Aside from setting up your opening launch, setting up additional theatrical screenings may work for some types of films that have a broad appeal, such as a romantic comedy; horror or suspense thriller; or a documentary on a popular topic, such as dogs and cats. It’s best to target your screenings to selected cities that already have a movie-going audience and book smaller theaters suitable for showing an independent film, whether they are stand-along theaters or part of a theater chain. Also, plan on a showing of one or at most two nights, unless you see a sudden surge of interest and can book an additional night.
The big advantage of setting up some theatrical screenings whether you are doing your own distribution or have a distributor who is not interested in the theatrical market is you can gain more recognition for your film, as well as ticket sales. These screenings can help with distribution in other markets, since you or your distributor can say the film was shown in the cities where you released it. Plus if the numbers are good, this can stimulate more sales in other markets. Additionally, if you don’t already have a distributor, a series of successful showings can lead to a distribution deal with one of the bigger players, even a studio release.
Now here are 10 tips for setting up a theatrical screening.
1) Whatever your reason for doing theatrical screenings, recognize that it takes a lot of work as well as money, since you generally have to arrange for and pay for the theater for however many days you want to show your film. Also, you have to promote your film to get members of the public to attend.
2) In general, with a no-name low-budget indie film, theater owners won’t agree to a split the receipts deal with no money upfront, so you have to pay up-front rental costs. The other big cost is for outreach to bring in an audience. This can include paying for ads, making deals with local community and church groups to publicize your event or attend at a group rate, and doing extensive publicity to get stories and calendar listings in the local media. Additionally, add the costs for using the social media to appeal to individuals and groups in the area. Take into consideration the value of your own time in organizing the event. And if the location is distant from where you live, there are travel and hotel expenses. Thus, figure out your budget to see if you can afford to do a theatrical release yourself. Or consider the possibility of arranging for investors or local contributors to help with your costs in return for sharing in the proceeds.
For example, a typical budget might be $5000-$10,000, figuring on $1000–2000 for the theater, if you can’t work out a shared ticket split deal, $1000–3000 for advertising and publicity; $2000 for travel and hotels; and $1000–2000 for flyers, press kits, posters, and other materials. You generally need an upfront budget to cover these expenses, since people will not normally work for a deferred payment when you are seeking distribution, in contrast to producing a film, where many actors and crew members may agree to deferred pay since they are building portfolios for employment on future projects.
3) Once you decide to do a series of theatrical screenings, a next step is deciding where to do your premiere and other showings. While the most prestigious cities for screenings are Los Angeles and New York, they are the most expensive — say $3000–5000 for a theater versus $1000–2000 in a small city. And your indie film could easily get lost in the many other films from other independents and the studios that are being released at the same time.
One major consideration for selecting a city other than L.A. or New York is where you, the director, producers, cast, or crew members who might attend the screening, live. You might be able to get some local publicity, such as a story about “local resident makes good.
Also, you or other team members who live there may know people in the media or in local social, community, and church groups, so the publicity effort can cost less and be more effective.
Alternatively, an ideal location for any of these showings is where most of the film was shot, since that will be a big draw for the media and locals.
4) Another consideration for selecting a theater for a showing is where there is a large market for the film. For example, if the film has a small town feel or features a family in suburbia, the film could be set in Anywhere, US. In those circumstances, it might be ideal to find a medium-sized town near a larger metro area, where you can gain more interest in the premiere or other showings. Then, you can leverage the press coverage in this smaller city into more interest in subsequent showings or in interesting distributors based on the high audience turnout and good press you have gotten.
5) After choosing the location, decide on how many theaters in the area where you want to screen the film. If you can open the film in a few nearby areas — say in 3 to 5 theaters, it can be more cost-effective, since you can generally get a better deal if the theaters are under one ownership, and any press coverage you arrange can bring out audiences in different areas, since people generally go to the theater closest to them. On the other hand, it is less expensive to start with one theater and build from there. Then, too, with more focus on this first theater, you can create more excitement and make this into a red carpet event. Afterwards, if the film does well, you can expand to other theaters in the next week.
6) A good approach is to start with a small number of theatrical screenings to create more interest in a film for the press and prospective distributors and sales agents. When you start theatrical distribution with a small number of theaters or even one and thereafter expand to more theaters, this is called “platforming.” Some independent distributors do this successfully, such as the multi-million box office hit Little Miss Sunshine that started small. Then, with success, be prepared to grow your self-distribution efforts, for as the network of theaters showing your film grows, you generally need to hire other people to help with arranging for theaters, signing contracts, providing deliverables, setting up the advertising and PR to get people into theaters, and helping with collections to see that you get paid. In effect, you are no longer a filmmaker but have become a distributor.
Unless you do want to expand into becoming a distributor, consider DIY theatrical releasing a short term project to help you publicize your film, make sales income, and get an established distributor. If you then want to get serious about doing more distribution, look for mentors, workshops, courses, books, or other programs to help you turn distributing your films into a business.
7) Assuming you have selected the city for your release and the number of theaters to screen your film, the next step is deciding what theater or theaters to select for the screening. Then, you have to book a theater and determine how to promote and advertise your film to bring in the audience.
The person to talk to about screening your film is the theater manager of a small or local theater, or the booker for a large theater or one that is part of a chain. The booker may be local for some theaters, or there may be a booker for the whole chain based in one of the larger cities, such as New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago.
8) Before you call the manager or booker, create a marketing plan to indicate how you plan to promote the film to attract a large audience, which is one of the first things a theater manager or booker will ask you about: “How will you get people to come to see your film?” The manager or booker wants to know, because even at an art theater, a key concern is how well your film is likely to do in making money for the theater. So think through what you can realistically spend yourself or with others’ help for advertising and promotion. In addition, be ready to explain how much money you are prepared to commit to your film, along with what else you might do to make it successful.
Your commitment to marketing and promotion is similar to what you have to do to publicize a film that’s accepted in a film festival, though now you generally have to outline your plans in advance to the manager or booker. These commitments might even be included in the contract. They can also affect the kind of deal you might make, since a successful showing at another theater can help you both with booking a theater and getting a better deal.
9) In selecting a theater for your premiere or other engagements in a city, consider where the theater is located, since this affects your ability to draw theater goers. For example, if your film appeals to a special demographic group, screen at a theater that draws such an audience, such as in the Castro Theater in San Francisco if you have a film about the LGBT community. Or if your film is about an Asian-American, select a theater in an area with a high concentration of Asians. Then, too, a downtown theater with a reputation for showing good indie films, such as a Landmark theater, may be more likely to draw a bigger audience, though it is more expensive to book than a lower priced theater in an outlying neighborhood.
To find theaters to contact about your film in a given city, check the major city papers where the theaters advertise by getting a copy of the paper or visiting the paper’s website online. Additionally, you can search Google for theaters in that area. Just put in the words “movie theater,” and the name of the city, and a number of options will turn up.
Still another consideration is the timing of your screening, since you may be better able to get a booking, when the theater has fewer films and expects less traffic, such as in September, when school is just starting up, and in March or April, a transitional period between the more serious films of January and February and the summer, when the big blockbusters hit the chains.
10) Consider, too, the amount of money you are likely to make, based on the estimated number of people you might get at your showings. For example, say you have three showings a day — one at 6 p.m., another at 8 p.m., a third at 10 p.m. If you average 200 ticket buyers for each showing at $10 a ticket, that’s $2000 a showing, $6000 for a day, $12,000 for two days, less your costs for advertising, promotion, travel, and possibly the theater rental if you pay this. Do a cost analysis to help you prepare to negotiate with the theater manager or booker. Do a best case and worst case scenario, based on the film drawing more or less viewers. This analysis will also help you present your case to get the best possible deal from a distributor.
GINI GRAHAM SCOTT, Ph.D., J.D., is a nationally known writer, consultant, speaker, and seminar leader, specializing in business and work relationships, professional and personal development, social trends, and popular culture. She has published 50 books with major publishers. She has worked with dozens of clients on memoirs, self-help, popular business books, and film scripts. Writing samples are at www.changemakerspublishingandwriting.com.
She is the founder of Changemakers Publishing, featuring books on work, business, psychology, social trends, and self-help. The company has published over 150 print, e-books, and audiobooks. She has licensed several dozen books for foreign sales, including the UK, Russia, Korea, Spain, and Japan.
She has received national media exposure for her books, including appearances on Good Morning America, Oprah, and CNN. She has been the producer and host of a talk show series, Changemakers, featuring interviews on social trends.
Scott is active in a number of community and business groups, including the Lafayette, Pleasant Hill, and Walnut Creek Chambers of Commerce. She is a graduate of the prestigious Leadership Contra Costa program. She does workshops and seminars on the topics of her books.
She is also the writer and executive producer of 10 films in distribution, release, or production. Her most recent films that have been released include Driver, The New Age of Aging, and Infidelity.
She received her Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, and her J.D. from the University of San Francisco Law School. She has received five MAs at Cal State University, East Bay, most recently in Communication.