Written by Debbie Howard.
I’ve just completed the Still Loved Tour and I’m writing this blog to let you know my thoughts and how it all went and give some useful tips and advice to independent filmmakers out there who are self distributing their own films. We have an international Sales Agent, CatnDocs, but we split rights with them right at the beginning so we could do the UK ourselves. So this relates to our UK release only.Throughout the making of this film we’ve been told there is no audience. No one will want to watch this film. I always knew that was wrong, but the tour has proved that, which makes me very happy.
As this is the first time I have released a feature length documentary, I learned a huge amount along the way. Firstly, how important it is to have a budget for your release. Because we struggled financially to complete Still Loved we had completely run out of money for this part of the process. So make sure you budget for your release. Luckily, we were given a grant of £10,000 from a very helpful charity called the Jessica Mathers Trust, due to the subject matter of the film. Without this, we couldn’t have done this, so my thanks goes out to them. £10,000 may seem a lot, but there is so much to pay for to get a film out there.
Firstly, we hired a booker, Martin Myers of Miracle Communications, who we met when we attended the incredibly useful Distribution Rewired at Edinburgh Film Festival in June. Distribution Rewired is all about self distribution and new ways of doing this. Ran by the wonderful Beatrice Neumann. I would highly recommend attending for great ideas and advice. Martin is very experienced at booking films into cinemas and has great contacts. He watched Still Loved and really liked the film so agreed to come on board and help us get the film into cinemas. Next we hired a team of publicists to use their skills and expertise to help us get some good press for the film. We worked with Multitude Media. I had met Will Wood at Distribution Rewired the year before and he had expressed an interest in the film, so I got back in touch and he agreed to come on board to help us. We worked with his team, mainly Emily Brazee, and also Amy Melson and Lucy Miller too.
It was vital to us to release the film in October, during baby loss awareness month, with an emphasis on the 15th October, International Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Day. We knew this would give us maximum opportunities for press and publicity.
The wonderful Tommy’s Baby Charity also offered their help and supporting during the release of the film, and we worked with Hannah Blake and Siobhan Gray who did so much to help us spread the word.
Multitude Media, Martin Myers, Hannah and I all met together in London in September to discuss a strategy and who would do what. I told them all I knew and linked them up to all the baby loss support groups and we all shared our contacts, knowledge and expertise to maximise our efforts in making as big a splash as we could with the film.
After the meeting Tommy’s shared lot’s of information about the film in their news letters and I wrote some blogs for them. Multitude prepared their press release and started to send this out to various newspapers, magazines, radio shows and television companies. Martin got to work on booking us into cinemas and I did all I can to contact everyone I could think of to help us.
Things were slow to start. Over the next few weeks we had an incredibly disappointing response from cinemas, who, as usual with this subject matter of stillbirth, shied away from screening Still Loved. Some sent a one line email saying things like: “There is no interest in this subject matter” which really annoyed me. I wrote a lot of emails back telling them why they were wrong. This changed things with some cinemas, but not others. Unfortunately, only 5 cinemas were brave enough to book the film directly. There were a couple of others that were interested but couldn’t program us until next year. We wanted to strike while we had our publicists on board so needed to make sure as many of them were in October as possible. The cinemas that booked us directly were Sheffield Showroom, Nottingham Broadway, London Picturehouse Central, Belfast Queen’s Theatre and Derby Quad. Big thanks to all of those cinemas for being brave enough to take a risk on the film.
Another company I had met at Distribution Rewired were Ourscreen. This was an interesting new model where you book the cinema directly through them, and you have to sell a certain amount of tickets before a deadline. If you don’t sell them the screening gets cancelled. If you do sell them, it gets confirmed and goes ahead. We decided to book a lot of screenings through them as 5 cinemas weren’t enough for our tour. Working with Ourscreen was difficult at first, because no one really wants to buy a cinema ticket 4 or 6 weeks before a screening and trying to convince people was very difficult, so I wasn’t sure at first this was going to work.
Some of the cinemas only needed you to sell around 25 – 30 tickets. Others were much higher and one, Cardiff Vue required 97 tickets to be sold in advance, a crazy amount! So I pretty much lived on social media for the next few weeks, tweeting, facebooking, contacting as many useful organisations as possible to let them know about the screenings. Let me tell you one thing about Ourscreen: If you just book a cinema and leave it at that, nothing will happen. It will be cancelled. Expect to do an enormous amount of work promoting the screenings. For anyone that’s ran a successful crowdfunding campaign, it’s similar and as much hard work.
During this time we had a massive problem with the DCP (Digital Cinema Print) not being formatted properly and we had to keep having it remade to the right format for various cinemas. This swallowed up a big chunk of the budget that we were hoping to keep to be able to cover the 6 weeks I had to take off paid work to do the tour. The money was disappearing fast.
We also had to get the film classified at BBfc which again, which again is very expensive. You also have to have it classified for DVD and VOD as well. Note that if you can work with a charity and go through them, you can get a much lower rate. Tommy’s very kindly let us do this through them which saved us quite a chunk of money. So depending on the subject of your film, this could be an option for you.
We then had to re design the poster and flyers and get those printed. The budget was dwindling fast.
We started to see some success with Ourscreen and many of the screenings started to get confirmed, which was fantastic. Multitude Media were working wonders with press by this point and we had started to get some fantastic national press and reviews, and some local press to for individual screenings. All of a sudden, after a terrible start, things started to go crazy! The tour started and our World Premiere was at AMC Cinema in Manchester. The next few weeks were a whirlwind of dashing up and down the country, doing press interviews, radio shows and screenings followed by Q&A’s.
We redesigned the poster once some of the reviews came in. I was delighted that we got a four star review in the Guardian and many other highly acclaimed reviews and articles in the Observer, Little White Lies, The Lancet, The Mirror and others. You can read these on our website if you look through our previous blogs, they are all listed.
“There is no interest in the subject”. Those words kept ringing in my ears. I’m delighted to say that we totally proved those programmers wrong. We sold out at many of our screenings and often had to be moved to bigger screens to accommodate the audience. The ones that weren’t sold out were extremely well attended. We even managed to pull off Cardiff, with the 97 pre sold tickets, which was fantastic. Ourscreen works incredibly well for a film of this kind, where you know there is an audience, but the gatekeepers won’t let you in. As long as you’re prepared to put the work in, it’s a great way to get your film into cinemas.
At every screening we had a Q&A afterwards. This was enormously important I felt. We always had an panel consisting of either one or more of the parents from the film, or a bereaved parent from the local area, baby loss befrienders or support workers from Tommy’s, Sands or Our Angels, or a bereavement midwife, sometimes senior consultants like Alexander Heazell from Tommy’s, myselt and sometimes our Producers Polly Perkins or Colin Pons. We had different Chair people leading the discussion at each screening. This led to some very interesting questions and discussion after the film and some of the Q&A’s went on for up to an hour.
I was absolutely delighted with the response from the audiences as well as the reviews from the press. At every screening we gave out feedback forms and asked the audience to rate the film out of five stars and also give us anonymous or named feedback. We now have an incredibly huge pile of feedback forms from all the screenings. Not one of them is less than four stars and most are five. We had overwhelmingly fantastic feedback. At our screening in Manchester one member of the audience started a petition to get Still Loved on national TV. That petition is now at almost 12,000 signatures. You can add yours here
We found that our audience was made up of many people that had been affected by the loss of a baby either directly, or someone close to them. Whilst we had expected this, we hadn’t anticipated how many of them found the film to be incredibly positive and we had some wonderful comments, especially from the recently bereaved as to how the film had helped them to feel normal again and see that there is hope for the future.
What we hadn’t expected was the great quantity of midwives, student midwives, doctors and other health care professionals that came along, and how exceptionally useful they found the film. We also had funeral directors and bereavement councillors, as well as filmmakers and members of the general public. It was fantastic to hear the feedback from health care professionals as to how helpful the film had been and how it would inform their practice in the future. This couldn’t be better news as they are the ones on the front line, and this could potentially help to save babies lives in the future.
During the tour we had completely run out of money so didn’t have enough to even cover my time, as I had to take several weeks off any other kind of work to do the tour. We kept a Just Giving campaign running throughout the tour where people could donate on line and at the end of each screening we put a pot out for donations from the audience and people were generous. This covered my travel and food etc, which was very helpful. It wasn’t good to have to do this, but we didn’t have much choice. This is low budget filmmaking indeed!We are now getting enormous demand for the film to be used for training purposes and getting requests for additional screenings in universities and support services. We got an incredible two page review in The Lancet the bible for health care professionals, so this is wonderful.
As the tour drew to an end other cinemas started to contact us to book screenings for next year which is great and other people started to create their own screenings on Ourscreen. Not all of these have come off, due to the hard work it takes to do this, but some of these have already been confirmed.
At the end of the tour we screened at our first two film festivals, Cork Film Festival in Ireland and iDocs in Beijing China where we screened to over 1000 people! These were incredible experiences in their own right and you can read the blogs on links above.
We’re still hoping for a TV broadcast now we have evidence there is a big audience for our film and how many people want to see it. In the meantime, it’s now available in the UK on Vimeo on Demand. You can watch the film here
We’ll be writing to TV commissioners again and sending them facts and figures as well as reviews now the tour is over. We’re working hard to make the film available to health care professionals and others as widely as we can next year but need to raise more funding to enable us to do this. We also want to subtitle the film into several languages to make available in other countries.
I’m absolutely thrilled at the response to the film and couldn’t be happier with the outcome. I’d like to thank every single person that came out to see the film, the families in the film and all those that took part in the panel, our booker, publicists Multitude Media, Tommy’s, Sands, Our Angels, the cinemas that booked us, Ourscreen, Distribution Rewired, the Still Loved team, the journalists that covered the film and gave us great reviews, the Jessica Mathers Trust and everyone that donated to our Just Giving recently to help us fund the tour, and all those that have supported us previously and helped us get this far and anyone that has supported us in many others ways.
I hope some of this information might be useful for anyone self distributing for the first time. Good luck!
Written by Director/Producer Debbie Howard.