Written by Keo Woolford, edited by Jeffrey Winter
EDITORS NOTE: Anyone who has read the TFC blog or heard us speak in public knows that strategies for monetizing independent film through audience engagement, focused niche marketing, grassroots outreach and DIY/hybrid release techniques are the tenets of what we teach and preach. Too many filmmakers get lost in the dream that their film should be seen by everyone, so they forget to identify and target (or they willfully ignore) the core demographic for their film.
Every once in a while, however, a film comes along that grows organically from a community, and through careful nurturing by the filmmakers, manages to excite true buzz in its core audience. TFC member film THE HAUMANA, a 2013 film about a high school boy’s hula troupe by filmmaker/actor/hula dancer Keo Woolford, is a perfect model for this kind of niche DIY strategy, born from genuine community spirit.
This month on the blog, we have been advising those headed into the Winter and Spring festivals. If you still haven’t identified the core audience of your film, this post should give you something to think about.
As an actor, I’ve lived and worked in London, New York and Los Angeles. Wherever I go, I take my culture and home with me. I am a proud hula dancer and I would get a little defensive when people would flap their hands at me or ask me, “Where’s your hoop?” It was amazing to me how little people knew about hula and that men even danced hula. This perspective was coming from intelligent and esteemed circles of people, including educators at the University level.
I was blessed to have been commissioned to write and perform a one-man show, directed by Roberta Uno and supported by other sympathetic people and organizations in New York that would expose the struggle of holding on to tradition in post-modern Hawai`i, far from the misconception and misrepresentation of our culture in the global mass media. The show toured for about three years across the United States and also to Manila. Inevitably, audience members would ask if I was going to make a movie about this.
Cut to a few years later, in between acting gigs, and the conception of the screenplay was born. I originally wrote the lead role for myself. But as time for production crept up, I knew it was my responsibility to oversee the project to keep my vision intact.
The screenplay and film were created for the culture I feel so proud to be a part of; the hula community, both in Hawai`i and outside of Hawai`i. It was also for the local Hawai`i population and the diaspora of Hawaiians and former residents of Hawai`i who still maintain a strong connection to their home and for the people who want to know a little bit more about our culture. It was a goal of mine to show this side of our culture from an insider’s perspective versus someone’s “idea” of what our culture is about. At the same time, I wanted to entertain the audience and not be didactic or documentary about the approach.
I won’t say too much about the budget except that this would be considered a micro-budget feature. I put up most of the money and my best friend helped me raise the bulk of the rest by getting friends to invest for producer points. We did an Indiegogo campaign, which raised a couple of thousand extra. More than anything, though, it was the generosity of the community, crew and cast that kept our budget so low. Everyone worked for reduced or base rates, and the rest of the resources, work, time and talents were enthusiastically “donated.”
This was my first venture in such an undertaking. I have no college or film school degree, and no previous experience in writing, directing or producing such a project. I just had the burning passion to show the world a little more about our culture and assumed the hula and Hawaiian community at home and at large felt the same way about seeing something like that. Therefore, although I didn’t think about it much at first, I always knew that there was a core audience I could draw on, and hoped this film would speak to them.
My initial idea was to get into all the big festivals. Deadlines were coming up quickly and I sent them unfinished versions of the film (which I will never, ever, ever do again, even if they say they accept unfinished submissions). One by one, I was denied. I didn’t mind so much. It drove me to make the film better and gave me that much more time to finish my film the way I wanted. And in the end, I realized I needed every extra minute.
Finally, a programmer named Anderson Le who works for both the Hawaii International Film Festival and Los Angeles Asian-Pacific Film Festival approached me about submitting to these two festivals [editor’s note: Hawaii International (HIFF) and LAAPFF are unquestionably two of the most important showcases for Asian/Asian-American/Pacific Islander film in North America. HIFF also includes many other kinds of cinema as well, but is particularly well known as a “gateway to Asia.” It is important to remember that many “niche” films may find better premieres in specialty festivals than in the large, generic ones.] At that point, I had really become gun shy about submitting an unfinished cut, but ended up giving him the latest version to screen. This time proved to be a charm.
THE HAUMANA was accepted into both festivals and ended up winning the Audience Award at both festivals. It made history at HIFF by being only the second film to ever sell out the 1400-seat Hawaii Theatre (the first was Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and it was HIFF’s Official Closing Night Film. We also won a Special Jury Prize for Best First Feature from LAAPFF. Since then, it has played in a handful of other film festivals and won another Audience Award at the Philadelphia Asian Film Festival and was nominated for Best Film and Best Ensemble at the Orlando Film Festival.
With the support of these festivals, the word of mouth has spread quickly. From the success we garnered at HIFF, the film was picked up for a run at a small theatrical cinema on O`ahu, where the opening weekend gross was around $10,000. It just completed it’s 9th week at the theater. It is also available On-Demand to all Hawai`i residents
The parent company of the theater in O’ahu (Pearlridge Consolidated) was so enthusiastic about the numbers that they also invited the film to open at a theater they own in New York City, the well-known Village East Cinema. I originally assumed they wanted it for a single screening, but then they told me they wanted it for a one-week limited engagement! And then it was extended for a second week! I don’t have the grosses at the moment, but hope they will give them to me soon.
In addition, the film has also been playing a combination of four-wall screenings and Gathr screenings across the county, selling out the majority of the screenings where the average net is approximately $1500-$2000 per four-wall event.
The strategy has been simple. Hit the core target audience of the film and let the word of mouth carry it even further. Wherever the film has played, the word of mouth has been incredibly strong. The community is passionate about their culture and hungry for work that represents them in a positive and authentic light. I know this, because I am one of them. I have the same passion and hunger for my culture.
Most of the marketing has come from social media. I’m almost embarrassed to say that I didn’t start a Facebook page until about a year after we wrapped principle photography! But once I realized the power of social media, I went all in and I am amazed at how quickly the word spread about the film through Facebook alone. I also have a dear friend, Tracy Larrua, who is my PR person. She has been extremely hardworking and effective in getting the news out about the film into TV and press in various forms. And I had a trailer made as a teaser and then as a 30-second TV spot that played Hawai’i for 5 weeks, which has also been well-received on YouTube.
Through Facebook, I had been getting many inquiries on our page about screenings in a bunch of locations around the world. I did some research on four-walling and once the film made it’s Hawai`i premiere, I wanted to get it out to as many places as I could. The handful of festivals the film was invited to didn’t reach many areas the inquiries were coming from, so I put up a page on our website that allowed anyone who wanted to set up a screening or fundraiser event to contact us to arrange one.
The emails flooded in. Most were from Hālau (hula schools) around the country who wanted to use the film as a fundraiser to raise awareness about hula and our culture. There are several thousand hula schools across the U.S. alone, and these have been an invaluable resource for four-walled community screenings of the film. In general for fundraisers, we split the cost of the theater and then split the revenue from ticket sales. The average costs of the theaters have been about $850. The average net from the screenings has been about $1200. [Editor’s note: on an earlier film TFC worked on, another Hawaii-themed film called PRINCESS KAIULANI, we also used the Halau network for word-of mouth outreach. You can get a taste of what that network looks like at http://www.mele.com/resources/hula.html. It was easily found via Google. It is worth noting that many niche films have some sort of network like this that can be identified, although certainly not always as loyal as this one!]
I was also very fortunate to have a grant from the Ford Foundation pay for the flights and accommodations for the screenings when my travel wasn’t paid. Now we are signed with Gathr, a Theatrical On-Demand company that arranges screenings anywhere in the country. I still do the fundraiser model for the groups that still want to do those.
As of this writing, I plan to continue to do Gathr and fundraiser/four-wall screenings across the country and then pursue a similar model in Japan and Mexico where the hula communities are even larger than in the United States. I have been getting requests on our website and Facebook page from around the world about the film and hope to reach them somehow as well. A DVD release is planned sometime in the middle of 2014 for the States, after we get the word out a little bit more through the screenings and grassroots tour. There are a couple of other festivals that the film will play in as well.
In the beginning, I was just hoping the film would get into a couple of festivals. And now I am traveling to so many places and seeing how people are affected by the film. It has turned out to be so much more than I had expected in so many ways. I am continually humbled and overwhelmed by the response of the film and am so grateful for every experience it has brought me.
EDITOR’S POSTSCRIPT: We posted this blog not to try and trick anyone into thinking that ALL indie films can find niche success in this manner – of course not all films lend themselves to this kind of passionate niche marketing. But rather THE HAUMANA serves as a mirror that all films should at least take a long look into, asking yourself the all-important question….who is the audience for my film?
Jeffrey Winter December 30th, 2013
Tags: Gathr, grassroots outreach, Halau, Hawai'i, Hawaii International Film Festival, hula, indiegogo, Jeffrey Winter, Keo Woolford, Los Angeles Asian-Pacific Film Festival, niche audience, The Film Collaborative, The Haumana, word of mouth
15 comments regarding the indieWIRE panel at Film Society of Lincoln Center “15 Years of Film Distribution” and Sundance’s Distribution Announcement
The IndieWIRE panel I am commenting on was at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center on July 16, 2011. indieWIRE Editor in Chief Dana Harris moderated a discussion about the past 15 years of film distribution with (left to right): Richard Abramowitz, Amy Heller, Bingham Ray, Bob Berney, Ira Deutchman, Mark Urman, Arianna Bocco and Jeanne Berney. It can be found here:
The Sundance distribution announcement was just made today.
- So glad to know, as Mark Urman noted, that even big A-list cast films have a hard time getting listed properly on Cable VOD in terms of cast. We know that Sundance indie Adventures of Power also was not always listed properly in terms of noting its full cast (namely Jane Lynch & Adrien Grenier who both have massive fan bases were sometimes left off the film’s VOD description). What will it take the MSOs to get it together? Please let’s not all name or rename our films with numbers or start with the letters A,B,C,D, or E. If Comcast can insert ads into programming surely they and all the other dozens of MSOs (Multi System Operators) can find a way to help attract an audience for films on their system by categorizing them and filling in complete descriptions even on mammoth platforms.
- The glut of content was discussed and the marketing challenges all distributors of cinema face. We all know it’s cheaper to make films now, there are more of them, they don’t die or go away, they just multiply annually and even some of the panelists spoke to younger generations not even committed to being filmmakers, but just making films because they can and it’s made to seem so cool. Indeed. And what I want someone to say, well ok I will just say it, is when the real numbers behind film distribution are revealed across the board perhaps we’ll see a trim in supply. The best, most creative and most committed will survive and thrive. Investors will be choosier because they’ll have all of the REAL information they need to make educated decisions. As for how to clear through the clutter, well, that goes back to the basics of know-your-audience, down to the “T” and don’t pretend it’s everyone. I look forward to even more lifestyle and interest oriented programming and content servicing and all the more reason for filmmakers to cultivate audiences directly, where there is no room for glut or confusion.
- They joked about no one knowing VOD numbers, except for Arianna of IFC of course and Mark sometimes when his VOD client (Tribeca Films I presume) fills him in. Well, we have some from our forthcoming case study book Selling Your Film Without Selling Your Soul and I want to challenge ALL FILMMAKERS to share your numbers and stop the madness of mystery! And I agree, it’s time that these numbers start getting tracked and reported in a more automated fashion as theatrical box office and DVD sales are now. Still those number only show gross, and not the spend needed to achieve those numbers.
- Amy of Milestone noted younger people have different habits in terms of what they want to view and how they view. So maybe we need younger folks running distribution companies now. TFC is hiring.
- Arianna of IFC notes that piracy is a huge issue and that young people do not want to pay for content. So we can either be disturbed by that, or we can work with that knowledge and release in a way that will maximize revenues, instead of forcing audiences into outdated window methods. One film we recently observed tried to monetize its distribution via sponsorship, but waited way too long to get started, tried to do so without a distribution plan in place, is having its theatrical launch 6 months after its festival premiere and cannot seem to make a decision on the rest of its distribution whilst it awaits fat-enough-offers that are not coming. That sort of paradigm is a set up for failure and leaves the film open to piracy when a clear plan from the start and an immediate release after festival premiere could have led to quicker monetization (sponsored, DIY and/or via a donation campaign on VODO). We caution against proceeding with filmmaking or distribution when there is no viable plan in place.
- A question via TWITTER that came in was: Where do you want to be 15 years from now? Richard Abramowitz is amazed he’s still in the biz now… and that’s honest in that it speaks to deep concerns about the changes in the business and the truth is, the more transparent service providers are about their numbers, the more likely they will survive. Those less transparent are not likely to sustain themselves. What I object to is the mythology in this industry and the mask of success that hides the real story of spending more than you made back because there are too many expensive services or middlemen. Who can tell me about their PROFIT? Not just for themselves, but for the filmmakers and investors they represent? Who will publicly admit the numbers on how much was spent for each service even on services they did not really need if they were better educated, and each middleman and what that yielded? When people do not, it’s largely because they want to get the next project funded and, to me, this is no better than a pyramid scheme. You know what eventually happens with those, right? See 2008 for an indication. Anyone who wants to challenge TFC on its transparency please do, I am ready.
- ‘Theatre going experience is in our DNA (like gazing at a fire)’, says Bingham Ray. The communal experience is what it’s all about. Amen. I say let’s bring back the drive-in. I especially want it for Sundance film Co-dependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same.
- Ira speaks to the Opera audience. He noted, as audiences get older they crave that experience (communal screening) more. I love that Ira Deutchman grew a business out of this niche. Niche is golden. A lesson for us all.
- Ira spoke to “eventizing” theatrical– several noted about adding Q&As, live music, director attendance, panel discussions– to enhance theatrical and all of those screenings do well. Indeed. We have observed the same and that speaks even more to filmmakers knowing their audience and being more engaged in their own releases. There is nothing of this that one cannot do.
- Ira ends quoting Richard Lorber “everything is possible and nothing works” harking back to 25 years ago when distribs celebrated small victories and spent little – before the rise and fall of indie bubble and the studios dressing big releases in indie clothes. My comment is regarding the “professional” the middle man, the lack of transparency even still is a burden, the fees paid excessive if one analyzes from the point of view of sustainability and healthy business. Service deals are announced like acquisitions. That’s why they say “film business” is an oxymoron but it need not be. And that’s why TFC’s resolve now is to not work with unsustainable filmmakers. We do not want to feed the habit, enable unrealistic expectations. If you spent too much on making your film, if your expectations are unreasonable, if you are not committed to being educated about both film and engaging audiences, and most of all, if you are just a money bag and not a creator but rather buying into the dream that your film (which you did not even create) is going to make you rich or richer, please go home. And now, on a less cranky and more joyous note: What I love about the Sundance distribution initiative:
11. It’s offering filmmakers a truly filmmaker friendly set up by having a good partner and fair contract terms.
12. The terms offered by a truly excellent partner like New Video were already good in general, but are now even slightly advantaged.
13. That the deal is non-exclusive and allows filmmakers proper agency and control.
14. That I partly inspired it starting in 2009 and that the folks at Sundance listened, discussed, and worked it out slowly but surely and that there is more to come.
15. The Sundance brand connected with its alumni of filmmaker’s brands and on key platforms that function as the key portals to film lovers (and yet not at the exclusion of other viable modes of DIY and traditional distribution) is the model I have always championed even before TFC launched, because it makes sense. It’s good for filmmakers; it’s good for audiences and back to # 1 and #2, initiatives like this are the way to help clear a path through the content of clutter to the curious eyes of cinema loving consumers.
Orly Ravid July 27th, 2011
Tags: Amy Heller, Arianna Bocco, Bingham Ray, Bob Berney, Dana Harris, distribution panel, film distribution, indiewire, Ira Deutchman, Jeanne Berney, Mark Urman, niche audience, Richard Abramowitz, Sundance, theatrical distribution