Tugg pulls niche pics to Middle America

It’s easy for independent films to get lost in the crowd of pics released each week in New York and Los Angeles. Often, they are in theaters one week and gone the next.

Tugg.com is offering such films a chance to extend their theatrical lives, not only on the coasts, but in middle America as well. The crowd-sourced exhibition model lets filmmakers, exhibitors and cinephiles sign on as independent promoters to arrange specific screenings using social media that provides cost-certainty for exhibs. If enough fans enter their credit card info and pledge to pay, the event becomes a reality. If not, the screening disappears, and no one is charged.

Currently in its pilot stage, the website combines the specialties of its founders: producer Nicolas Gonda’s (“Tree of Life”) showbiz experience and Pablo Gonzalez’s marketing insight. So far, Alamo Drafthouse, AMC, Bow Tie, Cinemark, Rave and Regal have signed on to host Tugg events.

Promoters will choose from a diverse slate of pics, old and new. While the extent of the library remains under wraps, the site promises to have majors, mini-majors and independents onboard after its full launch in the coming month. Tugg revealed its newest titles, Drafthouse Films’ “The FP” and Paramount’s Insurge Pictures’ “The Loved Ones,” at South by Southwest on March 9. The Austin-set fest is an apt platform for such an announcement, since Tugg and partner Alamo are both based in the Texas city. More content agreements and additional functionality are expected to roll out in the coming weeks. “The Tree of Life” and Belgium’s Academy Award-nominated “Bullhead” are also available through the site as it operates in beta mode.

Gonda sees Tugg as a way to use online tools to deliver offline experiences. By selecting a specific pic, venue and time, promoters can mobilize their social networks to congregate for a theatrical event.

Since venues set the minimum number of attendees necessary for a show, Tugg.com can meet the needs of either independently owned theaters or nationwide chains. Varying according to theaters and times, threshold values for pilot Tugg engagements have averaged between 40 and 60 respondents needed to ensure a screening.

Tim League, founder of Alamo Drafthouse, describes the arrangement as “a minimum vs. a percentage.” Venues receive a predetermined cut of the box office; by establishing the minimum income they want, exhibs can guarantee an audience, and reduce the risk inherent in screening an indie pic, as well as eliminate the cost of four-walling to filmmakers.

This assurance presents content owners and filmmakers an opportunity to reach new markets with limited access to independent cinema. According to Gonda, Tugg allows for a risk-mitigated nationwide expansion that eases concerns of speculative costs and box office receipts.

“Traditionally you might not go wide until many, many weeks (after a film’s release) when awareness has really shifted outside of the zeitgeist,” he says. “Now with this, there’s the ability to really leverage the activity in those earlier weeks.”

Distributors worried about bumping up against their own pre-scheduled screenings have the option to block out certain markets and theaters, including first-run staples in New York and Los Angeles. Once the rules are set, the process is essentially automated, says Gonzalez, who serves as Tugg’s chief operating officer.

Box office is divided among the promoters, the content holder, the venue and Tugg, with Tugg’s cut being its primary source of revenue.

With hundreds of users participating, the website’s pilot run has already seen several thousand tickets sold for screenings across the country.

League believes Alamo’s partnership with Tugg will be a long-term commitment. Alamo will provide not only venues to host films through its regional chain, but also plans to add to the Tugg catalog via its distribution arm, Drafthouse Films. Its titles include “Bullhead” and “The FP.”

“What Tugg’s really great for is slots where we have excess inventory or space at the theater,” League says. “It’s another avenue to find an audience to fill some of those spots.”

The website is backed by a board of advisors including Ben Affleck, Terrence Malick and Richard Linklater, yet another Texan. Linklater has been strategizing with the team on initiatives involving catalog curation and movie clubs, Gonda says.

With Tugg potentially bringing indies to new cities and engaging Southern film communities, the coastal nature of arthouse cinema could be challenged.

“There’s a lot going on in Austin,” Gonda says.

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