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BSS 2014: distributing Shadows

Co-directors Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement, along with producer Chelsea Winstanley, were scheduled to discuss the methods used to distribute their comedy vampire movie.

Although Clement’s presence might have increased the comedy factor, his late substitution with Madman’s more business-oriented Michael Eldred probably resulted in more practical advice emerging from this session of the Big Screen Symposium.

Taikaa Waititi and Chelsea Winstanley

Taikaa Waititi and Chelsea Winstanley talk distributing vampires at BSS 2014

The team began with a 1.01 on the dispersal of funds from cinema ticket sales (of which What We Do in the Shadows had racked up $2,573,679 as of 24 September). First up the government takes the GST of 15%. The cinemas take their percentage, followed by the distributors, who first recoup their P&A (publicity and advertising) costs and then take their commission. The sales agents are next in line.

Finally it’s the filmmakers’ turn: at the end of the queue or the bottom of the heap. While the places in line are set, the shares are not. Week by week, the exhibitor’s share of the take from the ticket sales increases as the size of audience diminishes. No wonder many filmmakers never make a cent from their work.

While NZ exhibitors, distributors and cinema-goers aren’t quite so obsessed with opening weekend numbers as their US counterparts, the distribution plan aims to get as many people through the cinema doors as quickly as possible after release. The filmmaker and distributor’s shares of the take are as high as they’re ever going to get in that first week, and
the more who see a film early, the more likely it is that more people will be attracted to it by its good box office performance – especially if there’s good word of mouth.

The distribution plan for What We Do in the Shadows appears to have been a mix of conventional strategies blended with a bunch of unusual and imaginative schemes, such as the poster competition. There was a huge amount of work to be done, and a lot of help was needed to get it done.

Waititi advised, “Be nice to people, because one day you might need their help.”

The Shadows team knew creatively what they wanted – but they needed people with practical knowledge and experience. Waititi was adamant that filmmakers have to know about this sort of stuff – nowadays one has to think more about the audience, especially while prepping and making the film. “It’s a science up until the film comes out, then it’s magical – people all holding their fingers crossed.”

They employed particular people to run the social media side, including separate individuals for each of Facebook, Twitter, and other social media.

They quickly discovered that cinemas “do not give a shit about what you’ve already done”; each film is an entirely new proposition. That Waititi had made Boy, NZ’s highest grossing film of the last decade, meant nothing. The team needed someone who could talk in the cinema owners’ language – hence the presence in the team of Michael Eldred.

Asked by moderator Carthew Neal about their strategy for getting a better deal, they noted importance of finding the right release date. Top of the list in choosing that date was avoiding a head to head clash with the opening of a Hollywood juggernaut or a similarly themed film (not that the 2014 crop has been big on vampire mockumentaries set in Wellington).

In the USA, attendance on the first two weekends is everything; Kiwis’ habits are quite different. In New Zealand the audiences for 2010’s Boy didn’t really start building until after a month on the big screen.

To counter slow take up, which is harder to overcome than it was even four years ago, they battled to promote the new film hard before opening. They targeted the online audience, who are presumably more up-to-date and who make more impulsive decisions. They created a community of involvement, so that people were coming to them wanting to do stuff to help.

They also held very limited media previews to maximise the size of those audiences, which makes sense as comedy always works better with a larger group of people.

All in all, it was 8 to 10 weeks equivalent full-time work. But, says Waititi, “Effort is rewarded!” It was hard work, but it was worth it. They would do it again – but the methodology would be completely different, because every film is different.

Mention was made of self-distributed films like Gardening with Soul. The Shadows team recommended that everyone should get together, and share their experiences and ideas. To this end, they recommended Geoff Lealand’s excellent Cinemas of NZ website, a guide to the independent picture theatres and very valuable resource for those contemplating self-distribution.

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