Guest Post: Audrey Ewell "Until The Light Takes Us case study: DIY and DIWO International Release"

What do you do? You have no money but KNOW your film has an audience. Even sometimes with great content, the world conspires and leaves us all alone, just meat for the vipers. Often, a good movie is not enough to make it in this world. Faced with surrender or the long hard road, it's then that the real filmmakers, the ones passionate about their babies, are willing to sharpen their claws and dig in. Audrey Ewell first guest posted with the now legendary "Younger Audiences & Creators Tell Old Fogies To Shut The F Up!". She has continued to be a generous contributor, sharing her knowledge and experience in both making and distributing her work. Today's guest post is a case study in DIY/DIWO distro. Read on!

Until The Light Takes Us, a documentary about black metal (a violent music scene from Norway) premiered at the ’08 AFI Fest in LA. We spent the next year playing festivals and turning down terrible offers. It was a hard time for film, and a terrible time for docs, as you may recall, but no time would ever be so hard that I’d be willing to take a $10,000 MG on an all-rights deal, with a 25% back-end that we’d probably never see anyway, or a 25K all rights offer from another distributor who wouldn’t guarantee theatrical or even DVD. We didn’t want to just get shunted to the VOD ghetto to sink or swim without any support.

By the summer of 2009, confident that the film had a sizeable and reachable audience, we decided to keep our rights and do it ourselves.

INITIAL BUDGET: zero dollars. This was before people were talking about working distro dollars into your budget. It had never occurred to us that we’d go DIY; ours was an award winning film with a passionate core audience and enough headline grabbing content (murders, suicide, church arson, nationalism, Satanism) that we thought our floor was a little higher. But a mix of bad economic timing and a treatment some buyers thought was too “arty” limited offers. We knew we had to take a DIWO approach – doing it with others. The others we had at that point were our fans. And thankfully, they showed up.

SOCIAL MEDIA AND ORGANIZING: Remember Myspace? When we got back from Norway, where we’d filmed for two years, we actually set aside time every day to send out 300 invites/messages to likely fans. We built up about 18,000 fans there, and then watched as everyone stopped using the site. Then Myspace randomly deleted our page anyway. That sucked, but was a good lesson. We don’t own social media pages – so have a lot of them. But we’d at least gotten the word out to those 18K people. One of those fans offered to make us a facebook page. I said sure, and we now have over 200 of those; more than half are fan-made. I encouraged fans to make pages for their city, as I think it gives them more of a sense of ownership and involvement with the film’s success there, and because they know their community better than I do, and are already part of the audience, so it becomes peer to peer marketing. BTW, you can now do on Twitter what we did on Myspace: just follow people you think will be into your film, or who talk about similar films.

THEATRICAL DIY: We put out the word that we were taking the film on tour. We told fans that we needed 3 things to bring it to their city: 1) a list of the indie/arthouse theatres near them 2) calls/letters/visits to those theaters to request the film 3) commitments to flyer and blog for us.

Our fans happen to rock, so we got the help we needed. I booked the film into 12 cities, either one-offs or weekends – I billed these screenings as sneak-peaks, wary of over-playing markets that we’d want to hit with longer runs. (And I avoided NY and LA.) The screenings were a success. My partner Aaron Aites and I did our first one in Austin during but not part of SXSW. A risky move. Our amazing new friends at the Alamo Drafthouse were kind enough to clear a midnight screening with the festival (fair warning: if you go this route, you risk pissing off the festival unless it’s cleared with them). Since Aaron’s band Iran was playing that year, we piggybacked our travel arrangements, got press lists from friends, and promoted it to film and music fans alike. A perfect fit. The screening sold out. Next stop: Seattle International Film Festival. I mean, we weren’t technically in it… but that didn’t stop us getting some of the indie film write-ups that were in the air. We booked a few late nights at the Northwest Film Forum – sold them out. One kid told us he’d driven 5 hours to see the film, not sure if he’d ever get another chance. We did Q&As, then headed to Portland for more of the same.

We continued with non-piggyback screenings, with lots of sold-out shows. We tried to hit the right balance with press – enough to get the word out, not so much as to have shot our load if we made it back later with a longer run (which was always the end-game). Toward the end of our solo bookings, we decided to just go for it in San Francisco, a market where we knew we had a huge audience – we booked a week with a museum screening series and went after press. We were about to approach distribution services to take over, so we wanted to show we could perform over longer runs. And we did. Variance Films came on about a week later, and the first thing they did was get us moved over to the Roxie, continuing our SF run.

DISTRIBUTION SERVICE, THEATRICAL DIWO: We then raised a P & A budget of 25K off the strength of those solo screenings and having Variance onboard. $25,000 dollars: AKA “nothing,” to distributors. And we started our formal US and Canadian theatrical release.

Variance handled bookings, ads and co-promotions, we managed street teams and did nonstop interviews, and also brought on co-promotions through our music contacts. A very deserved shout-out to Emma Griffiths at EG-PR who took on this indie doc about a foreign music scene and worked it like crazy. We also eventized many of our screenings: we launched in NY with a party at the Knitting Factory where Dave Pajo of Slint/Papa M, Kyp Malone of TV on the Radio, and some of our other indie rock friends played (btw, our film is about metal – this did not impress the core audience terribly much, but we had a secondary audience that we wanted to reach, and we also had a second NY launch party a few days later which was all metal bands). We continued to open runs with giveaways, bands, parties. For our Canadian premiere, the film was projected onto a giant screen made of ice, outside, in the winter (fitting our film’s aesthetic and subject matter). Elsewhere, fans flyered like crazy, set up FB pages for their town, blogged, talked about it on forums. We only ran print ads when theaters demanded it. People came out. Our opening weekend per screen avg in NY was over 7K . Sadly, we only had one screen here, the indie loving Cinema Village.

We grossed about 140K overall, in 35 cities. We paid back the theatrical investors, with a little extra on top. Toward the end of our run, the film went up on the Sundance Channel’s broadcast schedule, and theaters backed off. By then we’d drastically expanded our fan base and found distribution partners for DVD, VOD, Digital, TV, etc with Factory 25, Gravitas, The Sundance Channel, and Dynamo on our own website (since we kept non-exclusive streaming). I like retaining some control over this thing, and I like having partners, so this is the best of both worlds, and it was brought about largely by our theatrical success.

KNOWLEDGE TRAVELS (AND SO DID WE): In fact, it worked so well that I repeated this process in Europe. I set up a three week screening tour (mostly at festivals and arts venues with cinemas) from London to Krakow, met contacts who facilitated us selling the film to a German distributor, and then took everything I’d learned and theatrically distributed the film in the UK in the spring of 2010. That made a profit, and we then self-released a very profitable DVD there. We later sold digital/VOD rights to a UK company.

The rewards of all these DIY and DIWO releases were great: the film has a much higher profile, my partner and I have fantastic contacts and relationships with great companies and venues and people all over the US and Europe, we’ve grown our own audience, (with street team captains who I know by name and keep in touch with because they’ve become a part of my world), and had utterly amazing experiences. The downside is that I stopped being a filmmaker for two years, and became a distributor, promoter, sales agent, community organizer, online work-bot; it was 18 hour days, 7 days a week, and it was completely exhausting. Now at the end of it, I’m glad I did it, but I can’t wait to make a film again!

I hope this is helpful info for some of you who are doing this now or are thinking about it. I’m happy to clarify anything in the comments.

-- Audrey Ewell

Audrey Ewell is a filmmaker living in Brooklyn, NY with her partner Aaron Aites and their three rescue animals. More info on her current film can be found at http://www.blackmetalmovie.com