- Genre: Comedy
- Writers: Jason Adler and Cameron Fife
- Director: Cameron Fife
- Producer: Jason Adler
- Executive Producers: Kim Waltrip, Ken Schur
- Budget: SAG Modified Low Budget
- Co-Producers: Michael J Wickham, Samantha Herman
- World premiere: @ the Garden State Film Festival,March 2020
Development and Financing
In 2015 Jason and Cameron shot a pilot of the same name, which gained traction but for some reason was never green lit. This pilot, nonetheless, planted a seed for a feature idea as mentioned by Jason:
“I had a friend from my Cornell Hotel School days who had become a VP with Loews, and who’d helped me secure their Hollywood location for one day of filming. At the time he mentioned that if I ever needed a cool location for a larger scale project, their property in Tucson could be a potential option during their slower summer months.”
While Cameron and Jason had the occasional creative session over the years to discuss the feature, it wasn’t until Jason finished an outline and set up a scouting trip in April of 2018, that there was finally any momentum that could be considered substantial.
“We returned to LA with a much clearer vision for the script, and after a few meetings and drafts things started falling into place. We knew we had something special with the script, so I was determined to raise the money. I called well over 100 people in my network who I thought might be interested in investing, with a rejection rate of about 95%.”
Obviously, this was not for the thin skinned as Jason remembers. It took some time and some personal funding directly from Jason to eventually get to the goal. Then, suddenly, they had 15 shoot days scheduled in September of 2018, and ultimately a secured film location for one month, which included pre-pro and wrap. Goal was accomplished and things were in place.
As most projects, things would have not gotten off the ground without coming across a few initial breaks. As Jason remarks, the scouting trip was huge – “For a film like ours with 95% of the plot taking place at a hotel, the location was to be the most critical element.” Jason was very emphatic to remark and recognize both Peter Catalanotte and Brooke Sauer from the Film Tucson Office, in their assistance with the location. He called them with no prior relationship or proper introduction, and since the first moment, they always responded positively. They set up multiple locations in which to scout and were tremendously helpful throughout the entire time.
Another person who brought in great value was Maria Luna from BRAVO, one of the film’s earliest supporters and investors, who Jason had no prior relationship with.
“I tracked her down after first seeing her on Shark Tank, hoping she’d see the value of brand integration into our movie, and fortunately she did!”
Jason remarks that there were many luggage companies that either weren’t interested or didn’t return his calls.
“I strongly encourage indie filmmakers to pick up the phone and make calls, you never know where help and alliances may be. One thing I know for sure is that it will not come to you. If you’re willing to hustle and do some outside the box thinking, you will undoubtedly find what you need.”
A lot of the positives surrounding the production revolve around the team set forth to conduct the production itself. Cameron had a fantastic network of key crew who they brought out from Los Angeles. The team’s trust and budget mindfulness were critical in making everything work. Jason learned to understand the huge importance that a casting director or team can have.
“Even if it’s not in your initial budget, make room! Kendra Shay Clark and Helen Geier were a huge asset; not only are they fantastic at suggesting the right talent, but they brought a level of credibility to an indie film that you simply won’t have when the director and producers are the ones communicating to agents and managers.”
Many other remarks revolving the production’s fine tuning where greatly assisted with the fact that the team was filming and living at a beautiful location: The Loews Ventana Canyon Resort, which made for a fun and relaxing environment that helped the team be involved as much as possible. They ate and drank together, and even explored the local area on off days. All of this contributed to strong bonds and a family vibe on set which transpired into the films process. Jason described the ambient for the location as simply perfect.
Jason decided to sell the film himself:
“I did a ton of due diligence on the subject of self-distribution. I spoke with filmmakers and producers, listened to podcasts and read dozens of articles, and even entertained several offers from distributors. There is no right or wrong path – ultimately I decided to self-distribute.”
After putting so much time, energy, resources, and money into it, it seemed odd to just hand the movie over to a third party who has no skin in the game. If the right terms and circumstances had come along, then Jason would have thought about it, but the usual 10-15 years, turning over the worldwide rights, and on top of that they weren’t going to do much marketing, if any at all since they expected them to do the marketing.
“My journey to find an aggregator began. Reputation and experience are crucial, so after several calls and visits to the LA location of Bitmax, I found myself excited to work with them. Self-distribution is obviously a lot of work, so let me be clear on that. But I love the fact that I retained all rights, and have transparency on the numbers.”
Due to Covid-19 some expected reporting delays have been in place, since there is a rapid movement into digital, but Jason retains the final word on all pricing and timing matters. In doing this he also engaged the services of Glen Reynolds at Circus Road Films, a distribution consultation firm, so when he is ready for the secondary SVOD window, Glen has all the contacts to pitch buyers and networks to strike the deal. Jason understands the importance of having as many mentors and experts in your corner, so almost every decision made was after several conversations and insights from collaborators like Glen, Kim Waltrip, and many others in the industry.
“I’m a firm believer in collaboration and deliberation, and while I ultimately make the final call, it isn’t without thorough investigation and feedback.”
Festival Strategy & Premiere
Even though Jason and the team had its hearts set on SXSW for the world premiere, they believed it wasn’t realistic to count on a major festival, or any for that matter. So, they were thrilled to learn that they would be virtually premiering at the Garden State Film Festival in March, 2020.
“It was a bit disappointing to not be able to attend, especially since we won the -Budd Abbott award for Best Comedy Feature-, it was nevertheless a huge honor to win an award right out of the gate! Major props to the GSFF staff too – I believe they pulled off the first ever virtual film festival, and on such short notice.”
A month later they were set for the Greenwich International Film Festival, which was again also virtual, with a couple other pending decisions of festivals which have been postponed due to COVID-19. The overall uncertainty of the return of most festivals, has shifted the main focus and funds to marketing and advertising, since the film is now available on the major digital platforms.
Marketing and publicity
“I came across a company called Bunker 15, which essentially serves as PR for indie films, primarily by getting reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. I was particularly impressed with the CEO, Daniel Harlow. He explained how a minimum of 5 reviews published on Rotten tomatoes results in a -fresh- or -rotten- score.”
To be clear, Bunker 15 does not guarantee a fresh score, but does guarantee the minimum number of reviews necessary. “I highly recommend Bunker 15 because you cannot underestimate the value of Rotten Tomatoes, so check them out and make sure you allocate a budget for their services.”
Jason also considers himself lucky that he was able to have a satellite media tour with Richard Kind. 27 reporters from around the country interviewed Richard via zoom satellite in 5-minute interviews, many of which aired nationally and others regionally. This is obviously not something most Indies will be able to acquire or experience, if any, but he was lucky enough to hit it off with the owner of Junket Productions.
The Bellmen had a theatrical release, fully virtual. It was set to have a two-day premiere event on May 5th and 6th at the Loft Cinema in Tucson, one of the best indie theaters in the country. Unfortunately, it was cancelled due to the pandemic. The Loft presented Jason with a unique opportunity to screen the movie virtually for their members, to which he gladly accepted. They sold tickets through their website (65,000-member email list) and the profits were split.
Several distributors had come up with this concept to work with indie theaters around the country during these difficult times, so he followed suit and personally reached out to 120 theaters or so. Luckily 10 of them agreed, and 10 more theaters jumped onboard after a week or so. Ultimately the film screened on 20 theaters for 4-6 weeks, a few of which are still going.
This is a brand-new concept born out of the present circumstances with COVID-19, an experimental adaptation. Since theaters were closed the industry was forced to think outside the box. So, The Bellmen ended up with a limited theatrical release that it otherwise would not have had and reached a wider audience in the process. Also, indie theaters were able to share in the proceeds, allowing them to earn something to help pay employees and bills during the shutdown:
“I’d say that’s a win-win! It was nice for people to be able to contribute to their local indie theater, and perhaps this can be the birth of a new model going forward. We also qualified to list the -opening weekend box office numbers- which were $948, not bad at all.”
Advice to Filmmakers
I hope in some way this helps inspire other indie filmmakers to go out and do whatever it takes to make a movie. I can’t articulate the amount of knowledge, experience, and meaningful relationships that I’ve gained. Whether or not you want to self-distribute and handle your own marketing is up to you. For me, it’s been an unbelievable learning experience and I wouldn’t change a thing. I loved how I was able to pivot so freely and do the virtual release. I love that I can look at the daily numbers on Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, and soon Vudu (they’re still experiencing delays due to Covid-19), and when the time comes, I can adjust pricing. Now, thanks to help from some trusted expert friends, I can analyze the data from our Facebook ads sales results and adjust the target audience accordingly. There is tremendous joy in having produced a movie, even more so with managing and monetizing something indefinitely that I’ve put so much into. I think it would have been a dishonor to myself and the team if I’d just handed it over to a distributor and hoped for the best.”
Bunker 15 Films offers promotional strategies for VOD and Theatrical releases. With thousands of certified critics, journalists and media influencers, Bunker 15 can bring media attention to your film that no other Publicity techniques can. Having logged every film critic and every film they liked or didn’t like, their Data-Driven smart strategies drive buzz for your film to the audiences that want to see it.