With self-distribution becoming more widespread, Film Ireland talks to three Irish filmmakers who made the decision to release their own film.
Competition for screens is at an all-time high with more films than ever before being released every week. Economic conditions put pressure on cinemas and films must perform on their first weekend if they hope to stick around. For distributors it makes it harder for them to take a punt on films that might not make an immediate impact. For filmmakers it makes it harder to find a distributor that will take on their film and at the right price. It makes sense then that more filmmakers are looking at the possibility of self-distribution with the advent of the Irish Film Board’s Direct Distribution scheme making it a more attractive proposition.Not every film can be released in this way and, if anything, it seems that documentary might be most suited to self-distribution. Documentary films can gather an audience from the outset of production, making partnerships with interested groups that can help when the time comes to release the film.
The Pipe and Pyjama Girls are two Irish documentaries that have done well having been self-released. So why did they choose to do it?
‘We looked at going with different distributors here but once we saw the terms and conditions we decided that we should do it ourselves as we felt that there was already a community of people interested in the film,’ says Rachel Lysaght, producer of The Pipe. ‘There were a lot of things to take into consideration including ownership of the film and how long the term was going to be. We just felt that rather than giving away all of the rights for a number of years it would be better to retain ownership of the film. We weren’t expecting it to be a huge box-office smash but we felt that a film that addresses these issues and is a David and Goliath story wouldn’t necessarily have a short lifespan and it could be a grower, so we didn’t want to tie up all of the rights with anyone.’
‘I always had that interest in distribution, stemming from a mobile short film channel that I ran for years on Vodafone called Wildlight,’ says Nicky Gogan of Still Films. ‘We went down traditional routes with Pyjama Girls and showed it to the distribution companies that are in Ireland. They liked it but they felt they would have to put too much into it to get a return because of the model they use. That was fine but I really knew there was an audience for the film, so the IFI agreed to put it on for a week and it sold out the whole week. They moved it from Cinema 3 to the much larger Cinema 1 early on in the week and it was a great success. That prompted us to act on the idea of doing something wider with it, so we spoke to access>CINEMA and the Irish Film Board and put together a list of contacts. We weren’t so concerned about rights but it certainly helped us to hold onto more of the profits from the cinema because there were fewer people involved. We try not to give anything away exclusively now. With a previous film we did an exclusive deal with a company for three years and they made a great sale near the beginning but they really have only made one sale, so that was disappointing.’
For The Pipe, the timing of the release in December 2010 proved to be tricky. One of the biggest snowfalls in history covered the country and cinemas all over Ireland shut their doors.
‘The cinemas at that time were taking in a week what they would usually do on a Saturday night. The weather was horrific. That really damaged us but relatively in terms of how all of the other films were doing we did quite well and we were featuring on the box-office charts. Harry Potter was out at the same time though and that’s something we learned along the way. We couldn’t afford a film print so we went with a DCP (digital cinema print) and DCPs can only show on digital screens and they were in some cases being taken up with 3D movies, so if it was a toss-up between playing Harry Potter or a small documentary about a Mayo community, guess which film gets the screen! We did loads of Q&As and we went everywhere. A lot of the people from Westport also came to screenings and I think the audience really appreciate that and if they know a director is coming it’s more of an event and it’s more likely that you’ll get an audience. If those people engage in it then they become your advertisers because it really gets out through word of mouth.’
For the team at Still Films, the networks built up from years of running the Darklight Film Festival was a huge advantage in marketing the film. ‘We went about things in a way that we have been doing for gigs and the Darklight Film Festival in the past, like posting A3 Posters around the place and getting on blogs and also just using the goodwill of our media contacts to help us get the word out,’ says Nicky Gogan. ‘We had essentially three goes at it with the festival release, the IFI release and then the wider release. We used the usuals like Facebook and Twitter and we approached friends who might have big mailing lists. It was a case of managing all of the networks that we’ve built up over the years with the Darklight festival. The cinemas themselves also do their own marketing, which helps as well.’
‘We were working with access>CINEMA so we did a lot of community screenings,’ says Rachel Lysaght. ‘The Pipe had 6000 friends on Facebook and we tapped into specific groups that already existed that we thought would be interested in the story we were telling – human rights, Irish interest, environmental groups, anti-corporate groups. This was our target audience and if it moved beyond that all the better. We did a lot of community screenings. We also set up an area on our website where people could request a screening in their town and people would email us and if there were enough calls for a screening in a certain area we would contact them and find a venue and in some cases we might project it on a wall. Then I negotiated with the cinema owners as to what percentage we would get at the box office and we did the same thing with access>CINEMA. In the case of access>CINEMA, we pretty much screened off DVD and we agreed a minimum or a percentage there. When it came to individual or community screenings we would mostly do a deal with the venue. You might have a screening in a university where there could be eight people there or there could be eighty-eight people there and you’re not going to know until the night of the screening. So we would agree a minimum amount or whatever percentage of the box office. It might be, purely for example, a minimum 100-euro for the screening and 50% of the box office over that. At least then you know you are getting a minimum for the screening and there’s also an incentive there for the person organising the screening to gather an audience and we would also help by providing posters and online marketing and we would do local press.’
Having a group of people already interested in the topic of your film or a film around which you can build an event is key to finding your audience. ‘Each film is different,’ says Gogan, and therefore the approach will differ each time.
‘I think there are certain films that suit self-distribution. I think with Pyjama Girls it suited a slightly more traditional route and we did screen it in quite big cinema chains. With Nightdancers, an upcoming film about dancers in Uganda going to London to take part in a big show, there could be a live dance element to it and we could tour the film with their live dance show. That could generate a bit of buzz for the film by playing to the audience for the film. That could be the core audience and then moving out from that there might be the documentary audience and the arthouse audience. We’ve talked about doing something like that in the UK and then maybe something similar here in Ireland. It would be an event-based release and we would be thinking of alternative venues as well as cinemas for the film. And the director, Emile Dineen, is really up for it too and since we started talking about making the film we’ve been talking about how fun it’s going to be to get it out into the world. We’ve also been thinking about the possibility of doing a day-in-date release because there might be a limited amount of events based around urban centres, so it would be great to have the film available to the audience through VOD. So it’s a matter of tying in the complementary options that are open to you rather than being completely independent.’
When distributors didn’t go for his film The Pier, Gerard Hurley released his feature-length drama himself in thirteen cinemas in Ireland. ‘I know exactly what my film is. Distributors want big boobs and explosions, they want slick production values and big names. I really had none of the above. I felt a release in Ireland was a possibility and because I’d done it with my previous film in the States on six screens, I felt some confidence that I could release it myself in Ireland. I just got out there and hit the pavement. One of the things I did was make up 400 small film posters and put up those posters myself personally. I drove around from town to town and I met people and I would get into conversations a lot with people and I’d tell them about the film. In the independent world I found that very effective because overall for me the film was very well received.’
Hurley’s plan was to get the film into as many cinemas as possible and he persuaded 13 cinemas to take the film on. ‘My plan was to release it in as many cinemas as possible around Ireland and try to get any media I could to support what I was trying to do. If you stagger the release too much, the national media you do can be lost. You might release the film in Dublin but people will have forgotten about it by the time you get to Cork. It’s really tough trying to get the film into cinemas. It’s a business for them and they want to know what the bottom line is. Some are more sympathetic than others but it’s all about rejection and you get kicked in the balls over and over again but you can’t take it personally.’
Making a connection with your audience on a limited budget is not easy and Hurley found it particularly so because his audience wasn’t the typical cinema-going target market.
‘I wasn’t making the film for the male 15–25 age bracket, the ‘golden horde’. My audience was a lot older. It’s hard to get to them but when you do, they talk to people and help to get the word out. The Irish Film Board were very helpful in supporting the film but you have to have a big budget to go out there and get people’s attention. You need an advertising budget or you need to come up with a creative online campaign. But even getting that right can be as rare as hen’s teeth. Every filmmaker bitches about not having enough money. Even filmmakers with a $10-million budget say, ‘we had very little money’ but I know that if I had another 25k I really could have kicked some ass in Ireland because strategically I worked out that I could have done a certain kind of radio campaign and I think radio is one of the most effective tools for hitting people in rural Ireland.’
All of the filmmakers agree that self-releasing your film is not to be taken lightly. ‘There is a huge learning curve. You can’t say strongly enough that this is a job usually done by someone on a full time basis, so nobody can wander into that territory and expect it to be easy. But I also think that if you really believe in your film, nobody will push it as much as you will. You might not have all the knowledge or connections when you start out but you’ll learn that along the way and hopefully people will see that passion in you and respond.’
This article originally appeared in Film Ireland Magazine, Issue 143 in 2012.