Today’s guest post is from TFC member John Chi whose microbudget film Tentacle 8 was recently released by Grand Entertainment Group. We thank John for sharing his experience with TFC and the knowledge he gained during the distribution phase of his film so that all independent filmmakers might benefit.
Changing The Paradigm
The first thing every filmmaker should ask themselves before considering to make an independent feature film is: how badly do I want to do this? Are you prepared to do everything it takes, and make the necessary personal and professional sacrifices to ensure your film gets made and seen by an audience? Often times, filmmakers think the answer is yes, when in fact it’s something less clear.
You can make it easier on yourself by writing a script that’s marketable, fits the sweet spot of what other people think you should be doing, saying, feeling, and thinking. Then Google “how to win major awards at Sundance, SXSW, Toronto, Cannes and start a bidding war” and click, “I’m feeling lucky.” That’s definitely a path many people take.
But like most independent filmmakers, who aren’t answering to studios or huge investors, it’s against our nature to do what other people tell us to do, especially when it comes to what’s popular or in vogue. We’ll be the one that breaks the mold; we’ll be the one that changes the paradigm. That’s exactly what we said as we assembled our team for TENTACLE 8. We would be the one film that would change the paradigm of what’s possible. We were going to make a global espionage movie about the NSA, shoot it in 15 days, and do it within the Ultra-Low Budget SAG agreement. While many saw disaster, we saw opportunity. It was our chance to stand out from the crowd, and do something either truly brave or astoundingly idiotic.
Just Get Through Production
I was determined to make TENTACLE 8, a film that addressed social and political issues that wasn’t being addressed anywhere else. At least not in narrative features. My job was to assemble a team of filmmakers that shared my ambition, my optimism, and my foolishness to attempt what appeared on paper to be an impossible task. If we kept saying that we were going to be the one, and preached it often enough, it would become true. We would be the film that would change the paradigm of what independent films were capable of.
For most first time feature filmmakers, like I was, I thought Production would be the most difficult part of the journey. It’s what most filmmakers are pretty good at, and best prepared to do. I won’t describe at length what it took to get TENTACLE 8 made. Instead, I’ll just say that it took an incredible amount of ingenuity, effort, and hard work to pull off what we did. It was an extraordinary synergy of trust, belief, attention to detail, and commitment that made it all possible. There were many selfless acts of kindness from people who didn’t have any reason to help us, but did anyway. They were our angels. Without them, we wouldn’t have finished the movie on our budget. You can’t plan on those things happening, you just need to make sure you treat other people with respect, be humble, and always act professionally. Don’t make it easy for other people to turn you away when you ask for help. You might get lucky.
Making a movie is a labor of love under extremely stressful conditions, which tends to bond people. By the end of production, we believed that we had accomplished something very special together. We had done it. We were on our way to realizing our mantra. We were going to be the film that changed the paradigm.
High Hopes and First Impressions
Several months later, we were ready for our coming out party. We had worked really hard to put a solid, but not perfect, festival cut together for people to start looking at. One of our first calls was to The Film Collaborative. We thought they would probably put us in touch with all the festival programmers at Sundance, Cannes, Toronto, et al, and we could focus on our travel plans for the next year. Jeffrey Winter, co-executive director of The Film Collaborative, was kind enough to watch our film, and give us some feedback.
I remember reading his comments the first time over, scanning it quickly looking for the words, “great, fantastic, ground breaking, change the paradigm”….but I didn’t see them. So I read the email again a bit more carefully. Maybe I missed it. “Not a festival film. Difficult to market. No marketable name talent. Challenging subject matter and run time will make it difficult to program. Proceed with modest expectations”. This had to be a mistake. Maybe the DVD screener got mixed in with someone else’s packaging. I read the comments over, and over again. Maybe if I read them often enough, cursed them loudly enough, they would magically transform into the words I was looking for. That never happened.
Filmmakers Are Often In Denial
We went ahead anyway and applied to all the major film festivals and some regional ones as well. A year later, and a folder full of spiritless rejection form letters, we hadn’t been accepted into any film festivals. Maybe Jeffrey Winter was on to something.
Putting away those dreams of being courted by rabid, hungry distributors, waving seven figure blank checks in the air, was hard. It was more than a dream, it was almost an expectation. Make a great film, and the rest will come. Didn’t anyone know that we were going to be the one?
We asked our sales agent, Glen Reynolds from Circus Road Films, to start reaching out to distributors. 1% of all feature film applicants get into Sundance. Maybe it’s less. Out of that 1% maybe half get some distribution opportunity. A long and painful eight months or so had passed waiting to get into a film festival, with no results. It was time to roll up our sleeves, and take back some of our own fate.
What happens to films that don’t win the Palm D’Or or the Grand Jury Prize? What happens to films that aren’t on the other end of Harvey Weinstein’s phone call? The first thing we needed to understand was that no one was going to do the hard work for us. There simply is no substitute for grinding it out, and doing the dirty work. The Film Collaborative, along with other indie film organizations like Film Courage, IFP, Film Independent, San Francisco Film Society, and Hope For Film, to name just a few, all have archives full of useful information written by filmmakers for filmmakers. We scoured them all, looking for nuggets of truth in every success story, hoping to recognize some shared path to that pot of gold. The only thing those stories shared in common, was that there was no common path to success. They were as unique as the films they made.
Distribution For The 99%
Finding a distributor via our sales agent didn’t take very long. After maybe two months of sending out screeners (or viewing online screeners), we had a handful of distributors that were interested in distributing our film. Hallelujah. Victory! Time to celebrate and take a much needed sigh of relief. We reached out to TFC again and sought out their counsel to help us make the best decision. We explored DIY distribution, and traditional VOD/Digital distribution, making sure we understood all the variables and decisions that went into each approach. I had a conversation with TFC founder Orly Ravid about our options, and she told us that our film wasn’t mainstream enough for any distributor to really go out on a limb for us. We could:
1) bypass the traditional distributor and go with a DIY approach, put in a lot of additional time, energy, and money with no guarantees of success; OR
2) sign on with a traditional distributor and manage/lower our expectations. Orly made it very clear that no distributor was going to spend a lot of money or expend a lot of energy marketing the movie. Whatever we could get them to commit to, we should try to get in writing.
That bit of honest feedback was an unexpected buzz kill, and didn’t exactly sound like a reason to celebrate. After going through our options again and really assessing the pros and cons of each approach, we ultimately chose to go with a traditional distributor, Grand Entertainment Group. Grand is a new distribution company that focuses on championing unique and innovative voices, founded by long time home entertainment executives that had 20+ years of experience distributing independent films for Lionsgate and ThinkFilm, among others. We felt they could help us reach a much wider audience than we could ever reach on our own. There was just no way for us to get our DVDs onto store shelves at Walmart or Best Buy, or land a cable TV deal without their help and prior relationships.
Two long years after we finished shooting the film, finally our work was done. Everything would be clearer, and all of our problems would get solved once we signed with our distributor. Right?
Our Moment of Truth
It’s at this critical stage, that films either go on to thrive and find success or get completely lost in a giant swamp of never to be seen again films. No one cares about your film more than you do. Not your sales agent, your producer’s rep, your distributor, your publicist, no one. To them, as committed and dedicated as they might be, it’s still a job. To you, it’s your life. This goes back to the question you should have asked yourself when you started:
How badly do you want to do this? Are you prepared to do everything it takes, and make all the necessary sacrifices, personal and professional, to ensure your film will be made and seen by an audience?
My producer, Casey Poh, gave me a statistic from his studies at the Peter Stark Producing Program at USC: It takes a $5M minimum marketing spend to make a dent in DVD sales. I don’t know how true that is, but for argument sake, let’s say it’s only 10% of that, which is still $500,000. There are no distributors in the world that will spend that kind of money on your movie if it didn’t win Sundance, SXSW, Toronto, etc., and definitely not for a film like TENTACLE 8. But we still had some false notions that our work was done, and that our distributor was going to be out there marketing the film 24/7.
Thankfully, like most independent filmmakers, we’re obsessive. So we plan, and plan, and plan, down to the very last detail. Website updated, new content on Facebook every day up until the DVD release, maintain and energize the interest of our cast and crew. Be active on Twitter, start tweeting things that make you an interesting follow. Share interesting things about other people and other interests. Repeat and accelerate. List all the things you want to have happen: NY Times review, University and College theatrical tour, major launch parties, DVD premiere at the Arclight, Spirit Award Nomination. Didn’t people remember that WE were the one?
My Moment of Clarity
With only a few weeks to go before our DVD release date, we noticed that our wish lists were still only wish lists. Our action plans were gathering e-dust, and we weren’t any closer to making them happen than the day we typed them into our laptop. We had put years into getting the film to this point. There was no one to blame other than ourselves if it tanked. As the creator of the material, as the producer/director/writer of the film, there was no one else more responsible for marketing and promoting the movie than me. No one else was going to come to my rescue. Not my friends, not my family, not my producers, my sales agent, my distributor, no one. I had to give them a reason to believe that my film was worth their time, their attention, their money. Just maybe after I had done all the groundwork, someone might be inspired to help. As soon as I came to terms with that, it was much easier to move forward.
We did an inventory of the assets we had:
- We had made a movie about the NSA, which by an incredible stroke of fate, had been splashed across the headlines in the previous months;
- We had several soap opera actors with very popular and loyal followings from their fans;
- We had made a completely original and different kind of movie that I could articulate to others with clarity and passion.
We had to mobilize our assets as quickly and as provocatively as we could to all those outside our bubble of cast and crew. Prior to our DVD release, there were three very influential moments that impacted our awareness:
1) NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden became an international headline;
2) Not so random acts of kindness and generosity from Soap Opera Network, Go Into The Story, and Film Courage;
3) I realized NO ONE WAS COMING TO RESCUE ME if I didn’t fully and actively solicit an audience for my movie.
Our Watergate Moment
Casey had mentioned months ago that we needed a Watergate moment to spark some interest in the movie, in reference to ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, a movie that inspired TENTACLE 8. I laughed off that notion, but as fate would have it, news of NSA whistleblower, Edward Snowden, splashed across every news headline around the world. We finally caught a break. As tragic and as difficult as it was for Mr. Snowden, it was something that we had to capitalize on. We started branding the movie as the NSA-themed Independent Feature Film. I used that as the header for every unsolicited email I wrote to every journalist, blogger, activist, and film enthusiast I could find on the internet. I started making bold and provocative statements on Twitter regarding privacy rights, and the treatment of whistleblowers, always making sure I hashtagged #TENTACLE8 with #NSA. Slowly but surely, we were building an awareness and interest in both the film, and us as filmmakers.
When Life Gives You Lemons, Make Soap
We also had several cast members who had a large soap opera following, as current and former stars on some very popular soap operas. Joshua Morrow stars on the very popular “The Young and the Restless”, Matthew Borlenghi had a long and successful run on “All My Children”, as did John Callahan on “All My Children” and “Days of Our Lives”, veteran character actor Bruce Gray was on several popular soaps, and Teri Reeves, who most recently starred in NBC’s “Chicago Fire,” was a one-time “General Hospital” regular. It would be a huge mistake not to reach out to this fan base.
Two weeks prior to our DVD release, I reached out to the Soap Opera Network, and wrote them an email introducing myself and the movie. A few days later, Editor in Chief, Errol Lewis and West Coast Editor Kambra Clifford responded. We had several very enthusiastic email exchanges describing what we were looking to do, and they agreed to publish and promote an article on the film, and our actors. We’ve continued to discuss ways in which we can cross promote our mutual interests.
Scott Myers and Go Into The Story
I had written close to a hundred unsolicited emails to almost every film journalist, critic, blogger, and movie enthusiast in the indie film world known to Google. There’s something to be said for a well crafted email to introduce yourself, why you’re writing them, and a little about your film. It’s probably no accident that influential screenwriter and screenwriting teacher, Scott Myers, was one of the very few people who responded. His blog, “Go Into The Story” is widely considered to be one of the most influential screenwriting blogs on the internet. It was a real break for us that Scott offered to do a brief write up on the making of TENTACLE 8, as part of his “Movies You Made” series. This was exactly the right audience that would appreciate an intricately written, complex, and thought provoking movie like ours. The feature was posted a day before our DVD release, and links tweeted continuously for about a week. We continue to use that feature in our marketing efforts.
Lastly, I would say our feature on FilmCourage.com was the single most influential piece of internet marketing that helped our success. Karen, David, and April were among the most gracious and hospitable collaborators we were lucky enough to work with, during the entire process. They just inherently understood our situation and wanted to help. Like The Film Collaborative, their followers are really loyal and dedicated to the independent film cause and help filmmakers educate themselves. Being featured on their site gave us some much needed credibility and visibility with the community that we wanted our film to be a part of.
Early Exit Poll Results
After eight days of release, our initial DVD allotments sold out at WalMart, Best Buy, and Amazon.com. IMDB put us on a list (#12 out of 192) of Most Popular Independent Feature Films released in 2014, based on their Movie Meter Rankings. Considering there are thousands of movies made each year, this was an incredible feat, given we’re such a small film. It goes to prove that a small, but dedicated following can move mountains, and probably has a greater chance at long term sustainability.
There’s no magic solution, you just have to grind it out and do the work. Hundreds of tweets, unsolicited emails, creative Facebook posts, introducing yourself, your film, and your purpose. There’s no fancy diet, no elaborate exercise machine to get around the fact that if you want to lose weight, you have to eat less and exercise more. Similarly, if you want to build an audience, there’s no app, or software, or social media guru that’s going to magically build your audience for you. You do it one follower at a time.
In retrospect, one of the biggest mistakes we made was being a bit too precious about who we followed and didn’t follow on Twitter. We didn’t quite know how to exploit Twitter at first, but like everything else, we learned on the fly, and were able to course correct in time to build a strong following for the film, and us the filmmakers.
Are we the film that changed the paradigm of what micro-budget independent films are capable of? We defied the odds in many ways, making a movie without a strong marketing hook, for a niche audience that wasn’t easily identifiable, and we secured DVD and VOD/Digital distribution without getting into one film festival. We listened and valued all the guidance we got, from TFC and others we sought input from, even though we didn’t always follow their advice. So did we break the mold? I’m not sure that matters so much anymore. We never stopped believing that we could.