right Venues

For now, we are avoiding corporate cineplexes and focusing on indie theaters. Art-house audiences are often proactive and intentional. They read reviews and peruse theater calendars in anticipation of seeing films they couldn’t see otherwise. Therefore, they do some of the marketing for us, taking it upon themselves to know what is playing.

The cineplex crowds are more the type who say “Hey, what do you want to do today? Let’s go to the movies.” They may only go to the movies a few times a year, if that. And when they go, they choose the movie they’ve heard of, the next Pixar or Marvel movie. They will definitely not risk two hours on an indie film they haven’t seen plastered on banner ads, TV spots and billboards. On Calvin, we put the film in these big theaters, and it couldn’t compete.

If we first court art-houses and their built-in, film-loving audiences, we can then focus on bringing new audiences to them, ones that may not otherwise come to their cinema: the bowling crowd, cast fan groups, Fame TV series fans, etc.

Previous Releases

Here is a quick summary of our previous release timelines. Possibly in the future, I’ll share more about our distribution partners and gross revenues.

Calvin Marshall release plan

  • production October 2007
  • world premiere October 2008, Austin Film Festival
  • 2008 — festival play
  • 2009 spring training, Phoenix AZ, four-wall theatrical
  • July / Aug 2009 limited DIY theatrical
  • 2009 split all rights between three different distributors (foreign, dvd, digital)
  • August 2009 VOD release with Gravitas

Redwood Highway release plan

  • production 2012
  • premiere 2013, AIFF
  • tour in retirement communities
  • sell all rights to one distributor, Monterey Media
  • 2014 release VOD

Black Road release plan

  • production 2014
  • premiere, October 2015 Los Angeles theater
  • limited theatrical 2015–2016
  • Tugg screenings 2016
  • all rights to Gravitas
  • Fall 2016 release VOD

One glaring issue is the stop-and-start nature of the above timelines. None of the releases had continuous promotion ramping up over time. Efforts were tested and stopped, and then a new plan was made and tested. With limited resources (money, time, & people), this led to inefficiency and exhaustion.

On Phoenix, Oregon, we are attempting to start promotion now with a slow ramp to our first screenings, followed by a steady push all the way through the summer and fall until the movie is available on all platforms.


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