If you have ever heard any of the authors speak in person or via media outlets, you know that we talk a lot about the need to identify and connect with niche audiences for your film. The question is, how to do that without limiting the potential for your film to reach the wider audience circle beyond that niche?
In the book, we included a chapter on how to find niche audiences. One documentary film in particular, For the Bible Tells Me So, went on to reach well beyond the LGBT audience it might have been most logical to target; the “choir” for the film. Here’s an excerpt that speaks to how filmmaker Daniel Karslake and his distributor, First Run Features, accomplished this.
“Of course, no matter how powerful a subject a documentary tackles – and no matter how hungry an audience might be for the message—it is just a tree falling in the forest until it finds a platform to reach its audience. As is so often the case with successful documentaries, For the Bible Tells Me So had its first big break when it was accepted into the documentary competition at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. Karslake echoed a sentiment expressed by many filmmakers:
We had some interested parties before, but once we were chosen as one of the 16 competition documentaries at Sundance everything changed. Suddenly every festival and every distributor contacted us and wanted to see the film. There was definitely a “Sundance effect.”
To maximize this “Sundance effect,” Karslake signed on high profile sales agents/film strategists Cinetic Media for the Festival, where the film was sold to Sundance Channel for U.S. TV and most importantly, to First Run Features for all other North American rights.
While the terms of the deal were not disclosed, it is what happened next that makes For the Bible such an inspirational story of niche distribution. At first, both Cinetic and First Run (as well as filmmaker Karslake) were very wary of the gay niche, believing that the film should not be pigeonholed as a gay film for gay audiences, but rather for the uninitiated, largely straight people of faith in the so called “red states.” People who, as Karslake explains, “understood the teachings of Christ, but couldn’t square that message with the Church’s attitudes towards gay people.” As such, the film spent the first few months of its post-Sundance life playing the larger “nongay” international and doc festivals, winning awards at festivals such as Full Frame and the Audience Award for “Best Documentary”at Seattle International.
For the Bible eschewed the spring LGBT festival circuit, and even chose to skip San Francisco’s Frameline—well known as the world’s oldest and largest gay and lesbian film festival. For reasons unknown to Karslake, however, First Run Features chose to accept the film’s first queer booking at Outfest Los Angeles, a festival held in early summer and which is closely watched by LGBT Industry folks.
“I thought gay people would probably hate it,” said Karslake, citing general hostility toward religious issues in the Community, supported by his earliest experiences with “In The Life” [a TV show that was Karslake’s day job]. However, For the Bible would go on to win the Audience Award at Outfest, a major validation that would pave the way for launching the film and which would lead to startling results.
Following the cue from earlier awards as well as Outfest, For the Bible rocketed through both the summer/early fall international festivals and now also the LGBT circuit, building toward theatrical release in October. Along with the Festival accolades, another key aspect of niche buzz marketing kicked in during this period—namely a tremendous surge in LGBT groups outreaching to their memberships to spread the word about the film.
Most notable was the nationwide support of the gay civil rights organization Human Rights Campaign (HRC), well known as the best-funded, best politically connected of the gay political groups,with nearly a million people on its mailing lists. Prior to Sundance, Karslake had shown a six-minute trailer at HRC’s National Convention, and the response and support for the movie was immediate and powerful.
Mobilizing both its resources and its chapters, HRC encouraged its members to buy tickets for members for the theatrical opening weekend bookings, just to help make sure the initial release numbers were strong. Also prior to Sundance, Karslake showed the same six minutes at the National Convention of PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), gaining support from its nearly 200,000 membership base.
First Run opened the film in New York City’s Quad Theater in early October to a strong result, nearly $10,000 in the first weekend. Capitalizing quickly, First Run moved wider to the Landmark Theatres of Los Angeles, Palm Springs, San Diego, San Francisco, Berkeley, Philly, Boston, Portland, and Minneapolis—all typical big cities on the art-house circuit that include large gay populations. Within a week the film was in St. Louis, Springfield (MO), Austin, Dallas, Atlanta, Salt Lake City, Denver, Santa Fe, Orlando,and New Orleans…and then Charlotte, Tempe, Hartford, Fargo, Tulsa, etc.
Choosing both full-week runs and then smaller, limited engagements at regional independent theaters, First Run was able to support the release for nearly six months, finally ending sometime in March 2008 with a gross of around $309,000. Karslake estimates that the film had some sort of theatrical presence in approximately120 markets, a real eye-opener for a doc distributed by a small indie company.
Shortly into the theatrical run is when the real “miracle” started to happen. In addition to continuing to travel the film both theatrically and along the festival circuit, First Run set up a section of its website to invite community screenings of the film. In earlyNovember 2007, the first churches starting calling and booking the film for local, church-based screenings. After churches, it spread to university religion departments, sociology departments, religious conventions, etc. From November 2007 until January 2009, scarcely a calendar day went by that the film was not playing in several cities at once, often in multiple churches, festivals, and theatrical venues all at the same time.
In total, from the time that First Run starting posting the venues on its website soon after Outfest, the film recorded more than 600 engagements around the country, mostly in small and mid-sized towns, and very often in the heart of the Bible Belt.”
To find out how all of these screenings translated into DVD sales, download or buy the printed edition of Selling Your Film Without Selling Your Soul on our website.
We will have our second book launch party, in Los Angeles this time, on October 28 at the UCLA Library directly following the popular and FREE DIY Days LA. We will send out invitations to all of our email list so if you are in LA and wish to attend, please RSVP. As always, you can follow us on Facebook where we post regularly and read our posts on Twitter under the hashtag #syfnotsys.