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Self-Service Distribution: Director Lisa Hurwitz on Distributing Her Documentary, The Automat

Courtesy of Philadelphia Department of RecordsCourtesy of Philadelphia Department of Records

Back in the fall of 2021, still in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, I had come to terms with the apparent fate of my film, The Automat, about the Horn & Hardart automats that operated in the United States from the late nineteenth to late twentieth centuries. The Automat had been accepted to the 2020 edition of the Telluride Film Festival—which was, of course, canceled. But I was alive, and none of my friends and family had perished of COVID. And, while a couple of other festivals I had been invited to chose to not program the film in 2021 after I had declined to participate in their ’20 virtual editions, Telluride accepted The Automat again, giving it its in-person festival premiere. Although I didn’t arrive at or leave the festival with a single acceptable offer, much less one of those seven-figure sales that used to be more common in the nonfiction world—even with the film boasting elements like star Mel Brooks, who wrote and performs an original song, and appearances by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elliott Gould, Colin Powell, Carl Reiner and Howard Schultz—I felt lucky that audiences were able to see The Automat in a theater at Telluride. After the premiere, I was at peace with the life my sales agent and distribution advisor, Gary Rubin, and I planned for the film: We’d skip a theatrical run and focus on festivals and ancillary deals.

Truly, I had nothing to complain about. But then things got interesting.

Turner Classic Movies saw The Automat at Telluride and later made an offer on the film, as did other North American buyers. We sold TV and SVOD to TCM (WarnerMedia), Canadian-only theatrical and TVOD to Films We Like, US TVOD (Apple TV, Amazon Prime Video, etc.) to Brainstorm Media, educational to Kanopy, DVD to Kino Lorber, ships to Swank, airlines to Captive and even brokered a special nontheatrical deal with the AARP. With the film’s crossover appeal to both Jewish and non-Jewish audiences, we brought in tens of thousands of dollars in screening fees from festivals and Jewish organizations. The festivals—Philadelphia, Miami Jewish, Cleveland, Annapolis and many more—were very kind to me and, with the combination of our “festivals plus ancillary sales” distribution model, I was really happy. We were starting to recoup the budget, and the film was getting out there.

Then something happened that we never could have imagined. Film Forum, the New York City arthouse, emailed me out of the blue asking for a screener. Shortly after that, they asked if they could theatrically premiere the film. Obviously, Gary and I said yes. Then, we said to each other, “What the heck, let’s open L.A., too!” We’d have a bi-coastal theatrical release, but we decided not to go any further due to the expense and headache involved in theatrical self-distribution. Gary booked the film with L.A.’s Laemmle Theatres, and soon our modest plan to just do New York and L.A. openings fell by the wayside. Telluride co-director Gary Meyer, who really believed in the film, offered to pitch one-night-only theatrical bookings via the Art House Convergence email listserv, which is read by independent cinema owners all over the country.

Our opening weekend at Film Forum was huge—it remains their largest grossing opening weekend on a single screen since the pandemic. (Since COVID, only Todd Haynes’s The Velvet Underground made more on its opening weekend at Film Forum, playing on two screens simultaneously.) We did $18,000 over the President’s Day long weekend and $25,000 total for the full week. Normally, a sales agent doesn’t report your numbers to the trades; a booker or distributor does, but we didn’t have one of those. We also didn’t have a subscription to Comscore, which is another (very expensive) way to report box-office numbers. Our inexpensive way was Gary Rubin, at the end of every day, calling the Film Forum box office so he could report the numbers the next morning.

Our grosses caught the attention of theaters around the country, and inquiries started to come in. We decided Gary would quickly reshop the film to see whether we could get a major distributor on board. After a week of discussions with four or five companies, again there were no significant takers. Most companies thought our opening weekend was a fluke or that we were already in too far ourselves as distributors for them to quickly come on board. So, with our strong opening numbers and all the interest stirred up on the Art House Convergence listserv, we said, “Fuck it, we’ll distribute it ourselves.”

This was a scary turning point. It was one thing to open in New York and Los Angeles, another to contemplate a nationwide release. But Gary stuck with me, advising me on the theatrical release and, amazingly, we didn’t have to four-wall even one city. The bookers wanted it.

Our rollout was slow, which made it manageable. We hired a theatrical booker, Steve Fagan, and I got an intern, who took over updating the screenings page on our website, creating our Facebook events and managing our email marketing. I used to be a 35mm projectionist, and the cinema technician from the theater I worked at made more than 20 physical DCP copies. My mother was assigned poster traffic and ran a full-fledged shipping operation from my childhood bedroom. CineSend, the online delivery platform, was the beautiful robo-teammate I never met, delivering digital DCP downloads to theaters for a mere $100/month subscription fee and saving us much headache. (Also, we learned, DCPs can be delivered on thumb drives!)

In fall 2021, when I was working full time as a publicist, I had a festival booker, Oded Horowitz, helping me, but once I moved over to The Automat full time in winter 2022, I began doing this job myself. I did the non-theatrical booking, social media promotion, Facebook ad buys and bookkeeping. I shared the responsibility for print traffic and invoicing with Fagan. I traveled everywhere that would have me for Q&As. For festivals, I’d go if they would cover travel and accommodations. For regional theatrical openings I’d cover these expenses, although certain venues did chip in. I was on the road constantly for a good portion of the theatrical release, attending festival dates and theatrical screenings. I did every interview requested, and Gary found local publicists who we hired for every major market. For New York, we were lucky to have Jeff Hill, who was also our publicist for Telluride.

For major markets, I tried to be there in person for the opening weekend, as my attendance always was a reliable way to boost ticket sales and gain extra press. Once the audiences met me, they talked about the film to their friends—we had amazing word of mouth. And once the theaters met me and we developed a personal connection, they were also more likely to extend our run, or keep us on a split schedule where we would share the screen—usually with Drive My Car, which we paired well with, since that’s a very long film and The Automat is 79 minutes.

The Automat’s theatrical run lasted five months. We opened in New York City on February 18, 2022, and our final week was June 29—we had an almost endless audience in the city. Nationwide, we took the release at our own pace and found the thing had legs. More and more theaters wanted it, and moving slower allowed us to service them all. Independently, we simply could not have opened 100 cinemas on the same day. What also made it possible to release the film in this way was spreading out our ancillary windows, which also maximized our revenue. Festivals began September 3, 2021, theatrical on February 18, 2022, educational streaming on May 20, TVOD on June 3 and DVD on September 20. TV and SVOD will begin on November 1.

It is still funny to me how our own little motley crew turned my A Slice of Pie Productions into a film distribution company and pulled this off so quickly. At its peak, The Automat was 2022’s fourth highest-grossing documentary at the domestic box office. We played in more than 100 cinemas across the United States. And receiving all the checks from these movie theaters directly into my mailbox was one of the best feelings in the world. Unlike when working with a distributor, I didn’t have to wait to get paid.

Even with all of this success, though, The Automat’s theatrical release was not profitable. P&A is truly costly. But our cut of the $255,000 theatrical box office nearly covered the $100,000 P&A expenses we incurred during our festival, theatrical and PVOD runs. Theatrical was excellent marketing for our TVOD release, and we’re optimistic that the attention we gained from our release will be marketing toward our awards campaign, one that my A Slice of Pie Productions will be fully responsible for. (And one that won’t have nearly as much money behind it as those launched by major distributors.)

A couple of the other small 2021 Telluride docs got picked up in the months that followed by Magnolia and Greenwich. This is purely a guess, but I imagine they got low five-figure advances, if anything. It looks to me like they were mostly released in New York and L.A. with one-offs elsewhere, possibly organized by the filmmaker or requested by the venues. It would have been more work, but I do think these films would have been better off doing it our way. I think they would have gotten more exposure and more screenings, recouped more money and retained the control to be able to maximize their moments.

Our film to date has cost $500,000 to make and distribute, and I expect to spend an additional $75,000 on our awards campaign. Will we ultimately break even on this film? Having recouped $300,000 at the time of writing this article, we are on our way. Will we go into profit? Unlikely. The way I feel now, it’s fine to do it this way once, but it’s not a sustainable way to make documentaries. If I had in my possession a doc that won’t sell but that I believe in, I would do this again, but ideally I think I’d try to get a doc greenlit early on by a financier or distributor that’d be invested in its release.

Knowing what I know now, what would I advise you, the potential documentary filmmaker? Well, if your film is strong and you don’t get a deal that you like, get a booker and sales agent and do the ancillary sales approach. Work hard and hustle on the ground. It’s not easy, but you stand to gain more from it than by accepting a bad deal. And, believe me, I’m not trying to “screw the system” with this advice, and I don’t fault distributors. I think the margins on docs are challenging right now—even on successful ones like ours.

For The Automat, not securing a distribution deal was a blessing in disguise. I found it incredibly empowering to learn how the business works, make my own decisions and discover that not only can I do this but that I actually enjoy it. Furthermore, I’m quite confident that my team and I did a better job releasing The Automat than any distributor we received an offer from would have done for us. Simply put, nobody would have been as invested in the film’s success as I am. They would not have been incentivized to do so based on the small advance they would have paid. They would have had very little skin in the game. We worked for so many years on our doc, and in releasing the film we missed no opportunities. The Automat got the best release possible, and we will recoup the maximum amount possible. It feels amazing having no regrets.

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