Grassroots marketing push included 50-date screening tour

For Emilio Estevez, the path his indie pic “The Way” has taken seems nearly as long as the 500-mile pilgrimage at the center of his film.

The director-thesp-screenwriter was in for a surprise when he realized how much effort it takes to stay involved with the marketing and distribution of an indie release.

Starring Estevez’s father Martin Sheen, the modestly-budgeted road trip pic has made it to $3.43 million in eight weeks since its Oct. 7 opening. What’s more, after increasing its per-screen average five weeks in a row, the film expands Friday to nearly 60 more locations in the thick of the crowded holiday marketplace.

Estevez, who had been looking for a project to work on with his father, first learned about the Camino de Santiago when his son and father made a trip along the route, which has attracted pilgrims for 1,000 years.

Estevez based narrative drama on a travel memoir about the path through France and Spain but added the story of the film’s main characters, each on his or her own journey of discovery.

After the pic’s premiere at Toronto in 2010, producer‘s rep John Sloss said he saw definite interest from distributors. But he didn’t feel any of them really saw the movie’s potential or were committed to doing the amount of legwork required to interest auds.

So Sloss took on “The Way” as the third release for Producers Distribution Agency, through which Sloss and Bart Walker released successful docus, “Exit Through the Gift Shop” and “Senna.”

Estevez worked with distribution partners PDA and ARC on an intensive grassroots marketing effort to compensate for a small promo fund, using everything from niche consultants, social networking sites including Demand It and the centerpiece event, a 50-day screening and Q&A bus tour across America. ARC also had a relationship with AMC Theaters, where the pic played exclusively its first week.

“I’ve gotten a real education in marketing and distribution,” said Estevez, who realized he had to be more involved “because the marketplace for independent film is so challenging right now.”

Both religious and secular filmgoers showed up for separately targeted screenings on the tour. Though the Camino was traditionally a Catholic pilgrimage, Estevez thought the material would be accessible to anyone. “We’re all on a path, whether it’s a spiritual path or not,” he said.

Auds responded enthusiastically, and Estevez was relieved that through dozens of Q&As, not one person asked about the recent antics of his younger brother, Charlie Sheen.

Social media complemented the bus tour, notably through Eventful’s Demand It service, where fans can request screenings in their town (auds for “Paranormal Activity” were also recruited through Demand It).

Among those who demanded the pic via the service were students at Virginia Tech, who turned out in force after campaigning to bring the film to campus.

It took a diverse team, including indie vets Dennis Rice, Richard Abramowitz and Cynthia Swartz, working with the distribs to target members of the over-25 specialty-film demographic that would appreciate the pic.

In addition to tapping Grace Hill, which frequently consults on reaching religious auds, distribs widened interest by working with consultants including the Maxiumus Group for Catholic auds as well 360 Communications for the mind-body-spirit community. Bond Strategy and Media’s Marc Schiller worked on social-media marketing, while Eleventy-One provided P&A funding.

Critical response has been middling, but filmgoers looking for wholesome and meaningful entertainment sing the pic’s praises on its Facebook page.

“There’s a demographic that’s definitely underserved,” said Estevez, “and it’s not just in the heartland.”

But getting the word out was a bigger job than the veteran thesp-turned-helmer could have imagined. “I don’t know if I would ever go into another production without a healthy P&A budget,” said Estevez.

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