Funding/Self-Distribution Case Study: The Way We Get By
June 23, 2010
I was totally mesmerized by Aron Gaudet’s and Gita Pullapilly’s The Way We Get By when I first saw the film at last year’s International Film Festival Boston. I was intrigued (but not totally surprised) when I heard they had developed a DIY distribution strategy that allowed them to turn a profit on the film less than a year into its release. The dynamic duo led a panel at the Silverdocs filmmakers’ conference to share their secrets for success with the masses.
Here are some highlights from their presentation and Q and A:
In order to understand how Gaudet and Pullapilly are successfully leveraging their audience, you first have to understand the premise of their film. The story follows three senior citizens who gather daily at a small airport in Bangor, Maine, to greet American soldiers departing to and returning from Iraq. But the real story of the film is not so much about war, as it as about aging, loneliness, mortality and the universal human need to find meaning in how we choose to spend our days.
The filmmakers opened the presentation by screening the two-minute trailer. And they emphasized that since each film – and each core audience – is unique, their presentation was not a “how-to” as much as an “opening eyes to the possibilities of tapping into the niche audience that your film has.”
Gaudet and Pullapilly did not set out to self-distribute – they tried going the traditional route of finding a distributor to represent the film. But despite critical acclaim and nearly a dozen awards, including Best Documentary at the 2009 SXSW film festival, the filmmakers got turned down flat by every distribution house they approached. And almost everyone gave them the same line: “your film is not marketable.”
With few traditional avenues available, the filmmakers decided to chart their own course, which they explain was anchored in one key mantra: Develop Your Mode, or more specifically, figure out a core strategy for funding, marketing and distribution.
When it came to funding, Gaudet and Pullapilly made a decision early on that they would not go into debt making their film (although they do admit they exhausted their savings.)
“We paid for production ourselves by making the film because we never stopped working full time over 3 years we were in production,” Pullapilly explains. The fact that Gaudet had both the skills and equipment to shoot and edit the film himself also helped mitigate production costs. But even with some savings and the capability to handle large chunks of production and post in-house, they still needed funding. As first time filmmakers, they had difficulty securing funds through more traditional funding sources. “We applied for grants,” said Pullapilly, “but we didn’t know what we were doing, so we didn’t get funded.” They had to get creative.
Their first break came from Bangor Savings Bank. Since The Way We Get By is shot almost exclusively in Bangor – which is also’ Gaudet’s hometown – it seemed like it could be a natural fit. The filmmakers had approached the bank early on for production funds but were turned down and told to bring the film back when it was finished. “We thought it was a just a ‘no’,” says Pullapilly, “but we took it back and they loved it. They loved the story and not a lot of films come out of Maine, so it had this unique, hometown angle.” The bank came on board, paid for five film prints and sponsored screenings across Maine. In exchange, a bank representative was allowed a few moments to speak before each screening and have their logo on screen.
With the daunting – and prohibitive – cost of the film prints taken care of, Gaudet and Pullapilly could focus on negotiating with theaters directly for screen time and box office take. The bank did heavy PR to promote the film in the community creating a buzz around the film before it premiered, which in turn created huge audiences. The result: Maine audiences rallied around movie, and in April 2009, just as the film was starting its festival run with a premiere at SXSW, it was playing on screens in 20 theaters across Maine. “It was great,” says Gaudet, “we’d get the reports and it would be us and Harry Potter up against each other in a theater and we’d have double the box office, or they’d run Stars Wars Monday through Thursday and The Way We Get By on Friday through Sunday because it was so well received.” Added Pullapilly “it allowed us to have both national exposure and honor our hometown audience, which was really important to us.”
Bangor Savings Bank also agreed to buy a huge stock of DVDs in advance and then donated a large chunk of those DVDs back to the film. “That allowed us to produce DVDs without going out of pocket for production costs,” Pullapilly explains, “and gave us stock of DVDs to sell almost immediately.” Between box office from the Maine screenings and initial DVD sales, the filmmakers were making money on their film right out of the gate.
The duo got creative again when it came to developing a marketing and distribution strategy. ”Our intern was going to Harvard Business School and he was trying to help us with the research on marketing and distribution, but it was too big a job for one person,” Pullapilly explains, “so he introduced us to his professor at Harvard and we met. They agreed to take on our film as a class project.” The class researched fulfillment houses for DVDs, examined price points and looked at best, worst and middle of the road scenarios for income, creating a marketing and distribution plan worthy of Harvard Business School, for free.
Another key to their success: Gaudet and Pullapilly applied and were accepted to the filmmaker in residence program led by WGBH (Boston’s PBS station.) The program allowed them to refine and get feedback on their rough cut. It also introduced them to ITVS LINCS. The program works like this: ITVS makes co-production investment in a film in the form of matching funds of up to $100,000 to producers that partner with a PBS station to develop and air their film. Pullapilly noted that while LINCS’ funding is somewhat easier to get than direct ITVS funding, it’s still very competitive, since a filmmaker has to convince both ITVS and the sponsoring PBS station that a project is worth supporting.
The filmmakers had considered HBO and other cable outlets, but ultimately decided that, based on their target demographics, PBS was the best fit for the film. “Seniors and military families are watching PBS,” Pullapilly explains, “and many of them can’t really afford cable.”
In addition to their television broadcast, home video festival run and theatrical screenings, Gaudet and Pullapilly worked through Amazon.com, Netflix, iTunes and Shop PBS, and did a series of community screenings, all of which helped them further understand their audience and refine their strategy. “We would play five minutes away from a military base, which we figured would mean a great turnout, but then it would only be so-so,” Gaudet explains, “then we realized that moms with kids and husbands who are likely deployed can’t get out to the movies. But they responded really well to Netflix. That was an example of a way in which we misjudged how our audience would consume the media.”
And while getting to keep 100% of their profits is a huge bonus, it’s not the only benefit to DIY distribution. According to Pullapilly “it gives you so much more control and transparency. We can track every detail and know exactly where we are financially at any given point. Plus even a distributor loves your film, might not know how to market it.”
Would they self-distribute again? “Going through this process, figuring out how to distribute on our own, has been invaluable not just for this film but our long-term career growth,” says Pullapilly. “We’re not just marketing a film, we’re building a company and this film is the first in what we hope will be a large catalogue.” Adds Gaudet, “We’ve had Academy Award-winning filmmakers, who don’t have experience outside the traditional distributor model, call us and ask for advice – and that’s pretty cool.”
-Get creative. What corporations or other groups have a stake or interest in your film that might want to support your efforts. Before you approach them, understand why you think it’s in their best interest to support you and know what you want to ask for, whether is actual funding, in-kind donations or marketing support.
- Sometimes a “no” is just a “no for now.” Don’t rule out potential supporters who might have turned you down early on. Stay in contact with them, keep them updated on your progress and when the time seems right, ask again.
-Strategic partners are invaluable. Gaudet and Pullapilly worked closely with the USO who not only helped drive audiences to their screenings and website, but got the film profiled on CNN and organized a screening of The Way We Get By for Vice President Joe Biden and lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
-Know your audience, and understand how they might – and might not – consume your film.
-Your website is the public face of your movie. Invest the necessary time and resources to develop a website that reflects the creativity and quality of your film. Says Pullapilly: “Based on the quality of our website, I was able to convince film festivals, even those who said they didn’t give fee waivers, to give us a waiver, which saved us thousands of dollars in entry fees.”
-When negotiating with places like Netflix, do your own market research beforehand and come to the conversation educated about going rates. And get as much money as you can up front. “Most of these outlets will offer to buy smaller lots to ‘test the market’ and then say they’ll come back and buy from you later, but that rarely happens,” Pullapilly explains, “you don’t know what will happen a few months down the line, they might lose interest or there could suddenly be three more films on your topic. Sell as many units you can for as much you can up front.”
-Think beyond DVD and ticket sales. Your film – and you – become a brand with all sorts of ancillary opportunities for generating revenue. Consider developing a tool kit you can sell to libraries, educators and institutions that might screen your film; ask for a speaking fee when you appear with your movie, and think about ideas for an online companion site, that’s different from the film’s site, but has a complimentary mission or focus. Gaudet and Pullapilly are in the process of launching www.returninghomeproject.org, which was fully funded with support from groups like ITVS, The MacArthur Foundation, CPB and IFP/Fledgling Fund.