Naomi McDougall Jones on her film, Bite Me, and why she skipped traditional distribution in favor of a 50-city tour
Naomi McDougall Jones is a writer, actress, and producer perhaps best known for her TEDTalk on “What it’s like to be a woman in Hollywood.” Naomi has been a vocal advocate for bringing gender parity to film, both on and off screen and co-founded the 51 Fund to help finance films finance films written, directed, and produced by women.
After discovering her newest film, a subversive rom-com called Bite Me, and her plans to forgo traditional distribution in favor of a 50+ city self-booked tour, I immediately reached out to Naomi to learn all I could from her about her process. I initially asked her a number of questions “off-record,” but she encouraged me to share everything. What follows is an incredibly transparent look at what financing, marketing, and distribution look like in today’s indie film climate and what Naomi is doing to tackle these massive issues.
Tell us about Bite Me and how it all came together.
Bite Me is a subversive romantic comedy about a real-life vampire and the IRS agent who audits her.
This is my second feature film and my second collaboration with director Meredith Edwards.
The story of how it all came together is SUPER long and complicated, like most indie films. I wrote the first draft in August 2013, we shot in August 2017, and the film premiered at Cinequest in March 2019, so it has been quite a long, perilous, joyful, brutal, commando-crawl, heart-soaring process.
As far as I can tell, that describes the process of making almost any indie film. If you want to really get in the weeds with how we made the film, I was making a podcast through the year leading up to production, through production, and then right after, so there is an in-real-time, in-real-detail account of how we got it made if anyone is interested. The podcast is Fear(ful)less: Filmmaking From the Edge, available on iTunes and GooglePlay.
Why this story, why now?
Well, the inciting incident for writing this screenplay was that I was acting on the set of Boardwalk Empire and got to chatting with one of the background actors who, by the end of a 16-hour shoot day, revealed to me that she was a vampire—meaning part of the (as I discovered) real-life worldwide subculture of people who believe that they’re vampires. As I asked her more about this and then subsequently fell down the YouTube hole of vampire vlogs (which is a thing), I couldn’t believe that a) I had never heard about this before and b) that no one had ever made a movie about it. I became pretty quickly excited about the idea of writing that movie.
Around the same time, though, there were three additional impulses that sort of swirled together with that idea and became Bite Me:
A Love Song to Weirdos: I was a super weird and lonely kid (now I’m a pretty weird adult, but have made a career out of it and made friends with the other weirdos). Growing up, I was repeatedly drop-kicked by the experience of watching Hollywood movies like The Princess Diaries that were ostensibly movies for weirdos but a) classified Anne Hathaway as a weirdo when, really, they just put glasses on her and frizzed her hair up, but she still looked like freaking Anne Hathaway and b) by the end of the movie removed Anne’s glasses and de-frizzed her hair so that the hot boy could finally see through to her winning personality. As an adult, I became determined to make a film for and by true weirdos where the girl gets to keep her glasses on at the end of the movie.
What Happened to the RomCom? I am a HUGE fan of great, smart, fresh romantic comedies from the 80s and 90s – think Notting Hill, When Harry Met Sally, etc – and was devastated when, shortly after 9/11, the genre took a hard left turn into dopey Katherine Heigl-land. As I tried to figure out why this had happened, I realized that, post-9/11, to the denizens of a traumatized nation, the giddy, freewheeling optimism that lives at the heart of any good rom-com didn’t really play anymore (except as pure pink-tulle-escapism). With Bite Me, I set out to make a movie that could get back to that late 20th century joyous optimism, while contending with the fact that most audience members would begin the film with a hard-edged 21st century skepticism. By creating a main character in Sarah who begins the film just as cynical as the audience does and, eventually, finds herself falling head-over-heels in goofy love, I wanted to invite the audience to open their hearts and remember what it is to hope.
People Need to Laugh: Set against the backdrop now of post-9/11, Trump, #metoo, climate change, and all of the 21st century terrors we live in every day, I began this script also determined to make a film that, at least for 83 minutes, would fill people’s hearts with a greater sense of joy, hope, love, and, at the very least, would allow them to temporarily set aside their problems and laugh. There is nothing that makes me more joyful now than the prospect of releasing this film via The Joyful Vampire Tour of America and of an even greater opportunity to spread some goofy, joyful, laughter.
To answer “why now”: in this new strange and frightening political time, the themes of Bite Me are even more urgent than when I first began working on the project. At its core, Bite Me is a story about accepting outsiders; about seeing past our external and religious differences to our common shared humanity. It is about learning to love each other and ourselves in the face of a world that tells us not to.
Previously, these messages felt important. Today they feel vital.
Plus, we’re all really going to have to find moments and laughter and joy to survive any of this.
You crowdfunded on Seed & Spark, but you also had equity funding. Why Seed & Spark? Why the need for the split funding?
I’ll be totally honest: it was really, really hard to raise money for this movie for a really, really long time. We found some incredible investors who believed in us and the project over the years for whom we are infinitely and eternally grateful, but we knew we wanted a real budget for this movie of around $500,000 – we made our first film for Imagine I’m Beautiful for $80,000 – and by the summer of 2017 we had scraped and pieced together just barely enough money to get ourselves through production and we decided to take the admittedly risky move of going into production without enough money for post-production.
One of the hardest things about raising money to that point had been that a lot of investors didn’t really “get” what Bite Me was. It doesn’t fit easily into a box, so it was never easy to say, “Oh, just picture this movie plus that movie.” I’m incredibly proud to say that it is really a movie that is only like itself, but that made it particularly challenging to fundraise for. So, by summer 2017, we knew what an incredible movie we could make and we had our cast lined up and they weren’t going to stay attached forever if we couldn’t get the financing together, and we figured that if we could get just get it in the can, that then, at least, we would be able to show future investors footage and cut together a sizzle reel so that they could see and understand what the movie was.
The reason this is such a risky calculation is because if you make the movie under those circumstances and it’s bad, then you’re totally screwed because any future prospective investor is going to ask to see the footage and, if it’s sub-par, no one will ever give you the money to finish the film and you’ll be dead in the water. But, with our investor’s blessing, we took a swing and bet on ourselves that what we’d make would be excellent, and we went through production.
What that meant, though, was that by the end of production in September 2017, we had $0 and now the clock was ticking on getting post-production going. So we went ahead and ran a crowdfunding campaign on Seed & Spark for $35,000, figuring that since we hadn’t done one yet for this film and people were all amped up on photos and footage that had been coming out during production, that we could pull it in.
Going directly from production into a crowdfunding campaign is not something I would wish on my worst enemy, but we have the absolute greatest team on the planet and they muscled through and did it and, because we have the greatest community around us on the planet, we did manage to reach our goal a month later.
In a pretty miraculous Hail Mary – since that $35K still wouldn’t have been enough to get us all the way through post-production and festivals/marketing – my TEDTalk, which I had actually given a year earlier, got put up on the homepage of TED.com. That October, amidst the Weinstein scandal breaking, the talk went viral, and suddenly folks all over the world were writing to me asking to invest in my film – which is any filmmaker’s wildest dream come true – and, through those contacts, I was able to raise the rest of what we needed for post-production and a marketing budget. I fully recognize the privilege and luck of that moment and get weak at the knees with gratitude whenever I think about it.
Instead of traditional distribution, you're taking the film on a 40-city, 3-month tour to get the film out there. How do you see the state of current indie distribution and why take on all this yourselves?
I don’t think any single person who has participated in any piece of indie film distribution over the last five years would say anything resembling, “You know, I think things are just going swell. There is no need to explore anything else because this is really working like gangbusters.” If anyone does say that to you, you should back away slowly because they are probably on a lot of drugs.
Let’s be real. Any filmmaker who has been through it knows that the ways independent films are distributed right now is 100% fucked. Even if you get a distribution deal – as I did on my first film – which already puts you in the 5% luckiest elite category of films, your film will almost certainly get dumped with little fanfare, no strategy, and minimal if any marketing dollars into the vast sea of content and you will be very, very, very lucky if you ever see a single dollar out the other end of it after the distro company and other middle men have recouped their costs and taken their cut.
The thing is, it actually doesn’t make sense that low-budget indie films can’t make money right now. Hollywood – which is sailing placidly off in the direction of mega-blockbusters with increasingly mind-meltingly-bad dialogue - has left a giant market hole for smart, fresh, original movies, particularly if those movies are by and about something other than white men. Domestic audiences hate the films Hollywood’s making (they know this, by the way, and simply don’t care because they are now making $1 billion a film by targeting foreign markets) and, if you spend any amount of time with them, will ask with endearingly sad confusion, “Why don’t they make good movies anymore?”
I am absolutely convinced that there is a sustainable economic model for independent films (if actually marketed, strategically and creatively brought to audiences, and with at least some of the middlemen fees taken out of the equation) to make back their money and then some. On Bite Me for instance, with a budget of roughly $500K, we only need about 100,000 people to buy the film on some platform or another and/or buy theater tickets to see it for us to recoup 120%. That seems eminently possible.
No one has yet cracked what this model is, as far as I know (if you have, please call me!), but it is out there and it’s going to require radical, big-picture thinking to unravel it, as well as filmmakers brave and bold enough to try these things with their own films.
The Joyful Vampire Tour of America is my best guess swing at what that model might be. We’re making a weekly docu-series about it because I want other filmmakers to be able to learn from every detail of what works/doesn’t work for us. If our model works, then others will be able to copy it. If it doesn’t, hopefully others will be able to see what needs to be adjusted and do it better next time.
As to why we’re taking this all on ourselves, I get asked this a lot by other filmmakers who sigh and say, “Yeah, but I don’t want to get involved in all that. I just want to make my movies.” And, yes, obviously in a totally perfect world, I would just get to make my movie and some magic fairy person or machine would come along and get them out to audiences who will love them. But that is not the world we live in – that is particularly not the world we live in for women and people of color – and I actually DON’T care about making movies if no one sees them. The reason I wanted to become a storyteller was not to tell stories, but to tell them to other people. While planning this tour has been a shite-load of work, and it has, it has also been outrageously joyful to get into direct contact with our audiences, talk to them, hear their responses to the film. All of that has made it the greatest gift I could have as an artist and, frankly, I think will make it pretty hard in the future to go back to just handing my films off to someone else to distribute at the end. Getting to design how audiences get to experience our film feels like an extension of the storytelling process.
Each stop will be unique in that there will be different types of venues and different types of events in each city. What are some of the outside-of-the-box things we can expect on the tour?
In most cities, the screenings will be followed by a Joyful Vampire Ball or Shindig. These events are a chance to meet the filmmakers and team behind Bite Me, celebrate, laugh, and chat with your fellow audience members, but, most importantly, Joyful Vampire Balls are a chance for each and every person to celebrate whatever makes them feel most joyful.
Everyone is invited to wear a special outfit to their screening/vampire ball – it can be a vampire costume, of course, but it could also be a tiara, wings, a Viking dress, a Christmas sweater – really anything that makes you feel fabulous and joyful. That thing that you love but have thought, “but when the heck am I ever going to wear this?” Wear that. Now.
Part-party, part-event, part celebration, each Vampire Ball is a space where everyone is welcome, nobody is judged, and every uniqueness, large and small, is given room to be expressed.
The exciting thing about this, is that it allows us to design a full-evening experience that expands on one of the main themes of the film – self-acceptance and acceptance of others in all of our uniqueness and fullness. The fact that we get to explore these ideas with our audiences inside the film and then in person as well will make the experience more fun, more memorable, and, ultimately, more impactful.
The other piece of this, though, is that because we were reaching out directly to our audience, we had the opportunity to ask them how they wanted to experience the film. Sometimes they had surprising and wonderful answers, such as in New Paltz, NY on May 11th where the screening is in a yoga studio and paired with a Joyful Vampire Yoga Class. Or MuggleNet – the biggest online Harry Potter fan base – reached out to us because our lead actor, Christian Coulson, played Tom Riddle in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and we’re partnering with them to do a screening and Harry Potter trivia night on May 8th in Brooklyn.
How did you find all the locations for the tour?
The first thing we did when we decided to do this was to put out a screening request form to our existing audience fanbase and community and allowed people to request screenings and also asked them if they would be the local host for that screening if we did come to their city. Meaning, not that they had to be the venue for the film, but will they help us get the word out and help us hang posters around town before we got there. And we got 62 screening requests in the first week which was immediately more than we could feasibly do. So we prioritized most of the places that we had somebody who said they would be the local host because based on our past experience, having a local host is one of the biggest predictors of whether a screening will be successful in terms of getting an audience there.
So then we just started calling theaters in those places and literally just took a map and plotted out the places where we’d gotten those request. We drew a line and then saw what else was on the route. Eventually some places have started calling us and asking us to come, so we have added some screenings that way.
How long did it take from the moment you decided to do this to the time you leave on tour?
I first had this idea in November and we spent December doing A LOT of research about this in the form of talking to people who have done something like this before, reading case studies, talking to distributors, talking to sales agents, talking to platforms, talking to producers, really thoroughly sussing this out to make sure we weren’t completely insane to try this. Then I think we decided that we were definitely going to do it around January 6 and the tour begins May 6.
You're releasing digitally at the same time as the tour. Why this decision? Did you consider doing the tour first and then ending it with making it available on digital?
This is obviously one of the big questions in terms of any kind of creative distribution strategy. Our thinking on this was we just live in an age of instant gratification and unless you are Marvel or Harry Potter or some kind of brand that is big enough and dear enough to people’s hearts that they are actually going to remember you three months from when they hear about you, it’s just not gonna work. And also because our marketing budget is not that substantial so the chances of us getting to somebody one time is pretty low and the chances of us getting to that person, having them hear about it, and somehow finding us three months later is almost zero.
Our assumption is that if they cannot immediately buy the movie, we’ve probably lost them and therefore lost that marketing dollar we spent to get to them.
For digital distribution did you go through Quiver or a similar service?
We did it through Quiver and have had a good experience.
How are you finding your audience?
It’s very grassroots. It’s a combination of if there’s a local host getting them to work with their community, get their friends and family out. The theaters, because they’re independent theaters, they often have audiences who are loyal and will come to whatever they’re doing. Social media is a big part of that, particularly to drive online sales. In terms of the local screenings, we’re reaching out to local press for sure. I think that will play a big piece. We’re also researching and reaching out to any groups that are likely to contain our audience. Specifically any Harry Potter fan clubs, any DND clubs, LARPing clubs, cosplay clubs, gaming stores, crystal shops, tarot card shops, women in film groups, and asking them to share it with their members.
There will be a lot of discussion about this in the docu-series so I definitely suggest you tune in for that.
How much help do you have? Is it really just you and your producer? How many people are going on the tour with you?
Functionally it’s basically just me and Sarah, my producing partner. We have been working on this, not full time, but heavily part-time since January 2019. Our executive producers Joanne and Jack have helped a little bit, but more in terms of relationships and strategy. Booking theaters has been Sarah and I. We’ve had a handful of interns on a very, very, very part-time basis who helped with some of that grunt work.
There are three people going on the tour. Myself, my husband, and then the documentary filmmaker Kiwi Callahan who is making the documentary series about the tour. A couple of other team members are jumping on and off for short legs, but it’s basically the three of us.
Is this your sole income right now? Are you paying yourself as part of the tour expenses?
We are paying ourselves as part of the tour expenses, though not enough for it to be anybody's sole income.
Are you working with bookers or PR firms or marketing teams?
We explored working with theatrical bookers but were having enough success calling theaters ourselves that we decided their fees weren’t worth it.
We’ve really gone back and forth on working with marketing and PR. We’re handling local press to places we’re going ourselves. We’re going to hire a PR firm for surgical strikes for one month right at the beginning on tour only. And the reason we decided to do that is because it looks like this is going to be so successful. The fact that we managed to book ourselves for 50 screenings and our first New York screening sold out in the first 36 hours, it’s starting to feel like there’s enough of a story here that it’s actually worth paying somebody to see if we can get some bigger national press, but it’s extremely limited.
The biggest marketing spend is that we’ve hired a social media company called Digital Limit, who is fantastic and I would hire a thousand times over, to run our social media and our paid social media ads. We are spending our biggest chunk of the marketing budget on paid social media ads to convert to digital sales.
How much money did you set aside for social media, PR, & marketing?
We'll get into the weeds of our budget in the docu-series, but the entirety of marketing costs for the tour and marketing/PR/social media all-in is around $100K.
Financially speaking, how much are you hoping to make directly from the tour and how much will be from digital sales / rentals?
We’re going to share all of our financials on the web series, so check that out for a more detailed answer to this. Basically the way it breaks down is we expect to make about $37,000 from ticket sales on the tour. We expect to make about $150,000 from merchandise sales both on tour and through our website. And then we expect to make about $1.5M from digital sales and rentals. Tune into the web series for more information.
What do the venue agreements look like? Are you actually renting them out or is it just a revenue share?
Most places we're doing a revenue share of 50/50 or close to that. There were a few cities - NYC, LA, and DC, I think - where that wasn't possible and we did have to rent
Did you look at sponsors?
Oh yes, did we look at sponsors. We put so much time and energy trying to find branded sponsorships and we came up totally empty. I don’t know why. I think part of it is that you need so much lead time and resources to put into making those deals happen. I feel like we wasted a lot of time and energy in that and it just didn’t work. It seems like a great idea. It seems like it should work, but it didn’t.
So many filmmakers don't think about the end goal. Just making a movie is so difficult, and then they get to the distribution side of things and it's even MORE difficult. What tips would you give for indie filmmakers that maybe haven't shot or even written their film yet? What can they do now in order to best prepare for success once they're done?
I mean, I feel like it’s a pretty common thing to be told that you have to think about your marketing plan and your audience before you’ve even made your film, and I know from first-hand experience that you can often feel like throttling someone for asking you to handle/think about something else when you are in the war zone of just trying to raise money and get your damn movie made in the first place. It can definitely feel pretty impossible to even consider taking on something else at that stage in the game – and also, there is definitely a thing about reaching your audience too early and fatiguing them with information about your film too many years before they can actually watch it.
What I would say is that, at the later script stages, you should spend time doing some serious soul-searching about who is going to want to watch this movie. You don’t have to know 100% and likely you will learn things and be surprised along the way, but you need to have at least some idea that there is actually a group of people that might be interested in this. If you can’t come up with anything, you may need to do some further soul-searching about why you are making this movie and whether it is actually worth the investment of time and resources and heartache required to get it made.
Once you have established for yourself who those people are, make them your True North for all decision-making.
For example, with Bite Me, we always had a pretty good idea that our core audience base would be twofold 1) those who we affectionately termed the mega-nerds (we include ourselves in this category) – those who like Harry Potter, vampire movies, D&D, are LARPers, are involved in cosplay, etc and 2) Women who are looking for smart, feminist rom-coms/content.
When casting the film, then, we knew that we wouldn’t be able to afford A-List actors on our budget-level, but we also knew that actually wasn’t the most important thing to reach our audience. To reach our audience, we knew we needed actors who had fan bases that directly reached and matched the audience for our film. We, of course, sought out wonderful, talented actors, but we also kept an eye on which audiences would know and recognize them. We were lucky enough to get Christian Coulson (Tom Riddle from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets – mega-nerds, check), Naomi Grossman (Pepper from American Horror Story – mega-nerds, check), and Annie Golden (a legend, but also from Orange is the New Black – audiences interested in smart, edgy, feminist content, check).
During the process of making the film and getting it through production and post-production, we mostly kept our attention focused on sharing that journey with our own communities and existing fan bases as filmmakers – posting on social media, sending out newsletters and updates. We didn’t seek out new audience members aggressively or try to cash in on our actor’s fan bases at that stage because a) we had way too much other work to do and b) if we’d caught their attention then, it would still have been years before they could actually see the movie and they would likely have forgotten about it by the time it came out. BUT, through those casting choices and other decisions, we did set ourselves up to reach our correct audience when the time was right – which has been over the last few months leading up to the tour. I would say that has been a highly successful and practical approach.
What advice would you give to someone exploring a similar tour-model of indie distribution?
Do it! It is a shitload of work but we are learning so much and Sarah and I keep saying to each other that it really is so much more fulfilling and less crazy-making than dealing with a distributor. Like even in the worst moments of this it is still better than dealing with a traditional distribution deal where people don’t call you back, don’t care, aren’t marketing your film properly, aren’t putting any resources behind it. This is just better than that, even when it sucks.
Somehow making your film an EVENT feels really important to this model because in this question of if you’re going to release it digitally at the same time, you have to give people a reason to show up in person if you want them to. Probably what that means is giving them an experience that is more than just watching the film. And I think that looks very different for every film. The way I think about it is what is the experience that you want the audience to have in watching the film and how can you enhance that and bring it into the room with an event or a talk or a panel or whatever. I would think about it less in terms of what’s a fun event and more tie it very closely to what is the experience of the film. How can the event be an extension and expansion of that in an exciting way?
But do it and share what you learn. I think that is a really important thing that has to happen next.. A bunch of us trying a bunch of different things and sharing what we learn.
One thing I will also caution you on is I think festivals are great in a lot of ways and I think they are a giant trap and financial sinkhole in a lot of ways. What Sarah and I learned on our past film is that the problem with an extended festival run is that you use up all of your core audience base at the festivals and you don’t make money on them. You actually spend money going to them doing whatever marketing you’re going to do for them, so you’re losing money, you’re not making money, somebody else is making money on your film, using up your audience base. And the other problem we found is because every festival is like a big social media moment for you, people are excited, you’re posting the picture of the red carpet, but by the time your film actually comes out, there is pretty substantial excitement fatigue about it. So what we found is that after doing an extended festival run, you’re kind of back to square one and even a worse place before your festival run.. So our strategy this time was to play very few select festivals, hopefully win some awards, which we did. The ability to say “an award winning film” is a big deal. But as soon as you can say that, more awards don’t really help in terms of selling the film. If you can say “award winning” it’s award winning and move on. I would just think really, really carefully about how playing festivals is going to feed into what you want to do. You risk burning through a lot of money and audience in a situation where you are not making money.
What's your vision for what indie film can become? What conversations aren't happening that need to be happening?
My vision and dream for the future of independent film is an ecosystem in which the means of financing and distribution are fully democratized such that the gatekeepers are removed (except where absolutely necessary) and the one and only thing that determines whether or not a film gets made and seen is whether there is an audience that wants to see it.
Crowdfunding has begun to democratize financing. We need to come up with models and systems for that that are more readily scalable and allow filmmakers to raise more serious budgets – I think equity crowdfunding holds a lot of promise there.
In terms of democratizing the means of film distribution, we are in the very early days of figuring out a sustainable model. I hope the Joyful Vampire Tour is a big step in the right direction. But we need a whole lot more experimentation and bold thinking to crack that egg.
I don’t believe that most filmmakers are thinking radically enough right now about all of this. The problem is that the promise of someday getting picked by the system is so terribly seductive. It’s so easy to go against even your own common sense thinking, yes, but if I just play by their rules well enough, maybe the magical fairy person will swoop down and pick me and all my dreams will come true and I won’t have to do all of this hard work. The problem is that if everyone stays in that hopeful, crouched posture, the gatekeepers remain in power, everyone keeps throwing their content and creativity and talent into the black hole of a system that is so foundationally broken at this point that it is working for almost literally three people and no one else, and audiences continue to wonder why no one is making films when the reality is that people are making good films, they are simply not getting marketed or distributed effectively enough for the audiences who want them to find them.
GET RADICAL PEOPLE. The magical fairy person is not coming (also, even if they did, it is still a way more empowered and fulfilling career mode to build a house that no one can take away from you).
What's the biggest lesson you've learned in the planning of all this?
That it’s possible! The 3am terror right now is that it won’t work. People won’t show up. We won’t make money. It will be a disaster. But we have gotten really, really far in this. It has been possible to book theaters. It has been possible to get the film on the platforms. We’ve sold out or nearly sold out our first five screenings. It seems to be working. So it’s possible. That’s the biggest thing. We didn’t even know we’d be about to get this far with it. So that’s the big lesson.
Where can we find out more about Bite Me and follow along with your journey?
Thank you for asking!!!
Come join us for a screening and a Joyful Vampire Ball/event on our Joyful Vampire Tour of America, May 6-Aug 4. We’re coming to over 40 cities, so there’s a pretty good chance, we’ll be somewhere near you: https://www.bitemethefilm.com/screenings
If you can’t come to a screening, you can watch the film on Seed & Spark, iTunes, Amazon, or GooglePlay starting May 7th (watch it on Seed & Spark if you can – it’s cheaper for you and we make more money).
And if you’re interested in learning more about our distribution process, what happens, and/or just following along on the insane journey of three people traveling the country in an RV for three months with their movie, follow our weekly docu-series on YouTube, starting the week of May 6th. You can see the trailer for the film and docu-series on our channel already and “Subscribe” to get future episodes: https://www.youtube.com/bitemethefilm.