When Winning at Sundance Doesn’t Send the Distribution Cavalry

Brent Stiefel and Justin Lothrop

Here we are almost 90 days out from the initial theatrical release of As You Are, and wow, what a learning experience it has been. At this stage in our film’s life cycle, we have just launched our preorder on iTunes, are weeks away from our full domestic TVOD release, and about 30 days after that, we’ll be having our Amazon Prime SVOD release.

This is all on the heels of our decision to self-release in theaters with only the assistance of a booking agent and a small press team. As we get ready to witness how our digital release is received, we’re going to share a bit about how we got here, why we made the choices we made and what’s next. Additionally, we’ve sprinkled throughout this post a few reflections on things we wish we had done differently.

A Sundance Winner Isn’t a Distribution Lock

Our experience on As You Are has been anything but typical. In the summer of 2014, Brent Stiefel, Sean Burke, and Miles Joris-Peyrafitte all met on a film set they were working on in the Cascade Mountains outside of Seattle.

Miles had recently finished the short film that As You Are is based on, and he showed it to Sean and Brent. They asked about a feature script, which Miles proceeded to lie about existing, and then Miles rushed back to New York to crank out a draft with his best friend Madison Harrison.

As the script took shape, we hired our fantastic casting directors (Christie Street Casting) and started to line up the rest of the team. In early, 2015, Justin Lothrop and Miles’ brother Joseph Mastantuono were pulled into the loop on the production front, and that fall we were simultaneously shooting and cutting while keeping hopes of meeting the Sundance Film Festival submission deadline.

Well, we miraculously succeeded and were accepted into the U.S. Dramatic Competition for the 2016 Festival. Needless to say, from scripting to screening, this was lightning fast. It is still a bit tough to digest that it was barely a year from the feature script being completed to when we were premiering at Sundance.

If getting accepted into Sundance was a dream, being recognized with a special jury prize was on a whole other astral plane. We still can’t fully describe how much we enjoyed being a part of the Festival.

As great as everything seemed to be going, it was a shock to our system that all of this Sundance excitement wasn’t actually a silver bullet for distribution. Perhaps we were a bit clouded by all the successes we seemed to be having at once, and we had gotten it into our heads that by getting into Sundance and getting award recognition that distribution would be a lock. We were wrong.

The “As You Are” film team at the 2017 Festival. © Sundance Institute | Phillip Faraone

This assumption that the distribution cavalry is coming after a Sundance win is where we made one of our bigger mistakes on our journey as producers. During all the hullaballoo leading up to and after Sundance, we lost a bit of focus on planning for the contingency of what happens if we didn’t get a good distribution offer. Don’t be those people.

The reality is, it’s an incredibly tough market out there. There’s a lot of content, a lot of great films playing at Sundance (and other festivals), and a limited number of distributors with very specific needs. So although we fielded some distribution offers, aside from one (a U.S.-only SVOD deal), the offers weren’t very enticing.

Most deals we saw had poor economic value, very long licensing periods, and/or were from companies whose business models essentially added up to digital aggregators. None of these options were the route we wanted to go, so ultimately we felt we’d be better off tackling distribution on our own terms.

Using Your Publicity Momentum

So here we were, with a Sundance award-winning film and no great distribution options aside from our SVOD deal. Unfortunately, as previously noted, we were without a good plan for how to self-release our film if we didn’t get an ideal distribution setup. A reality that not only did we not fully prepare for, but took a long time to come to terms with.

This was the next mistake we made as producers. The choice to hold out to see if we got into Cannes and several other film festivals distanced us from the press momentum of Sundance, which we should have better used to build our audience. Always put yourself in a position to best utilize the momentum you have.

Over the course of the next few months post-Sundance, we negotiated our U.S. SVOD deal and continued to try and sort what on earth we were going to do for both the theatrical and TVOD release domestically (all while trying to navigate the international film market and festival premiere).

Fortunately for us, we wound up discussing our frustrations with Sundance and they not only gave us the background on what TVOD distribution is like via their Sundance Creative Producing Program, but also graciously gave us a grant to help us get our self-distribution kick started.

Now that we seemed to have both SVOD and TVOD sorted, we shifted our focus to our theatrical run (which we had hoped would be in the fall). We spent quite some time trying to find the right theatrical booker and eventually hired a press team to get things rolling. But, time had been lost in the process and we realized after our international premiere at San Sebastian that we were quickly heading into fall and had no theaters yet on the books.

Before we knew it, we found ourselves trying to book theaters (without four-walling) right in the middle of holiday season. The reality was that it just wasn’t going to happen successfully that way. We had to make a choice: we could spend a bunch of money trying to play in the middle of a busy holiday season or could skip the holiday season and try and book early first quarter. We ended up choosing to save the money on four-walling and book the theaters when things slowed down.

The thought process behind losing the holidays and saving the money came from a couple places. First, we wanted to set up some specialty screenings to build a little bit of word of mouth going into the theatrical release. The timeline from aggressively pursuing our theatrical booking during the holidays wasn’t going to allow for that.

Second, doing a theatrical run was never a money-making concept. Four-walling is typically a sinkhole unless you are going to do a proper spend on P&A and we just weren’t prepared to do that. The choice to do a theatrical release was more about the press and continuing to build our digital audience.

This brought us to our premiere dates: February 24 in NYC and March 3 in LA. Although we did a decent job of finding our audience in New York, LA was a bit more lackluster. Despite this challenge, the press for all of our theatrical cities was great (we can’t recommend Kara and Kevin of K2 Publicity enough).

The Conclusions

It’s been an exhilarating learning experience filled with some interesting pitfalls. During this process we could have played our festival strategy a bit differently. We could have done a better job of identifying and targeting niche audiences. And, we could have been more prepared to go at it alone on theatrical and TVOD distribution. But, as they say, hindsight is always 20/20.

Once we made the decision to go theatrical, everything that we did was done with the purpose of trying to build our audience leading up to the digital release. Sundance Institute’s Creative Producing Program has been exceptionally helpful and supportive.

It’s meant the world to us, and we’re excited to be reaching this particular part of the journey. It’ll be interesting to see how things go from here, and how impactful our social media following really is and whether or not the press we received from the theatrical release will affect our digital release.

We are very proud of this film and can’t wait for you to soon be able to watch it at home. Stay tuned.


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