I was nine years old in June of 1977, when my uncle Babu convinced my dad to corral the family one Saturday afternoon to go see some new Sci-Fi movie called “Star Wars.” I still remember nursing my 7-11 Big Gulp filled with Dr. Pepper as I wilted in the hot Kansas sun waiting to get tickets. What was probably twenty minutes seemed like thirty years, as I couldn’t wait to nestle myself into a plush velvet seat in the Arctic-cool Glenwood Theater to see what my friends were raving about.

I was beyond excited as I sat in between my sisters Dolly and Mona armed with another Dr. Pepper and peanut M&M’s. Sure, I’d seen cinematic gems like “Herbie Rides Again,” “Freaky Friday” and “The Shaggy D.A.” before, but I’d never attended an “event” release like “Star Wars.” This was a big deal and everyone knew it.

As the theater lights finally went dark, I was hooked the moment “Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away” began. The bewildering special effects, amazing stunts and rich musical score all captivated me to the point that by the film’s end credits, I not only knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, but I knew what I had to do with the rest of my life. I needed to tell stories. That was the day I caught the “filmmaking bug.”

Every filmmaker has a cinematic experience that forever changes his or her life’s path. “Star Wars” was mine.

I believe because these remarkable moments of epiphany occur during the film that delivers “the bug,” filmmakers are forever focused on getting a theatrical release for their films.

This brings me to today’s topic: Going Theatrical!

Like soap operas and toupees, theatrical releases aren’t for everyone. Don’t get me wrong, I wish generation-defining successes like “Star Wars” upon everyone reading this column, but it’s important to know the ins and outs of the theatrical game before you jump in. So, here are some insights into releasing your film theatrically.

The First Two Weeks Are The Biggest
It’s estimated that 70-75% of a film’s total theatrical gross will be earned on the first two weekends of its release. One reason for this is because when film studios know they have a dog, they open their “barker” on as many screens as they can. This way, they can make as much coin as possible before bad word-of-mouth kills the box office.

“Battlefield Earth” (2000), is an excellent example. It made $11.548 million on 3,307 screens on its opening weekend, which represented 53.8% of its total domestic gross. Simply put, if you make more than half of your domestic total in three days, it means by the Monday after your opening weekend, bad word-of-mouth quickly killed your film.

Even if a film is great, most people see it by the second weekend of its release, unless word-of-mouth increases its fan base or it earns repeat customers. A recent example of this is “Sex and The City 2” (2010). This picture grossed $95.3 million domestically and $286.4 million worldwide. But, the gross receipts dropped from $31 million in the opening weekend, to $12 million on the second weekend. That’s a 60.2% drop in revenue. That trend suggests those who wanted to see it did, but they didn’t recommend it.

When a film has “legs,” it means it keeps tearing ticket stubs week after week. “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” for example, opened with a weekend box office of $597,000, and then kept steadily chugging its way to a $241 million dollar domestic box office after 52 weeks in release. Fifty-two weeks. Think about that. That little indie romantic comedy stayed in theaters for one whole calendar year. Now that’s some seriously strong legs!

Per Screen Average
This is a key element in helping a distributor decide if he or she wants to expand your film into more theaters. For example, if your film makes $60,000 from being released on 30 screens, it has a $2,000 per screen average. But if your film earns $18,000 from being released on one screen, it has an $18,000 per screen average. Your distributor will be far more excited about expanding your film’s release from $18,000 on one screen as opposed to $60,000 on 30 screens. So remember, it’s not about the number of screens you get, it’s the number of “butts in seats” you get into each screening.

If you remember nothing else from this article, please remember this: it is NEVER a good idea to pay a distributor up front to release your film theatrically. If they’re not willing to put their own money behind your film, then they clearly don’t believe in your film. All you’re doing by paying them to release your film, is paying for their overhead, their rent and their twin Ferraris.

Platform Releases
This is the kind of release you want for your brilliant independent film, and you want it with Fox Searchlight. A platform release is strategically placing your film on a few screens in key cities and utilizing critical acclaim word-of-mouth to carry it forward.

You want to work with Fox Searchlight because they’re the best at it. For example, in 2008 Fox Searchlight released “Slumdog Millionaire” on ten screens, earning $360,000 (that’s an incredible $36,000 per screen average). The picture eventually expanded to 2,943 screens, earning $141.3 million domestically, another $236.6 million internationally, and took home eight Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Furthermore, in 2004, Fox Searchlight released “Sideways” on four screens. That picture went on to play 1,786 screens and earned an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.

If you’re wondering what my connection to Fox Searchlight is, the answer is nothing outside of my admiration for their ability to curate great indies.

Four Walling
This is the dangerous art of renting a theatrical screen from a theater or multiplex and showing your film on it. It’s simple. If your box office receipts eclipse your rental fee, you’re in profit. If not, you lose. Either way, the theater wins because they still get a healthy rental fee from you regardless whether the film hits or not.

If you’re thinking about four walling, it’s probably a good idea to rent their smallest screen at first – and only do so for one week – even if a stand-alone week costs a bit more than if you signed a multi-week contract. The reason is if your film is wildly successful, the theater will probably give you a much better deal for week two in a much bigger theater. But, if your film doesn’t catch fire, then at least you can cut your losses after one week.

Advertising is also a key element. Who is going to know or care about your film unless you create awareness? Targeting a specific audience who is likely to watch your film is your best bet in getting the support you need.

Location, location, location, as they say, is the most important element in four walling. Thus, do demographic research about the area before you choose a theater. Are the people in the area in the age range you’re targeting? Have they supported indie films in the past? Are they too conservative? Too liberal? Knowing these answers will enhance your chances of doing well.

Lastly, you should report your weekend grosses to the trades. Usually, grossing $3,500-$5,000 will break into the “Top 100 grossing films of the week.” This, of course, can help you keep your investors happy while they’re waiting to get their money back. However, distributors won’t take notice until your film grows “legs.”

The Exhibitor And Distributors Split
Generally speaking, a little over half of the domestic box office stays with the exhibitors (the theaters). While it’s true that major distributors will demand 90% of the opening weekend box office for their “tent pole” releases, most films released can’t command such a fee. Besides, even the 90/10 opening weekend split gets more favorable for the exhibitor week after week.

Coke And Popcorn Make The Real Money
Someone once said that TV shows were just advertisements between commercials. That statement is also true when it comes to concessions at movie theaters; theatrical films are just a way to get people to buy more Coke and popcorn. It’s estimated that somewhere between 88%-95% of a theater’s profit comes from concessions, not ticket sales.

Breaking Even Theatrically
Because the distributor gets slightly less than half of the total domestic box office gross, it’s widely believed theatrical releases must make 2.5 to 3 times their budget to break even. Of course, that assumption does not take international box office, DVD, cable, V.O.D. and TV sales into account. These all contribute toward helping a film break even. But, even with all of these ancillary markets, less than 20% of theatrical releases ever break even.

How A Film’s Rating Affects Box Office
Indie filmmakers have long been obsessed with making “R” rated films, because they’re supposedly hip to do. Sex, drugs, blood and weapons are staples that usually can’t be escaped. But, if you look at the numbers, the domestic audience much prefers “PG” ratings. The following chart from www.the-numbers.com details a 2009 breakdown for each MPAA rating:

Rank MPAA Rating Movies 2009 Gross Tickets Share
1 PG-13 138 $4,802,199,968 640,293,335 45.20%
2 R 179 $2,731,948,073 364,259,752 25.72%
3 PG 66 $2,717,426,214 362,323,496 25.58%
4 G 15 $298,233,758 39,764,500 2.81%
5 Not Rated 117 $73,554,038 9,807,204 .69%

As you can see, in 2009, over $7.5 billion dollars, or 70.78% of all money made at the domestic box office, was rated PG-13 or PG. That’s something to think about if you truly want to take your film theatrical.

Why Indies Usually Don’t Go Theatrical
It’s a simple case of math. Since most indies cost less than the catering budget of a studio film, it doesn’t make sense to invest tens of millions of dollars into marketing a small film that costs a fraction of the advertising budget needed to push it. Think of it this way, you wouldn’t put a $120,000 stereo system into an $8,000 car, because the stereo, albeit amazing, doesn’t make the car more valuable. The other factor is that major distributors only have so many theatrical slots per year that their staff can handle. Thus, taking on an indie film effectively takes away their ability to distribute one of their much larger, star-studded studio films.

When Films Are Traditionally Released
Indie films are traditionally released in the fall or winter, unless they have an Oscar buzz, at which time they will be released from November to December 25th. In fact, Christmas is the last day a film can be released in order to qualify for Academy Award consideration. This is because a film must be screened theatrically for seven consecutive days before the end of the year in order to qualify for consideration. Indie films traditionally don’t do well during the summer, because May through August is reserved for the mega-budgeted studio action films to eat up most of the box office dollars.

The Only Thing That Really Matters
Filmmakers get so caught up over wanting a theatrical run, they forget what really matters: making money. I know you’re telling yourself making money doesn’t matter, and all you want is to have audiences see your work. But, unless you’re a billionaire, making money always matters. It matters to your investors, your future distributors, and to the perception of how good of a filmmaker you are. The good news is people don’t care how your film makes money, they just care that it does. Meaning, a very successful film on DVD or cable will do far more for your career than a theatrical run that flops.

At the end of the day, all filmmakers really want is a generation defining, bank-breaking theatrical success, which will deliver the filmmaking bug to some nine year old kid in Kansas. But in order to have your moment in the sun, you’ve got to be wearing the appropriate “cinematic sunscreen.” Understanding the theatrical game will allow you to bask in the glory of your theatrical success. But, ignoring these time-tested facts will burn you, if not worse….

Thank you once more for lending me your eyes, and I hope to borrow them again next Tuesday!

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