AFI-Discovery Channel Silverdocs documentary conference tackled the subject of self-distribution on Tuesday through a case study of the acclaimed doc The Way We Get By, which also touched on the upcoming companion website, the Returning Home Project.
Writer and director Aron Gaudet and producer Gita Pullapilly led the discussion of how the duo self-distributed their film, which follows Gaudet’s mother and a group of senior citizens as they dutifully greet troops in Maine returning from Iraq.
The self-distribution process began with a business model prepared from a class in Harvard’s business school. The filmmakers approached a professor to take a chance on a documentary film and opt for a real-life scenario instead of teaching business plans from a textbook.
From there, Gaudet and Pullapilly approached the Bangor Savings Bank in April 2009 to sponsor a theatrical run in Maine, to tap into the homegrown audience. ‘Not many films come out of Maine,’ said Gaudet. ‘There are Stephen King movies and ours.’
The Maine audiences rallied around the film, which played at 20 theaters around the state. The bank bought thousands of DVDs of The Way We Get By and also paid for film prints, which paid off when the filmmakers decided to have a theatrical run. With film prints already made, having that cost taken care of helped theaters decide whether to run the film.
The filmmakers had a run as WGBH filmmakers in residence from 2007 to 2008 and partnered with a PBS station in Maine as well, receiving got ITVS LINCS (Linking Independents and Co-producting Stations) funding. That meant, according to Pullapilly, that they had to not only convince ITVS to fund them, but both PBS stations as well.
Not everything came easily. Gaudet reported that efforts to tap into the military with screenings near military bases didn’t get the audiences they expected. Instead, they tried again and found that military families were more likely to find their film on Netflix, after the duo struck a deal with the company.
The filmmakers, having had a theatrical and festival run, also have the film available through amazon.com and iTunes. Filmmakers now approach Gaudet and Pullapilly on how to employ the self-distribution approach.
The work on The Way We Get By isn’t over. Funding platform Kickstarter was used to help fund a special two-disc DVD set of the film. Fans donated money to received the two disc set as a reward, while also illustrating to Gaudet and Pullapilly what sort of demand there was for their film.
Another of the team’s projects, ReturningHomeProject.org features the same message as The Way We Get By but focuses on connecting family and troops and their stories through an online project. Through the site users are able to post stories of their loved ones that have served during World War II, the Iraq war, and other conflicts. With funding from BAVC, The Producers Institute for New Media Technologies, MacArthur Foundation, ITVS, IFP/Fledging Fund and more, Gaudet and Pullapilly were able to raise over $250,000 in two months, something that was unheard of in their self-funding work for their film. The full site will launch on August 3 to coincide with POV’s re-airing of the documentary film.