Tugg Co-Founder Nicolas Gonda on Curators, Brand Ambassadors and Artist Entrepreneurship

Honor Flight Honor Flight

Celebrating its first anniversary at SXSW 2013 was Tugg, the web-based, theatrical-on-demand platform that allows movie fans to create their own theatrical events while also providing exhibition opportunities for both studio and indie films. The company used SXSW to launch its new website, which offers greater analytics tools for event promoters, and co-founder Nicolas Gonda was on hand to talk up some of Tugg’s recent milestones. Those include the theatrical run of Honor Flight, a doc about World War 2 veterans that, according to Tugg, scored 56% of its total theatrical box-office via the platform. After a limited theatrical run in eight cities, the Honor Flight filmmakers turned to Tugg, where they booked an additional 60 markets. Gonda also pointed to SXSW 2012 films like Iron Sky and Fat Kid Rules the World, which were able to leverage fan bases built through crowdfunding campaigns into “fan-driven theatrical release(s).”

Tugg works simply: fans look through Tugg’s library of over 1,000 titles, select titles for their home towns, and then become what Tugg calls “promoters.” Event pages are created for the screenings, and promoters hustle ticket sales by encouraging friends and social network communities. Once a minimum threshold is reached, events are confirmed, and Tugg takes care of print delivery to the theaters.

Filmmakers can deal directly with Tugg to place their films in Tugg’s library. Tugg can function in various ways, offering films early or later in their theatrical release cycle. It can function as a de facto second-run or repertory booking distributor for conventional distributors, or it can provide a low-cost way of extending an independent film’s run beyond its initial markets, as was the case with Honor Flight.

Gonda cites his own hands-on experience in film production and distribution as one of his company’s strengths. He began his career at Focus Features, working in publicity, marketing and worldwide distribution. He was the Music Supervisor of Terrence Malick’s The New World, the co-producer of Tree of Life, and is a producer of Malick’s latest, To the Wonder.

I sat down with Gonda at SXSW 2013 to discuss the company, its direction for year two, and some new ideas involving curators and promoters.

Filmmaker: So you’re coming up on your one-year anniversary at Tugg. What’s the state of the union?

Gonda: It’s fantastic. Our focus from [last March] to today has been about launching the technology with our partners. We were fortunate when we launched to do so with the majority of America’s exhibitors: a lot of studio partners, independent filmmakers, mini majors. We’re really studied this first year how our users have been approaching the technology on all ends — business to business as well as on the consumer level. And we’ve been intensely focused on the role of the promoter in this whole ecosystem, the individual or group entity that is promoting events in their locality as well as across different localities. And [exploring] how we can best improve the tools to serve their needs, because when they’re operating at their best, everybody wins. Theaters are full, and there are more bookings for the content owners. In our first year, we’ve had over 180 films successfully achieve theatrical release. Events in 48 states and an ever growing body of promoters. So, we reached all of our key milestones for year one and are anxious to spring forward for 2013.

Filmmaker: How did those titles break out between new films using Tugg as a form of initial theatrical distribution and second-run titles from established distributors?

Gonda: It really runs the gamut and that’s what’s interesting to see. The first event we ever did, about a year ago, was for Modern Times, the Charlie Chaplin film. And soon after that we were working with films that were platforming on top DMAs [Designated Market Areas] and using this to reach other [smaller] markets. And since then, of all of our events, definitely the majority are new releases that are using Tugg both as a discovery tool, to engage with audiences. Whether they are going to use Tugg for just those show times, as a discovery tool, or to scale into week-long runs. As well as several [films] that ran through their theatrical [releases] and then realized they didn’t hit a lot of the markets. Even though there is potential through the ancillaries, there is still an appetite to see [these films] theatrically.

Filmmaker: And is there any takeaway for filmmakers about how best to approach their Tugg screenings after this first year?

Gonda: What we found is that, as long as people embrace the opportunity to event-ize their films, whether it’s through offering discussion guides or pre-taped Q&As, and to engage on the local level, people—even though [a film is] available in other outlets—still feel a strong desire to experience it communally in a theater.

Filmmaker: What’s a pre-taped Q&A? Just the filmmaker talking about the film?

Gonda: Yeah, what’s really cool now with this digital technology is that you, as a filmmaker, own that show time. So if you want to offer a platform before that feature presentation to another filmmaker who has a short film, [you can]. Or a bunch of short filmmakers [can] aggregate four or five short films into a feature presentation. The technology really lends itself to being very creative with programming. So that’s something that we’re excited about for 2013. We’re really excited to see how filmmakers can apply creativity to programming as much as to the content.

Filmmaker: We talked in the beginning about the role of the promoter. Who are some of these promoters? What kind of person is a promoter?

Gonda: It really depends on the title. So, one of our great use cases of the last couple of months has been a film called Honor Flight, centered around veterans, particularly an organization that enables veterans to travel to Washington D.C. to experience the monuments that they may have never seen before. The thing with that [audience] is that it’s very easily targeted because there are veteran societies, including honor flights, in pretty much in every city in the country. So right there, those are the promoters that filmmakers have been able to reach out to.

For a film like Somewhere Between, a documentary about American families adopting Chinese children, there are adoption agencies and different interest groups that might never have considered the movie theater to be a destination to convene around these very personal issues. And now, through Tugg, they are doing so and engaging with the filmmakers as well as people in their community on a very deep level.

Filmmaker: So people are creating programming blocks longer than the usual 90 minutes to two hours. Could you have a three-hour block? Half of it being a Q&A?

Gonda: That’s right. We’re seeing people with short films showing a presentation for 20 minutes and then using an hour for discussion. Or having a full feature presentation and then using another hour for discussions. You own this time as a distributor or content owner, and you can decorate it as your leisure. It touches on a movement that we are definitely champions of, which is really artists [becoming] entrepreneurs. More and more filmmakers, regardless of if they’re going with traditional distributors or self-distributing, they have proven themselves to be entrepreneurs.

We all know that the most difficult part of the movie process is making the movie. It’s when you have to overcome the greatest challenges. So we’ve seen now filmmakers who have put in that time crowdfunding, becoming entrepreneurs as they have made their film. That effort, that engagement becomes capital. We seen that the most successful filmmakers on the website are the ones who have engaged on that deep level and then applied that [effort] to distribution, activating relationships with their brand ambassadors. More and more, filmmakers are engaging with their superfans and turning them into affiliates in their distribution process.

Filmmaker: Talk a little about fiction filmmakers. It’s harder for fiction filmmakers because in many cases there aren’t those natural affinity groups who can become marketing partners.

Gonda: It ties in to what we were just talking about. It’s thinking like an entrepreneur: “Who does my film relate to?” Fiction or nonfiction, oftentimes filmmakers are able to identify who their allies are based on the content—if it relates more to an urban community or to an LGBT community, if it’s foreign cinema that relates to different diasporas around the country. Often, there are films where there is an initial base of allies that can be embraced, and those are the messengers on more local levels to be able to expand awareness.

For fiction filmmakers, it obviously depends on what the content is about, but in most cases there are low hanging fruit for every filmmaker that they can engage with initially and from there start to expand. On the other end, on the promoter base, like I said, we’re intensely focused on building a network of promoters with our allies so that, for instance, there’s a gentlemen in Torrance, CA, named Randy Berler, who founded through Tugg the South Bay Film Society. He curates pretty much only fiction films and is selling out auditoriums in less than 24 hours because people are trusting his curation. It’s like a mini-festival.

Filmmaker: How do the economics work when the screening is initiated by a curator?

Gonda: The economics are the same as any Tugg event. We have a templatized revenue model that filmmakers and distributors find very fair and reasonable. He selects film, we work closely with a curator like him, and he lets us know the films he wants to promote. If we don’t have it in our library we very quickly work to. And once he launches an event page he sells out events in one or two days.

Filmmaker: What kind of films is he booking?

Gonda: His first even was Kieslowski’s Red, and last month he did Rust and Bone. Since then he’s done everything from Queen of Versailles to Holy Motors.

Nicolas Gonda

Nicolas Gonda

Filmmaker: How does Tugg work from the filmmaker initiated perspective? I have a film and I want it to be on Tugg and I want people to curate it. I know how it works if I want to book a picture film. Does it work the other way as well?

Gonda: Sure. Whether it’s coming from a distributor or a filmmaker, there’s a very straightforward on-boarding process where we learn all the specifics about the title. Does it exist only in Bluray, does it have a film print, is it on DVD. We learn the meta date of the title. We populate an event page or title page on Tugg so that people can request events. We set rules for titles so, for example, if a film is being [conventionally] distributed in 25 cities, [Tugg] events will never compete with those. If filmmakers want to enable it for use to only certain promoters we’re able to accommodate those needs as well.

After that, it’s working with the filmmaker to engage. To realize the built-in assets, marketing assets, of the film, whether they have used Kickstarter and have a list of email addresses of potential ambassadors, or designing a campaign for finding those individuals. At its core, for filmmakers and distributors Tugg is an engagement tool. When people feel engaged, and the movie theater feels like an event destination rather than just a screening space, that’s when we see the needle move for everybody.

Filmmaker: What have you learned in the first years that’s changing the way you go forward, if anything?

Gonda: I think that for us, it’s always very interesting to see how certain promoters promote most successfully. For some, a few Facebook posts and a few tweets can mobilize and activate their following. For others, it is more labor intensive and requires more granular communication. So it’s a matter of helping to educate our promoters about best practices, what enables them to promote most effectively. And also for them to be able to have the endurance to see it through the first time. Then it’s there and it only becomes easier afterwards.

So, for us, that leads into a bunch of features for promoters that we’re about to launch. [They will be able to see] how many people bought tickets or came to the event page through Facebook, through Twitter, through their email blasts, so that they know better next time how to be more effective.

Filmmaker: I just want to be clear about promoters. So, promoters in some cases are the filmmakers, but then there are promoters who are basically independent curators?

Gonda: Exactly.

Filmmaker: And do you have pages for the independent curators? Like they have their own pages and I as a filmmaker can decide to target them with my films?

Gonda: No. The promoters have a page when they’re promoting an event.

Filmmaker: It’s an interesting idea: to allow freelance curators to create identities for themselves on your site.

Gonda: Yeah, well that is something to stay tuned for. You’re hitting on a great point and that is something we’re excited about and will be introducing soon. People will be able to engage with a curator regardless of what title they are curating; they will be able to follow that person over time.

Filmmaker: That’s a concept you see it a lot in the art world — freelance curators who go from gallery to gallery and are associated with a certain kind of work.

Gonda: You are absolutely right and that is what we are thinking about. We are a network of promoters. and we’ve got services [to help] promoters share what they love. I’ve been a producer for many years and first came from distribution. Tugg began as a solution to problems I was facing, where we were seeing Facebook messages about films we were releasing, people all around the country saying, “Why can’t this film come to my town?” Those are potential promoters, people who want to be ambassadors of a film and just haven’t had an efficient tool to be able to do so.

Tugg offers a weekly conference call for any filmmakers who are involved with using Tugg or interested in using the platform for an upcoming film. The conference call is an opportunity for filmmakers to ask questions and get tips for how to optimize their Tugg campaigns. Filmmakers can inquire about the conference call details here – [email protected]