It is possible to exploit the power of the Internet to sell a movie without a theatrical release — as long as you have a title targeted at a narrow niche.
Political docs such as Robert Greenwald’s titles have done this successfully, but now the money is on sports docs. Sports fans are easy to target on the Internet, via their many affiliations with team and sports news sites.
The new model is the 2006 hockey doc “In the Crease,” which has grossed more than $500,000, mostly through Amazon’s CreateSpace.
Hoping to accomplish a similar feat is the soccer doc “Kicking It,” one of the few hot acquisition titles at this year’s Sundance. Pic will be released this summer through sports cabler ESPN, Netflix’s Red Envelope Entertainment and theatrical distrib Liberation Entertainment.
Sports, environmental and political docs all have growth potential, says Red Envelope exec Liesl Copland: “Niche content has a long life on Netflix.”
In March 2005, Matt Gannon and Michael Sarner, former acquisition and marketing execs at Fox Searchlight and United Artists, respectively, put their passion for ice hockey into financing and shooting their first film, “In the Crease.” The digital video doc is an underdog story of the California Wave Bantam AAA travel hockey team’s two-year quest to win a national championship.
“We set out to do ‘Spellbound’ for sports fans,” says Gannon. Figuring that their movie would have more of a shot with some star power, the filmmakers also interviewed such hockey all-stars as Brendan Shanahan and Joe Thornton.
After raising finishing funds, the filmmakers completed the pic and opted not to take the Sundance festival route.
“We knew early on we’d have a hard time getting the studios to release it theatrically,” says Sarner. “We didn’t want to miss the holiday season. Our bread-and-butter was DVD sales.”
“The studios are looking for big-market homerun movies,” explains Gannon. “They’ve ceded the smaller niche films to the indies. We could do it fast and nimble and by the seat of the pants.”
The obvious TV outlets like ESPN weren’t interested in a movie that didn’t cover one of the Big Three: basketball, football, or baseball. So, says Gannon, they opted to go the DVD route first.
“We thought we knew how to reach the audience better than anyone else. We said, ‘Let’s try and get it in front of the audience while it’s still fresh.’ ”
Gannon and Sarner went straight to DVD via Amazon’s online self-distributor CreateSpace in Nov., 2006,, launching a hectic and intense marketing effort out of their living rooms.
“We wanted to get the thing out by Thanksgiving,” recalls Gannon.
The filmmaker-marketers’ grassroots campaign included sales partnerships with the National Hockey League and its governing body, USA Hockey. “It’s a perfect, targeted demographic,” says Gannon.
It didn’t hurt that “In the Crease” was a positive promo for the sport. (By contrast, the football draft expose “Two Days in April,” finished two years ago, is only now reaching the market after it ran afoul of the NFL and a top sports agent.)
Gannon and Sarner placed an “In the Crease” feature and ad in the November USA Hockey Magazine, which is read by nearly every youth hockey player, coach and referee in the USA Hockey League, which boasts 600,000 registered members of both sexes.
The duo got access to USA Hockey’s email lists in exchange for a promo spot on the DVD and a promise to feed some proceeds back to the non-profit. In early December, they shot out an email blast with links to the inthecreasemovie.com website, complete with a trailer and “buy DVD” button to CreateSpace’s e-store shopping cart.The National Hockey League, with its huge fan base for 12 teams in big cities, also got an email blast. No money exchanged hands, but the film’s trailer played multiple times on the Jumbotron at L.A.’s Staples and Anaheim’s Honda Center, as well as eight arenas from Phoenix to Philadelphia.
Putting stars from the country’s biggest hockey markets in the movie also helped to get the word out. Each team with a star in the movie posted a website story, complete with trailer tailored to that star. (“The ‘Hoop Dreams’ of hockey!” gushed Atlantathrashers.com) Gannon and Sarner even manned a booth at several arenas, where they played the DVD and handed out fliers.
The L.A. Times and the Detroit Free Press covered the movie in their sports pages. Sportscasters and sports radio aired stories, both locally and nationally. The filmmakers also planted features (in exchange for buying ads) in some 600 local hockey-rink newspapers around the country. They also mounted local promo screenings, grabbed email lists from equipment suppliers in exchange for a 30-second spot on the DVD, and arranged for mom-and-pop sports shops to stock the DVD. Many of the big sports retailers made it available online.
“Is any studio marketing team going to do what we do?” asks Gannon. “We never had one film review.”
A week before Christmas 2006 the movie became the No. 1 sports DVD in North America and the No. 34 of all DVDs sold on Amazon. The movie has generated $500,000 in gross sales, 80% through the relationship with CreateSpace.
Hanging on to all their rights, the duo recouped their producing and marketing budget within 40 days of release, and had two checks in hand from CreateSpace within two months, which put them in the black. Their finishing-fund investors not only got all their money back, but have made a 60% return to date. Not too many filmmakers can make that claim.
Recently, the filmmakers licensed TV rights for one year to Comcast sports cabler Versus Network. More traditional distribution through video retailers like Blockbuster, Netflix and foreign ancillaries is in the works. “Anything we earn now is icing on the cake,” says Gannon.
Hoping to find similar gold is the Colin Farrell-narrated soccer doc “Kicking It,” about the fourth annual Homeless World Cup.
This summer, after an initial theatrical launch by Liberation, ESPN and Red Envelope will simultaneously start airing and streaming the doc online; Liberation will sell DVDs. Subscribers can also rent the DVD from Netflix, which will advertise the ESPN telecast on its red mailers.
B-Side’s Chris Hyams, who was brought in by Netflix to promote “Two Days in April,” learned how to target niche sports docs like the bull-riding doc “Rank,” which took off at Wal-mart after a modest arthouse launch by IFC Films.
“Sports fans are not indie film fans,” Hyams says. “A New York Times review is not the way to reach this audience. Our entire marketing program costs less than a single half-page ad in the New York Times.”