Director of Way of the Morris speaks to us about their unique distribution model

Posted September 15th, 2011 by Stephanie Walton

We spoke to Rob Curry, Director of Way of the Morris, a new British Doc which has had success on the festival circuit and through independent distribution. Here’s what he had to say:

 What made you decide to handle your own distribution?

When we started making a 60 minute documentary about Morris Dancing, a full theatrical release wasn’t really very high on our list of expectations. We planned to send it round festivals, hope it did really well and then get a dvd release and if possible a TV sale. Luckily, we did start to do really well on the festival circuit, and then started to get calls from non-film festivals (music, folk etc) wanting to program it. We also got two or three calls from independent cinemas wanting to do one-off screenings. It was this that made us think that a theatrical release might be possible. We decided to co-ordinate all those independent screenings into one week and then contact other cinemas we thought might want it. I think we thought that maybe we’d have 5 1-2 day bookings and that would justify us calling it a cinema release on some sort of level. 32 screens later, we’re still catching up mentally! So to get back to your original question, self-distribution sort of chose us rather than the other way around.

Can you talk us through the process a little…

That’s a big question! I’ll do a very quick overview but could go into huge detail on any small part of it. But in brief…

We got a list of all the cinemas in the UK with digital screens, and literally sent them all an email. It was quite hard to find out who programs what. There are the big chains, then some smaller chains, then some organizations that program a few screens around the country and finally lots of independent cinemas that on have to contact on an individual basis. But we researched the list and tracked down the programmers and off the emails went. Having a really good trailer and list of festivals we’d screened really helped, but we were really surprised at the level of responses we got. When we got to about 6 or 7 bookings we decided it was worth getting a DCP done, and started the process of converting our film to the right format for digital cinema. We also registered it with the Film Distributors Association, at which point it became an ‘official release’ and we started getting calls from cinemas we had not contacted. We also then had to get it certified by the BBFC. Both of these are EXPENSIVE, but not as much so as 35mm prints, which is why it is now feasible to do a release on this sort of level. We then got 3 hard drives off the company doing the DCP and sent these to the courier company, who then deliver them around the country on the date the cinemas want them. There’s then this magical thing called the National Press Show, which means that all the reviewers from the papers and magazines watch and review your film without you having to do anything! There’s a lot more to it than that but that’s the overview!

What was the biggest surprise you encountered?

Quite simply the level of interest. Part of it is down to subject matter – there’s a hardcore audience for folk-related subjects that ironically make our 60 minute doc much easier to sell than a glossy polished drama with mid-range TV actors. But part is down I think to a resurgence of interest in British films, plus films like The Arbor and Hunger making it easier to release slightly more high-brow films.

Could you tell us a little more about getting into the National Press Show?

The National Press show is something that every film being released that week gets.

www.launchingfilms.com co-ordinate all the films listed as official releases that week so that their screenings don’t clash, and so that the reviewers can get around them all and see all the ones they want to. There’s two – one about 6 weeks in advance for the magazines, and one the week before for the newspapers. The newspaper one costs £38 but it’s worth every penny. They send the details out to all the papers and in theory the reviewers just turn up! We didn’t do any calling around and had every broadsheet attend (other than the ones who had called us in advance for a screener) plus a lot of suspicious-looking but charming bloggers. We made homemade muffins and bought some ale from the brewery near where the film is set, both of which went down a treat. You’re not allowed to introduce the film and we were advised that it’s best not to try to charm the reviewers, but you do get to give them detailed production notes.

Will you do it again on your next film?

Absolutely. We’re just completing a follow-up drama/doc version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The best thing about self-distribution is that we get the money direct from the cinemas. On average you get £75-£80 per venue, as a guarantee against 30-35% of the box office net. The courier costs about £25 per venue, so you make a guaranteed £50+ for each booking. If this went through a sales agent and then a distributor you would pretty much guaranteed see none of this on our scale.

Do you have any words of wisdom/ key things to remember for others intending of stepping into self distribution?

It’s expensive! And very time consuming. I believe the theory that distributors work to is that if you do a cinema release you will lose money but you’ll get it back in extra dvd sales – and the same applies with handling it yourself. To give you a breakdown of how it worked for us:

Costs:

Converting the project to 24p – £700

DCP – £700

320gb hard drives – £120

BBFC certification – £750

Publicity – £0

Posters for the cinemas (I’d advise you shop around) – £320

DCP delivery – £25 per cinema –total: £750

Postage- £160

DVD screeners etc – £200

National press show- £40

Total: £3040

Income:

On average we have guarantees of about £70 (against 30% of the box office) from 32 cinemas =

£2240

So the most we could lose is £800 (plus 6 months of our lives).  We’ve had quite good screenings so far though, so actually we’ll probably end up making a grand sum of about £1000. So you have to have the cash in advance to cashflow it, and it’s not gonna make you rich! But then as the theory goes we’ve been reviewed in all the major press and will sell more dvds and get a more prestigious sales agent to sell the film abroad.

In terms of how to do it, the best advice I can give is to get as many screens as you possibly can – make a REALLY good trailer! Do a really good website, put the trailer on it and talk yourself up as much as possible. Try to generate a massive online following (a couple of chains nearly turned us down because we didn’t have enough ‘friends’). Again to keep the chains happy, if you’ve got a dvd distributor don’t let them set a release date less than 4 months after your (hypothetical) cinema release date. Set a date about 3-4 months away, and harass the small individual cinemas with digital screens until a few agree to program you. Then once you’ve got a few go to all the chains (Picturehouse, Curzon, Odeon, Cineword, Vue, and the smaller ones like Independent Cinema Office, Scott Cinemas, Merlin Cinemas, Northern Morris cinemas) and try to get at least one of them on board. Don’t’ give up! Get yourself listed on launchingfilms.com as early as possible and you will start getting cinemas calling you rather than the other way around.

When it looks like you’re going to get a release, get started on making your DCP and getting certified. I’d recommend DCP Foundry for getting your DCP done. Sign up for BBFC certification well in advance too (this is the only stupidly expensive bit that there is no way around unless you are a registered charity). www.bbfc.co.uk/customers/theatrical/. They won’t certify it until you’ve got your DCP done which is another reason to get it started early. In terms of delivering it to cinemas it’s really worth using a courier like NFT who do it regularly – it can be a bit of a minefield otherwise and probably will work out more expensive. Given that you’ll be getting an advance from each cinema which is 3 times what the delivery costs, it’s easy to justify! The longer in advance you have your DCP ready the less hard drives you’ll have to get made, as you can deliver them to the cinemas in a daisy chain, while if it’s a mad rush at the end you might have to get one done for each cinema.

Another thing I’d suggest is to try to stagger your release over a month or two rather than pile them all into one week – or you’ll be gone before you know it. The Arbor did this and it worked really well so we copied them. You’ll have a more prolonged presence and when you get great reviews in all the papers (: it will give the cinemas that were slow to take it up a chance to change their minds (call them all again the week the reviews come out).

Make full use of the National Press Shows for magazines and newspapers that launchingfilms will arrange for you. Avoiding hiring a publicist – the reviews will all come anyway, though it’s worth writing personally to the critics you really want to come. Be prepared to send screeners to any papers that ask. Market intensively to local papers in the areas you have bookings (try and find a local angle).

Um. I think that’s it…

Find out about screenings in your area here: http://www.wayofthemorris.com/

  1. cashflow game singapore

    Wow! Look at that number… It sure does expensive. I think you should know what you are doing before attempting self distribution.

  2. Faiza Rehman

    Its best to go someone who knows and has a lot of experience, drop me a email and I can past the information on.. price may differ who what you have.. Thanks info@stepupproductions.co.uk

  3. Barry Ryan

    Brilliant blog, thanks for sharing. It’s amazing how much DCP costs have come down over the past few years to make this feasible.

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