Prior to the finished feature-length film’s festival premiere, the Thunder Road team speaks with Sundance Institute’s Creative Distribution Initiative about self-distribution, sussing this out as a viable option after witnessing the unfavorable marketplace distribution trends throughout the past year. However, they decide to keep their options open, hoping that a big festival opening will help their chances for a distribution deal.
In 2018, they premiere the finished feature-length film at the SXSW Film Festival and win the Grand Jury Prize. This guarantees them a $100,000 streaming-rights deal through the Amazon Festival Stars program. With the SXSW Film Festival Grand Jury Prize and festival buzz, they feel they have a chance at being offered a good distribution deal from a reputable distributor, but unfortunately, the offers they receive are mediocre at best. Being their own domestic sales agents, they quickly begin to contemplate, “What if we did this ourselves?” They hadn’t waited for gatekeepers to give them permission to make the film, so why should distribution be any different? They want to prove that their team can distribute the film on a shoestring budget better than what the traditional distribution deals were offering.
Before making their final decision, they wait for a couple more offers to trickle in to make sure they aren’t leaving anything on the table. When the final offers come in, the highest being a $125,000 minimum guarantee for North and South America all rights, the team decides to bet on themselves and take distribution into their own hands. Not only do they feel they can do it better than the traditional distribution model, they want to create a blueprint for other filmmakers, proving they can do it themselves with a fraction of normal indie distribution budgets.
In April 2018, shortly after their SXSW Film Festival premiere, the Thunder Road team accepts the Creative Distribution Fellowship. At this time they have also already been accepted into the Association for the Distribution of Independent Cinema (ACID) section at the Cannes Film Festival, a parallel program at the festival organized by France's Association for the Diffusion of Independent Cinema. With solid domestic and international launches in place, and the extra help from Sundance Institute, the filmmakers are ready to jump-start their distribution journey.
Sundance Institute’s Creative Distribution Fellowship includes the following:
The Thunder Road distribution and marketing budget ends up being just under $70,000—$33,000 from the Creative Distribution Fellowship grant, $13,000 from festival awards, and about $23,000 from the $100,000 they receive up front from the Amazon Festival Stars deal. Aside from the grant, the money that goes into the distribution budget is revenue they receive from the film that they put back into the distribution of the film.
The Thunder Road team thinks outside the box when creating promotional assets on a budget. They decide to give their audience agency in how the film is represented. Jim turns to Twitter to crowdsource the making of the poster, asking fans to submit their ideas. Through this open call, the team finds a fan-art option that they feel is eye-catching and is a unique representation of the film.
With input from the rest of the team, Jim crafts the trailer. He again turns to Twitter to help source music for the trailer. Making a direct appeal to a band he grew up listening to, Jim writes a simple, candid letter to Aphex Twin requesting to use their song “Nanou 2” for the trailer and tweets it out to his network. From this simple outreach, Warp Records kindly messages Jim and Natalie, watches the film, and grants them permission to use the song for the trailer for a modest fee.
With a finished poster and trailer in hand, the team creates a promotional plan for the theatrical and digital release using these key assets. For the trailer release, instead of focusing on finding a media partner for an exclusive release, the team focuses on using social media to promote the film to a large audience. They decide to launch the trailer on social media the same day their TVOD presales go live, on September 4, 2018.
The theatrical release is kicked off in New York at a one-off Rooftop Films screening on August 11, 2018. Jim attends this screening, which ends up selling out. The film screens next on Art House Theater Day on September 23, 2018, screening in 19 theaters across the country, including Athens, Georgia; Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Denver, Colorado; Austin, Texas; Vancouver, British Columbia; and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Their best-performing market during this day is Austin, where they shot the film, and a screening in which cast members Kendal Farr and Macon Blair and producer Matt Miller are in attendance.
On October 12, 2018, Thunder Road begins its Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas run, playing in 15 markets total, 12 of which are week-long runs and three are one-off eventized screenings. Producer Ben Wiessner and Jim Cummings attend the Alamo screenings in Yonkers, New York; Brooklyn, New York; Raleigh, North Carolina; Ashburn, Virginia; Charlottesville, Virginia; and Winchester, Virginia. Following this first part of the theatrical release, the film expands to 21 additional art-house theaters not associated with Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas, starting October 19, 2018.
Thanks to the positive press the team garnered following the Thunder Road short-film premiere at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, the feature is already on the radar of outlets like Variety before it premieres at the SXSW Film Festival. Just like every other area of the Thunder Road release, the team handles PR on their own. They do receive some advice from advisors along the way, like Rachel Walker, but execution and strategy is left up to the team. As Matt explains, “We had Rachel help target very specific outlets we weren’t able to get to ourselves.”
The team creates a robust press-contact list by combing through press lists they received from major film festivals they received during the past few years. They send press releases to this list, and Natalie manages all incoming inquiries from the outreach. The team is also cognizant of not over-exploiting the film for press at festivals, in order to maximize press buzz for different parts of the release. For example, they ask outlets such as Rolling Stone and the Ringer to hold their reviews until their theatrical release. As Ben explains, “A bigger place like Rolling Stone or The Ringer was only going to write about us once; having those articles come out in the fall when people could pay us for the film made a big difference.”
Jim spent years cultivating a large, engaged audience on social media, and because of this he feels strongly that the majority of their marketing spend should be devoted to social media ads and promotion. With little budget to work with for PR, the team focuses on personal relationships and organic buzz to generate meaningful press for the film. Once again, the ACID program at the Cannes Film Festival helps to ignite their successful press streak. Given Thunder Road’s popularity with French audiences, the ACID program and their French distributor, Paname, do a significant publicity push for the film, amounting to a number of press hits in the territory, including a cover story in Technikart that states “Jim Cumming cries like a god” and a review in Les Inrockuptibles with the headliner “a bitter comedy that marks the birth of a great director.”
A second PR spike happens when the film wins the Grand Prize at the Deauville American Film Festival in September. Leading up to its Deauville premiere, Thunder Road and its inclusion in the festival is featured in the New York Times, and the Grand Prize win is picked up by the Hollywood Reporter and Variety. A week later, on September 20, 2018, following Thunder Road’s first week in French theaters, Chris O’Falt releases an article in Indiewire titled “How Self-Distributed ‘Thunder Road’ Made Its Money Back in One Week.” By this time, the film is inching closer to its U.S. theatrical release. To keep the momentum going, the team capitalizes on a couple personal relationships to time two heavy-hitting press pieces to launch in anticipation of their theatrical release—an in-depth piece about the making and release of the film in the Ringer by Sean Fennessey and a four-and-a-half-star review from David Fear in Rolling Stone. Throughout the course of the release, Thunder Road receives 48 press hits (earning it a 97 percent on Rotten Tomatoes).
Jim handles most of the digital-marketing strategy and execution and starts exploring savvy tactics during the Thunder Road SXSW Film Festival premiere. Instead of spending money on a festival PR consultant, the team turns to social media. They run ads that target within a one-mile radius of Variety and Hollywood Reporter’s offices in Los Angeles a few days before their festival premiere, which cost a total of $200. They continue to boost these posts up until the day of the premiere. The day following the premiere, Thunder Road is reviewed in Variety, which the team attributes to the targeted social media promotion and being included in this article prior to the SXSW Film Festival.
Jim and the team continue to learn and execute new digital-marketing strategies throughout the course of the release. After their SXSW Film Festival premiere, while the team is strategizing the distribution plan, Jim further refines his digital-marketing plans by running test ads on Facebook for their past films. Once he has a better understanding of how the Facebook ad manager works, Jim reaches out to a “Facebook expert” (like Apple’s Genius Bar but for Facebook ads) to schedule a free consultation. During this chat, Jim receives advice on tactics, such as optimizing video content and mobile-ad construction, that helps him craft better-performing ads. He then uses this information to craft an ad strategy for their trailer release and TVOD presales promotion launch.
The team decides to release the trailer on select social media channels the same day TVOD presales go live, on September 4, 2018. They post the trailer to Facebook, Youtube, Vimeo, and Twitter with the headline “In theaters this October/Preorder on iTunes today,” with a preorder button on the post. Before this launch, they construct an audience based on specified interests through the Facebook ad builder that targets roughly four million people. The plan is to spend approximately $15,000 of their $68,000 distribution budget on this promotion alone. They craft three different ads for Facebook—one focusing on Google Play users (for Android devices), one for iTunes users (for Apple devices), and the other for all platforms—and allocate $5,000 for each ad.
Once the trailer ads run for a few days, the team creates look-alike audiences, targeting users similar to the top 3 percent of the people who engaged most with the ads. They apply these new audiences to the ads, dropping their cost per result from eight cents down to two cents. They also plan to push the trailer out to other ancillary channels for organic reach, such as other Facebook pages, Reddit, and Mailchimp. The first Reddit post, in September, is less successful than they had hoped. On October 12, 2018, they re-post to Reddit (posting a picture of Jim standing next to the poster at the Raleigh screening, then the next day posting the trailer; both blow up unexpectedly), which increases awareness, with over 2,400 comments left on the Reddit posts. Using Mailchimp, they send a newsletter out to their email list, which includes a built-in trailer-sharing button. The goal with this promotional push is to spark preorder sales to help them land in the bestselling chart and to push awareness for their fall theatrical release. These efforts lead to a significant boost in preorders, increasing them by 150 in the span of two days.
Once this trailer release and preorder promotion plan is executed, the team focuses on promoting the individual theatrical screenings of the film and providing their audience with general updates about the release of the film, including international release partners and dates. They use Facebook and Instagram as the film’s primary social media channel, while Jim continues to update his own Twitter following.