Throw it in the bag: Justine Jacobs' and Alex D. da Silva's "Ready, Set, Bag!" takes a DIY route into theaters. (Photo courtesy filmmaker)

Filmmakers Stuff 'Bag!' With Self-Distribution Dreams

Michael Fox December 15, 2009

Oren Jacob was out with friends one night when the conversation turned to high school summer jobs. “I used to be a grocery bagger,” one person recalled, “but never made it out to the regionals.” Oren phoned his wife on the way home. “I know what our next film is about,” he said. Justine Jacob had just completed her debut with Alex D. da Silva, Runners High, about inner-city teens training for a marathon, and figured Oren had stumbled on a lighter, quirkier variation of the sports doc. Instead, “we found a competition that has been going on for over 20 years, an organization (the National Grocers Association) with a purpose to advocate for independent grocers that cater to their communities, and an industry filled with integrity where individuals love their jobs and serving their customers,” Justine says. “We knew we had more than a competition film.” Three years later, the filmmakers are rolling out Ready, Set, Bag! themselves. Rule No. 1: Crushables go on top.

Jacob and Da Silva won the Best Pitch award at the Sundance Institute’s Independent Producers Conference (now called the Creative Producing Summit), and with their first $500 in funding, embarked on a 21-state tour of regional bagging competitions leading up the national throwdown in Las Vegas. (Crushables on top!) As they moved through post, the filmmakers were convinced their feature-length piece had theatrical potential and adopted a time-honored strategy–get into a good festival and hope the movie gets picked up for distribution.

Paper or Plastic? (as the film was originally titled) premiered in competition at the 2008 Los Angeles Film Festival, where industry vet Mark Gill delivered his infamous “The Sky Is Falling” speech detailing the awful climate for indie distribution. (Jacob has another acute memory from that festival, namely giving birth in L.A. to her third child the same night the film debuted.) The doc provoked positive audience and critical response as well as interest from distributors. One well-known company even made an offer.

“The problem is it sucked,” Jacob says. “It was a very traditional offer: small upfront price, all rights for 15 years, with a minimum commitment to marketing and a 75 percent cut (to the distributor!). It didn’t make any sense. So for the next year, we continued to play the festival circuit and actively court distributors. Many were interested, but none could see how to find the film’s audience.”

Jacob and da Silva, with executive producers Oren Jacob and Graham Walters, faced the choice of shelving the film and moving on or putting it out themselves. “No one benefits (us, the investors, the crew, the cast, etc.) from a shelved film,” Jacob observes. “We also want to continue making films. We love telling stories visually, we think we’re kinda good at it and we want to keep doing this. We had to figure out a way to make this work for us.”

One thing in their favor was the film is a comedy. “We know folks truly have a good time in our movie,” Jacob says. “Now how do we get them there?” Well, social networking tools on the Internet have made grassroots marketing feasible and affordable. “The fact is no one really knows how to do this stuff,” Jacob says, “and although we’re struggling through with how to make it all work, I’d rather pay us and our team than the ‘experts’ out there.”

After spending several months soliciting sponsors to underwrite the film’s release and getting slim results, the filmmakers moved to the next stage–calling local theaters to book the film. We did not want to four-wall,” Jacob declares. “We wanted theaters to have a vested interest in our screening. We started with Rialto Cinemas (which has the Elmwood, Cerrito and Lakeside) and the Roxie took us a few weeks later. That sure set the ball rolling.”

The filmmakers had to provide synopses for the theaters’ websites along with flyers and posters. “We decided to play on Blu-ray, so we had to figure out how the hell to do that,” Jacob says. “Turns out it’s not so easy to make Blu-rays with a 5.1 surround sound, and you have to do a separate one if they don’t have 5.1 because the sound will be slightly off.”

Jacob and her cohorts had to do their own PR, but first they decided to re-brand the film. Needless to say, there was no money to hire someone. “For two weeks we got less than four hours of sleep a night, and did I mention we have three kids [under the age of six]? And at the last minute we decided to rename the film as well. After long debates, we changed it to Ready, Set, Bag!, mostly because as we did the marketing materials we were constantly coming up against having to say our film was not an environmental film, people will not cry, they will enjoy themselves, etc. Many film folks said, ‘Don’t do it. You can’t change now.’ But the reality is that 99 percent of our audience has never heard of our film. We have not regretted it at all.”

The trial run, if one can call it that, partially benefited local food banks through cans brought by moviegoers (prompted by a $1 discount on tickets) and a donation by Mechanics Bank. With just five screenings, more than 2,500 meals were funded. In addition, 10 percent of the proceeds from DVD purchases at go to Feeding America.

The goal is to play 50 cities in the coming year, sell DVDs at screenings (and online), sell downloads and merchandise and recoup costs. The Pageant Theater in Chico booked the film for every Thursday in January, with other cities to come. The filmmakers are homing in on weekday evenings rather than one-week runs to give the screenings an "event" feel. (The theaters certainly see the benefit, with a major increase over their usual midweek attendance.).

“I hope in a year I can come back and say, ‘This is how you do it, and go for it.’ But we could also come back and say, ‘Run, don’t do it!’ We’re giving ourselves 2010 to figure this out and we’re just at the beginning of it all.

Early on, Jacob realized that kids age 6-13 love the movie. So they’ve begun targeting elementary schools and organizing fundraising shows. They’re also doing early-evening, family-friendly screenings that offer a relatively inexpensive night.

Jacob describes Runners High as her film school; she had recently graduated from law school and didn’t want another in-depth academic program. After finishing post on Ready, Set, Bag!, she joined Richard Lee of Lee & Lawless on a part-time basis to practice entertainment law. Her filmmaking and film-distributing experience comes in handy, needless to say.

The bad news about self-distribution is that Jacob’s other film projects, including a chocolate documentary, have to be tabled for the time being. The good news is that a small-scale theatrical tour, as opposed to a wide release, facilitates rapid changes in tactics.

“I can’t say I love the distribution side of things, but I can say that I love that our film is finding its audience and it’s being seen,” Jacob says. “I love that we have stopped waiting around for permission from others to take our film out there. Perhaps I’ll love the distribution side of things when we are in the black. You’‘ll have to check back at the end of next year.”

Notes from the Underground
Rose Kaufman, wife and partner of director Philip Kaufman and mother of producer Peer Kaufman, passed away Dec. 7. She wrote the screenplay for The Wanderers and co-wrote Henry and June with her husband, but her contributions extended far beyond any credits in a press kit. … The S.F. Jewish Film Festival received a $25,000 grant from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to support a retrospective, titled “Tough Guys: Images of Jewish Gangsters in Film,” that Nancy Fishman is curating for next summer’s festival. … Kimberly Reed’s Prodigal Sons has been acquired by First Run Features and will open Feb. 26 in New York and March 5 in the Bay Area.

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