Distribution Case Study: Thunder Road
Written by Jess Fuselier
SOMEDAY A GROUP OF FILMMAKERS IS GOING TO WIN ONE OF THESE BIG AWARDS AND HAVE THE GUTS TO RELEASE THEIR FILM THEMSELVES. … I NEVER KNEW IT WAS GOING TO BE US.”
Buzz swarmed around the short Thunder Road following its 2016 Sundance Film Festival premiere, where it won the Grand Jury Prize. Soon after the festival, director Jim Cummings was approached by both Fullscreen and Topic for multi-short deals. The producing team—then composed of Cummings, Ben Wiessner, and Matt Miller—decided to enter into a deal with Fullscreen for a six-short series and with Topic for a three-short series. To help with the production of these shorts, the team, operating under Matt Miller’s LA-based production company, Vanishing Angle, brought on producer Natalie Metzger. The end product turned out to be an anthology of six comedy shorts titled Minutes and a three-short series titled Still Life.
Jim felt this experience and portfolio would be a calling card for stepping into the feature space. At the time he had three scripts—one about a werewolf, one that was a paparazzi thriller, and a feature version of Thunder Road, which he felt was some of his best writing yet. However, during his “water bottle” tour—going to every studio, agency, and production company pitching his ideas—he realized that a breadth of experience and critical acclaim in the shorts world wasn’t going to get his feature-length ideas greenlit. At that point, Jim knew he had to take matters into his own hands and make his first feature, Thunder Road, on his own.
The team decides to bring in one more producing partner, Zack Parker, to take point on raising equity for the film. Zack worked in development at AMC for years and loved the concept of Thunder Road after seeing the short at the SXSW Film Festival. In the fall of 2017, the team begins with a Kickstarter campaign using the short as a proof of concept. They end up exceeding their $10,000 goal quickly, raising a total of $36,000. This success convinces six additional investors, who found out about the project through Kickstarter, to come on board, contributing a total of $64,000. Zack and Jim each throw in $50,000 of their own money, bringing the total budget to $200,000. From there, the team sets out to make their micro-budget feature.
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.
Considering Creative Distribution
THE DISTRIBUTION PLAN
Setting Distribution Goals
FROM OUR EXPERIENCE AND FROM THE RESEARCH WE HAD DONE, IT SEEMED LIKE WE WOULD BE ABLE TO EMULATE EVERYTHING THAT A DISTRIBUTION COMPANY DOES, DO IT BETTER, AND STILL OWN THE FILM.”
Creating a Release Pattern
Identifying the Audience
Assembling a Team
THE DISTRIBUTION PLAN
Setting a Release Pattern
Digital and DVD
Festival and Foreign Sales
I ASKED ON TWITTER IF THERE WAS ANYONE WHO WOULD BE INTERESTED IN MAKING AN ILLUSTRATED POSTER FOR THE FILM, AND WE HAD SOME AMAZING SUBMISSIONS ALONG WITH UNSOLICITED, INCREDIBLE FAN ART, MANY PIECES WE’VE SINCE LICENSED AND NOW USE AS THE OFFICIAL ARTWORK ALL OVER THE WORLD.”
Traditional Press and Marketing
Brief Summary of Numbers
Meeting Their Goals
I’D SAY THAT MUCH OF THE WORLD OF FEATURE-FILM DISTRIBUTION, JUST LIKE FEATURE FILMMAKING, IS BASED ON CONVINCING FILMMAKERS THAT THEY ARE TOO INADEQUATE TO DO IT THEMSELVES, AND THE TRICK IS TO NEVER FALL FOR IT. YOU DON’T NEED SOMEONE TO UPLOAD YOUR YOUTUBE VIDEO FOR YOU AND THEN TAKE ALL OF THE CREDIT AND INCOME, SO DON’T LET SOMEONE DISTRIBUTE YOUR FILM.”
THUNDER ROAD FITS THE MOLD OF A SMALL-SCALE FILM WILLED INTO BEING BY DETERMINATION, OBSESSION AND A MODEST BUDGET.”
NICOLAS RAPOLD, NEW YORK TIMES