Over the past several years, I’ve gotten a number of questions from other independent filmmakers about distribution. Specifically, they wanted to know what I did to get Under the Boardwalk: The MONOPOLY Story onto iTunes and Netflix. I believe in passing on what I’ve learned and that the independent film community can only continue to grow if we share our knowledge and experiences. But please keep in mind that my experiences were likely different from a film that is seeking distribution for the first time today.
Production on Under the Boardwalk took place between 2008 and 2010 in bits and spurts, with the majority of it centered around the US & World MONOPOLY Championships in 2009. Editing 300 hours of footage down to a 1.5 hour film took Craig Bentley (my partner producer and editor) and me about 8 months and multiple focus group screenings to get it to a cut we were satisfied with and proud of. We premiered at the Anaheim International Film Festival in October 2010, followed a week later by the Austin Film Festival. The film went on to play at another half-dozen or so festivals over the course of the next year, some because I had submitted the festival, others because we had been invited as a result of playing in Austin.
But we did not attract interest from any of the major or mini-major distributors in regards to theatrical or DVD rights to the film. So we set out to do our own mini-release. We started off by four-walling the film for a week one screen at a regional theater chain in San Diego, CA in March 2011. We hired a publicist and got some good press coverage, including a review of the film in the main San Diego paper as well as a front-page article about the making of the film. For that week in San Diego, we recouped the cost of four-walling as well as the cost of our publicist and the newspaper ads that we took out. I believe we were in the Top 15 for Per Screen Average nationwide for our opening weekend, which isn’t that great, but respectable.
Based on our performance in San Diego (our hometown where we knew we’d likely get our strongest turnout), we committed to four-walling a week at the Quad Cinema in Greenwich Village using their four-wall package. It was an expensive commitment, and required us to also take out an extremely expensive ad in the New York Times (one of our costliest single expenses on the whole production), and unfortunately, we did not get close to making our money back from our New York run. As an added challenge, the weekend in May 2011 that we opened was one of the first beautiful weekends of the year for NYC, so I believe a higher-than-usual number of people enjoyed being outdoors instead of coming into the theaters. We did not hire an additional publicist beyond the one provided by the Quad, and we tried to promote our screenings with an entertainment blog and review site, but our run was vastly out-grossed by another film that was four-walling at the Quad that same week and had a much more targeted niche of elderly people.
The major benefit that came out of screening in New York for a week was the then-obligatory review from the New York Times about our film. That review, while not the most favorable of all of our reviews, gave us some legitimacy in the eyes of DVD and digital distributors, and that led to conversations with New Video and Cinedigm regarding the distribution rights of the film, amongst others. We also got to be part of Emerging Pictures‘ library, which offers one-off screenings of films to non-traditional venues like museums and some art-houses. That ended up being around 20 screenings all over the country, although most were along the Eastern seaboard. What boggled my mind was how many of those venues who were not interested in me providing marketing materials and offering to Skype with the audience for a post-screening Q&A. We also got a week run at a Harkins theater in Phoenix, and some additional one-day, one-weekend, or one-week engagements at a handful of other regional theaters. FYI, most of our one-off screenings never got reported to Rentrax, so our cumulative box-office total listed is probably at least 30% lower than it was in actuality.
After a lot of conversations and negotiation, we ended up deciding to go with New Video (later acquired by and solely known as Cinedigm) for our digital & DVD distribution. Preparing all of the deliverables for this contract took us a couple of months, and due to the advance-marketing time required to get added to their release calendar, it would end up being 11 months after our theatrical premiere in San Diego that the film would finally come out on DVD — Valentine’s Day 2012. We were considered a small title by New Video, with I believe only a 2,500 initial disc run. They also believed that releasing on both DVD & Blu-ray would have a negative effect on sales, but were ok with us producing our own Blu-rays (which we did for a very limited release to satisfy those who had shared their interest with us). It’s also worth noting that New Video was ok with us having previously been selling DVDs at festival screenings, as we didn’t include any bonus features on those pre-theatrical copies. We also made sure to retain sell-through rights so that we could continue to sell copies on our own website, and to be able to purchase DVD copies from them at a discount for us to resell through our site; even better is that the copies we bought from them were also royalty-bearing.
We were on sale at Barnes & Noble, Walmart, Best Buy, etc, but almost exclusively through their online stores. We attempted to work with Hasbro to create some sort of board game and DVD bundle multiple times over the years, but ultimately could not get them to commit. I’m sure the fact that Hasbro’s minimum run quantities had something to do with that decision.
At the same time we launched on DVD, we also launched digitally on Amazon & iTunes, and several other electronic stores such as Google Play Store, Xbox, PlayStation, and Vudu. Netflix apparently initially passed on the title (both DVD and streaming), but after we performed well on iTunes (we were in the Top 10 of all documentaries for the first couple of weeks after its release) and we had encouraged a lot of people to add Under the Boardwalk to their Netflix DVD queues, Netflix reconsidered and purchased an allotment of DVDs. A month or two after that, they offered us a 1-year streaming contract at a fairly low 5 figure flat fee, and we accepted.
We launched on Netflix streaming on July 2, 2012, and later that week, we hit our peak as the #2-most streamed title for all of Netflix within a 24-hour period, according to Instawatcher (now defunct). That’s across all titles on Netflix’s streaming side! Netflix, unfortunately, doesn’t release any metrics to even the distribution companies or filmmakers of the titles it carries, but we do know that it’s been rated over 75,000 times (when Netflix previously listed the number of a ratings a title had). From asking around with other filmmakers who had done some surveying, it seems as if approximately 40% of Netflix viewers rate the title they just watched.
Later on, we experimented with being listed on Tugg, but didn’t really see anything come of it (getting groups to go see a non-cult, non-new release film in theaters when they can watch it on Netflix is extremely challenging). We also worked with a foreign sales company to try and produce some sales of the film (mostly TV and digital efforts) abroad, but only had a couple small bites. For our foreign sales company, we had to spend ~$7k to complete a new audio mix and new mastering for a 1-hr cut of the film for television broadcast purposes.
Finally, in 2013, after not having success finding a domestic TV outlet who wanted to pay a decent licensing fee to broadcast it, we ended up having a screening of the 1-hour cut film of the film on our local PBS affiliate as part of their pledge drive. That airing then made us eligible to submit for the Pacific Southwest Regional Emmys, and the TV cut of the film went on to win Emmys in four categories in June 2014.
Overall, our film has yet to fully recoup the budget that I raised from our ~27 investors and ~15 crew who deferred a portion or all of their fees in order to help stretch our budget. I wholeheartedly urge anyone who is considering a self-organized theatrical release to make sure you have a substantial marketing budget set aside to help support it, even if you’re solely using Tugg for your screenings. Having a distributor for your film will help to get you a nice featured placement in some of the online retailers (mostly iTunes), but the job of actually marketing and promoting the fact that your title is there falls on you, the filmmaker. This is even more so the case if you’re using a service like Distribber, which functions as an aggregator/curator to get you past gatekeepers who you can not even approach as an indie filmmaker. If you’re making a documentary, do what you can to fully engross yourself into the audience of the film as they will likely better embrace the film if they don’t view you as an outsider trying to exploit their community or make a money grab.
If reading this post has invoked any questions or comments, feel free to leave them here on this post, or contact me on Twitter at @Tostie. Thanks for reading.