Editor’s Note: A few months ago, Gathr founder Scott Glosserman laid out the case for Theatrical On Demand℠ platforms in his piece “Gathr is the Love Child of Netflix and Kickstarter.” As a follow-up, we thought it would be helpful to present a case study from a filmmaker who has used the service to generate theatrical audiences for his film. This week, Kurt Kuenne walks us through his experience.

Every filmmaker wants his or her movie to play in theatres. Seeing a great movie on the big screen is what made most of us want to make movies in the first place.

But I learned a surprising lesson on my last film, a low-budget documentary called Dear Zachary: a letter to a son about his father. The film was released in theatres and on home video by the wonderful Oscilloscope Laboratories, founded by David Fenkel and the late, great Adam Yauch. They originally intended to open it only in New York and Los Angeles, but demand grew, so the theatrical release blossomed to 12 cities. We ran for 5 weeks in New York and 2 weeks in Los Angeles, and when we sold out our first week at the Siskel Film Center in Chicago, we were invited back for an encore. The movie placed on a lot of critics’ top 10 lists and received a National Board of Review citation as one of the top 5 documentaries of the year. In the doc world, it was considered a big success.

Even so, when the numbers came back, the ticket revenues from the theatres only totaled about 11% of what was spent to release and promote it. The movie did well in other windows (TV, VOD, DVD, etc.), which made up for it—but it made me realize that for a low-budget indie film, unless you’re just a smash hit, putting your film in theatres is mostly a loss leader that helps you get publicity and reviews that you can’t get any other way.

TJ Thyne in "Shuffle"

So, when Screen Media Films acquired my new fiction film Shuffle (starring TJ Thyne of the hit TV show Bones as a man who experiences his life out of order) and expressed reservations about paying for a theatrical release (and ultimately acquired home video and digital rights only), I completely understood. Still, at the two-dozen film festivals the movie played during the past year, audience members kept telling me, “You’ve got to get this movie released in theatres. This film’s a communal experience, and I want to bring my friends and family back to see it.” It was a great compliment—but at the same time, it was terribly frustrating, because I knew that wasn’t going to happen.

Then I met Scott Glosserman of Gathr. Scott saw videos of Shuffle’s sold-out festival screenings online, asked me to send him the film, then called me up to say he loved the movie and wanted it for Gathr. Once the deal hit the trades, we announced to our social networks, and screening requests started to pour in. It was fabulous to be able to go to the fans we’d gathered and tell them, “Please request a screening and make it happen.”

How does Gathr work in actual practice? Every movie is different and has different levels of audience demand, but here are some things we discovered along the way:

TJ Thyne in "Shuffle"

The Movie Captain Matters

Screenings were initially set up in about 15 cities; only 10 of those were actually greenlit (and in San Jose, my hometown, it was booked for a traditional week-long run).

What happened with the 5 that didn’t “tip”? For the most part, those screenings were requested by people who were excited by the idea—but who headed for the hills when they realized it would require them to do something. As the filmmaker, I promoted every screening to the best of my ability using social media, mailing lists and press contacts when possible—and Gathr marshalled their team to do the same to help screenings tip—but if I simply didn’t know anyone in the town where it was playing, there wasn’t a lot I could do without spending money. So the Movie Captain (Gathr's name for the requestor) is key as the catalyst to get the word out to the community, sell tickets and get enough interest for the screening to tip.

What happened with the 10 that did tip? Passionate Movie Captains got the word out and filled up the theatres. They regularly posted on social media, reminding their network of looming “greenlight” deadlines or showtimes. One even got her local paper to write an article about the show, and auctioned signed DVDs and other Shuffle merchandise at the screening, with the proceeds going to charity.

When the screenings were local to anyone who worked on the film, we got cast and crew to agree to conduct a Q&A post-screening and promoted that fact. I agreed to do Skype Q&As, which allowed me to have personalized interaction with audiences anywhere in the country from the comfort of my home. And, in several cities, we had terrific support from the local film festival.

Film Festivals Are Your Friends

One of the great things about playing a lot of film festivals around the country is that you’re creating fans in key regions. The people who attend festivals are passionate film fans who want to share a new discovery with people they know—they are some of the people most excited about the Gathr model, since it provides them an opportunity to bring their favorite festival darling back to their town for an encore performance. (Tip: collect the email addresses of your fans at your screenings!)

If you were smart and made friends with the heads of the festivals you played (which you should do anyway, because they’re awesome people), they will very likely be enthusiastic about endorsing a Gathr screening in their town, getting the word out to their mailing lists and social networks. Such an event can also be a boon to the festival, as it gives them something relevant to highlight during the off-season.

Gathr Screening of Kurt Kuenne's "Shuffle"

Timing Isn’t Everything, But It Helps

Gathr screenings for Shuffle presented a particular challenge, timing-wise, because Screen Media had already set the film’s home video release date for August 21 before I connected with Gathr. This meant that the earliest our Gathr screenings could begin was around the same time we were releasing on home video.

While it’s become a trend recently to release indie movies in theatres and on VOD at the same time, it presents a challenge for Gathr screenings because of the effort involved for the Movie Captain. I had people write to me during the summer saying, “The trailer looks great, I can’t wait to see the movie!” When I asked them to request a screening, more than one person wrote back, “That sounds exhausting; I’ll just wait another couple of weeks and catch it on DVD.”

In some ways, though, the home video release timing was a good thing, because when audience members at Gathr shows said they wanted to see it again and share it with their friends, it was a pleasure to be able to tell them that they could go buy it on Amazon right now. (In fact, Netflix finally bought Shuffle for their DVD plan because the husband of a DVD buyer for Netflix ended up at a Gathr screening a week before our video date, flipped for the movie and immediately told his wife she had to buy it; that was lovely timing.)

Which brings me to my final points about Gathr:

1. There is always an audience. You will never have the depressing experience of finding 4 people in a 200-seat theatre; those screenings simply don’t tip.

2. The audiences that “gathr” a screening are a passionate community who come together to share and discuss a common experience. Every Gathr screening I’ve attended is like a party.

3. Gathr’s Theatrical on Demand℠ model is a great way for small movies to have the opportunity to play theatres in any city where there’s a demand for it.

4. Gathr offers minimal financial risk to the filmmaker.

5. Gathr finally provides the indie filmmaker with a good answer to the perennial audience question, “When is your movie coming to a theatre near me?”