We finished our film and then we met COVID. But that didn't stop us!
Getting your feature film out in theaters is something that many independent filmmakers, including myself, have dreamed of since they started making films.
I have been very fortunate to have a career as a working writer / producer / director whose work can be seen on cable television and streaming platforms. But I'd never reached the peak of filmmaking success I'd always wanted – a movie I'd shot on the big screen!
In the fall of 2018, I directed The Never List from a beautiful script by Ariadne Shaffer, which I hoped would help me reach this milestone. I chose the script as an option in 2015 to do it on a much larger budget. I chose this project because of the story. I thought the premise of a teenage girl deciding to honor the memory of her deceased best friend by completing a list of naughty things they swore they would never do was unique, inspiring, and had a lot of heart .
I worked closely with Ariadne to make the story as close and representative as possible. We made our main female character Eva and her mother Jennifer Asian American and a major supporting character LGBTQ +. Then we set out to raise money for our feature film with a larger budget.
Unfortunately, the million dollars we were looking for never came.
So I decided to fund the film myself … which the people in the industry will tell you that you should never do that. Unfortunately that meant our budget was very, very, very modest, but what we lacked in budget we more than made up for with persistence and good old-fashioned welding records.
We got Anna Margarita Albelo to produce because we knew she knew how to make quality films on our budget level. We also loved Anna's focus on diversity, not just in casting but behind the camera too. We wanted as much female, minority and LGBTQ + exposure as possible on and off the screen.
Our production had almost 70% female / female identification in our crew. In fact, our entire camera department headed by our great cinematographer Janine Sides was female / female identifying. In addition, we had over 83% representation of women, minorities and LGBTQ + across the board. To be honest, I'm even more proud of that fact than of the theatrical release.
So how did we manage to get our little indie film into theaters?
It had taken us over a year to complete post-production of the film due to funding. Thankfully, our two executive producers, Donna Cole and Bob Berryman, helped secure the funding we needed to complete the film in January 2020, and just as we started submitting the film to film festivals, COVID-19 hit a.
Film festivals have been canceled or postponed, cinemas have been closed, and our entire industry has practically come to a standstill.
The producers and I met to discuss our options and realized that at this point we had one – streaming. We wanted to get the film into people's living rooms asap as everyone at home was being quarantined.
We submitted the film to Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Originals. Keep in mind that by this time, most of these streamers have stopped their own productions worldwide due to the pandemic. Hence, we thought our finished film might have a good chance of a premium streaming deal.
Unfortunately this was not on the tickets for our film. So we had to rethink our strategy.
We could either upload the film to platforms where we could publish it directly, such as Amazon's Prime Video Direct. If we did that, we'd probably never get our money back. Or we could wait out the pandemic and try submitting it to online film festivals. I still had the hope that if we had a respectable theatrical release, we could make our money back in the international market.
Our writer / co-producer Ariadne was the one who suggested submitting the film to the AMC Indie program. I knew it was a long shot, but what did we have to lose at that point?
You submitted and we were accepted! The irony is that the pandemic probably helped us get a wider theatrical release. Studios and mini-majors took their films out of theaters and began streaming them directly or postponing theatrical releases indefinitely. Many theaters have been looking for new content.
When we got to the AMC theaters, other regional chains also started programming our film. Before we knew it, we had booked over 125 theaters across the country. Incredible when I think about it.
But that still left one big question open: should we be releasing in theaters across the country during a spike in COVID-19?
This wasn't an easy decision and we went back and forth for weeks discussing the pros and cons. Our target group is 18 to 24 years old, an age group with a lower risk of COVID-19. The cinemas did everything possible to keep the audience as safe as possible, e.g. For example, force people to wear masks, create social distance, leave space between seats in cinemas, use electrostatic disinfectant sprayers, and improve their air filters.
Ultimately, we decided to move on as unlike the studios we didn't have the luxury of marketing a new date, new locations, etc. We'd spent tens of thousands of dollars promoting the theatrical release. It was "December 11th Release or Bust".
So yeah … not exactly the dream scenario.
I'm confident that after seeing some of the returns on similar films released in theaters during the pandemic, we'll make at least some of our P&A money back. I think we will find out whether or not our big gambling is paying off in the coming weeks. If not, I can at least always say that my film has been released in theaters. With many of them expected to close in the coming year, I can't help but believe that this is an opportunity I may never have again.