“We Had Made This Film Against All Odds… Why Not Take On This Last Chapter of the Film’s Journey Ourselves?”: You Resemble Me Producer Elizabeth Woodward on Embracing Self-Distribution
With You Resemble Me currently playing at the Angelika Film Center, Filmmaker presents two guest posts about the film’s self-distribution, one by the film’s writer and director, Dina Amer, and, below, one by producer Elizabeth Woodward.
After a beautiful premiere in Venice, 30 festival awards from over 70 festivals around the world, our special film You Resemble Me did not have any meaningful distribution offers on the table. We could not believe that our only option was to take a deal that not only would place the film in a catalog of films that we didn’t feel were of the same level. We we also knew that taking those deals would mean handing over the rights and control to the film for 10 years or more, having little say in how it was released, and closing the book on any possibility of financial return. We had made this film against all odds, facing countless nos, constantly in the face of impossible circumstances and persevering, so why not try to take on this last chapter of a film’s journey ourselves?
We had absolutely no idea where to start. I opened a Google Doc and took notes as I read every article on the internet about film distribution, listened to every podcast, watched every panel on YouTube that we could get our hands on. Then we decided to ask the experts. We contacted everyone who wrote those articles and spoke on those podcasts, sharing our situation and asking for advice. We spent a significant amount of time creating lists of people who knew what we didn’t know, people who could be allies, people who could support in different ways. Looking back, I believe that the foundation of those meaningful conversations and rallying the support of a community around the film who were invested in seeing it succeed was a crucial step in this process, even when it felt like there was too much to do, and too little time.
We read all the case studies from Sundance’s now closed Creative Distribution Initiative and reached out to Liz Manashil, who ran the program. She galvanized our confidence that it was even possible to do this ourselves, and helped us break down the different pieces. She introduced us to Noah Lang who gave us invaluable advice on his experience releasing This Is Not a War Story independently, which led that film to an Indie Spirits nomination and an HBO deal. We spoke to the inimitable Giulia Caruso, who independently distributed Columbus, and to Jim Cummings who released Thunder Road to great success. We spoke to Gloria Stella who independently put together an incredible theatrical run for her film Tulsa. We read all the case studies on Film Collaborative’s website and reached out to Orly Ravid, who was an invaluable advisor on this journey, explaining all the various parts of the process and helping us figure out where to start. We couldn’t afford to hire a full PR team yet so we linked up with Bunker15 who did targeted outreach to Rotten Tomatoes certified critics who reviewed the film, which increased our score (we had learned that bookers look at Rotten Tomatoes often). Then Orly introduced us to Greg Laemmle, who took a chance on us and booked the film at his theaters in LA. This was a crucial first victory in this journey.
As the plan took shape, we reached out to our executive producers for support. They saw the value in helping us put together a dignified release, as radically independent as the journey of making the film had been.
My team Willa Productions devised a target list of cinemas based on comp films by looking at those films’ websites and posts on Instagram. With our LA booking confirmed, we asked the many US-based festivals that we screened at to introduce us to their cinema contacts, and we wrote hundreds of cold emails. We guessed a lot of email addresses. We knew that simple and short materials were key for pitching. We didn’t have the funds to create a trailer yet, so we asked our additional editor on the film to create a simple highlights reel video with selfie videos from our EPs, videos from festivals, shots from the film. We also didn’t have a poster yet so we created a very simple one sheet on Pixelmator (like Photoshop for Dummies) with festival laurels, photos, and pull quotes. We paired those assets with a punchy and eye-catching emails (key elements in bold, short text) and reached out to our dream cinemas, like Angelika and AMC. After some follow up, they replied and wanted to book the film! Having some of the most renowned artists in the world as executive producers on the film definitely helped a lot.
Every step of the way, we always took news of each victory back to all the parties that we were waiting to hear back from. This felt crucial in building a sense that this film was moving ahead, and that no one would be the very first person to take a risk on this film. One of our executive producers, Sean Glass, joined our efforts on a day-to-day basis to put together the independent release. Sean called this the “stone soup” approach. Sean has been a key part of ensuring that the bums are in seats for the release and strategizing booking Q&As for as many screenings as possible in order to bolster ticket sales and create word of mouth buzz.
We ended up booking the film in over 35 markets across the country. To support ticket sales, we decided to focus all efforts around the theatrical screenings and not organize any ancillary events or screenings. The Willa team took a page out of the documentary impact campaign toolkit, informed by my work on the impact campaign for my previous film The Great Hack. Caitlin Boyle, who I knew from DOC NYC, gave us some great additional strategic advice. We reached out to organizations, advocacy groups, companies, and individuals who might be inspired to help our mission. We realized it was key to make explicitly clear off the bat that we were not asking for financial support – all we were asking for was for any in kind digital promo they could provide, like social media or newsletters, connecting us with someone to do a Q&A, or doing a small ticket giveaway to help spread the word. We got creative, thinking of all possible partners and sent them a compelling email. We ended up partnering with a variety of organizations like New York Women in Film and Television, Free The Work, The Future of Film is Female, Letterboxd, Women In Film, The Gotham, NYU, The Africa Center, WScripted, Lighthouse Film Festival, BIPOC Editors, Human Rights Watch, Muslim Public Affairs Council Hollywood Bureau, MENA Arts Advocacy Coalition, Pillars Fund, Wscripted, Film Fatales, Africa Film Festival and more. We asked all the festivals we played at to post about our release. We asked every friend of the film team with either a following or something to add to the conversation about the film to host a Q&A, and we created an amazing line up.
Then we had to figure out the logistics, like DCP delivery (not as hard as it sounds, we worked with Deluxe), negotiating terms after learning a lot of lingo (ask for 50/50 splits or a minimum guarantee and try to avoid VPF fees). We also gathered some key informational points to share with cinemas we were pitching, like the combined social media reach of people who would post about the film, and a list of allies and supporters with name recognition.
Sean also introduced us to Christie Marchese at Kinema and Kate Gondwe at Dedza Films. Kinema is booking the film in non-theatrical spaces like community screenings. Dedza is consulting on the release, supporting additional bookings, audience engagement, and strategy, given Kate’s deep knowledge of the distribution landscape and work on amazing films like Neptune Frost, which has been a reference for our distribution goals.
It took us a while to raise the funds needed to hire PR and digital marketing teams. In the meantime, we did as much groundwork as we could, compiling a list of contacts in the media to be ready to reach out to, and creating eye-catching social media assets inspired by some of our favorite campaigns. We were fortunate to link up with Obscured Pictures on PR and Dor Dotson at Genuine Article on digital media, who, although time was tight, have pushed relentlessly and with great skill to get the word out about the film.
An important pointer that we learned is that sometimes when anyone on the team receives a pass on something, that does not mean that if someone on the film team has a personal connection with that publication and can reach out that that no can’t be turned into a yes. Personal connections are everything on this journey.
Once we had raised more funds, we dove into our trailer and poster, having learned that those assets were key to the release. We worked with Jumpcut, who cut the trailer for my last film On the Divide, and created a powerful trailer. On our poster, we worked with immensely talented designer and longstanding friend of the film Phil Gribbon.
Dan Mirvish’s Filmmaker article about airline sales inspired us to pursue that route and we made a deal with Gate 23 Entertainment. We are in the process of finding partners for educational and DVD sales.
I reached out directly to our dream distribution company in the UK (announcement coming soon!), summarizing what we had built so far in the USA and our commitment to support any plans in the UK. We struck a deal. My fellow producer Karim Amer reached out directly to Front Row Entertainment and confirmed our Middle East North Africa distribution. Dina, Sean,and I are continuing outreach for further foreign sales. We hope to find a distributor in France, where this film takes place and where this story is urgently needed to be shared.
Most importantly, we are now focusing on how to leverage this fantastic theatrical release to find a streaming home for the film.
This process is a colossal amount of work. But when you’ve worked so hard to make a film, it’s worth the extra mile and you will have built the networks and resources to release your next film independently should that be necessary, which is an important option to have in today’s distribution landscape.
You Resemble Me is currently playing in New York at the Angelika Film Center.