Sunday, October 26, 2008

Theatrical Self-Release for Low Budget Independent Films

When we first started pre-production on Bumping off Burt, we decided to plan for a theatrical release, even though we knew that the odds against finding a theatrical distributor were heavily stacked against us. It's fairly common knowledge that unless you have at least one well-known star in a leading role you don't stand much of a chance of securing a theatrical release from a traditional distributor.

Well, not being one to rule out anything until I've had the chance to take a shot at it myself, I started doing the research to find out what it would take to self-distribute an independent film theatrically, and found that although it's not an easy undertaking, it may not be as impossible as some would lead you to believe.

For the purpose of this article, I am defining theatrical release as a release to mainstream theater chains using a traditional distribution model, which I will explain in just a bit for those that aren't familiar with it. There are other methods of theatrical distribution such as "four walling" which are best used with small art house theaters and don't really apply if you're looking to get into your local 24 screen multiplex.

The first thing to understand is that the main cost factor in self releasing a film theatrically is advertising. Now, it's probably obvious that you need to advertise a film in order to plant viewers into the seats, but there's actually more to it that that. You see, you're actually competing to be the highest bidder against every other film that is being distributed at the same time.

When you approach a theater to try and book your film, the first question the theater owner or manager will ask is "What is your advertising budget?" Essentially, what the theater wants to know is how many customers they can expect your advertising to drive into their theater if they give you screen space. This is the main reason why you will rarely see a small independent film screening at your local multiplex. When major studios typically spend a minimum of $30 million in P&A (some films have P&A budgets of $150 million or more) there's very little incentive for a theater owner to give up his real estate for a small independent film with little to no advertising budget.

For reference, when you hear of an independent film playing in "select cities", it generally means that the film is opening with a $2 million P&A budget in the five biggest metropolitan areas: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dalllas, and Miami. That's $400,000 per city.

If you happen to be independently wealthy and have an extra half-million sitting in the bank, you could probably book your film into any theater, as long as you were willing to commit more ad dollars than your competitors. This is because, ultimately, theaters are only interested in how many people come through their door. It really doesn't matter much to them which film they've come to see, because...

Theaters make most of their money selling sugar, not tickets.

Let's say a theater agrees to screen your film. You run a local television ad campaign which brings 1000 people to the theater to see your film on opening night. Each person stops at the concessions counter and picks up a drink or small popcorn for $5.00 before heading in to watch your film.

Now lets pretend that your film was so bad that 900 of those people walked out after the first five minutes. Some might leave and go home, some will go to the manager and ask for a refund, but most will just go watch one of the other 23 movies playing in the theater. Regardless, the theater has still sold $5,000 in concessions.

Theaters depend on concession sales to stay in business. In fact, for most films, the theater will not make any money in ticket sales for the first two weeks of the films theatrical run.

All of the major studios usually require that 100% of the box office goes directly to the studio for the first two weeks. In week three, the theater will begin to split the box office proceeds 90/10 in favor of the studio. Each additional week thereafter, the theater will get a slightly bigger piece of the pie. This is why theaters like big blockbuster movies that have long theatrical runs.

You probably won't have any luck convincing a theater that your film will be able to run for six months, but if you can demonstrate that your film will bring customers to the concession counter, you are able to commit a reasonable amount of money to promote the film, and you offer a box office split from first dollar, you may have a very good chance of getting the theater to book your film.

Assuming you get lucky and find a theater that would be willing to give you a screen, the next factor to take into consideration is how you will deliver the film to the theater. There's really only two choices: 35mm film print, or digital cinema package. I'll go over each one and the costs involved in another post.

Happy Filmmaking!

Greg Steiner

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1 comment:

  1. I love Independent films! I used to drive two hours to go to a movie house that showed only independent films.