These Indie Filmmakers Couldn’t Find Distributors Who’d Promise A Theatrical Release. So They’re Distributing To Cinemas Themselves.

LAS VEGAS — Peter Hyoguchi fanned out the deck like a Vegas street magician. Pick a card. Any card. It doesn’t matter which one, because they all have a QR code to the trailer for his new movie, “The Occult.” 

Hyoguchi and the producers of his indie thriller, which follows a man who gets caught in an underground supernatural conspiracy, brought the cards to CinemaCon last month to pitch the movie directly to theater owners with the goal of bringing the film to their screens.

Hyoguchi said he received five offers from independent distributors to release the film on streaming and digital rental, but none were willing to go the theatrical route. So he decided to go it alone, because he believes in the value of theaters that much.

“Every filmmaker wants their movie in a theater, but I think it’s been kind of beaten out of most of them, especially independent filmmakers,” Hyoguchi told TheWrap.“Their expectations become much lower than their desires. Their film is not going to make it to theaters…they’re lucky if they get onto Netflix.”

For him, CinemaCon offered a different path to get “The Occult” to the big screen. Rather than shop the film at festivals, he’d take the trailer directly to the people who owned the big screens he sought.

He’s not the only one. Over the past year, two other independently produced films, Mike Cheslik’s silent slapstick odyssey “Hundreds of Beavers” and Scott Monahan’s gritty road trip drama “Anchorage” have gone directly to exhibitors to make the dream of a big-screen showing a reality. Their releases may be only on a few dozen or even just a small handful of screens. But the filmmakers welcome any chance to show their work in a communal setting rather than a living room, especially at a time when theaters are hungry for more films to place in their projectors.

It’s a rough road, one that requires creative and focused marketing strategies and the willingness to do all the work a studio would normally do. But at a time when the once-buzzy acquisition market at Sundance and other festivals has slowed down, it’s an option more filmmakers find worth taking.

Peter Hyoguchi

Peter Hyoguchi (Photo courtesy Peter Hyoguchi)

Hyoguchi hopes self-released films can be a part of a different kind of system — one where filmmakers with guts, drive and knowledge can work directly with regional and arthouse theater owners to showcase the stories made outside of the studio system which can fill in the gaps from merging Hollywood studios.

It’s easier said than done. Many distributors, major or indie, book out screens at theaters for multiple weeks, which can leave less space for self-distributed fare. Plus, even the most experienced filmmakers and theaters have far less resources to deal with the same problem as the big boys: how to stand out amongst a vast spectrum of entertainment options and in a pop culture landscape more atomized than ever.

“All I want is the chance to succeed or fail with the audience, not with some PA who’s looking through 15,000 films at Sundance who maybe just turned away for a moment while he’s eating a sandwich and missed the plot of the movie, and then I don’t get in,” Hyoguchi said. “Then my hopes and dreams are gone because of some random yahoo, who’s stopped the first process in the 100,000 processes that go into getting your movie to the theater.”

Release the ‘Beavers’

Since the start of its roadshow tour last year, “Hundreds of Beavers,” a black-and-white comedy, has grossed more than $320,000, a considerable haul given that the movie has never played on more than 17 screens in any single weekend. It has been fueled entirely by organic word-of-mouth without the aid of a distributor’s marketing team.

It took two years for director Mike Cheslik and his team, led by producer Kurt Ravenwood, to bring “Beavers” to the big screen after its Fantastic Fest premiere in 2022. The team weighed multiple options and distribution offers, but settled on self-theatrical distribution with Ravenwood, who runs his own Milwaukee-based marketing firm SRH, overseeing the promotional campaign.

“It just seemed that if the main value that these distributors are bringing is marketing, well, our producer does that professionally,” Cheslik told TheWrap.

Like Hyoguchi and the “Occult” team, Cheslik and Ravenwood took “Hundreds of Beavers” to CinemaCon, showing theater owners the trailer for the madcap story of a fur trapper who gets into a feud with an army of beavers — played by extras in furry costumes — that destroyed his applejack business.

While the trip to Vegas helped build relationships, it wasn’t until the team brought on Jessica Rosner, a former exec at arthouse distributor Kino International, that the “Beavers” team built the foundations for its theatrical release through her connections with cinema owners.

In fall 2023, “Hundreds of Beavers” set out on a Great Lakes roadshow tour through 14 independent theaters, including the Music Box, Chicago’s crown jewel of indie cinema. Ravenwood and Rosner also booked stops at locations that knew how to reach out to their patrons like the Cleveland Cinematheque and The Little Theatre in Rochester.


Filmmaker Mike Cheslik (right), on the set of “Hundreds of Beavers” with lead star Ryland Brickson Cole Tews (Photo Credit: Mike Cheslik/Justin Cook)

With the roadshow in place, Ravenwood and his team focused on building a suite of promotional materials that it could share with theaters to help get the word out.

“We gave them a whole packet. Here’s the trailer. Here’s all the copy you should use on social media. We were told by some theaters that there are smaller indie distributors who don’t give them the level of marketing material we were giving them,” Ravenwood said. “Any dollar we made from the roadshow went right back into targeted social media marketing in whatever city we were playing next.”

It paid off. The roadshow screenings, held once a night, ensured sellout crowds. That gave Ravenwood plenty of footage of audiences laughing and applauding the film and taking pictures with lead star Ryland Brickson Cole Tews and fully-costumed beavers in the lobby. That footage made it easier to book more theaters, and the film’s momentum grew like the giant snowball Tews runs on top of in one of the dozens of gags in “Hundreds of Beavers.”

This past March, even as it was released on video on-demand, “Hundreds of Beavers” had its first Los Angeles screening at the Laemmle Royal and has continued to book screenings at Laemmle’s locations while finding more audiences in new cities.

As for lessons for other indie filmmakers, Ravenwood and his team noted that while they still had to work hard to get the word out, it helped that Cheslik made a zany film that would easily catch the eye.

“My running joke is I’m not sure what’s crazier: How they made the movie, the movie itself, or the distribution of the movie, because they’re all extremely unique,” Rosner said. “But he idea of not needing to play something for two shows a day for a week is something that a lot of indie filmmakers and indie theaters should be looking more at.”

Justin Cook, the publicist for “Hundreds of Beavers,” underscored the importance of having someone on the filmteam who is a marketing veteran like Ravenwood, or who is at least focused primarily on the film’s promotion.

“Ideally, that job goes to the lead producer, but that’s got to be the priority of someone on your core team,” Cook said. “You have to have someone onboard as early as possible who focuses just on what happens after the movie’s finished.”

On the marquee with Christopher Nolan

Scott Monahan understands how easy it can be for even the most driven indie filmmaker to let promotional work fall by the wayside. Getting a project financed, produced, and in the can is enough of a years-long Herculean effort before trying to get a foothold in the festival circuit.

“By the time they’re able to get any kind of distribution – if they do at all – filmmakers are just like, ‘I’m tapped. Just put the film online,’” he said. “And I think that exhaustion is something that gets taken advantage of. Digital release is what everyone does, so just get it out.”

Burnout was something that Monahan grappled with in his campaign to bring “Anchorage” to movie theaters. He wrote, directed, and starred in the film about a pair of drug addicts going on a continent-spanning journey from Florida to Alaska hoping for a big payday with a trunk full of opioids, only for their plans to quickly go south.

"Anchorage" "Anchorage"

Scott Monahan in “Anchorage” (Photo courtesy of Scott Monahan)

From the moment he began making the film, Monahan knew he wanted to get the film in theaters. He made a deal with digital distributor Screen Media to release the film on VOD in fall 2023, giving him time to arrange some form of theatrical release on his own beforehand.

Monahan took “Anchorage” on the festival circuit and got some good reception before firing out as many emails as he could to theaters and bookers. Most went unanswered. But he caught the attention of a booker who offered to help get the film in 30-60 theaters in major cities nationwide. A British indie distributor, Bulldog, also expressed interest in releasing the film in U.K. cinemas.

It seemed like what Monahan was looking for — until he crunched the numbers. Among the expenses: the booker’s fee of $10,000, $3,000 to get the film rated by the Motion Picture Association and around $150 for each digital copy of the film and poster to send to a theater, which would total $4,500-$9,000 depending on the number of theaters booked. After all the time and money spent to produce “Anchorage,” Monahan wasn’t sure if he had enough left to make even this limited release possible. And with the UK release contingent on a U.S. theatrical release, the anxiety mounted.

“It took some time, but I had to step back and ask myself: What kind of release do I as the marketer, director, producer, writer, star of this film, have the bandwidth to really do? I just decided that I don’t need to be in 60 cinemas. I’m fine with just three or four,” he said.

Monahan opted to self-release the film at indie cinemas in three major cities: the Laemmles in L.A.; the Music Box in Chicago, where his co-star, Dakota Loesch, is from; and the Cinema Village and Village East in New York, where the families of both men lived. That was enough to satisfy Bulldog, which distributed “Anchorage” at Curzon Cinemas in London.

With the help of his co-producers Chad Schultz and Taylor Harrington of The Malt Shop Pictures, and Gia Rigoli and Vero Kompalic of Discordia, Monahan began his marketing campaign, using the lessons he learned from promoting “Anchorage” during its festival tour. Among those lessons: create custom art for each city the film screens in and prioritize YouTube ads targeted in each city three weeks before the film would screen.

The most important rule Monahan set for himself was to have a post-screening Q&A after each nightly screening on the tour. Ryan Oestreich, general manager of the Music Box, said the willingness of “Hundreds of Beavers” and “Anchorage” teams to attend their screenings elevated the films over over many self-released pictures he’s booked.

“That extra step makes it feel like a true event that people want to be a part of, and for us it makes it a lot easier to sell the film to people subscribed to our email newsletter,” he said.

The rule paid off, especially at the Music Box, where “Anchorage” screened for a week and sold out a 70-seat auditorium each night, Oestreich said. The other films screening at the Music Box that week? The opening week of “Oppenheimer” and the sixth week of “Asteroid City.”

Now screening at the Music Box: Christopher Nolan, Wes Anderson…and Scott Monahan.

“Each day we screened in Chicago, there would be a line every day down the street. I would just walk down the line and talk to people,” Monahan said. “That week was fantastic, creating a personal experience for everyone who came, the kind that changes the concept of what movies are from content to engagement and from audience to community. That was the moment we worked so hard for and made it all worth it.”

Something new

One month after networking at CinemaCon, Peter Hyoguchi’s dream of bringing “The Occult” to the big screen is starting to come true.

He has booked a trio of dates with post-screening Q&As in July and August with regional chains in Florida, Minnesota and Michigan, with plans to reach out to nearby colleges in the summer and fall.

One of those chains, Emagine Theaters, has offered Hyoguchi the chance to use any of its 29 locations to host a potential roadshow. And Florida-based Paragon Theaters is open to additional bookings depending on how the initial screening at its Naples location goes on July 1.

“We’re always looking for ways beyond the traditional Hollywood model to get people excited for moviegoing,” Emagine COO Trevor Baker said. “A film like ‘The Occult’ from an indie filmmaker that wants to look at distributing outside of that model is something any exhibitor would be crazy to not look at.”

When “The Occult” arrives for their weekday screenings, it will share multiplex space with “Deadpool & Wolverine” and “Despicable Me 4,” as well as films from indie distributors like A24’s Ti West slasher film “MaXXXine.”

The summer box office season, while not without its hits, is expected to be a bumpy one as theaters are still waiting for production to ramp up after last year’s strikes.

With Paramount potentially becoming the next big Hollywood player to be bought up, Hyoguchi firmly believes that not only is there no going back to pre-pandemic normality but that Hollywood is going to experience a “freefall collapse” similar to Detroit’s automotive industry in the 1980s.

“It will be rebuilt, but I think it’s going to be more and more decentralized,” he predicted. “Right now there’s so few films being made in Hollywood, but there’s more being made out there. It’s just not being connected to the theaters and to the audience.”

The post Going It Alone: The Indie Filmmakers Getting Their Movies in Theaters Without a Distributor appeared first on TheWrap.

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