The Rise Of Theatrical-On-Demand: What's Working

By Scott Glosserman

A year ago I was having breakfast with Ted Hope, but I didn't know it.

Attending Sundance's Art House Convergence Conference in Midway, Utah, (a coming together think tank of progressive art houses and independent theatres), I found myself sitting at a communal breakfast table, conversing with Ben Galewsky, a co-op expert who was applying his preferred model to a small theatre in Champaign, Illinois.

The collective mood at the conference was cautious and guarded. Theatre owners commiserated over Fox Searchlight's recent letter vowing to end shipments of 35mm prints, essentially requiring indie houses to retrofit for digital projection or to get used to solely showing repertory titles. Yet, sales reps for VPF's (Virtual Print Fees) weren't revealing their deal structures. Indie exhibs were looking for answers, but little at the time were understood, much less given.

Ben surmised that capital could be raised for retrofitting theatres by converting to a co-op model and thereby turning to the community for assistance where participating banks were not to be found. Since over $100 million in independent film financing has already been crowdfunded through Kickstarter I am hopeful that Ben's endeavor to crowdfund for indie exhibitors has also met with success and I am eager to find out during this year's Art House Convergence that begins today.

Over our breakfast buffets, I explained to Ben the meaning behind a term we’d recently trademarked, Theatrical On Demand style distribution. I was hopeful that my start-up, Gathr, could apply crowdfunding concepts to the crowd-sourcing of critical masses of theatrical audiences, through our online platform. Simply, a movie-goer would request a screening of a film and tell us when/where it should be shown, and if enough people were to reserve tickets to the screening by pre-authorizing their credit cards, we’d 'greenlight' the screening and collect the money for distribution/exhibition up front so that we’d at least be at breakeven the moment we had actually booked the engagement.

Here we were, two folks new to the theatrical distribution/exhibition business, both armed with ideas -- albeit his a very old concept and mine a very new one -- for preserving a segment of the industry seemingly headed towards a cliff. As green as I was at the time, I was confident that assuming we could aggregate and consolidate the theatrical audience demand before a distributor and exhibitor committed to an engagement, we would create no-risk, found-money for everyone in the theatrical distribution food chain.

That was when I noticed a guy in a ragged sweater and glasses raise an eyebrow from the other side of the table.

"You need a mid-step," he said. "You'll want to build interest first -- see where your demand is." A moment later he introduced himself as Ted Hope. And, that's when I realized that the guy I'd heard about and read about for over a decade during my time as a filmmaker -- the guy who in half an hour was going to deliver the closing address at the Conference -- the guy to whom somehow I wanted to introduce myself and with whom I wanted to discuss my concept, was sitting across from me and listening to my 'pitch'.

From our beta launch in March, through our stumbles and successes, Ted has been a  mentor of ours. When he asked me, recently, for an update on screenings and such I was more than obliged. Ted, although we're still perfecting the mid-step, here are a few anecdotes and takeaways from two of our projects, and a look at our most promising title, GIRL RISING, scheduled for release in March:

 

SHUFFLE

Written, directed, produced, edited and scored by Kurt Kuenne

 

This black and white, untraditional narrative jewel box of a festival film darling garnered fans and awards wherever it screened. Yet, the movie didn’t have a prayer at a traditional theatrical release. Although ancillary rights were picked up, Kurt would have had to have risked his own capital on self-distribution if he wanted to share his film with others on the big screen for commercial exploitation.  His film is a microcosm of the countless quality niche films out there that aren’t broad enough for even a limited theatrical release.

 

With no marketing and advertising spend, but rather the passion and persistence of a filmmaker, Kurt was able to ‘tip’ 15 screenings of SHUFFLE around the country. In places such as Cleveland and St. Louis, we enlisted the support of film festivals (CIFF and SLIFF) where SHUFFLE had screened to promote an ‘encore’ presentation to their subscribers, thus addressing the age-old festival post-screening audience question, “How can I share this film with my friends? Where can I see it again?” Answer: Don’t wait for it to come to you. Gathr it!

 

In far-flung Port Angeles, Washington, the film’s costume designer brought together close to 200 people to watch the film and stay for a post-screening discussion. Kurt’s efforts were greeted by grateful cinephiles appreciative of his past work and receptive to supporting his current endeavors. Kurt can tap and manage an ever-growing fan-base of his while we take away the barriers of entry for self-distribution. We were also happy to provide Kurt with a foreign sales agent so he can get his film seen by even more people.

 

BIG EASY EXPRESS

Directed by Emmett Malloy

 

This SXSW audience award-winning, GRAMMY nominated music documentary featuring Mumford & Sons, Old Crow Medicine Show, and Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeroes had slightly higher expectations than SHUFFLE because of the significant online reach of the film’s cast. The movie deserves its place in the canon of all time great music documentaries, so it was a ‘sell’ that the Mumfords and other participants could feel really good about getting behind.

 

BIG EASY EXPRESS debuted on iTunes and other ancillary platforms before Gathr joined the picture, which presented challenges for us. The most obvious was that the exclusivity angle of its theatrical window was eliminated. Who knows how many folks chose to stay home to watch the film; but more importantly, having the film release online or on VOD before (or concurrently with) a theatrical release alienated several theatrical circuits that stand in solidarity against this type of ‘day-and-date’ distribution strategy and simply refuse to exhibit the picture. This, in turn, prevented us from being able to service the theatrical demand for the film when a screening was requested in an area where only the reluctant theatres had a presence.

 

Nevertheless, we have had over a hundred screenings of BIG EASY EXPRESS. Also, because we book traditional theatrical engagements in addition to our TOD℠ method, we have been able to accommodate the desires of theatres that want to book a run for the film, or that simply want to guarantee the one-off screening. (There have been several instances on films for which we augment the distribution of a traditional distributor where the theatre has refused the distributor a week-long booking, but engaged us for a one night screening in order to mitigate their risk and in order to consolidate the audience).

 

Had the content owner engaged a traditional distribution company, alone, for BIG EASY EXPRESS, the film would have likely seen a 10 market, 2 week release, with a handful of additional theatres requesting the film for screenings. Because of the way our model works, we have been actively screening the film since September, and show no signs of stopping. We recently sold out a January 15th screening at Josh Levin’s wonderful West End Cinema in Washington, DC, in fact. The content owner hasn’t had to spend a dime on marketing and publicity, but they have been able to leverage the impressive reach of their casts’ fan bases.

 

GIRL RISING

Directed by Richard E. Robbins

 

GIRL RISING is as ambitious as a kwasi-documentary gets. The film, shot in 10 locations around the world, has attracted the voices of Meryl Streep, Priyanka Chopra, Anne Hathaway, Kerry Washington, Alicia Keys and Selena Gomez, to name a few. Its objective is to effect change for the more than 66 million girls around the world who don’t have access to school. We are Gathr’ing screenings for International Women’s Day, March 8th, and beyond.

 

With this film, we are fortunate to not only have a significant amount of social media muster, but a great deal of traditional marketing muscle, as well. Corporate partners, Intel and Google, and several prominent NGO’s are committed to creating consumer awareness. Additionally, we will have an exclusive theatrical window of over 90 days before the film debuts on CNN, worldwide. These circumstances enable us to exhibit in virtually any theatre, anywhere. We could not ask for a better opportunity to prove large scale demand in our business model; for the filmmakers and producers have chosen to democratize theatrical distribution by exclusively employing our bottom-up model. Their goal is a minimum of 1000 screenings and we are pursuing it with great alacrity.

 

Outlook:

 

Ted, recently the Met Cinema rose from the ashes with a community-driven ‘crowd-sourced’ subscription model to save Oakhurst, California’s only cinema. Many theatres continue to struggle and many deserving films continue to be overlooked, and a few of us continue to pursue innovative ways to keep the theatrical experience robust with myriad film choices. Movies are meant to be seen in theatres, with crowds. Crowdsourcing via online platforms gives exhibitors, distributors, content owners and movie-goers a wonderful opportunity to access theatrical audiences in an innovative, cost-effective way.  The Art House Convergence Conference, commencing today, brings together the most proactive of these leaders and I know you share my enthusiasm for seeing what ideas are working and what new ones are yet to come.

Scott Glosserman founded Gathr in August of 2011 after producing and directing his latest feature, THE TRUTH BELOW, for MTV Films. Scott is a member of the Screen Actors Guild, The Writers Guild of America and the Directors Guild of America.