Screening in a Movie Theater Independently: Get Your Movie Seen

By Peter John Ross

There is something special about watching a movie in a theater setting. Most people still see movies on the big screen, so the goal of many aspiring moviemakers is to get their movie seen in the same way. Since those of us in the trenches of indie film don’t have the distribution, we can rent a theater and present our movies ourselves, or we can setup a digital projector at any public place and sell tickets. This is called FOUR WALLING.

I took my first feature film on a 10 city tour of theatrical screenings, culminating in a sold out show in New York. With digital projection becoming more and more commonplace in movie theaters, it takes less effort (and rental costs) than 10 years ago. More and more filmmakers are able to display their works because the reliance on 35mm film prints has vanished.

THE THEATRICAL EXPERIENCE

Whether you are screening your own film festival of shorts or just featuring your own movie, the goal is to re-create or at least meet the expectations people have of going to see a movie. Making sure that the picture and sound are as good as they can be creates the fundamentals behind a gratifying screening experience, but there are many other subtle details. You want the audience to be lost in the story unfolding in the flickering images on the screen, not distracted by odd sounds, focus issues, or anything that can easily go wrong if you don’t prepare. The highest of highs comes from an audience getting into your movie, but it can be equally demoralizing if you can hear and feel people squirming in their seats from distraction or technical errors in presentation.

This is one of the most significant and often overlooked parts of making a movie. Sitting in a dark room with a bunch of strangers watching the moving pictures tell a story is why most people make movies. The intangible feeling a group gives in reaction to a movie cannot be truly defined. In most cases, you can learn innumerable things about pacing, performance, and unintentional reactions. The magnification of the image alone creates a significantly different reaction to the movie the creators worked with on a computer or even a moviola. The term “larger than life” carries with it more significance on the psyche of the audience than people realize.

ORGANIZATION

Strength in numbers. Even if you’re playing your own feature or short, maybe get 1-2 other things from other people to play with it. Combining casts & crews and their friends and families tends to fill seats. Make sure that if you are the one organizing a screening that you impress upon people to do their part to get people to show up. Having them let people know via emails, phone calls, and a press release is essential to maximizing the potential.

VENUE SELECTION

Booking a movie theater. A movie theater already has a well oiled machine that’s been functioning in the current multiplex format for 30+ years. They have a contract with the film distributors to show each movie a certain number of times a day. Cancelling one of those shows is not always an option, especially the fewer screens with digital projection already set up. Also, it is a hassle for them to change the showtimes for one single day of the week with all the newspapers, websites, and listings that are normally the same exact times every day. Make sure you try to get your screening listed in the showtimes for that week. This is one of the best free forms of advertisement you can get.

Rates of a theater rental can be anywhere from free to hundreds of dollars for a two hour slot. Rare though it is, some theaters will split the box office for no upfront fees. It is very possible to negotiate a free screen, but you have to make a presentation and prepare a solid business plan as to why the theater can expect to sell more popcorn and beverages during your time than the latest comic book with an A-List actor. It’s a hard sell, but it can be done. Usually the “second run” or “dollar theaters” and the independently run theaters are easier to negotiate with. They have less red tape to worry about than the giant corporate run theaters. Regardless, movie theaters make their money from selling food and drinks. They already make very little money from direct ticket sales, but that doesn’t change the fact that more people will want to see a blockbuster.

Sometimes are easier to get than others. Trying to book a screen on a Friday or Saturday night will cost you more money because they tend to sell more tickets to regular movies at those times. Sunday late afternoon and Thursday nights are much slower and therefore the rentals are cheaper. You, as an indie filmmaker have less competition on those times too. As with all things, you can work your own accounting for cost versus return with the preferable show times.

The business plan for a successful screening of a truly independent, local film relies on marketing and self promotion. If you have the entire cast and crew, plus their friends and family attend, that guarantees a certain number of ticket sales or seats filled, but that’s not enough. You have to interest the general public. A business plan will need to include ways of getting the word out to people to see the movie.


Important Notes:

Try to make sure the theater has a microphone for the theater you are in. This will be important later. Part of the charm and difference of indie screenings is the interaction of the filmmakers with the audience. Having a Microphone makes that easier after the screening.

Making sure someone is arranged to lower the house lights and raise them at the end of the movie is essential. You may have to have someone do this on your team, or pay the theater extra for their projectionist to be more hands on and timely. Remember your screening is a break from their routines and considered a nuisance.

Location, parking, and the overall quality of the theater will affect attendance. Keep these things in mind when pricing the rental.


FORMAT

Make sure to consult with the theater on the format they require. Since almost every theater is now doing digital projection, there are options for which CODECS, the software that allows the computer files to playback video. Some projectors only have the ability to play DCP, Digital Cinema Projection files encoded specifically for that theater’s systems. You might not be able to simply export to that format depending on your editing software, so it might be a costly experience getting a file that works at the movie theater. Other projectors play H.264, MPEG2, or other media file formats.

True digital cinema DLP projection is better than the already setup pre-show projectors the theaters use. On another note, to elongate the lifespan of the bulbs, the pre-show projectors are set to the lowest brightness and contrast settings, as well as the volume being lowered and not as easily changed for a one time screening. Try not to allow the theater to use their pre-show projector or settings for y

Make sure to test things THOROUGHLY long before the show. Setup a time to test a significant portion of your movie(s) before the screening itself. Make sure everything looks and sounds right before you show it to a paying audience. You can never recover from a poor first impression. More on this below.


Important Notes:

Aspect ratio and how the projector is set up or can be setup will affect decisions. Many  digital projectors can present a 16×9 aspect ratio, others will only show a 4:3 aspect. Knowing this ahead of time will shape many decisions when created a show tape or DVD. Most projectors that can do 16:9 actually “letterbox” the image within its full frame anyways. You might have to pull the curtains in on either side of the screen to compensate for a projectors screen size.

Try to get the make and model number of any projector you will be using. You can research online info on connections and compatibilities.


PROMOTION

A formal press release is essential to the media even being aware of your movie screening. If you aren’t telling them your movie is playing, who is? They tend to need at least 3 weeks lead time to get a story done, so send the press release early. Also, the local “arts” papers are more conducive to writing about local arts, but never let that stop you from sending to the local big newspapers and suburban rags too. Leave no stone unturned. The secret to getting a story is the follow up. Send an email or make a phone call a week later to make sure someone got the press release and ask if they are doing a story on it or if you can answer any questions for them right then.

Another marketing hook to attempt is a celebrity host. Getting a local DJ or TV personality to introduce the movie has many benefits. Most of these people have fans who keep up with their public appearances, plus it helps legitimize the screening as an “event” or having significance in the eyes of press, not to mention potential customers in the public. This doesn’t even take into account that a DJ might be more inclined to promote your screening on the air if they are going to be there.

PRE-SHOW can be a valuable ad-space if you do get an audience. Putting up a slide or making a pre-show file/DVD of material offers an advertising opportunity or it can simply be entertainment. Audiences are becoming more and more experienced with pre-show video content, so meeting that expectation can help set the tone for the show itself.

Contacting local radio stations, offering ticket giveaways, etc. are all good ideas, and take weeks to setup. This can lead to mentions on the air and creating the all important “buzz”.

Getting in touch with local film commissions, film groups, websites, etc. can all help to get people to attend the screenings. Creating awareness and interest in your screening means doing the research and contacting anyone who might take an interest in seeing the movie. Niche marketing means targeting the audience for your movie. If it’s about bowling, then get a hold of bowling leagues or bowling alleys and try to figure out a way to get the word out to people who have an interest in your movie.

Posters at the theater weeks in advance can help. Again, emulating the big Hollywood machine will make your movie more appealing. Real poster one sheets are 27”x40” and that’s what they need to be to fit in their poster cases. Putting the screening date and time on the poster will help keep those details in front of people frequenting the venue.

SPONSORS

For film festivals and even some feature film screenings, getting sponsors becomes a viable option. Approaching relevant businesses to pay a nominal fee for advertising can’t hurt, especially in trade for promoting the screening. Getting “in kind services” can be a powerful trade in lieu of cash. A local arts paper might trade some ad space for sponsorship to get their logo on a poster or in the flyers. The movie theater itself might lower their price if they get their logo in the print ads and other promotions. The key is creating value for their sponsorship. What do they get for sponsoring? What’s in it for them? Create value by making a multi-platform promotion where they can get exposure while giving your screening some light.

Outside the box thinking can result in high returns. Example, a pizza shop might pay $50 to advertise or give $100 in free pizza. Here’s the sales pitch, you will put their logo on screen as a sponsor before the movie, add it to any print promos, like a folded flyer or program at the screening, add their logo and link to the movie’s website, etc. Also, you can give them 100-1000 flyers or stickers promoting the screening to put on pizza boxes. Everyone wins. They aren’t out much money, and you reach a broader audience that might not otherwise have heard of your screening.

The moment you stop promoting the screening is the same moment people stop hearing about it. Attendance is like a snowball you are trying to turn into an avalanche but you have to keep constantly pushing it down the hill until the lights go down and the movie starts.

If you plan all of these promotions and have them truly lined up, present that in your business plan to the theater manager during your proposal. It will show you are business minded and not simply another dreamer who thinks that making a movie will magically bring an audience without working at it. If you do more than one of these screenings and they do garner an audience, you create a track record and the prices can be negotiated lower since their money is made from the concession stand. By having a track record, you can prove that you follow through and everyone will make money.

CREATING THE SHOW

Your movie may be complete and ready for screening, but the actual “show ” needs similar care and attention to pacing and technical requirements. I have been to allegedly reputable film festivals where we here the VHS tapes being ejected or the DVD trays opening and closing between each movie and I found myself torn out of the frame of mind to get into a movie. So each movie suffered a several minute frustration as I tried to get back into it, and in the case of shorts, they were over before I got to a place where I could even enjoy them. First off, you can create a single file or playlist that has the entire “show” on it to avoid this archaic and distracting program choice.

As a general practice, putting a few seconds of black at the head will give the lights a chance to go down and people to get into the mindset of voluntary suspension of disbelief required of most movies. Now, if you have sponsors or special thanks you can possibly put up a title card thanking them at the beginning. In some cases, using trailers for other local movies can not only create good will between Indie filmmakers, but possibly get their attendance and also further meet the expectation of the normal movie watching experience. It also gives stragglers a chance to get into the show from the concession stand or just plain late comers. Short form movies used to be a staple of the movie theaters in days long gone, but it can possibly help to pair short movies of similar genres before your feature to similar effect.

For those that have a short form, but still want to exhibit on the big screen, you still have opportunities. Making a show of a collection of short material as the feature itself can also yield many positive results. The combination of so many casts and crews and their respective audiences tends to make for a more crowded theater, nonetheless shares the burden of splitting the rental between several people.

I shan’t say much about how someone else should order their movies, but I have found that jumping genres, especially from comedy to drama in such short form tends to prepare the audiences for a certain mindset and they may unintentionally react the wrong way against a filmmaker’s intent based solely on the program order. Be wary of how an audience rides the wave of one movie to the next. The pacing of the breaks between movies might seem short in your living room, but might feel like an eternity in the dark theater. It is my opinion that faster is better. The less time people have to twitch or lose focus, the more they will delve into the stories on screen.


Important Notes:

Make BACKUP PLANS of the show like having a laptop or media player at the screening. You never know what could go wrong, better to be prepared. In some cases, I bring a laptop, but have a DVD and DVD player present as a backup in case something goes wrong. Which is worse, having to stop for 5 minutes to pick up where you left off, or having to cancel entirely?


TESTING

Once you have your format and venue have been chosen, make sure to arrange a time, more than 30 minutes minimum, to test the setup. Create something with standard elements to test with before you even try to put your movie in. Old school video guys will already get this, but using a standard focus chart to test the sharpness of the image, and color bars with tone to verify the projector and deck are properly connected always save confusion. Once you verify focus and color with sound, then try to examine several different scenes from your movie with various color and lighting, and even volume of music, dialogue, and silence in audio. This will show you how the theater will look and sound before the big show in the various levels. You don’t want to find out at the screening that it is too loud or too quiet or doesn’t look right with an audience watching.

If testing takes place a long time before the screening, it might be wise to take notes of any settings on the projector or sound system when everything has been adjusted to your liking. Anything can happen in the hours between the setup and testing and the actual screening.


Important Notes:

I cannot emphasize the importance of testing. You are showing your work to the public, and in most cases, other peoples work as well who worked on your project. You owe it to them to present it in the best way possible. Carelessness and blasé attitudes towards the screening will disrespect everyone, including the audience.

Try to troubleshoot as much as you can before people begin to sit in the theater. There is a truth to the “man behind the curtain” illusionary aspects to a movie and how the audience views it if they see too much of the testing or problem solving, especially if you are showing clips from the movie to test.


THE SCREENING

A universal truth is that few if any independent screenings will start on time. You always want to make sure everyone is in the theater and have their popcorn already. Try to account for that in the show times you pick. If you say it’s a 7:00 show, it won’t start until 7:10-7:15, unless you program the aforementioned shorts or trailers. The movie theater has to show another movie after yours, so if you intend to do a Q&A or anything, make sure you have time when you book the venue.

Since this is an independent screening, and not something an audience or moviemaker gets the opportunity to do often, an introduction is essential. Your movie(s) don’t have the benefit of multimillion dollar marketing campaigns or trailers saturating the market on primetime. Explaining ahead of the movie that this is a dark comedy prepares the viewers for what they are about to see. Not saying anything might create an environment where people are afraid to laugh at the right times and it deeply affects the experience.

Whether it is you or a local celebrity doing the introduction, be prepared. Have some idea of what you are going to say, even if it’s on 3×5 cards.

I tend to sit near the back of the theater. You can count heads, see people talking to each other, hear things, and get a sense of what the audience is or isn’t doing. It also puts you in the quickest route out of the theater if something goes wrong with picture or sound so you can either fix it or find someone at the theater who can.

Remember that Microphone you made sure the theater had? You need that to introduce a movie and possible do a Question and Answer session afterwards. Depending on the size of the theater, it can be very helpful or unnecessary, but it never hurts.

Always say “thank you.” Getting the chance to screen your movie on the big screen doesn’t happen every day, or you wouldn’t be independently screening your movie. Expressing your gratitude to the people who helped make the movie and those who show up leaves a better impression.

It is an honor and a privilege to experience a movie in the theater with people. Respect the audience, even if they didn’t react the way you wanted them to. Mastering the art of controlling an audience can only happen with practice and the more you do it, the better you will get at it.

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