By Scott Glosserman
Editor’s note: Two weeks ago, we published our first in a series of pieces on crowd-sourcing platforms that are helping filmmakers get their work into theaters without a traditional wide release. Today, Scott Glosserman shares some background on his motivation for developing the new platform Gathr. By clearly laying out the benefits for all parties -- filmmakers/content owners, theaters, and audiences -- Glosserman makes the case that services like his can successfully broaden the reach of independent film.
Gathr is a new web-based service that enables people to request their own theatrical screenings of a movie that otherwise would not be available to play at a theater near them. We are also a film distribution company that facilitates the local marketing of these screenings, the booking of the theaters, and the technical delivery.
We’re the would-be love child result of a super-sweet night on the town between Kickstarter and Netflix.
Here are some box office statistics:
♦ 610 films were released in theaters in 2011.
♦ 469 of them received some form of a limited theatrical run, while 141 of them received a wide studio release.
♦ Of the 469 films with limited theatrical engagements, only 37 were released by a studio’s “specialty” division (e.g. Fox Searchlight, Sony Pictures Classics), and only a few of those played widely throughout the country.
♦ Additionally, 66 of the 469 films were released by just two art-house distributors, Magnolia and IFC.
♦ Of those 66 films, only 3 films played in more than 100 theaters. The vast majority played between 1 and 10 theaters.
That’s a real shame, because word of mouth, online media, social networking, and traditional marketing ensure that millions of people nationwide -- to whom a particular film is relevant -- will have heard about a film’s theatrical release. However, a high percentage of those people will not be able to attend a limited release in a theater near them. In smaller communities (i.e., urban/town centers of less than 100,000 residents), the audience for a film may total only several hundred people, making ‘traditional’ theatrical release untenable.
The numbers above, taken from the MPAA’s 2011 theatrical box office report, are a clear indication that traditional theatrical distribution only works for the limited number of ‘tent pole’ films that warrant wide studio releases. Otherwise, the system is broken. It is archaic, inefficient, top down, and completely misaligned with the interests of the vast majority of filmmakers and their investors.
Why do distributors limit releases to specific markets?
Reason #1: Cost of Local Marketing
In order to book engagements at most theaters, a distributor must commit to spending on local advertising.
Reason #2: Delivery Costs
Distributors must front delivery costs as well. Because of these print and advertising costs, a distributor with a film that may only appeal to a limited audience is unlikely to book a film in more than a handful of markets.
Reason #3: Exhibitors’ Risk Aversion
Many exhibitors cannot or will not assume the cost and risk of programming niche content.
So smaller distributors use a limited theatrical run as a Trojan horse to enhance -- through mainstream reviews and award nominations -- ancillary revenue (e.g. VOD, DVD) potential.
Credit: Gathr Films
A Case Study
As a first-time filmmaker, when my horror/mockumentary Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon obtained a theatrical release through Starz Media/Anchor Bay (Starz), I was initially delighted. As my film was booked into theaters, however, the significant misalignment between my interests (the content owner) and Starz’ (the distributor) became apparent. My hope and expectation was for Starz to release my film in the manner most likely to cause it to reach its largest audience. But, the distributors’ central goal was to obtain a handful of positive mainstream reviews in critical markets so it could paste prestige endorsements on the DVD cover.
This plan worked for Starz. A revolving 12-market, 80-screen, 2-week run garnered positive reviews from mainstream critics across the country. However, this plan did not work for my interests and those of my investors because it was market-driven, not audience-driven. For example, the theater in New York City was actually nestled in a Hasidic neighborhood in Brooklyn -- not my film’s target demo.
It also left my investors and me, the filmmaker, with little chance of recouping the film’s negative cost because of the high price the distributor paid to play that game (~$1million) and its contractual right to amortize its investment through DVD sales before making distributions to us (the content owner). My investors have spent the last 5 years slowly recouping their money on the film through a 25% royalty on the DVD revenue and other more tenuous ancillary revenue streams.
After a time-consuming and expensive effort to self-distribute my documentary Truth in Numbers: Everything, According to Wikipedia, I decided the theatrical distribution model needed to fundamentally change in order for filmmakers like me to have a viable shot at a successful career.
Credit: Gathr Films
Paramount’s success with a contrived ‘demand-style’ campaign for Paranormal Activity was an early indication that online crowds would galvanize around seeing movies together in theaters. Having learned so much about crowdsourcing knowledge from Truth in Numbers, and having observed fledging crowd-funded micro-financing sites like Kiva and Kickstarter make tremendous strides, I felt there wasn’t any reason why we couldn’t crowd-source theatrical audiences online, too.
After all, there are 343 cities in the U.S. with 100,000+ people, and there are more than 3,300 towns in the U.S. with 25,000+ people. What if a cause-driven documentary filmmaker who doesn’t have a prayer for a theatrical release could actually galvanize the special interest groups and organizations around just 1 screening of, say, 70 people in the majority of towns of 25,000+ people in the country? At a $9 average ticket price… you do the math.
Despite the myriad entertainment choices and alternative ways to view content today, there are significant numbers of underserved theatrical audiences out there. The explosion of new film festivals in the U.S. over the last decade is a strong indicator that people want to see a wide variety of films in a theater with a crowd. This year’s Cleveland International Film Festival, for instance, drew over 85,000 people. CIFF is not a film market; it is simply a cultural gathering. So is Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival in Traverse City, Michigan (population: under 15,000!), which drew 125,000 people last year!
A film’s potential audience is dispersed throughout the country, so a traditional limited theatrical run inevitably leaves much of that audience on the table. Gathr has created a bottom-up theatrical distribution model that can facilitate theatrical distribution, everywhere, including the smallest markets imaginable. I call this TOD℠ (aka Theatrical On Demand℠) distribution, which is the core service Gathr provides. A generic way to describe it is “critical mass ticketing.”
The content owner gets his or her film seen in more theaters/venues, by more people. Gathr creates a ‘found money’ revenue stream for a traditional distributor by sub-distributing its movies to markets it has no intention of reaching or cannot possibly reach. We also service DIY filmmakers by working in tandem by providing outreach to their audiences and creating the opportunity to screen their film in theaters.
Theaters get more diverse programming, higher occupancy, and potentially, new customers. They can also bring in audiences on off-peak days and times. Most appealing, perhaps, is the ability for smaller markets to screen the latest independent films “Theatrical Day-and-Date” with the major markets. (While “day-and-date” usually refers to concurrent theatrical and DVD/VOD releases, the term does not speak to the new potential. We suggest a new term to reflect concurrent top-down and bottom-up theatrical distribution: Theatrical Day-and-Date.)
All willing theatres, no matter how small their market, are now de facto participants in TOD℠ distribution when these services are used by content owners. Instead of receiving a film in its 4th month, beyond the time the film was in the zeitgeist during its PR heyday, theaters from Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine can take advantage of the film’s initial publicity by Gathr’ing a screening of that film during its opening week!
Audiences. Movies are meant to be seen in a theater, with a crowd, but thousands of film communities in the U.S. do not have the opportunity to view limited release films in their local theaters. These movie-goers should be able to assemble in order to watch and to listen, where they want, when they want. Gathr can make that happen.
The Audience Has Spoken: Gathr.
The Future of Film blog is a place where leading filmmakers and experts within the film industry share their thoughts on film, technology and the future of media.