Background and Context In this post we interviewed Clay Broga, one of the producers of the feature documentary Honor Flight, which set the Guinness World Record for the largest film screening. Premiering on August 14th, 2012 at Milwaukee’s baseball stadium, Miller Park, Honor Flight drew 28,422 attendees. The film tells the story of the Honor Flight program, which raises money so WWII veterans can fly to the nation’s capital for free to visit the WWII memorial. The storyline focuses on a group of Wisconsin veterans who are flown out to Washington, D.C. to see the WWII Memorial, which was constructed in 2004.
The Honor Flight Network is a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C. that has 117 hubs across in the U.S. They are primarily funded by individual donors, fraternal organizations like local the American Legion, and various corporations on a local level. Priority for Honor Flight trips is given to World War II veterans and other veterans who may be terminally ill.
The filmmakers started on the project independently by producing a YouTube clip of veterans from Wisconsin visiting the WWII memorial thanks to the Honor Flight program. When the filmmakers published the clip online on Veterans Day in 2009, it went viral, receiving over 30,000 hits on YouTube on its first day. The filmmakers later decided to turn the project into a feature-length documentary and the Stars and Stripes Honor Flight chapter, which is a Milwaukee based Honor Flight hub featured in the film, volunteered to act as a fiscal sponsor by raising a significant portion of the budget to help produce the film. The filmmakers and the Stars and Stripes Honor Flight chapter agreed to split the future revenue of the film, until the filmmakers recoup their production costs. At that point, the remaining revenue would go to SSHF.
There are three key takeaways that can be learned from the grassroots distribution experience of Honor Flight. 1) Working under the umbrella of an existing production company or agency gives filmmakers the significant personnel and outreach advantage, 2) Creating a sense of urgency gives a film’s distribution process the constant momentum of a campaign and 3) For films that appeal to a specialized audience, trying to squeeze into the traditional distribution process and pipeline for independent film may not pay off, both in audience reach and in financial returns.
1) After the first video clip about Honor Flight went viral, producer Clay Broga and director Dan Hayes started their own company, Freethink Media, to produce similar videos for issue advocacy organizations. Through this company, they were able to get other work such that they had an operation already in place when they went into the making of the feature, Honor Flight. This umbrella organization expanded their ability not only to raise money for the film, but, with a personnel beyond just the filmmakers, Freethink Media was able to do outreach and establish the media contacts necessary to help distribute the film after it was produced.
A common theme in our research is that filmmakers often have to build their own workforce and contacts from scratch every time they produce a film. But for Clay and Dan, Freethink is “kind of like a production company creative house,” so “by the time the film was done we had already built a full-time team and we had started to build more of a marketing capability as well.”
2) The marketing team at Freethink Media worked with the SSHF chapter in Wisconsin and the National Honor Flight Network to build a sense of urgency around the release of the film. The filmmakers released the trailer before Memorial Day, using it as a deadline to ask supporters to help the trailer reach a certain number of views on YouTube. Clay reflects,
“[We] made the language, ‘Help us get 50,000 views in honor of these veterans for Memorial Day. Showing that you care, send this on to 5 friends and family.’ And we posted it through Facebook Causes… And that worked beyond our wildest dreams. Within a few weeks we had 4.5 million views, and it was all earned and organic through Facebook.”
In addition, as a result of the trailer going viral, Freethink Media received $13,000 in unsolicited donations through Facebook Causes.
The team then created a sense of urgency to help build for the premiere of the film by announcing the goal of setting the Guinness World Record for the largest film screening at Miller Park. Freethink Media combined its network of online supporters and media contacts with the network of Honor Flight chapters to advertise for the screening. In addition, the local radio host Charlie Sykes of AM 620 WTMJ in Milwaukee, who is a partner of SSHF and is featured in the film, played a significant role by persistently promoting the event on his show. Ultimately, the cause inspired 28,442 people to attend, surpassing the previous Guinness World Record for the largest film screening by more than 1,000 attendees. The team decided to hold back on selling DVD’s at the screening since they did not want to limit their options for a theatrical and DVD retail deal and also a possible Academy Award run.
3) However, since Honor Flight had a built in-group of supporters through the Honor Flight Network, and such successful online word of mouth already, a non-conventional publicity campaign from the start might have been more profitable and effective for reaching their target audience. In addition, the choice to go for an Academy Award run meant 1) that the filmmakers had to pay for a PR firm to maximize their exposure and increase their chances, and 2) that they had to hold off on selling DVD’s until after a theatrical run (per Academy rules). Therefore, a traditional theatrical run, though it was brief, ended up costing P & A dollars as well as potential DVD units sold.
Still, it is also important to note that when the filmmakers realized the conventional distribution model did not fit their film they capitalized on the broad attention they had received by taking the film to communities across the country – an example of nimble, non-traditional thinking when it comes to self-distribution. Clay explains, “Basically our approach was to do big blowout events (like mini versions of the premiere) that we’d attract a large grassroots audience to, and try to make the events really special with big name people, speeches and bands and WWII vets from the film at screenings, etc…”
Through hosting unorthodox theatrical and community screenings, the Honor Flight team successfully held a high profile screening at the US Capital with 500 attendees, a 1,000 person screening at the Byrd in Richmond and a 1500-person screening at DAR Constitution Hall. For this national initiative, the Honor Flight team decided to mix their own screening tour while simultaneously partnering with the website Tugg.com. The Marketing Director for the film, Jo Jensen, explains how members from Honor Flight hubs and other supporters would request screenings through the Tugg.com website:
“Once they selected a date for the screening, Tugg talked to the national movie chains that they were affiliated with --- about 75% of all movie theaters --- to locate a venue. And then the screening had to meet an attendance threshold, usually about 70 people. The organization that hosted the screening received 5% of the proceeds and had the opportunity to raise funds for their cause. So we routinely raised $600-$1,200 for an Honor Flight chapter through these Tugg screenings.”
Tugg was helpful in offering the filmmakers the tech and online platform needed to successfully book a theatrical screening of the film. However, other times if the Honor Flight team wanted a bigger venue than a normal theater they found it more effective to host the screenings themselves along with other partners. Furthermore, the theater screenings set up through Tugg were effective in raising funds towards the cause, but not in generating revenue for the filmmakers. Tugg is premised on local theaters and organizations hosting (and benefiting from) the screenings – in addition to Tugg itself. So between the filmmakers, the hosting organization, the theaters, as well as the Honor Flight chapters that received proceeds, the revenue was split across so many partners that the profit left for the filmmakers proper was limited.
In the age of digital media and the web, there are so many tools for filmmakers to distribute their films it can be difficult to choose, and it is always tempting to go the conventional route. Clay points out,
“When we made some of those early decisions (like not selling DVDs at the premiere) it was because we were still considering more traditional options, conventional theatrical for instance, and wanted to leave the door open. But as we progressed we realized those weren’t good options for us and went the more unconventional route.”
For example, any criticism about not selling DVD’s at the premiere should come with a large caveat, because very recently, in another example of savvy marketing around an urgent initiative, the filmmakers were able to leverage their considerable body of fans such that the film debuted as the best-selling documentary on Amazon and the top rated film of all DVDs (measured by customer reviews).
In our study, we have seen films like Four Eyed Monsters and Honor Flight find their own audience through improvising and essentially creating their own distribution mode. However, we wonder if there might be a way to offer filmmakers a toolbox to help them chose the best grassroots distribution model for their specific film. This is one goal we hope to work towards and share with filmmakers at the end of this study.
-Michael, Josh and Carl