Your Wallet Is Powerful: Voting at the box office

Your Wallet Is Powerful: Voting at the box office

People should realize that because the film business is a business, there is no great mystery as to what contributes to films that get made — the bottom line of profit.  Audiences do have power over dictating what kind of films get made — by going to see films on their opening weekends, by social media reviews and shares, by buying DVDs and downloads. Studios are just businesses that are accountable to shareholders, and they will make decisions based on what did well in the past.  Consumers have to value their economic power as their ability to vote in the marketplace — and vote for what they want to see more.

As probably you know, my four sisters, my parents, and I made our third film, MANNA FROM HEAVEN, in our hometown of Buffalo. We grew up in that City of Lights, and I adore Buffalo. I think of my childhood with an idyllic peacefulness set in a sophisticated city bordered by water, ski slopes, cool green lawns, and another country. But Buffalo for a long time has suffered from low self-esteem. My sisters and I decided that, no matter how hard it would be, we would make our third movie in our hometown and show the rest of the country what an amazing, vibrant, beautiful place it is. People said it was crazy; we should shoot in Canada and save money — but we were determined to make it in the U.S. and to make a film entirely in that city. The stars (who lived in Buffalo for four weeks) fell in love with the city, the film is a love-letter to Buffalo, and the city rallied around the movie’s production.

Following a wonderful special preview at Shea’s Theater, we traveled the film festival circuit, and MANNA FROM HEAVEN proved to be a crowd-pleaser. Liz Smith, Ain’t It Cool News, and other nationally respected journalists gave it a great response.

To our delight, theaters were selling out, extra screenings were being added, and we were being invited to festivals by their directors. The movie had strong word-of-mouth.

For studio and studio independent films, distribution is put into place typically before or during production.  For true indies, distribution often comes during the film’s festival run or even after. For this film, we got offers from many distributors, and most thought the film deserved a theatrical release, but that the reality was that the small film with niche cast would get lost in the marketplace without enough spent on advertising. Ticket sales are typically directly related to how much money is spent on advertising a film, and usually major money is only spent on stars like Brad Pitt, Sandra Bullock, Julia Roberts…  But this wasn’t a film that “merited” that kind of spending, because it didn’t add up to common thought about how the market works.  

There are equations that distributors use to calculate and estimate how much a film will make, based on the talent involved.  To a filmmaker, this is somewhat of a chicken and egg proposition, as we all know the films that have broken the conventional “wisdom” of these calculations.  But they persist, and one can argue that the egg creates the chicken (that investing in marketing creates a successful film and not investing will sink a film), but that’s besides the point.  This is the way it works.

The average film’s publicity budget these days is $35 million dollars. Yes, that’s right. Thirty-five million dollars just for publicity. That’s the average.

People who have seen MANNA often ask us why more movies like this aren’t made. The fact is that people often aren’t aware of them.

Reports on movies are based on box office grosses. No longer is the quality of the movie top story news — its ticket sales are. This is not a good state of affairs for the arts, because production and distribution companies consider quantity of ticket sales more important than the quality of a film — and projection from past sales are the basis for deciding what movies to make and distribute in the future.

And for every indie filmmaker, that’s where the rubber meets the road, and the question is how to handle the market’s reality.

But for YOU, the movie-goer, there’s a different reality.  There’s a direct correlation to what the movie-goer does and what movies are made in the future.

What it comes down to is this: people’s ticket purchases are like votes.

When you buy a ticket for a movie, you are voting for that type of movie –– you are saying you want more movie of that type to be made.

The pressure on film companies is intense.  You’ve seen the issues about media consolidation, with the FCC regulations of late. Disney bought Miramax; NBC bought Bravo — these outlets create automatic advertising partners for promotion of films by a parent studio. The advertising gets more and more omnipresent and multifaceted, making small films simply unable to compete.

We sisters have decided we are going to spend a year promoting MANNA FROM HEAVEN, doing grassroots organization of communities to “get out the vote” for more movies like it. Recently, some films have proven that such an approach can work; they have done very well, some playing over a year in cities simply from public support. The biggest hurdle is getting people to the movie theater on the first weekend (after which the theater decides whether or not to keep the film in the theater the following week, based on a mixture of politics & performance — and for a non-studio-backed film, it is critical to have strong ticket sale performance).

As we are a small independent film company, it is an uphill battle to keep the movie playing long enough to reap its word-of-mouth power. We’re doing creative marketing, offering filmmaker Q&As for groups, handing out fliers for hours, promoting with t-shirts, posters, etc. We’re determined to get MANNA FROM HEAVEN available to the public, even if it is not fitting into an easy marketing structure — just as we were determined to get such an incredible cast together, and to make the film in our hometown.

Alongside the majors and the edgy indies, there should also be a space for intelligent, feel-good American independent films.

Too often people complain that there aren’t good movies, or enough selection. We all hold the power to change the way movies are made, to change what studios and distribution companies look for and provide us. The possibility for molding the product is there each time you go to the theater. Your ticket is a vote for the future. Use it wisely.

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