Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Gielens' THE GRADUATES -- a movie you've probably never heard of, but might.

You've raised the money, hired the cast and crew, shot the movie, edited it to within an inch of its life and added the soundtrack. Now: How in hell do you find an audience?

TrustMovies has been hearing from more and more young, unreleased filmmakers of late, with the request: "Watch my film, please." Since time is limited, and the results aren’t always promising, investing hours and energy is a crap shoot (and yours truly is not much of a gambler). Still, many mainstream movies are risky views, too, not to mention some foreign and independent films, so occasionally one of these “out of the blue” movies gets through the cracks. Such was the case with THE GRADUATES, a coming-of-age opus that tracks a week at the Ocean City, Maryland, shore with four friends, one's older brother, and a few of their girls. Since coming-of-age is maybe the single most oft-filmed genre (I've seen 5,477 of these by now, and you've probably seen half that many), without an exotic locale or some other hook, it's not promising.

The Graduates has no hook, other than decent performances and adequate filmmaking skills, particularly given its very small shooting budget. From that standpoint, the movie is surprisingly OK. There's a smart line of dialog now and again, an attractive cast, but not much plot nor even events, to speak of. Yet there's not much that's wince-inducing either, so the experience is relatively painless. Zak Williams (Robin Williams' son) makes his feature film debut here, with one long, well-written/acted scene -- a further inducement. The film is made for a young, love-to-drink-and-party crowd. Would I recommend it? Not really. But I wouldn't knock it, either.

What caused me to pay attention to The Graduates was the original email I received from its executive producer, Matt Gielen, (pronounced "Guy-len"), who is also the younger brother -- by four years -- of the film's writer/director, Ryan Gielen. (The brothers are pictured above, Ryan at left) Arriving during the Tribeca film fest, the email's subject line read "Hottest Ticket at Tribeca Is Playing in Queens," and the message below it invited me to the film's opening at The Astoria Beer Garden, promising me a free beer. Since the film was not part of the Tribeca fest, we'll call this "marketing" rather than prevarication.

Further below in the message was the real hook: distribution. "We're self-distributing, for the most part, so we're doing a lot of cool things with social media, alternative venues, viral marketing, etc. and I think fans of indie film and indie filmmakers would find it pretty cool and informative." Because I could make neither of the Beer Garden showings, I requested a screener (which Matt kindly sent), watched it, and then called him for a quick interview.

TrustMovies: When did you actually make this film?

Matt Gielen: The movie was shot in 2007: principal photography began on Sept 7, 07, and wrapped on October 15. That's a five-week shoot -- probably as long a shoot as you would ever want to go, with the budget we had.

Which was…?

A $95,000 shooting budget. But it turned out to be the perfect amount for us. We shot every day for six day weeks and shot a ton of stuff. Five to six months later, we had the finished film, and the very first showing was in April 2008: a screening for cast, crew, investors, friends, family -- and invited industry.

Then what?

Then we started applying to film festivals and also had a few "sneak previews" in Baltimore (we’re from that area), DC, LA, Austin, NYC, and Asheville NC.

Can you tell me about your experience with film festivals?

With the advent of digital media and the ability to make cheap movies fast, you started seeing these festivals popping up everywhere. Our experience with the festivals has been very mixed: from the biggest exploiter of filmmakers -- a festival that makes everyone pay to get in -- to the Rhode Island International Film Festival, which is really helpful to new filmmakers trying to get their stuff out there.

(Ed. Note: The Graduates won the Director Discovery Award in 2008
at the Rhode Island Intl. film fest and also won Best Comedy
at the Seattle True Independent Film Festival.)

A lot of these film fests are just money machines. Or they only want world premiers, or stars. Or they check your budget, and if it's not big enough, they don't want to even look at your film because they imagine that it's not going to be any good. Then, after that, you must deal with, "Do you know anyone at this festival?" Many filmmakers have friends at festivals who can pull strings. Or then you need a PR agent -- for which we had no budget. We did use, which is kind of like a middle man between filmmaker and film festival. It's a good service and gives you a lot more options. But what this also does is open up all these little tiny film fests -- that desperately want to keep running -- so that everyone and his cousin with a camera can submit. This greatly increases the competition, and makes it less likely that your film will get approved. So you really have to be smart with your festival strategy, because these festival fees add up.

How were you smart with yours? Or maybe I should say, How have you now learned to be smarter?

A lot of fests, when they select their films, go for the artsy movies that offer big, giant messages. So be aware of this and tailor your message to your audience: If you have a comedy, tell them: Here's a great piece of counter-programming.

And this: Submit to the major festivals first, and then wait. When you are doing indie filmmaking and are out there on your own, there is a huge drive not to go with the common mindset. But sometimes it is a good idea to try this. So, submit to the big boys first, then wait. Overall, we spent thousands of dollars in film fest submissions. Each $20 adds up, after all. So save yourself money and time -- and wait. Wait for that yes or no from the festivals you care about most -- because if they are looking for a premier and you end up choosing another fest before you've heard from them, you've missed out. Most important: know your festival audience: If you have a coming-of-age comedy like ours, maybe Berlin is not your best choice.

So now, what has happened lately?

We were also invited by Anthology Film Archives to be part of its New Filmmakers' series in January '09. That was worthwhile.

Yes, I like the AFA: they're smart and show such a wide range of films.

In addition to AFA, we're doing a lot of other cool things. After all, we have a duty to pay our investors back. So we are going the self-distribution route. IndieFliks is going to be dealing with our distribution -- via Amazon, Netflix, Hulu (hi-end digital streaming), and the like. This will be just part of the distribution. We're also having one of our producers reach out to every single independent theatre in the entire country. He spent six weeks getting a database and spread sheet on these theatres and is now starting to reach them. We have a one-week run coming up in the Baltimore area -- where our family is from.

This was part of this independent theatre outreach? Where in Baltimore?

We're opening Friday, 5/15, at the R/C Hollywood Cinema Four, just outside of Baltimore. We'll be making personal appearances: Ryan will be doing a brief intro and then a brief Q& A afterward. Regarding marketing, we're going nationally to any web site dealing with comedy, humor, college kids, etc. We'll refine it to Maryland, where we data-based every possible news outlet in state. We're looking at having articles in 6-7 newspapers, maybe 20 blog postings, a couple of radio appearances between now and screening time. And this is just the traditional media outreach. We've also geo-targeted and reached out to everyone on Facebook, YouTube, My Space, and Twitter accounts.

And one more important thing no self-distributing filmmaker should ever forget: Grow Your List. From day zero of development, collect every single email address that comes your way. Have everyone who stops by the set, friends of extras on up -- everyone -- get their email address. We now have a 50,000 strong email list that will help us market and sell the film. We also give away our soundtrack, which feature 25 songs from some incredible indie bands. We made an agreement with all of them for profit sharing.

That seems very fair.

We’re young, hungry and hardworking. The last thing we want to do is rip off other people who are in the same position as we are. For the bands, this opens the door to having maybe thousands more people, who have not heard their songs before, now hearing them.

Can we talk about alternative venues -- like The Astoria Beer Garden where you screened here in Queens?

There are a couple of really good articles by Jon Reiss for Filmmaker Magazine that I recommend to anyone doing something like this -- a must-read for any indie filmmaker. I heard Jon speak at the Tribeca panel, where he asked, "What is a theatrical release? It's any room in which you're showing your film." Getting into a theatre in NYC is really hard. But The Astoria Beer Garden has this giant 250 person room, with a stage. It was basically a giant open hall. So we got in for a tenth of what we’d have rented out the cheapest theatre in NYC! We did the research.

So how did it go?

It went great. We sold out first night completely, and got around 200 people the second night.

What did the audience get?

For $10, they got to see the see the film and also got a free soundtrack -- and they were in a place where they could buy a cold drink or beer.

That strikes me as a good way in which to see a movie like The Graduates.

Comedy films go better with food and drink! We also gave the audience a Q&A (shown above) with the producer, writer/director, and a majority of the cast -- many of our actors are from the NYC area anyway -- and we hung out for two hours before and two hours after and chatted away about film and filmmaking. And we made a nice little bit of money.

How did you manage to get your audience -- 450 people -- for these screenings?

You need to create a sense of urgency to see this film, and I admit that this is hard to do.

Maybe, in the case of a movie like yours, it is more about making people think they are going to have a good time?

Maybe, yes. We will probably have one or two more runs like this beer garden thing in different cities. And then we will end up four-walling in certain cities like Portland, LA, Seattle, San Francisco, Chicago, Austin, and maybe Myrtle Beach, and couple of Florida cities. We'll do small ad buys in the cities' biggest paper. Oh, and in Maryland. We'll be in Ocean City (Ed's Note: The movie was filmed here) doing free screenings and selling DVDs.

Any other thoughts before we close?

Find out where your audience goes. Did you make a movie about ceramics? Then find cities with there art festivals. Find your audience, then figure out how to reach 'em. We've had the greatest success with our screenings, when we go out and talk with people. Hand them a flyer and make eye and voice contact. This will do ten times more than anything else.

Sounds sort of like a political candidate glad-handing, eyeballing and talking to his voters?

Yes. Definitely!

(All photos and art courtesy of the Geilens and The Graduates.)


Angelo said...

In a sea of hype, indie psycho-babble, and regurgitated self-distribution crap, this blog post and in information disseminated by the folks at "The Graduates" is the clearest indication of what it takes to TRULY self distribute an indie film. Thank you for reviewing this film and posting a filmmaker Q&A that is far more educational than any $500 Film Festival Panel discussion.

shortcinema said...

Excellent post. Very inspiring to those of us in the trenches.

James van Maanen, said...

Thank you, Angelo and ShortCinema. It's encouraging for me to know that anybody's listening/reading. I am impressed with the Gielens, their energy and drive, even if I found their movie itself no knockout. We all have to start somewhere, and The Graduates is a decent beginning. Because I learned stuff from this interview, I figured sharing it might be helpful, since distribution -- of some sort -- is the key factor.

I've never been involved in filmmaking, but I used to write plays for the theatre, While writing was hard enough, the marketing and then the production tasks were ten times more so. Yet seeing the play finally produced and being appreciated by an audience was certainly the high point of my creative life. I am sure it's like that for most filmmakers: You create for yoursevles, first -- to make art, money or (one hopes) both. But you also do it to communicate with others, and you can't have that without some kind of distribution.

Ryan Gielen said...

Hi Angelo, Shortcinema, James,

First, glad you liked the info Matt put forth. We have tons more available on the graduates blog (just click "blog" on the wesbite). We're also putting a ton on the two-disc DVD, the second disc of which will be built out entirely with extra features from our experience making and self-distributing our little film.

I also want to add an additional lesson- know who you're sending the screener to for review. If we had spent a little more time analyzing who we asked to review the film, maybe our first mention in Filmmaker Mag wouldn't describe the movie as having "no events to speak of" and not worth recommending. James is not our target market, and from what I can gather from a cursory glance at his blog, not a coming-of-age comedy fan.

It's unfortunate, because audiences generally love the film, it's won a couple really nice awards, and is generating a pretty solid following. I don't think it's because the film lacks events, I think it's because those events don't speak to 70 year-olds.

And, plenty happens in The Graduates. Kids fall in and out of love, hurt each other, fight each other, break up and grow up. It tells the story of one hell of a week.

If you don't believe me, check it out on Netflix June 2nd, iTunes, July 1st, or Hulu somewhere in between.

James van Maanen, said...

Hi, Ryan--
Yes, I wondered about that, too. But I figured, well, you're not going to send the movie to someone whose blog you haven't even checked out. Wrong! But I did not dislike your film, I just didn't love it all that much. And it IS probably an age thing. When you've seen as many coming-of-age films as I, a new one needs to be a little more special. But this is not the case for younger audiences, for whom much of The Graduates may seem quite fresh.

For me, the important part was the fact you and and Matt worked so hard in your respective jobs and managed to get it together to produce and then to market the movie. This is very commendable! Keep it up.

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