A first-time filmmaker's candid account of what really happens after you finally make the movie.
By Matthew Perkins, writer-director of THE LITTLE TIN MAN.
In my last post, I discussed what it’s like to finally push your baby bird out of the nest. Sure, making a film is hard, but sometimes getting people to actually watch it is even harder. As I said before, I hope you can glean something from my first time experience with The Little Tin Man.
Is Theatrical Still Relevant?
I agree that VOD is definitely where things are headed, but the industry is still in limbo. The guard hasn’t fully changed yet. A theatrical release is still required for most major publications to review a film. And reviews are vital to having a shot at a word-of-mouth campaign.
I’d witnessed firsthand The Little Tin Man perform extremely well for all of our festival audiences, so I had confidence that it would continue to do so. We wanted as many people to hear about it and see it as possible! My team was determined (and I was hell-bent!) to self-release in a New York theater. I got tons of negative pushback on this. “Don’t do it! Indie theatrical releases are dead. Don’t waste your money on a 4-wall. You WILL lose it.”
Granted, we didn’t have a lot of money to lose. However, I rationalized that treating your theatrical release as a “sunk cost” (part of your marketing budget) made it much easier to swallow, plus helped manage our expectations.
I also kept reading critical demands for The New York Times to change its policy of reviewing every movie that opens in the five boroughs. Some people feel that it over-saturates the market. “The flood seems to originate…from films whose only claim to theatrical release is an $11,000 check.” (A sum I wish we had to spend!)
I understand the point, but buying out the house doesn’t guarantee that the reviews will be positive. It’s still a gamble. What about true indies who genuinely need help getting exposure? Or filmmakers who are trying to leave a digital paper trail to build confidence in potential investors for their next project?
With our VOD release date already set, we needed a fast turnaround to secure a day-and-date. If we would have had more time and money, we could have hired a booker to talk to the theaters on our behalf. But, yet again, we were stuck on the DIY path. So...I went and knocked on the door of every movie theater in Manhattan myself.
“Sorry, we play Woody Allen here. Come back when you have something more sophisticated.”
That’s what one arthouse theater manager said after I had the audacity to ask him to screen my film. But, you have to refuse to take NO for an answer. I went back and asked him 5 more times. That’s not a joke. There’s a very fine line between tenacity and stupidity. He finally told me to go somewhere else.
By some divine providence, I decided to look in Brooklyn and came across the Williamsburg Cinemas, a privately owned theater run by the Elgart Brothers (Andrew & Noah). I told them my budget and we negotiated an affordable price for the four-wall run (p.s. Secret’s out! This is the best deal in NYC!). Shortly after, we hired John Murphy as our publicist. He started pitching, and then we started praying (again).
Reviews usually post online before they go to print, and I’ll never forget clicking on the link for The Little Tin Man's review in our paper of record: The New York Times. Spoiler alert: we got a really great review from The New York Times!
I sprinted to the newsstand the next day and bought as many copies as I could. More good reviews continued to roll in. My gratitude continues to overflow to this day.
Aside from releasing theatrically and hiring a publicist to help secure reviews, we had ZERO dollars in our marketing budget. Was that a dead end? Absolutely not!
You have to look around and assess what resources are at your disposal. In this case, our lead actor, Aaron Beelner, was flying up to New York for the film’s opening weekend in theaters. Williamsburg Cinemas allowed us to do Q&As after the Friday and Saturday night screenings (which we were also able to publicize).
I had saved Aaron’s Tin Man costume from the shoot in hopes of using it again one day to promote the film (good call). Any time people see him dressed in it, they can’t help but smile. Now the question was: how could we get lots of people to see him?
NYC is home to some of America’s most watched nationally televised morning shows. Hordes of tourists travel thousands of miles to gather around the glass walls of the network studios, holding up homemade signs in hopes of getting on camera.
So we decided to wake up early and join them.
Armed with a step ladder and a sign that read “Follow The Little Tin Man,” Aaron and I crashed The Today Show and Good Morning America on consecutive mornings. The producers approached us and were definitely skeptical of our agenda, but the cameramen couldn’t ignore Aaron. He got on air for a few moments and our mission was accomplished. Even with no way to measure its impact or how many people we reached, we still felt good about knowing that we tried.
With Aaron in town, I knew it would be a wasted opportunity to not create some secondary web content. We brainstormed different approaches we could take to get some more attention. After rattling off a few gimmicky ideas, we landed on something a little more heartfelt. The Little Tin Man is a comedy first and foremost, but it also has a heart and a social justice component. The story stands up for minorities who don’t have a voice, particularly those in the Little People Community.
Coincidentally, we were releasing the film in October, which also happens to be Dwarfism Awareness Month. We decided to make a video with Aaron talking to random people on the street about that very subject.
I remember the weather was rainy that day and I almost said, “Let's skip it.” But my gut told me to push through. I shot (and later edited) it, my buddy Denzil ran sound, my wife wrangled passersby for interviews, and Aaron cornered them with a microphone. A few hours later, our little four-person crew had made it happen. We made a press release and started pitching it out. Within 24 hours, the video got picked up by The Huffington Post and caught fire!
Two weeks later, it had over 45K views on YouTube. From there, I got a call from a producer at MSNBC who wanted Aaron to come in for an interview. Shortly after, he flew back to New York and was a guest on The Melissa Harris-Perry Show.
Moral of the story: never let a lack of money block your creativity. There is always a cheaper (and probably better) way.
Missed Opportunity Alert
When you’re juggling so many things at once, you’re bound to drop the ball occasionally. You just have to brush the dirt off, learn from your mistakes, and do it differently the next time. AND share the knowledge with your peers so they can avoid similar missteps.
For starters, I didn’t know about the “Made in NY” Marketing Credit until a colleague informed me. If at least 75% of your film was produced in NYC, you can take advantage of FREE co-branded advertising opportunities in the #1 media market in the country. With a below-the-line budget of less than $5M, you qualify for:
• Up to 20 bus shelters or 250 bus cards, determined by availability (4 week run);
• Up to 250 subway cards (4 week run);
• :30 PSA on NYC Channel in 13K+ cabs;
The “Made in NY” Marketing Credit is available on a FIRST COME, FIRST SERVE basis (and usually requires a few months of lead time). Check out their website for more details.
Matthew Perkins is a NYC-based filmmaker who gladly offers advice and encouragement on long-gestating dream projects and hope-filled Kickstarter campaigns. Say hi or follow him on Twitter here —> @_MatthewPerkins