A Successful Non-Traditional Theatrical Model

"Who Does She Think She Is?" House Party Kit
“Who Does She Think She Is?” House Party Kit

Last Spring I was approached by the filmmakers of a documentary film called “Who Does She Think She Is” about using Emerging Pictures to distribute and exhibit their film. The film is a moving exploration of the difficulties women have in being taken seriously as artists. It had already had some modest theatrical exposure, and the filmmakers had been besieged by individuals and organizations who wanted to organize events and buy copies of the DVD. They had read all the various manifestos about DIY distribution, and armed with that information, were keen on trying to break the mold in the service of getting the film out to as many people as possible.

I liked the film and the niche audience it was playing to, but I’m always dubious about filmmakers’ abilities to deliver an audience. My experience is that no matter how many organizations come forward to help, and how big their mailing lists are, they are very good at delivering an audience for one night…and that’s it. When I expressed this, I was pleased to find out that expectations were not out of line, and that they were game for whatever made sense. After many brainstorming sessions, assessing all the opportunities, we had a plan.

The filmmakers created two editions of the film for sale on DVD, which we immediately put up for pre-sale on the Emerging web store. One edition was an “educational edition,” a simple DVD of the film with the only extra being a PDF of a study guide that was put on the disk alongside the film. These were priced at $149-$249, depending on the type of institution. The other edition was a rather fancy “house party edition,” which included party invitations, cards with suggested discussion topics and more.  These were priced at $64.95.

We announced a nationwide event for Sunday, November 8th, when a number of Emerging Cinemas locations would show the film simultaneously (2:30 ET); folks who had bought the house party kits were encouraged to have their parties and screen the film at the same time. The plan was to have a Q&A with the filmmakers and the artists who are the subjects of the film, live from Symphony Space in New York, and pump it out over the Internet to to our theaters and to all the house parties. Questions could be asked via Twitter, and the live Twitter feed would be shown on the screen alongside the live broadcast, so everyone could follow along.  Once this was announced, the house party kits went on sale.

Right from the get go, sales of both products were strong; not through the roof, but new orders were coming in every day. We were actively marketing the educational edition since we already had product in our hands, but we kept a low key on the house party kit since there were production delays and we didn’t want to have too many pre-orders in case it was late in arriving.  But another part of the strategy was making it hard to keep a lid on it:  We had contracted with the Lifetime network to stream the entire film on its web site, a month ahead of our event. Part of the deal was that Lifetime had to promote the sale of the house party kits and the national screening. The word was spreading quickly and the orders were increasing by the day.

A page was set up on www.bravenewtheaters.com to promote the national screening event. Sales increased but there was still no product, and it was getting close to d-day. I was also nervous about making the technology work for the live broadcast. We were working with a low (very low) budget and were planning to make due with everyday web tools. After some research, we settled on www.ustream.tv as our streaming mechanism. It seemed pretty easy to use, and most importantly, didn’t have any limitations on the number of simultaneous streams. The rest of what we needed was a decent laptop and a video camera to plug in.

A week before the event, we still had no house party kits and the supplier’s reps were being very difficult; the company had been bought out, so our contacts there seemed impervious to our deadlines. We decided to send out DVDs of the movie without the full kit, in order to make sure that everyone had the film in time for the event. It wasn’t going to cost that much more to keep everyone happy, and the full kits would follow shortly.

Later that week, we went to Symphony Space to do a tech rehearsal. The challenges were making sure we could get an Ethernet wire all the way from the booth to the front of the auditorium, where the camera would be, and making sure we could take the sound feed from the microphones on the stage and feed it into the computer without any kind of feedback or hum. The rehearsal was not encouraging. Nothing we brought with us seemed to be compatible, so we left without a real test.

On the day of the event, we got there early. But Symphony Space has a regular church service every Sunday morning, and it seemed that on this Sunday, it didn’t want to end. When we finally got in, we had one hour before the house would be open to the public.  We got the Ethernet hooked up rather quickly once it was pointed out that there was already a port on the stage that just needed connecting on the other end. The sound was a problem. We tried several methods of connecting to the computer, but all of them were giving us weak sound and a very pronounced hum. We made several trips to the Radio Shack down the block, but nothing was helping. The house was already open and the crowd filing in when the Symphony Space sound technician had an idea and brought out a piece of hardware to sit between the computer and sound system. I was hesitant to try anything new at this late stage, for fear that it would muck up what we had already set up. But we did, and it worked. The sound was crystal clear.

The movie started. There were around 300 people at Symphony Space and who-knows-how-many people watching around the country, at Emerging Cinemas locations and at house parties wherever.

At the end of the film, it took us about 5 minutes to get everything up and running. And miraculously it all worked. The questions began to come in on Twitter. The Q&A was warm and moving and extremely cathartic for those who participated. I got a text message from my wife, who was watching it on her computer at home. It was working, and it was exciting. Questions were coming in from our theaters and we were able to name them by name, making them feel like they were a part of the action.

The next day, the house party kits were selling like hotcakes, and fortunately the product had finally arrived. The national event had clearly worked, and to this day the orders keep coming in.

For filmmakers everywhere, there’s a lot of good news here, and a few cautions.

  • Creating and manufacturing product is a time-consuming process. Make sure to give yourself plenty of time to have product in your hands when you need it.
  • Always do a tech check and make sure you have thought of everything. Even when using everyday web tools, a live event leaves no room for error.
  • The good news: if you create an event strategy, you can get people off their butts and into theaters…and one night in a theater can be enough to create the buzz necessary to create value for your film.

I would like to see more of these events in our theaters and eventually be able to pull them together into regular series. The more we make movie theaters a place for audience interaction and participation, the less we will struggle with competition from home viewing. Enough said.

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