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Film Marketing: Your Underground Film Tour

Theaters and Microcinemas

One of the big news items out of the Sundance Film Festival this year was Kevin Smith thumbing his nose at the indie film industry that made his career and going on an alleged self-financed screening tour with his latest movie. But, really, you don’t have to be a millionaire filmmaker poor mouthing how an industry has shafted you to go on tour with your own film. You can actually be poor and do the same thing!

Of course, you won’t be filling up theaters with 2,000 or more seats, but there are tons of little movie theaters and microcinemas out there eager to support struggling, truly independent filmmakers. Finding these places takes a little leg work and doing all your own booking and promotion is a mighty task, but it can be a good, rewarding opportunity to get your film seen and to meet directly with your own fans and supporters.

A recent L.A. Weekly article had some film distributors say publicly flat out that some films just don’t deserve to be seen. Perhaps they mean yours! So, taking matters into your own hand might not be such a bad option these days. And it seems to me that I get contacted ever more frequently from filmmakers who are going the self-financed screening tour route. These are the folks who are paving the way that you want to pay attention to.

The main hurdle to going on a self-financed screening tour is, obviously, the “self-financed” part of it all. Most indie filmmakers will probably find their bank accounts drained just from making the darn film in the first place. But, with a little ingenuity and careful planning, even a limited geography tour can be possible.

Don’t start out thinking too big. It’s best to think small, i.e. as in microcinemas, tiny storefront screening spaces that are usually heavily tied into their local community. These are the places that you don’t hear much about on bigger media websites, but with some digging you can find out that many big, small to medium-sized cities have a microcinema. Below, I’ll give you some resources where you can find out where these places are.

Before that, here’s some things to think about:

1. Start Locally.

There might be a nearby screening room you hadn’t heard of before or hadn’t thought of because you were hoping to land that major distributor. No, you won’t make your money back playing at a 50-seat microcinema, but it is one way to get the word out that your film even exists. And if a distributor turns your film down because you already screened at a venue like that, they’d probably never say yes to your film anyway and are just looking for ways to politely turn you down.

2. Contact the Press.

Unless the local paper is the New York Times, don’t hesitate to contact any smaller papers to get a write-up, particularly if it’s your hometown one. Also, see if there are any film blogs in each city that might be willing to review an indie film. In most cases, you’ll probably get turned down or never hear back from anyone. But, on the other hand, they can’t have a chance to say yes if you don’t let them know you exist.

3. Your “Theatrical Run” Doesn’t Have to Happen All at Once.

Your tour dates don’t have to be all close together like the way a rock band tours the country. On the one hand, it might be beneficial to get your tour over in one big chunk of time, especially if you don’t have much time to spare or you’re squeezing the tour in on a work vacation. But, there’s also nothing wrong with having a few screenings, taking some time off, then planning another round of screenings at a later date. There’s really no reason to do everything all at once, other than we’re conditioned by how traditional theatrical runs are scheduled.

4. Tie Into Local Events/Organizations.

This might work best for documentaries, but think about how your film could work together on a screening with groups around the country. For example, when Bob Ray toured with his film Hell on Wheels, a documentary about female roller derby leagues, he had local league members show up for post-screening Q&A sessions. Another documentary, Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo, actually held screenings at various prisons on its tour route.

5. Give Yourself Time to Plan.

If you decide a film tour works for you, don’t plan on heading out in a week or two. Theaters, even tiny microcinemas, usually need a long lead time as their schedules can fill up pretty quickly, especially if they only hold screenings a few days out of the week and you’re scheduling a long time to be out on the road. Plus, you’ll need the time to plan any promotional work, like contacting press and such.

6. Lastly, Here Are a Few Theater Resources For You.

Luckily, there are a few people who have been building theater and microcinema resources for filmmakers to use so that they can start getting ideas for and/or start booking their tours right away. And, yes, one of those people is me. Please check out the Underground Film Journal’s Theaters and Screening Series Resource page, where I have compiled a list of about 25 theaters and microcinemas where you can potentially book your film.

However, my list absolutely pales in comparison to the global map Mike Plante has made on Google. I’m afraid to even start counting how many theaters and microcinemas he’s listed! It’s a lot, from the U.S. to Canada and to Europe. And what’s better about his map over my list is that you can easily visualize where you might want to go.

And the third list I know of is for the Southern Circuit Tour of Independent Filmmakers, whom you can submit your film to and they’ll set up a tour for you across the U.S. South. But if they don’t accept you, you can always browse their list of venues to plan your own tour. Just be careful to not step on their toes as they’re a great organization.

A self-planned, self-promoted, self-financed screening tour may not be the right thing for every filmmaker, but it’s certainly worth a consideration.


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