In part one of this interview, In Reality writer/director/star Ann Lupo and producer Holly Meehl shared how they got their anti-romantic comedy feature off the ground. In this second and final part, we explore how they navigated self-distribution.
Were you building an audience along the way? How did you keep people engaged?
AL: During post-production I took on a side project editing a short for Casey Neistat called “Filmmaking is a Sport,” and it completely changed my perspective on YouTube. I saw how important it was to develop and maintain an audience that was interested in my work and would hopefully come to screenings and spread the word once the film was released. I especially embraced YouTube during the festival tour last fall, and a lot of my subscribers did end up coming to screenings and even helped us book theaters once we announced our self-distribution.
On Instagram I posted about every screening in creative ways—GIFs, videos, or new poster artwork for every location—to keep it interesting. We did merch giveaways, haiku competitions, and so on. I tried to toe the line between sharing heartfelt road-diary-style posts and straight-up clickbaity entertainment. I basically tried everything. I thought of it as an experiment—how can I use these platforms in an authentic way to promote the larger project I care about the most?
I have to say in retrospect that I’m a bit fatigued from the energy I put into those channels, and I frankly don’t know how vloggers and YouTubers sustain their output. I’m more of a ponderer/tinkerer at heart with my creative projects, so this was a challenge for me to work quickly and efficiently to transmit information in a creative and hopefully entertaining way.
In the end, even if it didn’t always feel completely natural for me, I think the effort I put into social media was absolutely necessary. It’s the reality of the times.
What was your original plan for distribution? How did that evolve along the way?
AL: We (I) had the delusion that film distribution worked like it did 10 years ago, where every film of merit got into a big festival and there some company would offer you a million dollars and do all the work for you to distribute it. When that didn’t happen and I began to understand the realities of the market, I became pretty set on self-distribution. Frankly, I was impatient to release the movie because it had been in production for so long, and I didn’t want to keep waiting for someone else to tell us whether or not it was valuable. I knew people wanted to see it and I wanted to share it.
HM: Before diving into self-distribution, we almost worked with a sales agent at the LA Film Festival, but they wanted to distribute the film if they couldn’t find us a partner. They weren’t offering a minimum guarantee and weren’t willing to budge on pieces of their contract, so we passed on that and I just started emailing people I knew in the distribution world. The majority of them really liked the film but said we wouldn’t be able to sustain a theatrical release, which didn’t come as a huge surprise, but I was happy to simply get the film on some distributors’ radar so they could begin to track us as filmmakers.
What are your thoughts regarding traditional all-rights distribution then and now?
HM: I understand the need for certain distributors to take all rights if they are paying a substantial minimum guarantee, as they are protecting their investment. However, when a distributor is offering little to no money upfront and is insisting on all rights and total control of strategy and marketing, I think it’s unfair to the filmmaker, who has so much at stake—whereas the distributor likely has over a dozen titles they are gambling on. I attended a panel at the LA Film Festival with Lacey Leavitt (producer of Sadie, which also self-distributed), who said it would be wise to raise an extra $50k for marketing a release. If the filmmakers bring money to the distributor’s negotiating table, then the two could work together so that the filmmaker isn’t just left with “meaningful consultation” on marketing materials. Although self-distribution was an incredible learning experience, it’s extremely hard work. We’d love to work with a distributor on our next film. But we also want it to be collaborative, so raising money for distribution and marketing is certainly something we’re keeping in mind.
What convinced you that you could be so involved in the release of your film?
AL: Having worked in advertising for several years, I had a lot of ideas for marketing the film, and I knew no one was going to put as much energy into creating assets as I would. I took inspiration from other independent artists who had self-released their work, and I began building out a plan in the spring of 2018. By the time we made the decision to truly move forward with self-distribution, the plan had been refined and developed for several months. The main thing was fusing Holly’s knowledge of the traditional distribution space with my knowledge of the social media/advertising space and having those two assets lead the approach.
HM: We knew self-distribution would be a ton of work, but Ann and I both had time to commit to it. Although we were still working on some other projects, In Reality was truly our full-time job from January to April of this year. We also did a lot of research and spoke with several filmmakers who had self-distributed, including Elan Bogarín of 306 Hollywood and Natalie Metzger of Thunder Road—both of which had been selected for Sundance Institute’s Creative Distribution Fellowship. I also was involved in the grassroots outreach surrounding the release of a film I’d co-produced in 2015 and was used to blasting out emails and finding partnerships.
Ann’s experience in editing commercials and graphic design allowed for us to create all the marketing materials—from the trailer to press notes to an entire grid on instagram.
How did you build your distribution and marketing team?
HM: We had a small budget for self-distribution, under $30,000. Half was film festival prize money and half was additional family loans. We couldn’t afford a big distribution team so we prioritized our spending. First, we had a consult with creative distribution guru Mia Bruno, who was extremely helpful. The one thing we could not do on our own was PR, so through Mia we got in touch with Annie Jeeves, who became our publicist. We also involved our EP, Freida Orange, who is a veteran publicist. And we hired a digital strategist to help us run social media ads and give guidance on the layers of digital marketing algorithms. We found Ghost Media through researching online and liked that they had experience launching brands and working with influencers. They immediately got the film and wanted to help us grow our audience outside of the DIY indie film network.
We couldn’t afford a theatrical booker, so we gathered advice from Mia and other indie filmmakers and I then spearheaded the bookings and outreach. Ann took on the primary job of being a content machine and building out our Instagram and creating marketing materials,
Then we brought on two awesome interns, Lili Labens and Mae Kelke, to help with outreach and marketing content. Lili had been an intern at Austin Film Festival and was a huge fan of the film, and Mae had found Ann on YouTube and was eager to help.
How did you decide the markets for your theatrical events? How did you eventize the screenings?
HM: We had a list of about 75 art house theaters to approach. Our main goal was to book Los Angeles and New York to get press, and I contacted nearly every indie cinema in LA and New York. It was really hard to get through to people—and at one point I wished we’d budgeted for a theatrical booker—but we eventually booked a week in Los Angeles at Arena Cinelounge. We had to four-wall, but Christian Meoli gave us a great deal. We knew a week in LA would get us an LA Times review, which was important to us.
New York was a lot tougher though, and we couldn’t afford to four-wall for a week there. But Caryn Coleman at the Nitehawk was a fan of the film and booked us for a night, and she agreed to a second night if we could sell out the first, which we did.
AL: Around the same time we were developing our self-distribution plan, Casey Neistat was building out 368, a multi-use studio for artists in New York. I reached out to Casey and Paul Leys early on with the idea of doing a screening there, and they were supportive and enthusiastic from the start. We ended up building a pop-up micro-cinema inside the space and hosting a private screening there as our New York premiere. We had a full house of both our friends and members of the extended 368 community, including my friend Akilah Hughes, who generously moderated a Q&A. The whole evening was in the DIY spirit of the film—if we can’t book a theater in Manhattan, we shall build one with the help of our friends.
The In Reality New York premiere was a private screening at 368.
HM: As far as other markets, it was a mix of us picking places that had meaning to us and booking venues that responded to our cold calls! Ann and I reached out to the art house theater we both grew up going to, Garden Cinema in Norwalk, Connecticut—which, sadly, is closing this year, but despite that, they generously donated a huge theater! Andrea Canales at FilmBar in Phoenix was super supportive and booked us as well. Most of the theaters that booked us were run by women and were eager to support female filmmakers. We reached out to dozens of other cities, but only a handful agreed to screen us and about half needed us to pay a small rental fee, but they allowed us to recoup 100 percent of the ticket sales. Between screenings at additional festivals and the theaters we played, we screened at about a dozen cities on our “theatrical” tour. Ann traveled to nearly every city and was there for Q&As, which was our way of drawing people into the theater. We brought in moderators where we could to make the screenings more special.
How did you choose a digital distributor?
HM: I met Sarah Dawson of Giant Pictures at IFP Film Week in 2018. I really liked their approach as a “boutique digital distributor,” and I recognized a lot of the films they had worked on. We sent them the film and they really connected with it. Another larger digital distributor also wanted to work with us, but we felt that Giant could offer us more hands-on support, as they only took on about 40 films a year, versus 400. Working with Giant has been awesome; they’ve given great guidance and we really like their approach to working with filmmakers.
How important is web presence to you? Why? What is essential for your website?
AL: The website was a high priority, and we put several weeks into designing, refining, and building it with the help of a freelance web designer. We studied other indie films’ websites that we knew were also self-distributing to see what information was essential to include and in what order—trailer, screening dates, press, about, etc. Equal to the content of the pages was the design. I tried to maintain a consistent design across all of our platforms, down to the thumbnails of our trailers. This required many revisions and tinkering to get right. It was important to us that the website look polished and professional.
Social presence—same questions!
AL: Per the digital marketing company’s suggestion, I planned out a “grid” on our Instagram that laid out all our best content (BTS, stills, sneak peeks) in a creative and artful way, where all the posts were connected. I posted sections of the grid nearly every day for a month leading up to the launch. The purpose was twofold: 1) raise awareness by maximizing the output (regular posting and hashtagging increase the odds that other people will find your posts), and 2) I didn’t want to have to keep posting forever once the film was released. So the grid acts as an all-encompassing page wherein, if someone is curious about the movie, they can scroll down, click around, and explore the posts.
Then I posted several videos on YouTube leading up to the release, always working the promotional aspect into the video in a fun but not-so-subtle way.
How did you differentiate your efforts at film festivals versus theatrical engagements, if at all? How do you see the purpose of each?
HM: We put a lot more effort into marketing for our theatrical engagements, as that’s where we had the chance to make some profit. The festivals already had their own outreach and marketing teams and a built-in audience. We worked with our digital strategist to set up a budget for each theatrical screening, and the spend on our social media ad was determined by how much profit we could potentially make. Although I don’t know if I would have spent as much as we did on social media ads, it still got a few people to the theater at each city. We also did a ton of outreach to local women’s groups, film groups, and college students in each city, prioritizing the theatrical.
The festivals helped build up our press, and we also received awards at 10 out of the 14 festivals we screened at. Having those award announcements populate our social media was helpful and continued to give the film a good reputation amongst the indie community. The social media ads for the theatrical screenings helped us reach new audience members who were primarily female millennials and were not “indie film supporters” per se but were interested in the modern romance themes in the film.
In Reality won the Comedy Vanguard Feature Jury Award and Audience Award at the 2018 Austin Film Festival.
Can you talk about how to build a theatrical audience versus building a digital one (if there is a difference for you)?
AL: It was important for us to build both audiences. On the digital side, the assumption was that the more followers, views, and likes we got, the higher the chances that people beyond our immediate community would find the film and share it. It’s hard to tell if that ever happened. On the theatrical side, building that audience was a lot more tangible because I could see how many people showed up. I had a lot of meaningful conversations with people after the screenings about how it made them feel. That was the best part—connecting with people in person. I guess overall, you hope your digital audience becomes your theatrical audience and vice versa—that the people who organically care the most about the movie will both see it in theaters and then post about it to share it with others.
How much time did the work take you? (You can break this down regarding efforts during theatrical engagements versus promotion of your digital release.) How much work before the release? Now that the film is released, where are your efforts currently?
HM: So much time! January through March, Ann and I were working about 30 to 40 hours a week, between theatrical bookings, events, social media, and outreach. Then Ann was on tour with the film for nearly all of April. Because we were essentially releasing day and date (our LA launch was March 29 and our VOD release was April 2), everything happened at once, and that week was insane. We were trying to get so many people to not only get to the theater but also buy or rent the film online. It was all really exciting though. Luckily our tastemaker screening in New York happened once our film had launched digitally, so we were able to have lots of people flood social media about the film.
Now that the film is released, we’ve been trying to keep our eyes out for groups that may connect to it. We played at the inaugural Rom Com Fest in Los Angeles. We are still looking for a second window option and would love to get the film on a streaming platform, which Giant is helping us with.
Looking back, what do you regret? Are you happy with how you’ve done?
HM: We’re really happy with how our self-distribution played out. One high was certainly the press that came out of LA. Our LA Times review called the film a “When Harry Met Sally in reverse.” My mom saw that and freaked out and called me and Ann the morning of our LA launch, and we were all crying with joy at how incredible that was. Our other highs were our New York launch both at 368 and the Nitehawk. Part of me regrets not doing a formal weeklong opening in New York, as we realize that’s where our biggest community surrounding the film exists. I think we could have gotten more press if we’d done a tandem New York/LA weeklong engagement. But at the same time, I know we probably would have needed to spend another $15k between four-walling and a publicist. We maybe could have spent less on social media ads/digital strategy and tried to do that New York week instead. But it’s hard to totally know if that would have been worth it. Overall I think we did everything we possibly could with the budget and resources available.
AL: It was a ton of work, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way. The experience as a whole was a beautiful reaffirmation of why we do this whole crazy film thing when there’s zero guarantee of return on your investment. For me, it’s to share my work and connect with people. For a while prior to this experience, I had a misconception that success meant a lot of big external validations and money. We had a lot of external highs along the way, as Holly mentioned, but even when there were only a handful of people in the audience, the whole thing felt like a spiritual high. Like, heck! We made a movie that people are really connecting with, and I get to have this unique experience traveling the country meeting all these people I otherwise would never have crossed paths with and learning about different film communities and having new conversations. That is the dream. Of course there are little things I could fixate on that didn’t live up to my expectations, but that is a trap. In a way, that is one of the lessons of the movie too: to see the reality of a situation—the light and the dark—and be able to accept it, appreciate it, and grow from it. Overall I’m incredibly proud and fulfilled by what we did.
Can you talk about revenue? Audience growth? Share some numbers!
HM: Between screening fees at festivals and ticket sales at theatrical, we’ve brought in about $4,000 in net profits. Then for VOD sales on Amazon and iTunes, we were at around $2,000 gross at the end of April. Giant is also working on a few small sales regarding our second window.
As far as audience growth, we increased our Instagram following by about 25 percent, jumping from around 660 followers to 865 followers. Ann’s Instagram following also grew significantly, by 500 followers. Our ads did really well on Facebook and we nearly doubled our followers while they were running. However, the film never took off in the way we’d hoped it would in regards to a social media following. We had several friends with over one million followers posting about us, but the results were slim. We’ve realized through this experience that the whole influencer culture is very unpredictable.
What do you think a team needs to have in place before releasing a project into the world?
HM: A good publicist and good marketing materials. Those pieces are key. Our trailer was essential in getting people’s attention.
AL: A genuine passion for the work, a clear vision for the release, support from advisors, endurance to keep going, a clear mind to handle the ups and downs.
Considering the unique journey of this film, are you glad it turned into a feature? What would you do differently if it were a short or an episodic project?
AL: I’m so happy it turned into a feature. Once I got over the initial resistance (fear), it ended up being the obvious final form for this project to become. I suppose the timeline wouldn’t have been as long if it had been a short or an episodic, and it would have been harder to get people to see it.
Soup to nuts—how long did the entire process of making and releasing In Reality take?
AL: The idea for the project technically began on Valentine’s Day 2015, and our last theatrical screening was in April 2019, so over four years. Of course there were periods of time where we weren’t working on the film, but it was always my first priority.
HM: I just did another theatrical release on a documentary I produced called For the Birds and am in post-production on a documentary called Jacinta, which will be done at the end of this year. Ann and I also really grew together through In Reality, and we plan to continue our producer/director partnership on future projects. There are a few things in very early development.
AL: I thought I wanted to dive back into another film production right away when I finished the tour, but the creative muses had other plans for me. I've spent the past decade in a big fat rush—hustling, juggling a million things at once, and always looking to the next thing. I'm interested now to see what new ideas emerge given a little more time and space and a little less stress and insecurity. I'll know it when I see it/feel it, but in the mean time I’m taking my time to establish a solid creative foundation for my next projects to grow upon.