As you know, I’ve just been touring the USA with my feature film ‘Young Hearts Run Free’. The film had done a self-distribution tour of UK cinemas back in 2011 which went pretty well so I thought I would do the same in the USA. Only this time I mixed it in with enjoying a bit of a holiday, and anyone who has done self-distribution will know that the two don’t mix! To be successful you’ve got to throw everything at it. Here’s is an honest look at what I did, how it went, how I could do better and what benefits I got.
Self-distribution internationally has many of the same principles as doing it domestically- only everything gets magnified a lot! I was able to use my experience from the UK distribution but an annoying thing was that, because I was treating it as a personal travelling experience and holiday in some respects, I chose to ignore many of the lessons I had learned.
Firstly, I did it alone. I was catching up with friends in several of the cities I went to but if you really want to do well at self-distribution you need a team. That means people pushing the publicity and also possibly others on the ground with you. If you have a short period where you are going to get press then perhaps you could have the Director hitting some cities whilst the Producer or actors travel to others at the same time (although I actually Directed and Produced this film). You could also use two or more people to stagger (and therefore extend) the period you are on tour for because with a grassroots approach like this you will meet people face to face and build momentum through word of mouth; audiences will have friends in other cities. Two or more members might also make it easier to do repeat screenings and appearances at cities once the momentum has been built.
Travel and accommodation
The USA is massive! I traveled several thousand miles (13 states, some two or three times each) using planes, trains and automobiles (and Megabus). This is obviously a huge chunk of your budget and a lot of the time, money from screenings might barely cover your travel to the venue. It takes a lot of organising, trying to arrange dates to make the journeys line up in a sensible way and even some of the closest venues were hundreds of miles away from each other- like going from Newcastle to London every day. If you have to rearrange dates, as I did, then that imposes extra travel and cost. As for accommodation, well you can solve that issue. I stayed in cheap hostels for some nights, sometimes slept in the car or on overnight buses (slept rough on New York streets one night, not recommended) but most of the time I stayed with friends and was even invited to stay at a cinema manager’s house. If you’ve built a connection with fans early enough then you’ll get offers of a place to stay.
I had been using Theatrical-on-Demand platform Tugg to arrange screenings (at large multi-plex chains) but due to the very high minimum numbers of reservations required, none of these events went ahead (I’ll be blogging more about this later). So the screenings I had, just a few in the end, were ones I arranged privately. I had spent a lot of time Googling and researching venues, taking some recommendations from friends over there, and then arranged some screenings. I’m used to a wide variety of venues so I enjoyed screening in small socialist community spaces (which suits my zero-budget Miners’ strike film) and in some other smaller venues. Remember, you’re probably starting from grassroots and actually filling a small space could be better than failing at a large one so be realistic.
Don’t four-wall hire venues, especially in a city you don’t know. The rates can be cheap with a potential for profits but you need to know the geography, the transport issues, what else is going on in the city (especially if there are other big film events at the same time). Just because there are a lot of potential fans in that city doesn’t mean they will turn up, no matter how much publicity you’ve had. The only exception is, if you’ve begun talking to fans early enough in the process and you have numbers of people getting in touch personally to ask you to come to their city (which can be done), in which case you’ll be a lot more certain and can take advantage of the hire rates. This is a rule I have for myself but I broke it once on this US tour and it cost me money.
Overall the film part of the tour was very small and was not quite as successful as I’d hoped; just a tiny handful of screenings in the end, due to many factors including annoying technical issues. So what did I get out of it? Moneywise, the box office covered a night’s accommodation and some drinks, a bit of the travel, so I had pocket money to play with! I gained some publicity with some reviews and interviews (there is a great interview about my self-distribution on Tom Wilton's CinemaZero blog here). The film is also being looked at for online platforms so the publicity will have helped those deals. I’ve had requests for more screenings in the future (with Skype Q&As). I got to stay my sitcom writer mate David Budin in LA and visit his work in Paramount Studios, making some contacts including the lovely Marta Kaufman, creator of ‘Friends’. I also made a lot of professional and personal connections with people and organisations who now want to support my future work. It’s fulfilling long-term strategies to help me build a career as a filmmaker. I can now do crowd-sourcing internationally and can guarantee several screenings of my next film if I self-distribute again.
So would I do it again? Yeah, I’d build it in as part of the strategy at least (without the holiday part). Thanks for reading the blog, hope it’s been illuminating. For more advice on self-distribution read my free ebook here.
PS- Now for the fun bits.
I had a great time! I saw loads of great cities. I got to have a go on Elvis Presley’s microphone in Memphis, listened to jazz and partied all night in New Orleans, saw where Hitchcock shot ‘Vertigo’ in San Francisco, went on dates with pretty girls (ice cream in Central Park). I also continued my weird holiday habit of visiting assassination spots (I’d previously been to Sarajevo where Franz Ferdinand was killed) and went to the places where John F. Kennedy and (my heroes) Martin Luther King and John Lennon were shot. I caught up with great friends and made lots of new ones.