4-Walling a Movie Theater

By Rick Popko

If anyoneís interested in 4-walling a theater (the process of renting a theater out to show your film), the following story is our experience doing a 3-day run for our movie, Monsturd.

First of all, why do it? What does 4-walling do for you?

The main thing 4-walling a theater can do for you is possibly get you press exposure that you wouldnít get on the film festival circuit (weíll go into how to get press farther down in the story). For the record, Dan West, my creative partner, and I probably spent close to $500 sending screener copies of Monsturd to any film festival that looked like they would take us. Needless to say, we didnít get accepted into any of them.

The second thing 4-walling does is give you the opportunity to see how your movie plays on the big screen (and itís a nice thank you to all of the actors who volunteered to be in your movie for nothing).

Dan and I live in S.F. (and 90% of our actors are from S.F.) so S.F. was the most logical choice for the city to do our 4-wall adventure. Some people talk about going to L.A. and trying to set up a 4-wall situation there and invite studio bass and such. Unless youíre already living in L.A., I, personally, donít think thatís a great idea. For one, itíll cost you a ton more money, and two, the logistics of setting up something like a movie premiere in something thatís not your hometown are astronomical. Itís best to just do it in the town or city you live in.

The next thing we did was size up all of the independent art houses in town (these guys will probably give you a better deal than trying to rent one of the big multiplexes-also, most indie houses (at least in S.F.) still have those big marquees out front to really show off the movieís titles. Most of the multiplexes donít have these any more. Or if they do, your title will get lost among the 15 other movies showing in that theater. We narrowed our theater search down to the Red Vic, the Roxie, and the Victoria. Both the Red Vic and Roxie were ultimately too small for us (something you need to consider are the number of people you think are going to turn up for your Premiere). The Victoria held 375 people, which we figured would be perfect.

The next thing we had to do was strike a deal with the theater owner. She told us that the theater rental was $1,000 a night. On top of that she said, while it was okay for us to sell merchandise at the theater (i.e., posters, movie copies, t-shirts and such), the theater gets control of the concession stand. On the other hand weíd get 100 percent of the door. The $1,000 included someone to run the box office, but not the projectionist (she was another $15 an hour). Now, one thing Iíve learned in studying who actually gets their films covered in the papers is that the people who do get ink have their movie play for at least three days (Fri, Sat, Sun). If you only play for one day, most big city papers will turn their noses up at you, because they get requests all the time from different bands, performances, shows, what have you that all want press for their one day thing. Newspaper editor figure if youíre on for three days, then youíre pretty serious. But there was no way I could pay the woman $3,000 (first I was recently laid off from my job, and second, I just didnít have that much in my bank account). So it was time to negotiate. We proposed to the owner that we would give her $1,000 for the first day, and then weíd split the box office for day two and three. (I would still have to pay the projectionist for the additional days). Before she would agree to my deal, she said she had to watch the movie first. Well, she did, and she liked it and, when we told her how we were going to promote it, she agreed to give us the theater for the extra two nights.

The next thing we had to do was set a date. I targeted three months from our first conversations with the theater owner. This would give us time to write a press release, and make sure the press got review copies in time to meet their print deadlines.

The next thing we had to do was secure the equipment we were going to use to show the movie. Monsturd was shot on DV, so we needed a powerful digital projector that could fill a movie screen. We found a rental company who would provide one for us (and a good stereo sound system) for $850 for the three days (this included set up and strike after the last show). So now we had the theater, secured a premiere date (which I had to put a deposit down of $500 on-if we screwed up and couldnít pull the show off, then she keeps the $500), and reserved our equipment. Now the fun begins. Itís time to hype your movie.

Now you have three months to put together your press kit, and find a place close to the theater to hold your premiere party afterwards. I canít tell you how to write a press kit, your best bet is to find some movie press kits online and follow them for how they should be formatted. Basically, you want to explain up front who you are, what youíre doing, and what makes your movie newsworthy. The trick we used in our press kit was that we said we were bringing the drive-in back to San Francisco. We said, ďThe only thing that filmmakers from this town talk about are art films. Screw that! The filmmakers in this city have forgotten that people go to the movies to have fun!Ē That got the attention of a few papers.

Okay, you have your press kit done. You have a stack of high-quality screeners to give each and every editor you call on, the only other thing you might want to try to get together is some kind of promotional item you can give them that ties into your movie. It can be a key chain, a bumper sticker, a poster, or, in our case, we made ďMonsturdĒ candy bars (we took real Hershey bars and put our own ďMonsturdĒ wrappers around them). Next thing you want to do is locate all the local papers in your town (and I do mean all of them-even the freebies that you think no one ever reads), call each of them and find out who their movie reviews editor is. Once you have their names, itís time to cold call. Call each and every one of them up and tell them your story over the phone. Tell them why your premiere is newsworthy, and why they need to cover it. If youíre in a small town and youíre the first local filmmaker to make a movie, then pitch it as ďLocal Boy Makes Good!Ē If youíre, say, a Latino, and the paper hasnít covered Latino filmmakers in any sort of depth, then mention your nationality to them. The point is to find an angle that hasnít been done to death already. You can try pitching the DV angle-but I have to be honest, most big cities have already done tons of stories on digital video filmmakers (and the same goes for trying to sell the angle on your incredibly small budget. Been done a million times now).

Once you have an editor on the line, ask them if you can send them a press kit and a screener of the movie (most, if not all, editors will allow you to do this). Whatever you do, donít leave a message and expect to be called back. Editors are as bad as Hollywood agents. Unless youíre Steven Spielberg, theyíre not going to call you back. Your best bet is to keep calling them until you have them on the phone. At this point I should stress that itís a good idea to start a media schedule document. This is a list of all the media outlets youíve contacted and what the status is of a story or a review. Youíll want this, because, trust me, you will get confused. Youíll forget who you were talking to at one newspaper, and where they are in their print schedule. You canít call the editor and say, ďI forgot what we were talking about. Were you going to do something with our movie?Ē Because you will look foolish and unprofessional and if the editor was thinking about doing a story on you, they will second-guess it, as it looks like you donít have your act together.

Be very careful not to be too aggressive, or youíll just piss the editorís off and theyíll chuck your stuff in the trash. You gotta be cool. You can do a follow up to ask them if they got your materials, but itís really not good to bug them after that. You can follow up a week or two before a publicationís deadline to see if youíre going to be covered, but just donít call them every day.

Couple of notes:

  1. Lead times are important things to know. You may have a free weekly that comes out in your city. Donít send your press kit and movie to the weekly one week before your premiere! Weeklies have a three week lead time, meaning, when you see the paper on the newsstand they actually wrote most of the stuff in there three weeks earlier.
  2. More than likely, you stand a better chance getting coverage in the local free weekly newspaper than you do at a big paper, like the San Francisco Chronicle or L.A. Times. But you never know, doesnít hurt to send it to the big guys anyway. Donít discount the little guys. Even if you think no one reads a particular paper, you can still use the review (especially if itís good) in your new press kit that youíll be using to get a distributor.

Okay, so now youíve got all of your press material and screener copies of your movie to every media outlet in the city. Now itís time to start promoting your movie.

We talked to one of the free weeklies distributed in S.F. to see how much ads cost in the movie section. They told us that they could give us a 1.5-inch by 5-inch ad for $150. Thankfully, Dan is an artist and drafted up a killer drawing of a woman being sucked down into the toilet. The tag we came up with was ďOut of the toiletÖ And into your nightmares!Ē Because I know Photoshop, we didnít have to pay and art director or designer to produce it. This would have been an additional expense. At the bottom of the ad we said tix were $6, but mention this ad and receive a dollar off at the door. I was surprised how many people mentioned the ad as they came up to the box office). Advertising really does work!

So now itís the week leading up to your big premiere. Everything is in place. The reviews (or feature stories) should start hitting now. For the record we sent press kits to 8 media outlets in S.F., out of that, we got some kind of write up in six of them. The Chronicle gave us a two-sentence blurb (which was disappointing), but we got feature stories in the San Francisco Examiner, and the St. Helena Star.

If you want to go the extra mile, youíll probably want to print out a few one page brochures that you can pass out to everyone on opening night. This brochure should have a cast list, a plot outline, special thanks and on the back, point people to your Web site and explain that people can order copies of your movie from there.

You may also wish to have a premiere party for cast, crew, and select guests. We went a few bars around the theater and asked them about roping off an area of their bar for our party after the movie. Most of the bar owners said no, because Friday is their biggest night. But one bar said they had a back room theyíd let us use. Be prepared to wheel and deal again. Some may want money to secure an area for you. Our deal was that I bought $200 in drink tickets from the owner of the place we used. I told him, if no one shows, you get to keep the $200 in tix. If we get a ton of people, then you get the $200, plus everyone whoíll be buying beers when the tix run out.

Alright, you made it this far! Itís the day of the show. Time to make sure everything is ready. Call the theater and make sure the doors will be open for you early, call the rental place and make sure all the equipment is on the way, get your copy of the movie and never let it leave your sight, and get to the theater to make sure everything is set up correctly. Do your sound and picture checks. (Note: If youíre premiere is at 7, make sure the equipment guys get there around 1, because if anything can go wrong during the set up, it will. Trust me on this. The company we used sent a guy who, I swear, was completely stoned. He didnít know anything about the equipment he was setting up. In the meantime, Iím looking at my watch and sweating bullets. It came together at the end thankfully (an hour before the show).

Now that everything is set up, your movieís cued and ready to go, the lights are on outside the theater, all you have to do is stand outside the theater and greet people as they arrive.

You might also want to have a mic/amp set up on stage, so you can thank everyone before and after the movie for coming out and field questions from people.

Our premiere was close to sold out, but our fear was filling the theater for Saturday and Sunday as well. One of the things we did was borrow a pick up truck from a friend, load the giant Monsturd creature into the back (tied to the cab), covered the truck with Monsturd posters, then drove around town yelling at people through a large megaphone ďCome see the shitman! Tonight and Sunday only at the Victoria Theater!ÖĒ. This approach got some people into the house, but ultimately we had 50 people for our Sat. 7 oíclock show, 20 for the 9 oíclock show, and 15 for the 3 oíclock Sunday matinee.

So how much did we make when all was said an done? Well, thatís the sad part. Altogether, the theater, A/V equipment, and ad cost about $2,245. At the end of the run, the theater owner presented me with a check for $1,797 (included all tix on Friday and half the tix on Sat. Sun). Basically, Iím in the hole about $450. Which isnít too bad, considering the amount of press we got. The theater owner, on the other hand, was extremely impressed with the turnout. She told us that they sold out of popcorn on opening night (a sin in the movie theater business). In fact she asked me on Sunday if I wanted to extend the run!

The next thing we did was put together a new press kit; this time targeted for prospective distributors. In the kit we included clippings of the reviews and feature stories. From there we bought a copy of the Hollywood Distributor Directory (www.hcdonline.com), and began our cold calls all over again. Out of 40 or so calls we made, 10 companies were willing to look at a screener. Out of those 10, 2 came back at us with an offer. As of this writing, we have since signed with Dead-Alive Productions (a.k.a. Spectrum Films) and we have an April 8 VHS and DVD release date.

Of course the above paragraph makes it sound really easy to get a distributor. And in fact itís not. I could write another feature on the steps to take for securing a distributor, but Tim Ritterís already done an awesome job in his two-part series that I heartily recommend.