White Rabbit & Disruptive Digital Distribution

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Thu, 01/29/2015 - 11:32 -- Bill Kinder

White Rabbit has been a sell out in many theatres.Having recently completed my first micro-budget indie feature, White Rabbit, I follow the latest methods for a suitable theatrical release. In this light, attending the American Film Market revealed to me that theatrical distribution is seeing upheaval triggered by the industry’s now-complete conversion to digital cinema. It also showed me that this is a good time to be a beginner, because it feels like everyone is. And now, a roadmap for disruptive digital distribution has emerged called Tugg.

As Pixar’s voice in the Digital Cinema Initiatives group that gave birth to digital cinema standards almost a decade ago, I could see unintended business consequences rippling through the industry. Back when those standards were just forming, I represented the studio from a filmmaker’s point of view: the question, "What is best solution for the highest quality presentation of these films?" was always my compass. But I also knew that one of the disruptive aspects of digital cinema technology would be, eventually, a drastically lower barrier to entry in the distribution game.

And now, as a tiny indie producer sailing these stormy waters trying to land my little project, I see ripe opportunity. It’s easy to find a flood of information about indie film production on the web – in the guise of camera reviews, or writing habits or directing tips. But since there seems to be very little written on the state of DIY micro-indie theatrical distribution, I summarize here my experiences so they might help others in the same boat.

White Rabbit was a small miracle of talents coming together to tell a topical crime thriller from an unusual perspective. All that passion in this passion project sprang from the creative team’s dedication to making a cinematic statement against the odds. We dreamt of a cultural conversation sparked by our smart genre piece about post-war challenges, the way the post-Vietnam 1970s was confronted by films like Coming Home, Taxi Driver, and Who’ll Stop the Rain. Today's industry status quo seemed to dictate, “You will go straight to streaming video, and you will like it.” With a micro-budget production and a very talented, but not yet celebrity-famous cast, going theatrical is crazy-talk dreaming. Or is it? After all, we cleared the first hurdle: we have a smart, spirited movie lauded with “must-see” reviews on an award-winning festival tour. What we needed was a distribution partner and we found one in Tugg.

Actors James Anthony Cotton, left, and Eric Michael Kochmer Tugg is billed as a “web platform that enables individuals to choose the films that play in their local theaters.” Which is true – anyone can organize a Tugg event from their catalog, and they have some wonderful repertory titles up there (Midnight Cowboy, anyone?) An event organizer, or promoter, proposes a title, date, and location. The theater names their ticket price, and the minimum number of sold reservations it requires for the event to be booked. Tugg sets up a page for ticket ordering, and the promoter unleashes whatever social media marketing effort they can. Making the threshold triggers charges to credit cards, emailed tickets, and a DCP shipped to theater. Miss a threshold, and all reservations go un-charged, an “event cancelled” email goes out; there is no penalty for the “failed” promoter. The whole cycle takes five-seven weeks.

What if you could put your own film up there, be your own promoter or even better, recruit a small team of regional promoters? Tugg certainly thought all this through before it dawned on me. And they have a host of resources for DIY filmmakers at www.tugg.com/howtuggworks

Our production worked under “Ultra Low Budget” terms, which is the Screen Actor’s Guild’s generous contract for films produced below $200,000.  Actually, way, way under those terms – hence my use of the term micro-budget. Here “suitable theatrical release” means a release whose cost is appropriate to production costs. Like most passion projects, nearly all the budget went where it belonged – what we see and hear on screen. Hence by “appropriate to production costs” here, I mean virtually free.

The cast and crew of White RabbitWe all know the cost of prints & advertising often matches, or exceeds, even blockbuster production budgets. That’s a rule of thumb. But rules of thumbs are falling away, broken by digital cinema technology paired with a web-based transactional and logistical platform: Tugg. Moving a hard drive with a properly made, globally standardized Digital Cinema Package (thanks, DCI!) to a central distribution location to be cloned and delivered by an efficient central operation with a network of theaters – that is hugely enabling for a little guy. This was not a service that could have existed in the celluloid days. Expensive 35mm prints aside, shipping costs and time lags would have defeated this small, agile operation.

Having spent a grand total of $42 out of pocket for shipping, White Rabbit is beginning a cross-country theatrical tour (https://www.tugg.com/titles/white-rabbit). The first screening, last week, sold out, and two coming up will be at least full houses, of the kind you’d love to see opening weekend for a big holiday release. Except this is a tiny indie on a weeknight, one screen at a time. The profit sharing terms are spelled out on Tugg's site, so I won’t detail them here. But in practice, the return for the promoter on the tickets sold above the theater’s threshold is what really counts, so you aim to blow through the threshold and sell out. If you sell out a small room in a multiplex, you can propose bumping up to a bigger room. You see why the theaters go for this arrangement; they are utilizing that screen much better for that one night.

Today’s trade press headlines decry last week’s art house box office: “None managed to amass a per screen average of $7K – when $15K is the usual minimum at these theaters” (IndieWire). I have made my distribution spend (those forty two bucks) back by more than 1000 percent. In effect, my first two screenings netted close to $2,000 on tickets and contributions. The majority of that money is going to benefit a non-profit organization that assists veterans coming home, Swords to Plowshares. I’m starting to understand what people mean by a Triple Bottom Line.

Andrew Vernon mixes White Rabbit.Partnering with a non-profit is part of the no-cost marketing plan. Without big stars or a cast of thousands, what White Rabbit does have is a topical theme. And what better way to honor that than using the film to raise money for a worthy cause. A big portion of the proceeds is coming from the ability on Tugg’s site for people to make a contribution to their efforts.

Swords to Plowshares has been delighted to co-promote the film not only to bring money into their program; it also builds awareness of their central issue. The success we’ve had together proves to me that this model has potential. My wildest fantasy was that other regional veterans’ organizations would get on board to spread the release beyond the markets I know, and raise money for themselves. Having already received inquiries from Phoenix, Houston, and Seattle I’m learning to look past first reactions that involve crazy, fantasy, or any rules of thumb.

I can see (after the first event) that the theaters don’t have the bandwidth to co-promote for these one-offs. It’s impressive enough that they can fluidly load the DCP to the right screen for a one-time screening. Maybe some locations can be pressed to assist, but the default appears to be no marquee presence. Bring your own one-sheets. It kind of feels like you’re sneaking into the multiplex. 

I can also see why theaters might not want this Tugg thing to be too successful, lest they bite the big distributor hand that feeds them. The agility enabled by digital cinema bumped some studio title with a real marketing budget the night White Rabbit screened. On the other hand, maybe exhibitors should start thinking of this as a weapon in their battle against closing release windows.

Alfonzo the Chameleon in White Rabbit.Exhibitors working with Tugg include Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, AMC Theatres, Carmike Cinemas, Cinemark Theatres, Regal Cinemas, the Studio Movie Grill, and others. Could you imagine one of them publicizing a weekly “art house” night? Maybe a smart theater chain will partner with a network of Tugg filmmakers for a rotation of strong festival titles through its network. This seems at least as plausible as theaters getting into the business of streaming, which some industry pundits recommend.

While essays are being written about the declining relevance of independent cinema in the national conversation, here’s a case where I know a small film is having an impact, and Tugg’s smart leverage of digital cinema is a huge part of it. The film’s cast and crew are naturally energized by this theatrical run, and we’re in no hurry to see it end. It is not like some expensive TV spot or billboard buy is going away. Each screening will be promoted to that local market’s niche for this unique film. In that way not only does White Rabbit share some stylistic and content cues with the 1970s predecessors I mentioned – it also shares a distribution phenomenon from the Easy Riders, Raging Bulls era: the long tail. In that model a film moved around the country from market to market on very few screens for many months. That was before box office numbers became part of a film’s marketing. Is it a coincidence that I come to find out Terrence Malick is on Tugg’s board of advisors?

At one recent screening, a viewer asked if I had planned to go out against American Sniper, that other film currently playing which deals with an Iraq vet? No, but as a filmmaker I couldn’t be happier about getting into the culture’s cinema conversation, a hundred people at a time.

Before diving into the dark waters of digital cinema distribution, Bill Kinder built the Editorial and Post Production department at Pixar. He is a contributing author to the book Understanding Digital Cinema, and is currently writing a book with co-author Bobbie O’Steen about the role of the film editor in animation. He is also developing additional indie film projects. See White Rabbit at a theater near you: https://www.tugg.com/titles/white-rabbit