Online Venture Takes On Film Distribution Heavyweights

Independent filmmakers have criticized film distribution for years. Citing what he calls its "bottlenecks" and "road blocks," producer Nicolas Gonda has founded Tugg.com, a company dedicated to making film distribution easier for the small guys in the industry. Reporter Acacia Squires looks at film distribution and what changes the industry might undergo with new distribution models like Tugg.com.

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The Sundance Film Festival is wrapping up today in my hometown, Park City, Utah. But even though those movies have made it into the festival, there's no guarantee they'll be seen on the big screen any place else. Some companies are trying to change that. NPR's Acacia Squires reports.

ACACIA SQUIRES, BYLINE: The golden age of Hollywood: when Americans flocked to theaters for a chance to see their favorite stars on the silver screen.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SINGING IN THE RAIN")

GENE KELLY: (as Don Lockwood) (Singing) I'm singing in the rain...

SQUIRES: Big studios held a virtual monopoly over every step of the process, from grooming the stars to distribution. And the industry was booming. But fast forward to today and it's a different picture. With movies on demand, Netflix, and iTunes, more people are customizing their experience and watching from home.

Today, theaters fill up at a rate of only about 15 perfect. As a result, audiences and filmmakers are missing out on that big screen experience. So film producer Nicolas Gonda, who produced the Oscar-nominated "Tree of Life," started a company, tugg.com, where audiences and filmmakers themselves - not studios - decide where and when movies play.

NICOLAS GONDA: It's not as though people aren't wanting to see movies anymore. People are just more selective than ever of the films they want to see.

SQUIRES: So how does it work? Take independent filmmaker Clay Broga.

CLAY BROGA: We are one-man bands, you know, in training. We taught ourselves video production. Our whole staff, you can sort of say the same thing.

SQUIRES: Broga and his partner, Dan Hayes, made the independent documentary "Honor Flight" And like many documentaries, it didn't have a big name studio behind it to get theatrical distribution. To them, Tugg seemed like an interesting idea.

So they added their movie to the over 1,000 titles already in the Tugg library, chose theaters across the country where they wanted it to screen, set specific dates, then they reached out to everyone they knew over social media to promote the screenings. There's a catch, though. Broga and Hayes have to fill the seats or the show doesn't go on. Dan Hayes.

DAN HAYES: This is still an experiment for us, and I think it's an experiment for everybody.

SQUIRES: Sebastian Twardosz, who teaches film at the University of Southern California, is skeptical tugg.com or any service like it might actually be the answer to the complicated and expensive process of film distribution.

SEBASTIAN TWARDOSZ: There is really no one distributor that will do it all. They are just part of the puzzle in actually distributing true independent movies today.

SQUIRES: So far, for Clay Broga and Dan Hayes, that's a big piece of the puzzle. They've run 19 Tugg screenings of their documentary and 40 more are expected, just as long as they sell all of those seats. For NPR News, I'm Acacia Squires.

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