The Austin Chronicle

The Way We Watch Now

Is theatrical-on-demand the next big thing?

By Richard Whittaker, June 22, 2012, Screens

On any given week, the average cinema screen runs at 15% capacity.

Think about that. Think of all those empty seats. Then think of all the indie filmmakers whose films never make it to a regular cinema. And now think of all the film fans staying away in droves – wishing an archive print of Battleship Potemkin was playing rather than Battleship. Shouldn't there be some way to get all those frustrated audiences watching those unseen films and selling out those empty cinemas, even if it's just for one show?

Austin-based film producer Nicolas Gonda thinks he has the solution, and that's why he and his business partner Pablo Gonzalez founded Tugg. Gonda says, "It really started with a question: Why can't it be better right now? If there are audiences that are complaining of not getting the films that they want to see, whether it's repertory films or new releases, and there are distributors and filmmakers [who] are eagerly trying to find those audience for their films, what's happening in between?"

Tugg specializes in theatrical-on-demand, or TOD. Put simply, it's Kickstarter for screenings. It starts with film fans who want to organize a one-off showing of, for instance, all the Oscar-nominated shorts – or perhaps a documentary on a topic that is dear to their hearts. They contact Tugg and say, "We'd like a screening of this film in this city on this date." Tugg contacts a local cinema and books the screening. "Tugg is not a theory. It's a logical solution to a very apparent problem," says Gonda. But here's the kicker. Tugg sets a minimum number of tickets that have to be presold: Don't hit that target, the screening doesn't happen, the cinema gets their screen back, and anyone who prebooked a seat gets to keep his money. However, hit the target, and you get your film. "We completely eliminate the risk of there not being an audience by providing a guaranteed audience," Gonda notes.

Tugg broke the waters this year at South by Southwest, test-driving its version of TOD by booking two miniseries – Buzz Screenings, featuring highlights from the 2012 festival, and SXEncore, bringing back favorites from earlier festivals. These were basically software tests, but straight afterward, they presented three more SXSW favorites – Iron Sky, Brooklyn Castle, and Sleepwalk With Me. This time they opened up the screenings for ticket sales to the general public.

Of course, this all only came about after Gonda and Gonzalez had spent the last two years putting the behind-the-scenes pieces together. First they had to get access to screens: Several national chains, including AMC and Cinemark, quickly signed up, and the Alamo Drafthouse has been a big proponent of the project. At the same time, Tugg approached studios, distributors, and independent filmmakers about opening up their archives. Of course, being co-producer on Terrence Malick's The Tree Of Life opened a few doors for Gonda, but he still found that the studios were receptive once he explained the concept. "We ask the distributors, why don't you show these films?" says Gonda, "And it's not out of personal taste, or choice, or belief or disbelief in what an audience wants. It's a very clear-cut risk." Even the smallest indie release takes a lot of publicity effort to get an audience through the door, and so Tugg provides a no-risk option for them. It's an innovation that easily bolts on to the existing business model, rather than replacing it.

The last part of the equation was the website. After all, it's the technology that makes this possible: Without social media to promote the screenings and without secure online credit card purchases, no one would sign off on this endeavor. That extends to the films themselves. While Tugg is examining the viability of 35mm prints, digital projection remains the key, especially since distributors are getting increasingly squeamish about sending real celluloid out to cinemas.

So now, with a website and access to a national network of screens, plus a catalogue of 433 titles, Tugg is positioned to start its bespoke revolution. Yet TOD isn't about creating a completely new business model. It still depends on distributors and theatres and audiences. But it crucially shifts the dynamic, putting the film fans – or, in Tugg lingo, the promoters – at the heart of the deal. Gonzalez says, "We designed Tugg to not be a mechanism to convince somebody of something they should see, but to empower people who have those tastes, and those with the ability to curate and help share what they love with their social network."

Small and indie movies have always struggled to get attention and screen time, so in many ways TOD is just a new solution to an old problem. Others are sticking with the more established but riskier step of four-walling – hiring a screen for the night and hoping an audience will come. In the last year, Kevin Smith and Darren Bousman both four-walled their newest films – Red State and The Devil's Carnival, respectively – to packed houses in Austin. Both filmmakers played off having a pre-established loyal audience – Smith for his View Askew films, and Bousman for his cult musical Repo! The Genetic Opera.

That may be the key to TOD as well: The best promoters may not be the biggest film fans, or the Tweeters with the biggest follower's list, but those with the most direct connection with their intended audience. "In some cases it may be a brand that just does a very good job of that relationship of trust with their audience, and in many cases it is a pastor, it is a director at a school or a professor, or just somebody that has a lot of influence at a local level," Gonzalez says. With only a couple of months of data to peruse, he is already finding that Tugg events are most likely to succeed when promoters sound out their audience before they schedule a screening, "so by the time a Tugg profile is published, people are already expecting it."

For Joe Bailey Jr., director of Incendiary: The Willingham Case, TOD "keeps the fuel in the tank," providing a theatrical life for his documentary well beyond its initial run. He and co-director Steve Mims were approached by Gonda after a screening at the Violet Crown, and even though they'd already secured distribution through Magnolia Pictures' Truly Indie arm, they signed up for the experiment. Their regular theatrical run ended in November – six months later, Tugg has provided them with extra screenings as far afield as North Carolina and Washington state, with minimal promotion by the duo. Says Bailey, "The community-based aspect really makes it a lot less labor-intensive than you would think."


It's the communities that make the model work, and there are early signs that cause-driven documentaries like Incendiary may have a head start over other genres. After all, they're not just appealing to casual film fans; if they can tap into local pressure and interest groups, that's a whole new hungry audience. That phenomenon is not restricted to Tugg; Roller Derby documentary Derby, Baby! offered screenings as part of a reward for their Kickstarter campaign and ended up with 150 screenings in 160 cities, mostly run by derby leagues. Or, take education doc Race to Nowhere: By reaching straight out to parent and teacher groups around the nation, the filmmakers have organized 4,000 screenings so far.

Tugg had a similar experience with eco-doc One Day on Earth. The filmmakers wanted to launch in 11 cities on Earth Day, but, according to Gonda, the D.C. screening "was somewhat struggling." The promoters needed to confirm 80 presold tickets to lock in the screening, but had less than 20 people signed up. Says Gonda, "The film team approached a local environmental organization that had a mailing list of over 5,000 followers within the DC area. For them, this is exactly the kind of film that their group has been looking for and has been forced, until now, just to watch online. So without any financial incentive, they did it as a service to their community. They sent out an email blast to 5,000 people in their community, and within the next two days that event was nearing sell out."

Gonzalez has been surprised about which promoters are the most successful. It's not the big-name bloggers and Tweeters with thousands – or even millions – of followers. What works for Tugg, he says, are "influencers at a local level, with an email list of 500 people that could convince over 40 to 50 percent of them to go to a theatre on a Tuesday night and see a movie."

Tugg is not the only company innovating the TOD model. Like Gonda and Gonzalez, Gathr founder Scott Glosserman was frustrated by how the current distribution model worked. His debut feature, 2006 horror mockumentary Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, got limited theatrical distribution – but that was more about getting quotes from New York and L.A. critics on the DVD box than getting asses in seats. Solving real theatrical exposure was a puzzle for Glosserman, and the key that opened its lock was his 2010 documentary Truth in Numbers? Everything, According to Wikipedia. "Wikipedia was simply a MySpace or a Facebook where the topic du jour was knowledge. But behind Wikipedia was a group of like-minded individuals who were aggregating themselves around something," says Glosserman. Add the microfinance model spearheaded for charities used by Kiva and seemingly perfected by Kickstarter and, he notes, "The whole thing was pointing to, 'well, we can do this for film – we can do this for theatrical releases.'"

The real game changer for TOD was Paranormal Activity. That movie sat on Paramount's shelves for a couple of years until director/producer Oren Peli borrowed the Eventful model – commonly used by bands to gauge local interest before scheduling a tour – for their publicity campaign. The only way you get to see the film, the commercials said, is if you demand it. Says Glosserman, "Despite the fact it was contrived, they were nevertheless driving at this notion that people could vote on where they wanted to watch the film, and then Paramount [Pictures] would service that."

Was that real electronic democracy, or just brilliant hucksterism? Either way, it accelerated a zero-budget indie horror film into a $200 million-grossing, sequel-spawning success. For Glosserman, the genius of the campaign was that it understood what plagues the movie business: too much material, too readily available. "The exhibition industry model was built on scarcity and for 80-some odd years, it was all about that, that the only place you could see it was in the theatres," Glosserman says. With the holdback window between theatrical and DVD releases collapsing, and some films turning up on video-on-demand even before they arrive in theatres, the thrill of the big Friday night opening is gone. Paranormal Activity brought back that scarcity factor, and Glosserman argues that distributors and cinemas need to learn from that. If distributors want the theatrical experience to survive, he says, "They've got to add premium content with it, whether they're making deals on food or items, or adding an expert to talk about a cause-driven documentary or doing Q&As."

It's that scarcity model again, and it's not just about getting hold of rare prints. When Kevin Smith four-walled Red State, it was part of a complete evening with the director/raconteur, and that was what sold tickets. Tugg tries to ensure that every screening comes with some form of bonus content. For example, Bailey and Mims regularly travel with Incendiary for post-screening Q&As. Adds Bailey, "That dialogue is really the most fun part of it for us."

At the moment, Tugg is in the beta stage, vetting every promoter before they sign off on a screening, and very cautiously rolling out. After all, there are still a lot of unanswered questions about TOD. Can it reach enough critical mass to be a viable business model? What kind of films work best? Who make the best promoters? And will promoters ever get more than just good vibes from a sold-out screening? All Gonda knows for certain is that there's a demand for TOD, "The hunger and appetite and interest in so many places already exists. It just needs to be empowered and armed."

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