Strong is a documentary about American Olympian Cheryl Haworth. The film, from director Julie Wyman, profiles the 300-pound Gold-Medal-winning weight-lifter as she confronts the end of her career and society’s assumptions about size. It’s not the stuff of cineplex ubiquity, but the film will appear in major theaters across the country via crowdsourced theater programming platform Tugg.
As the digital space has widened the field for filmmakers, allowing anyone with a digital camera and a dream to make a movie and then get word out to her Twitter followers, the old-fashioned movie theater has stayed pretty much the same. Until the recent appearance of alternative distribution systems like Tugg.
Viewers can go to Tugg.com and choose from an ever-expanding list of titles, from classics (The Last Picture Show, Dr. Strangelove) to little-seen recent Oscar nominees (Bill Cunningham New York, Chico & Rita) and silly studio films (Burlesque, Click)—there are nearly 500. Then pick where you want to see it and invite your friends. OK, it’s not quite that simple, but through the reach of social media, people across the country have been programming movies at their local theaters and then amassing groups to see them. After all, if you can do it online or on demand on your TV, why not at your local cinema?
That was the thinking that drove Nicolas Gonda, a 27-year-old, Austin, Texas-based producer of such films as The Tree of Life and Terrence Malick’s upcoming To the Wonder, to find a way to migrate that experience to an existing environment, bring the online experience to life in our communities. He and his partner Pablo Gonzalez, who brings a background in technology, found that most movie theaters are hurting for patrons, especially during the week. "The average theater in the country is operating at around 16% on an average weekday," says Gonda. As long as an event can clear a particular number for a given cinema, they’re game for letting someone else choose what plays.
"I think a lot of people think some of the bigger movie chains, or movie theaters in general, are kind of antiquated and think with an old-world perspective," says Gonda. "But what we found was that there’s a real hunger to innovate in those spaces. So what we built, which is all about mitigating risks for them, made it a lot easier for them."
People want to go to the movies, but they need something that will make it exciting again. Recently a group of University of Pennsylvania students set up a Tugg screening of A Better Life, last year’s little-seen indie gem, at which they had a mariachi band perform. "When the lights came up, immigration lawyers were speaking about the plight of Mexican workers in Philadelphia," says Gonda. This is one example of the kind of event that groups are creating around movies. Issue-driven documentaries like Incendiary, about the death penalty, are also getting screened by organizations that want to spark community discussion.
Tugg receives a percentage of ticket sales from every successful event (a successful event is defined as one that happens, having met the minimum number of ticket buyers). "Obviously on a particular day, in a particular city, those economics vary and therefore the threshold does change," explains Gonda. "But we always encourage our partners against setting their minimums so high that the threshold rests above what local communities can reach with a serious marketing campaign." This is grassroots marketing at its most organic.
And that’s how people are finding Tugg. It’s all word-of-mouth. "Especially in the filmmaking community," says Gonda. "Filmmakers feel empowered now to use new resources in their social networks to maximize their costs." Indie filmmakers like Morgan Spurlock, who struggle increasingly to get their movies shown in theaters beyond the biggest markets, are making their movies available on Tugg and utilizing social media—primarily Facebook and Twitter—to connect their fans to screenings all over the country. And they don’t have to foot the bill themselves.
Even smaller studios are utilizing Tugg for their release plans. Focus World is releasing the sci-fi comedy Extraterrestrial across the country on June 15 by setting up screenings on Tugg. You can find a screening near you here.
So, where does the name Tugg come from? "It’s about collective actions," explains Gonda. "You know, like a tug-of-war, where a group of people work together to achieve a common goal." Tugg was one of what he says were 700 name options. "Luckily, a very kind person in Sweden, who was the owner of tugg.com, believe in what we were doing and basically handed it over to us."
Gonda is in ongoing talks with studios to get more of them on board with their titles: "We all know that the theatrical experience of the movie is the greatest marketing campaign for any other products being sold around that title. What we have available now is very much the tip of the iceberg."
Read Fast Company’s profile of another theatrical on-demand offering, Gathr, here.