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Nine Lessons for Self-Distributing Filmmakers with No Money and No Experience

Burn premieres in Detroit

This article by Tom Putnam and Brenna Sanchez about the distribution of their Detroit firefighter documentary Burn originally appeared in our Fall, 2013 print edition. It is appearing online for the first time.

“The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” — Mark Twain

As filmgoers are increasingly flooded with new media options to keep them at home, the prevailing theory is that the days of theatrical releases for independent films are in their last slow throes.

We disagree because we just spent the last year filling 300- to 2,000-seat theaters in 170 cities with our firefighter documentary Burn. We did it with no distributor, no P&A budget and no experience. And the film has grossed more than $1 million to date in box office alone.

Along the way, we learned that with the right film and approach, theatrical can still be a major — and profitable — part of a winning release strategy.

We didn’t know it at the time, but we began laying the groundwork for our theatrical success back in 2008, when we first got the idea to make the film.

Find an Incredible Story

The idea for Burn came about after the death of Detroit firefighter Walter Harris. Harris died fighting a blaze in an abandoned home. We couldn’t understand why, in a city with 80,000 abandoned structures, someone would risk his life in one of them. When we visited a Detroit firehouse to ask some questions, we couldn’t believe the conditions the firefighters were working in: duct-taped rigs, leaking toilets, broken windows, jerry-rigged alarm systems; these weren’t the firehouses we’d seen in movies or TV. Add to that Detroit’s notorious arson and fire rate, and we’re looking at arguably the busiest firefighters in America, who were working with little more than buckets and jalopies.

ITVS/PBS gave us a little R&D money to produce a 10-minute teaser. We wanted to make a big, cinematic, action-packed documentary that captured the lives of the individuals who fought and risked their lives in an attempt to save this once great American city. They passed.

We then shopped the teaser to every cable network, every major indie studio and every documentary financier we could think of. They all said the same thing: “We love the idea. It looks amazing. This story needs to be told. But your vision’s too ambitious, too big, too expensive. And there’s absolutely no audience for a firefighter series or film.”

So we started a Facebook page and placed the 10-minute teaser on a website, next to a big, red “Donate Now” button.

It worked. The thing went viral; in a few days, it had racked up a half million views and was picked up by The Huffington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The Atlantic, Reddit, even The Sun over in the UK.

Think Like a Studio

The first donations started to come in, mostly $10 and $20 from Detroit expats and folks in the fire service. It wasn’t much, but it covered a flight or two to Detroit for meetings and research. We thought our fundraising was buying us time until we found our big investor.

What we didn’t realize was that we were cultivating our audience.

Ultimately, Burn was funded entirely by charitable donations — passive crowdfunding through that “Donate Now” button, fiscal sponsorships, a grant from Cinereach, corporate donations, in-kind donations and Kickstarter all played a role in bringing it together.

Most of our donors weren’t film industry people. And people outside the film business don’t understand the ups and downs of independent filmmaking. Within weeks of the first donations coming in, donors wanted to know where the movie was. Given that we’d set out on a yearlong shoot, we wanted to get ahead of that pressure. As soon as we were able to start shooting, in December 2010, we started posting clips and outtakes from each shoot. Stuff we didn’t think would make it into the finished film.

People shared the clips, and things continued to go viral. Our small audience grew, and they started telling us what they thought with their video views and donations.

As we posted more videos online, we began to see which characters and storylines were striking a chord with our fans. When one video gets 500 views and another has more than a million, you get a hell of a good idea about what to keep filming and what to let go.

By taking this “audience first” approach, we were able to inform our decisions with our viewers in mind — mostly firefighters and their families. (Luckily, there are more than 1.8 million of them in the United States.) It’s what studios do; they just don’t always do it well. We never compromised our vision for the film, but making it with an audience in mind was empowering and exciting. We pushed ourselves harder to make a film we could all be proud of.

A still from Burn
A still from Burn

Plan Ahead to Self-Distribute

We came into our premiere at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival with sold-out screenings and solid press, and Burn was listed on several “must-see” lists. When we left Tribeca with the Audience Award and an incredible flurry of attention, we figured the writing was on the wall. The film’s sales agents started to take an interest, and everyone felt poised for the next big step: A big sale!

It didn’t happen. The summer passed with no reasonable distribution offer, and our agents lost interest, mumbling something about self-distribution as they wandered off.

We were in the red on the movie, living off unemployment and credit cards. We had tens of thousands of fans basically demanding to see the movie and no way to get it to them.

We had no next step.

Build Strong Partnerships

One of our corporate sponsors, MSA, a manufacturer of fire-safety equipment, wanted to know what was next. We were candid with our champion there about the situation. He was passionate about the film; he got it. But his corporate peers didn’t understand what they could do with a movie. Luckily, they did understand the value of bringing something special to thousands of their customers all across the country. It was a terrific sales and marketing opportunity. Because we had a story MSA’s customers desperately wanted, MSA seized on the idea, and we set to work on a 35-city tour. MSA covered travel and shipping, and we covered theater rental and prints (hard drives and Blu-rays).

We approached the screenings like a concert tour, with one- or two-night engagements per city. We brought Detroit firefighters from the film for Q&As and meet-and-greets. We sold T-shirts, posters and extras DVDs. With no P&A budget, we relied solely on social media, email, printable flyers and word of mouth. Our tireless interns have called almost every local paper, firehouse, fire department, fire-related organization and union hall in the United States. The film’s donors and long-term fans were at the core of our outreach; we came into the tour with more than 3,000 donors and 30,000 Facebook fans who were already invested in Burn.

MSA is a great company, and they supported each screening with local sales reps and outreach. The value of having an invested partner on a tour like this cannot be overstated. The value of having the stars of the film there was tremendous. Our audience laughed, cried and cheered during the film. But when the Detroit firefighters came out? It was mayhem. They were rock stars. Night after night, we sold out large theaters and concert venues. We made the movie we wanted to make, but we also made a movie all these people wanted to see.

Give ‘Em a Call To Action

Early on, even before we’d started filming, we’d made the commitment to donate a portion of any profits from the film to the Leary Firefighters Foundation to purchase gear for Detroit firefighters. While this wasn’t a draw for our audience, it gave people a call to action and enticed them to buy merchandise. About 40% of our audience bought their $20 ticket and spent an additional $25 on a T-shirt, poster, or extras DVD.

We specifically chose not to release the film itself on digital, DVD or Blu-ray while we were in theaters. A lot of people tried to sell us on the day-and-date model, but not one of them could produce any legitimate reasons, let alone numbers, to back their claims. We just followed the simple law of supply and demand; if your film is everywhere, it’s less valuable. And we borrowed a page from the studio model — a theater is the one place where every person who sees your movie has to pay. We knew when we finally put the movie out on DVD, each copy would be watched by dozens of firefighters at a firehouse. Not to mention pirated. As a result, we decided not to release on home video until we’d tailed out our theatrical screenings.

The 35-city tour was a test for us to see how self-distribution might work, if we could pull it off and whether it was sustainable. The question of sustainability is a big one. We opted to find, call, book and four-wall every theater and venue ourselves. Four-walling, or paying up front to rent out a theater, is a huge financial risk. But if you have confidence in your audience, it’s the only way to make a profit. Theatrical splits don’t favor filmmakers, and even our bare-bones distribution machine cost something: copies of the film for the theaters, our cruddy office, one employee, two paid interns, phones, postage, Craigslist desks and chairs … it all adds up.

Burn premieres in Detroit
Burn premieres in Detroit

Think Profit (For Once)

As independent filmmakers, we’d never been particularly driven by profit in our careers. But with Burn, we were so woefully in the red, and it was imperative that we make good on our promise to the firefighters. So we decided that, while risky, a $20 ticket price and four-walling was the way to go, even though every single theater owner we dealt with told us we were crazy and that no one would ever pay $20 to see a movie.

But we knew our audience, and we believed in Burn. Had we charged standard theater ticket prices and/or negotiated splits with the theaters, rather than four-walling, we couldn’t have supported the distribution machine, and the whole thing would’ve been a bust.

The tour was a success — city after city, we sold out nearly every show. But we had the support of a major fire equipment manufacturer. We started to wonder how far could we go on our own. How much of an audience was left? We posted an online Google form for fans to request Burn screenings in their town. We received more than 3,000 requests, and they’re still coming in. Thirty-five cities wasn’t enough. People all over wanted to see Burn.

We followed the booking and outreach acumen we’d developed from the tour, using Facebook to figure out where our fans were, what cities we should book next, and what areas had the highest concentration of firefighters. Our associate producer would then find a local theater that could play digitally.

With so many independent theaters defunct or not yet digital-ready, our options were limited. We avoided city centers and chain theaters, as both were often too pricey. We created an arbitrary rule that we would pay no more than $1-$2 per seat for the rental. We always went for the largest theater available, usually 300 or more seats.

Once again, theater owners were skeptical. We wanted to rent their largest screen for a self-distributed firefighter movie they’d never heard of. And we wanted the theater on a Monday or Tuesday night — typically their slowest nights of the week.

And there was also a crucial difference between those first 35 cities and this next round of screenings: We and our Detroit firefighters would not be there. On tour, one or two of us would travel with the film as the tour manager, roadie, merch sales and shipping, ticket taker, will call, driver, talent assistant, promoter — all while having to meet-and-greet, pose for photo ops and be available till the wee hours for the after-parties so graciously thrown for us. We traveled to 35 cities in three months, returning to Los Angeles between every two to four cities to manage outreach, operations and for Tom to be a single dad. The tour had been way too ambitious and exhausting. We decided to stay home for the rest of our theatrical run.

Consider the High Cost of Awards

Our audience award at Tribeca had given us underdog dreams during awards season; we were certain we could beat the odds. We’d paid off the movie and gone into the black on the tour, so we hired a distributor to set up award-qualifying runs in New York and L.A. and paid for the big New York and L.A. publicists to go with them. Despite being selected a Critic’s Pick in The New York Times, both runs were abysmal. We simply couldn’t compete with the larger, studio-backed “indie” films that know how to play the awards game. We wouldn’t do it again; unless you’re lucky enough to have an amazing festival run and are on the radar of most voters, we would advise against making a major awards play. It’s expensive and the deck is stacked against you.

Despite our N.Y.C. and L.A. misfires, and based on the success or our 35-city tour, our distributor got us into four AMC theaters for traditional week-long runs: Chicago; Washington, D.C.; and two in the Detroit area. We had an amazing turnout, and every theater held it over after the first week. On its second week, Burn had the third-highest per-screen average in America! Our hopes of crossing over into a mainstream audience were taking shape. But these were splits, not four-walls. After the theater and distributor had taken their cuts, and we deducted the money it took to promote them, we realized we could make more in one or two of our special event shows than we could with these big AMC runs.

Between the awards bid and the AMC runs, we shelled out about $60,000. That’s nowhere near the budget it takes to be a contender. It was an expensive mistake, but it got us back on track; we knew what worked, we just had to refine it. We gave up trying to reach a wider audience and refocused our energies on our core, who had been with us all along.

Great Problems To Have

We hired an independent theater booker, thinking a professional would be able to do a better job than we could ourselves. With the tremendous success of the tour, we went off book, operating with a mindset of “What IS possible?” But, frankly, our ignorance had worked better for us; by explaining our situation to every theater manager, we were able to get richer deals than the booker did. Our charitable commitment was a big selling point with some theaters, media and supporters. You never know whom you’ll run into that’s been touched by your film or your cause. In our case, we got more than a few favors and deals from theater owners who had loved ones in the fire service or had survived a fire themselves! After a frustrating stint with the booker, we went back to booking theaters ourselves.

Our original goal was 35 cities. To date, Burn has played several hundred shows in more than 170 cities.

If anything, we had too much of a good thing. Making Burn, we kept our crew lean and mean. To distribute it, we should’ve hired more people and had a bigger staff. Even with one associate producer, two paid interns and ourselves, we still found we were constantly chasing the machine. As many cities as we played, we fielded about 200 complaint emails a day from people who wanted the film in their town, or wanted to know why it takes so long — people who had contributed to the film but don’t understand how film production or distribution works.

We’ve learned there’s a reason distributors take such a large percentage — distribution is incredibly hard and much more expensive than we ever would have imagined, even sourcing for the cheapest theaters and charging $20 for tickets.

In June 2013, nine months after launching in theaters and 14 months after our festival premiere at Tribeca, we released Burn on DVD, Blu-ray and digital. We’re handling DVD and Blu-ray sales directly through our website, and Burn was selected by Film Independent and Sundance for their Sundance Artist Services, the institute’s digital release arm. Burn made it to No.1 doc, No.1 indie and No.9 action film on iTunes within a week of release. Many people who’d seen the film in theaters came right back and bought it again on disc or digital.

Be Prepared to Win, but On Your Own Terms

We understand why filmmakers shy away from theatrical, and why distributors are avoiding it like the plague: Most films probably don’t have a strong sense of audience, or a clear-cut way to reach it without a large advertising budget.

But for filmmakers who know and have a relationship with their audience, theatrical may be the core of their distribution experience. With so many filmmakers engaging with their audience through Facebook and crowdfunding long before they’re released, that relationship will become stronger and stronger.

Self-distribution isn’t pretty. It more or less rules you out of awards consideration. It keeps you off the mainstream radar and the radar of people in the industry who are in a position to hire you or fund your next project. And it’s grueling. Imagine how worn out you were after delivering your last film. Now go distribute the thing yourself. It’s not for the faint of heart.

After four years, it’s nice to be off unemployment and paying down our personal debt. We took a big risk, and it’s starting to pay off. Later this year, when the distribution machinery expenses have slowed, we’ll be able to tally our profits and losses and write a big fat check to the Leary Firefighters Foundation to buy that gear for our guys in Detroit.

The Detroit firefighters of Burn put their jobs and personal lives on the line by letting our cameras into their world. We took a gamble on this 21st-century distribution monster. Our audience showed up and made it a success. We did it together. And that feels amazing.

And yes, we would do it again.


See also:

Burn Self-Distribution Resource List

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