Adventures in Indie Filmmaking: How HITS Went from Festival to 50 screens, with DIY Distribution
Giles Andrew, founder of HONORA, talks to us about sustainable indie film distribution.
HITS, written and directed by David Cross, premiered at Sundance in 2014. From there, the film’s producers were confronted with a decision: to take a traditional distribution offer, or take on distributing the film themselves. They chose the latter: collaborating with fans to release the film as a pay-what-you-want feature in theaters and online. On February 12, HITS will premiere in 50 cities across the US. We spoke with Giles Andrew of HONORA on the DIY strategy for bringing the film from festival circuit to wide release.
How did HITS come about?
In short, I got the script, read it twice in one sitting, and asked to meet David. He explained that he wanted to make a dark, grounded comedy that, at times, would be poignant. Six weeks later we (my fellow producers Charles Denton and Jess Latham and I ) were shooting in upstate New York.
You could have taken a traditional approach to distributing this film. You didn’t. What was behind this decision? What’s been your approach to marketing and distributing HITS?
We had offers on our opening night at Sundance, generous ones, but typical cookie-cutter indie film distribution offers. You know the sort of thing: a poster, a trailer, ten cities, some New York Times ads and then VOD simultaneously, or shortly thereafter.
The idea that HITS was going to go through the sausage factory for independent film distribution didn’t fit with the type of film David had made. One critic said that HITS captures the cultural zeitgeist. That’s genuinely how we feel about it, so we considered that it might be the ideal project with which to test some of our marketing and distribution theory.
I think each film is it’s own beast. With HITS, we thought we had the perfect film with which to step outside of the system and build our own campaign. Most producers I speak with are excited about finding new ways to make independent film sustainable. It’s such an exciting time. You just need to be open to new ideas. Look at what Netflix and Amazon have done for film and television. They empower filmmakers, support their creative freedom, understand the audience and they’re satisfying investors.
Our ambition was to identify the right audience for HITS and then to work with the best partners to help us reach them. Definitely uncharted territory, but the idea of dis-intermediating the sales agent and the distributor and getting closer to David’s fans was the objective. It just seemed smarter and fairer to the filmmaking team.
As a team of producers from marketing and filmmaking backgrounds, we’re keen to focus on what really matters when it comes to social and digital marketing, avoiding where possible the vanity metrics of a million hits on youtube or 20,000 Facebook likes. We want smart, measurable digital marketing that will actually impact the films success online.
Additionally, HITS critiques fame in 21st Century Youtube America, so we wanted to appropriate some of that digital/social world commentary from the film and use it in the distribution strategy. As a result, we have partnerships with BitTorrent, Reddit, Google, Amazon and Kickstarter, to name but a few.
What were some of the challenges?
We’re working against a thesis that we’ve thought through; one that was, in fact, the basis for the foundation of HONORA — even though we didn’t anticipate HITS being the lab rat. There’s little evidence or history out there. The experience and the experiment is invaluable, but who knows if this will cut through. It’s a risk. And after all, that’s what independent filmmaking is all about. Get behind a project you believe in, take risks and the integrity of your project will shine through.
Why was PWYW important to your approach?
We didn’t have a big marketing budget, so we knew we needed to cut through the noise.The PWYW campaign became a way of drawing attention to the film. Ultimately it’s about getting more people to see the film, without exploiting their loyalty to David’s work. It’s a way of paying back the support the film received from his fans through its Kickstarter campaign.
PWYW also reinforces David’s idea behind HITS, namely: what is talent really worth. People can go to the theater and PWYW. No pressure, people can pay whatever they choose, we’ve paid for the theaters thanks to David’s fans on Kickstarter. It’s for a limited time, though. We’re also doing it as Pay-What-You-Want on BitTorrent and VHX for 2 weeks, and will be in 50 markets theatrically starting February 12th.
We would have offered PWYW on all platforms if we could have, because it would’ve been a great experiment. If we’d managed to do that then perhaps we could have provided data on an audience response across every platform. Which platform’s customer will pay the most? That would have been an important learning. The point is we just want to be smarter as filmmakers, so understanding the audience is integral to our approach.
Why was day-and-date theatrical and digital important to your approach?
Ted Sarandos, while at Sundance, responded to a question about the ideal way to release a movie and he talked about a day when films are released on as many platforms as possible, as early as possible. That’s what we’re doing.
The idea was to make the film available to as many people in as many places as possible. Also, why not let audiences decide when and where they want to watch HITS and how much they want to pay?
I don’t think what we’re doing has ever been done before. We’re that film. Using the fan base to fund a theatrical release on the same day that it’s available online, through a PWYW campaign.
Thousands of films are made each year. But very few of them get seen. Major studio releases take 84% of the box office. How do we ensure that original voices get heard? How would you like to see traditional film distribution change?
It’s on producers to think inventively! Our job is to curate material, get it made, get it seen and get it seen as widely as possible. For independent film to survive, it needs to work for the audience, the filmmakers and the investors.
With HITS, we’re going to be in 50 markets. That’s 40 more than we would have been scheduled for with traditional distribution. And we’ve taken back 30-35% of revenue that would have gone to sales agents and distributors. It’s possible to work outside of traditional distribution plans. As producers, we need to embrace and be prepared to challenge the distribution landscape. It’s critical to understand how technology can level the playing field, allow us to compete, to survive and thrive.
The future of Hollywood movies right now feels small and cautious. This is an opportunity for the independents. Through technology the audience is becoming empowered, and so are the filmmakers. The rules of engagement are changing. In some ways the market is opening up to the risk takers, the visionaries, the very people that founded Hollywood in the first place.
It’s also critical to understand your audience. The more we know about what fans like, where they want to see a film, and how much they’ll pay, the better positioned we are for success. Leaving this knowledge in the hands of intermediaries isn’t always ideal.
Data is how we support independent filmmakers. That’s what Netflix and Amazon are doing. They’re backing filmmakers based on data, and willing to take some chances along the way. We want to do that with indie film.
Building a sustainable future for independent film means bringing filmmakers and audiences closer together. We want to get the films that we believe in made, and we want to get them seen in a way that sees filmmakers, investors and audiences all win. That’s the holy trinity.
People like to say great material finds a way through the system but that’s not true. Very few studios are prepared to take what they see as risks with new ideas and new voices. There’s that great article from Grantland that describes the state of American Cinema: “Imagine American movie culture for the last few years without Her or Foxcatcher or American Hustle or The Master or Zero Dark Thirty and it suddenly looks markedly more frail — and those movies exist only because of the fairy godmothership of independent producer Megan Ellison. The grace of billionaires is not a great business model on which to hang the hopes of an art form.”
What does it take to build a successful release? Any advice for independent filmmakers?
I think I’d start by asking: do you have something to say and what are you going to do to get people to pay attention to it? Cutting through the noise is probably the hardest challenge, unless you have very deep pockets.
The next point is to be clear on who your audience is before you begin filming. It’s often too late to go back and try to retrofit marketing ideas into the film once it’s made.
Keep to a sensible budget and make sure you leave enough money in the pot for marketing. Too many filmmakers throw everything into the film production, and then have nothing left with which to promote it. This leaves you completely open to the industry dictating to you what happens next. Not the best place to be from a negotiating perspective.
Once you know what type of film you have, interrogate it. Look at it from every aspect, try and squeeze out every drop of value from the assets. Then be open to ideas. We’re learning something new everyday. There is no right way or wrong way, as every film is unique. Make sure you have supportive investors and take risks.
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