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With Airline Sales, Watergate Film 18 1/2 Soars Into the Mile-High Club

At a time when big-budget Hollywood films have no guarantees of being seen by audiences at all, it’s gratifying that independent films can still find unique ways to connect with the public, largely by controlling their own destinies.  I’m happy to say that after playing 25 festivals on four continents, touring with a 60-city theatrical release this summer and releasing on VOD in four countries, my Watergate thriller/comedy 18½ will also start “airing” this September on JetBlue Airways, Virgin Atlantic, Air New Zealand, Qatar Airways, Emirates and Singapore Airlines, among others.  For the next several months, there’s a good chance someone in every time zone in the world will be watching our little indie film at 30,000 feet: We’ve made it into the Mile High Club!

Remember when I wrote an article for the Spring 2019 issue of Filmmaker Magazine about how to get an indie film picked up for airline rights?  Turns out, that might have been the golden age of films in flight. Just a year later, when COVID-19 ground the airline industry to a halt, all carriers stopped buying films completely, for at least the first year of the pandemic. By the time the industry returned to regular flight schedules again, international airlines were paying half of what they’d been paying pre-pandemic, and many domestic airlines weren’t acquiring indie films at all.

Thankfully, things seem to be picking up, with global air-travel approaching pre-pandemic numbers. Having taken my own advice from that article, we’d carved out airline rights early for 18½ and struck a deal with airline specialty distributor Gate 23 Entertainment for both international and domestic airline (and cruise ship) rights.  For Gate 23, this multi-airline, low six-figure deal for our film is a windfall, and for our filmmaking team, this will likely represent the single largest source of distribution revenue. Peter L. George, president of Gate 23, noted, “18½ has been a very successful movie for our company, and I’m delighted that many airline passengers will have the pleasure of enjoying this independent gem of a film on board.”

18½ stars Willa Fitzgerald as a White House transcriber who tries to leak the infamous gap in the Watergate tapes to reporter John Magaro and the two run afoul of hippies, swingers and nefarious forces. As we’ve discovered on the festival circuit and distribution, audiences’ knowledge of Watergate and Richard Nixon (voiced in the film by Bruce Campbell) was largely immaterial to their appreciation of the film, for which they found resonance and relevance in their own eras or cultures. At our International Premiere at the São Paulo International Film Festival (Mostra) last fall, audiences saw the excesses of Nixon as similar to their own Bolsonaro. In the UK, where we premiered at the Manchester Film Festival, our London-based sales agent 101 Films released the film on VOD this summer, within a week of Boris Johnson resigning amid a scandal that proved the Nixonian adage that the coverup was worse than the crime. And in the US, we were fortunate to partner with theatrical distributor Adventure Entertainment to release the film on the 50th Anniversary of the Watergate break-in, which happened to coincide with the bombshell testimony of Cassidy Hutchinson and others at the January 6th Committee hearings. Our executive producer, Tel K. Ganesan, founder of Kyyba Films added, “18½ continues to be timely, relevant and entertaining to people throughout the globe who find different ways of relating to it and enjoying it.”

My admonition from the original article still stands: Airline distribution is not going to be the right fit for every film, every time. It’s still essential to do your own research. As with most industries, many of the players have changed since Covid.  So start the conversations early, and plan ahead. Whether you’re approaching in-flight entertainment distributors directly or working with your international or domestic distributor to make sure they’re focussed on these essential ancillaries, airline distribution can be a significant source of both revenue as well as audience engagement for indie filmmakers.

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