For those not familiar with the term four walling–it’s when a filmmaker pays a theater to screen their film. Typically, the theater box office will sell tickets. The proceeds can either go solely to the filmmaker. Or, proceeds can be split between the filmmaker and the house. There are no absolutes when it comes to four walling.
Many filmmakers have learned the value in four walling their films across the country. Touring a film can be a great way to build your audience and your brand. It can create opportunities for finding investors and distributors. With a lot of planning, you can even make a profit.
I once heard a film festival director explain some nuances of the business. For many films, their only theatrical screening would be at a festival. Many festivals now charge upwards of $100 for entry fees; often, your film only has a 50/50 chance of being reviewed by a qualified screener for festival consideration. Festival politics and filmmakers who receive preferential treatment are not uncommon. In light of this, paying to publicly screen your film via four walling is not a bad alternative. But, before you make any decisions, let’s take a look at the process.
Successful four walling basics
When you four wall, you become the distributor of your film. That means you are responsible for everything for booking, advertising, and delivering your DCP and keycodes. Learning about theatrical exhibition is critical for successful four walling.
Most theaters profit from sales of popcorn and soda. In fact, exhibitors often see 10% or less of gross ticket sales during the first week of release for studio tent pole films. Additionally, many studios will require exhibitors to book a multi-week run for these potential blockbuster movies. This provides a great opportunity for filmmakers to book a reasonably priced four wall screening on a Monday or Tuesday night. Especially considering a small chain and/or independent theater owners, as well as single screen theaters or multiplexes with limited screens.
Costs can vary
Prices for four walls, can vary greatly depending on the geographical region. Other factors include number of days playing, screening times and even seasons of the year. The key to successful four walling is to understand the market and how your film fits into that market. However, it is equally important to understand your goals and what you hope to achieve from four walling.
The cost for four walling for a single screening on a weeknight can vary based on the theater, the town and the current studio distribution schedule. Flexibility and adaptability are the keys to successful booking. The latest blockbuster tanking can be the key to getting a great last-minute four wall deal for a single weeknight screening. You may notice the emphasis here on “single weeknight screening”; that’s because the studios require so many screenings per day per week from an exhibitor as part of the distribution deal for most movies.
Good negotiating skills are a plus when it comes to four walling. You’ll find that’s there’s no standard four wall fee. Some theaters in rural areas may offer a 50/50 split of the box receipts. They may charge no upfront fees if the timing is right. Others may charge a modest fee and offer 100% of ticket sales in return.
Plan your tour strategically
A film with a proven track record is more likely to get better four wall deals. For instance, if the film can demonstrate an impressive number of ticket and/or concession sales. This is where planning comes into play. Booking at theaters in smaller towns at the start of your film’s tour will help you negotiate better rates for larger cities near the end of your tour.
Of course, you must decide if you even want to tour your film. Some filmmakers are ready to move on to their next project. For some, employment makes touring impossible. Depending on where you live, costs associated with travel for an extensive tour may be prohibitive. And many filmmakers are simply happy with a single four wall screening at a theater in their community.
A good PR strategy gives you more negotiating power
Guaranteed publicity can help you negotiate a better four wall deal. Share the advertising strategy with your exhibitor. Guest appearances on radio talk shows, interviews with the newspaper, and Q and As after your film screens can help sweeten negotiations with a theater.
If you have a publicist, mention it to the exhibitor. PR strategies are critical for successful screenings. A good publicist can help you craft a strategy that is custom tailored for your film project.
Many publicists have a wealth of resources. For instance, some can even help ensure that critics are at your screenings. Some publicists can be costly, but they can often lower four wall fees with the exhibitor. This isn’t Field of Dreams. Just because you screen, it doesn’t mean people will show up to watch your film.
Just because you screen, it doesn’t mean people will show up to watch your film.
Even if a theater offers you a free four wall screening, it’s pointless if you don’t take full advantage of the opportunity. Filling seats is crucial for seeing profits from box office receipts. A full house can also equate to more sales of merchandise and film downloads. Selling out theaters may garner favorable reviews from critics. Likewise, buzz about you and your film can stir interest with investors. Finally, compelling data from a successful film tour can help with negotiations for a distribution deal for your film, especially for streaming rights.
The technical side of four walling
Don’t forget about the technical aspects of four walling–the digital cinema package, or DCP. The advantage of theaters now projecting digitally means that you no longer have the expenses associated with chemical film distribution. However, you will need a DCP.
While many software programs do provide for DCP conversion, there still seems to be compatibility issues with files, especially when key codes are being used. It’s important that you check with the theater before your screening to ensure that your file is playable.
Many say it’s a lot easier to successfully four wall a horror film. However, knowing a market can even the playing field. Commonality can provide more advertising opportunities. A drama based on characters of a certain ethnicity might draw more interest in a town densely populated by community members of the same ethnicity. It can also provide better negotiating terms for four walling at a theater in that community.
The same could be said about a comedy about a football player that screens in a town that is heavily invested in their local high school or college football team. Likewise, a documentary film might find a built-in audience with a topic that resonates with core interests or values of its membership such as climate change or social injustice. Faith-based films might find pre-sale ticket opportunities with local places of worship, removing some of the financial risk associated with four walling.
Thinking that your film will appeal to everyone is not very realistic. Understanding your audience is critical when devising your four wall strategy.
Los Angeles and New York are two of the most expensive areas for four walling. Depending on the time of the year, the cost can be exponentially more expensive, if you can even get screening space at all. This is bad news for filmmakers who create animated, narrative, and documentary shorts wanting to qualify their films for Oscar consideration since four walling is an absolute necessity to meet eligibility requirements.
Many documentary features also face this same challenge. For example, documentary features require four screenings a day with at least a one week (seven day) run in both New York and Los Angeles at commercial theaters that have releases where public admission is charged for screenings. Narrative, animated and documentary shorts have similar requirements although these types of films typically only have to screen in one market (either New York or Los Angeles) with only one screening a day for a seven-day run.
Independent and studio films vying for an Oscar nomination also tie up screens and drive up prices. Considering screenings for qualifications, nominations, and full blown Oscar campaigns — in addition to screenings for guild award considerations — pricing and availability for screens at theaters in New York and Los Angeles are affected the most between August and February. Commercial theaters that screen films for Oscar qualifying tend to cater to the art house crowd. Lately, these theaters have become more selective about what they screen since inexpensive digital filmmaking has created a glut of bad product. Many venues now screen content before even offering a four wall agreement.
Other reasons to four wall
Four walling could be a great premiere opportunity to show off your film to family, friends, cast, crew and investors before releasing it to iTunes and Amazon. If you crowd sourced your film, tickets to a screening might be a perk for donors. Or, four walling might simply be an opportunity to screen a digitized and edited film of several generations worth of home movies for a grand family reunion. Obviously, costs will influence all of these types of decisions.
Just like the variable pricing from exhibitors to four wall a film, there are multiple considerations when contemplating this venture. What do you hope to achieve from four walling? Is this a one-off screening, a tour, or a week long qualifying run? Only you know your motives for four walling; only you can decide if it’s worth the time and expense.