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Feb 16, 2021
| by | Kate O'Hare

On a Wing and a PRAYer: Distributing the Indie Faith Film

In the tumultuous year of 2020, Family Theater Productions released the acclaimed documentary PRAY: THE STORY OF PATRICK PEYTON to theaters and digital. It was quite a ride.

In January, as part of FTP's Prayer and Pasta series (now gone online at FTP's Facebook page), I interviewed FTP's Senior Producer Tony Sands. He's an associate producer on PRAY, the biography of FTP founder Father Patrick Peyton, C.S.C.. He was also heavily involved in distribution -- which entails getting a finished film actually out the door to viewers in theaters and/or digital outlets.

Rather than handing PRAY (along with the rights to it, and much of the control of it) over to a large distributor and having it use its contacts and reputation to put the film in theaters, FTP chose a different route. It partnered with ArtAffects Entertainment to book the actual theaters and theater chains but was directly involved in the whole process (including marketing and social media).

It was a bold move and a first for a company that's been making entertainment for radio, film and TV since 1947, and Sands was in the thick of it.

Here's some of what Sands had to say (edited for length and clarity) ...

On what led to the decision about how to send a film into theaters in October of 2020:

A lot of prayer, which I hope I actually listened to. So it's a bit of a tricky situation. We had a big debate, really just a intelligent discussion, on what was going on. You have to realize that basically we're making that decision, or having that discussion, spring of 2020, and so we had no idea what was ahead of us, as far as the pandemic goes.

We just knew that we had to make a call, ultimately what we wanted to do, as far as getting this film, which we felt very passionate about, out to an audience.

And there was such an impact that when we looked at it (in our office screening room). When we talked to actual distribution companies about it, they saw there was value of having that [big-screen experience].

Of course, there was also value in just the awareness that a theatrical release generates, which [a film that goes] straight to streaming, or digital or video doesn't have.

So, we looked at our options and put our trust in God, and then really ended up picking the date that was of the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, which is a feast that was near and dear to Father Peyton's heart. And then went and released on that, figuring God will figure this out.

It was a challenge to convince theater chains to take a chance on a documentary about a Catholic priest whose catchphrase, "the family that prays together stays together," far outlived his own fame in the public eye. (As I said to Tony at one point, "He's the most famous man you've never heard of.").

On how FTP and its partners did it:

We knew that that was a hurdle to overcome, so we thought the phrase was strong enough, and the mission of family prayer is strong enough, that we could get core influencers, core gatekeepers, to really get behind this film.

And we also thought that when the film itself was made, that actually determined how we thought it was going to get out there, because you sometimes have to do that, and you realize you really have made something that has a wider appeal, that has a certain level of excellence, or it has a certain level of ability to crossover to other audiences, and we thought we had that -- and we believe we have that.

FTP also turned to Catholic PR firm Carmel Communications and a network of Catholic organizations and influencers to get the word out.

Said Sands:

Show it to key individuals who were influencers, who were again, gatekeepers, who are then able to then pass it into their groups and basically might let whole organizations or whole groups of people know that this was coming. And that's how we use sort of a grassroots model, if you will, or like almost a personal connection model, or a faith connection model, if you will, to really have it find its audience.

Sands is a graduate of USC's acclaimed film school, but he admits that not much time there was spent on the topic of distribution. That's an important part of the whole filmmaking process, especially for independent filmmakers who don't necessarily have a large studio behind them.

Asked what he wishes he'd learned about all of this in film school, Sands said:

Man, there'd be a whole class including legal, on how this works. Like anything else, make sure you have a good lawyer, especially over here in distribution, because there's little things in there that you want to know.

For example, if you're making a narrative film, you ought to be very clear on your [financial] relationship with the distribution company [and with SAG-AFTRA, for residuals] ...

If you promised actors that you'd pay them, or crew members, or whoever, you'd pay them on a deferred basis -- meaning when the movie get makes money they get paid -- that money comes to them usually [from] what they call waterfall in the earning back of the film.

So one of the key things that I tell people is, make sure that the distributor is responsible for paying SAG and any of the other guilds their residuals first. ... Because, if not, it falls on the producer.

What can happen is, the guild says, "When this movie makes money, whoever's responsible for the residuals is the one to pay it." So if you notice in that group, the last person to get money back again is the actual producer.

So it can happen as this film is making money, it's paying out all these costs. You haven't seen a dime yet, but the guild can say, "Hey, we noticed your film's making money, where's our residual payment?"

So, that's a taste of our wide-ranging discussion. PRAY is no longer in theaters, but it's available for online rental or purchase from a variety of platforms (check for details, and a DVD release is also coming. In addition, it can be licensed for virtual or in-person group showings (that info is here).

If you'd like to watch the whole interview (with a prayer at the end) click here.

Click here and here for online articles diving deeper into film distribution.

Image: Adobe Stock

Kate O’Hare, a longtime entertainment journalist, is Social Media Manager at Family Theater Productions.

Keep up with Family Theater Productions on FacebookTwitter, Instagram and YouTube.

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