How to Pull Off a 10 City Screening Tour in Less Than Two Weeks

Megan Ryan, Campaign Manager, Picture Motion

Self-distributing filmmakers often face the challenge of procuring funding to support their film’s campaigns – particularly if their goal is to inspire social change. It’s a long-term game and money often isn’t seen until months or even a year after originally sought after.

However – when that money comes in, you’d better be ready!

Early this year, First Generation directors Adam and Jaye Fenderson were offered a grant to finance a 7-10 city screening tour across low-income high schools in New England. Their film follows four high school students seeking to be the first in their family’s to attend college in which their struggles and lessons learned are documented along the way. The goal of our New England screening tour was to educate students on the college application process and inspire them to pursue higher education – regardless of their financial situation.

The First Generation screening tour should have been a breeze. The grant was awarded midway through the school year and included a list of interested schools. What could go wrong?

By the time the grant was officially approved, it was already late Spring and the end of the school year was right around the corner. We had yet to receive the foundation’s list of interested schools – leaving us with only 16 days to schedule 10 events with zero hosts before the end of the year. With minimal guidance from the grant foundation, we researched low-income cities with programs that would need the film the most but were least likely to be able to afford the license.  However, the screenings still proved incredibly difficult to book. Not only were we asking high school faculty members to organize an event in two weeks, but we were also competing with nationwide standardized testing.

Despite these overwhelming obstacles, the tour was a great success and First Generation played at 8 schools in 8 cities. In the end, it was a wonderful opportunity to participate in something that can profoundly shape the futures of so many students and educators.

There is much to be learned from this experience, so we want to share it with you! Here are the factors that allow for a successful screening tour:

  • Know Your Audience. First Generation was fortunate to have cross-generational appeal, making it informative and interesting for students, teachers, and administrators alike. We knew who our audience was – High School students and teachers in training – and we engaged them through their institutions. While I’m sure everyone will love your film once they see it, when you’re booking a screening tour, don’t waste your time trying to make an audience work when it doesn’t.
  • Lay the Groundwork. We’d been working with First Generation for months by the time the grant came around and we’d become very familiar with the different types of people and groups who are interested in the film.  We screened the film at the National College Access Network 2012 Conference, College Access Foundation Conference, and The Education Trust Conference, among others, as an effective way to build buzz about First Generation with the right audiences. We reached out to education bloggers on websites like Edutopia and shared the film with them. A review from a respected educator can inspire more bookings than a good film review.
  • Filmmakers as Experts.  Thanks to the grant, the filmmakers were able to attend each of the confirmed screenings.  Filmmaker presence is always a special experience. But what really sells the host is when the filmmaker is also an expert or an activist in their own right. Jaye is a former senior college admissions officer at Columbia University and knows exactly what colleges are looking for – which created an interactive and engaging screening. If you can’t send a filmmaker, try to have someone from the film available to travel and speak about your film.
  • Partners and Funders Help: For films that don’t have a PR budget or never release theatrically, awareness for your film rests on word of mouth from respected sources. While they hadn’t heard of the film initially, the principals and administrators we contacted were familiar with – and trusted – the foundation funding the campaign. You can also rely on campaign partners. Find organizations working in the same issue area and cross promote each other.
  • Good Project Management. With a tour of this nature, it is essential that one person be in charge of organizing all the logistics.  Realize that there are multiple steps – outreach, confirmation, contracts, invoicing, shipping, payments – and that they have a constrained time frame to make quick and informed decisions. You need someone who can manage relationships with screening hosts, but also be detail oriented to ensure all steps of the process are covered. Most importantly, hire people you trust, and empower them to manage the tour.
  • Foundation Involvement.  The best relationship between granter and grantee is one where clear expectations and responsibilities are laid out before the grant is fulfilled.  When there is confusion about who is in charge of what, tasks fall through the cracks and the goals of the grant are compromised.  Make sure your grantor is clear about their expectations, and you understand what your deliverables are.
  • Set a Timeline. If your film is in education, you will be limited to when you can book screenings. If you want to book in a Fall semester, you need outreach and prep-work to happen the previous school year, and then concentrated in early September. If you are booking for the Spring semester, start the November before – by February it’s often to late to book an event before the end of the year.
  • Get the Price Right. The fee you can charge to license your film ranges based on your level of exposure and demand, as well as your contracts with other distributors. The standard price ranges considerably but generally the lower the price, the more screenings you will book. We recommend keeping your fees as high as possible without deterring the majority of your target audience. It shows the quality of your work, ensures the host is committed to hosting a great event, and it allows your campaign to be self-sustainable. You should also be flexible in your fees and be willing to come down if needed.   

In addition to everything stated above, you need a good film. At Picture Motion we only work with films that we believe have an interesting and compelling story, and truly have the potential to drive social change. And we definitely found that with First Generation.

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