As a person who majored in political science and has been engaged actively in public
Many people have asked me about lessons learned from completing a full-length feature film project, From the Rough.
There are too many lessons to summarize here. In fact, many people have urged me to write a book about the project. First, a few facts:
- The film’s plot (summarized at fromtherough.com) is based on the true story of Dr. Catana Starks, the first African American woman to coach a men’s college athletic team. She recruited diverse, international athletes undervalued and overlooked by other schools and molded them into a championship team.
- We were fortunate to secure the brilliant Taraji P. Henson to play Coach Starks. The film, released theatrically in 2014, is available on Amazon, I-Tunes, Netflix and other ancillary outlets. Viewers have rated it 4.5 out of 5, a very high rating.
- It was exceptionally challenging getting distribution or financing, because the film did not fit neatly into any genre, and fell victim to predatory theatrical distribution practices.
What Were Five Surprising Lessons
Lesson 1: Be careful in selecting a movie title.
The title From the Rough perfectly captured what we were trying to communicate, but an incredible number of people got it wrong. They would refer to the title as “In the Rough” or “Out of the Rough.” Filmmakers want people to remember the correct title when they search to buy a copy. When a filmmaker selects a title, he/she needs to think about how it might be mangled.
Lesson 2: A powerful, accurate tag line really matters! Ours was more than a “golf movie,” but it was hard to describe what it was.
Many people said they would order the film because a family member loves golf. The film’s have a connection to a golf team, but to call this a “golf movie” is equivalent to calling Casablanca a film about how to run a nightclub. People who saw the film understood that it was far more than a “golf movie,” but we needed a better way to describe it and attract viewers. What has made our film great and timeless is its complex portrayal of how characters and a team overcame adversity and became productive and happy adults, but that complexity made it difficult to summarize.
Lesson 3: Hollywood film marketers and theatrical exhibitors never understood Taraji P. Henson, Catana Starks or what made the film powerful.
We hired marketers and worked with exhibitors to develop the campaign to promote the film. They did not understand what would attract people to a theater on a weekend night to see it. They would not come to see Taraji P. Henson play a golf coach, but to reflect on that one teacher, coach, or mentor that makes a pivotal difference in each of our lives.
Taraji P. Henson has recently published a memoir, which made it easier to understand that From the Rough resonated with her own life journey and ability to overcome incredible adversity.
Catana Starks overcame impossible odds to get appointed as the men’s golf coach and then overcome huge obstacles to field a championship team. She refused to accept limits, excuses, and adversity, and transformed those she touched.
The film was also designed deliberately to celebrate an an African American female trailblazer who was unheralded. Hollywood is beginning to recognize again the power of celebrating this kind of role model in Hidden Figures, to be released in January, 2017. Hidden Figures, starring Taraji P. Henson, Kevin Costner, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae, is about the real-life stories of three unsung female African American mathematicians critical to the success of the space program.
Hollywood needs to celebrate teachers, coaches, or mentors, because these are often the most influential people in our lives. Films like Dangerous Minds (Michelle Pfieffer), Lean on Me (Morgan Freeman), Remember the Titans (Denzel Washington), and Hoosiers (Gene Hackman) remain classics because they celebrated the heroism of ordinary people who shaped many lives., but Hollywood produces too few of these films today.
Many people have suggested that I re-launch the film because of Taraji’s starring roles in Empire or Person of Interest. However, I want to attract those fans who show up opening weekend to see Hidden Figures, because that audience will most likely be attracted to our film.
Lesson 4: The deck is heavily stacked against any film that tries to build a theatrical audience by word of mouth among adults.
In 2010, when we ramped up this project, a film like ours would get a guaranteed two-week theatrical run and have a chance to build an audience through word-of-mouth advertising. Recently, exhibitors commit to having a film in a theater for one week only and then remove it if it does not secure a large first-weekend audience.
This strategy penalizes films that take word-of-mouth to build an audience over a week. Word-of-mouth among adults occurs over several days, not immediately, as it does for teenagers. They discuss films at the cafeteria, the dinner table or the coffee shop the following week. Distributors and exhibitors disregard adult preferences if they do not patronize a film on its first weekend.
The hit-or-miss process on booking films also destroys grassroots marketing strategy. I retained a marketer who had a great track record getting people to attend rock concerts. Unfortunately, unlike concerts, which lock in a venue and date months in advance, distributors and exhibitors do not finally decide which films will be screened in particular theaters until the Monday before the film’s Friday release.
This was a killer for an independent film like ours. It particularly was a killer in working with non-profits, which had corporate sponsors ready to underwrite a first-weekend screening, but needed to book a particular theater weeks in advance.
Lesson 5: Theaters do not want adults occupying seats; they want teenagers.
Theaters makes their profits on concessions sales: the 40-ounce soda and the jumbo vat of popcorn. Teenagers order these massively oversized items; adults do not.
Theaters send multiple messages that they want teenagers, not adults, occupying seats. The items and portions sold at concession stands are geared to teenagers. The decibel level for the music and sound in theaters is louder than adults prefer, but energizes teenagers. The theaters often are located in large suburban malls, which are magnets for bored teenagers. The other films in a multiplex theater have ample quantities of sex, violence, and crude language, which turn off most adults.
Our film was targeted at adults who want to see great, intelligent films, but theaters do everything possible to make the theatrical experience uninviting for them. Not surprisingly, our best revenues came from a theater in an age-restricted community in The Villages in Florida.
From the Rough has taken my family to places we never would have imagined. It has been a life-changing experience. We are proud to have our names on the film. We are grateful to all those who helped us produce a great film and get it into the market.
We also got to know great people that have inspired us, starting with the two most important people in the project: Dr. Catana Starks and Taraji P. Henson. We learned that Dr. Starks had a unique skill and passion to insure that her students and athletes not only came to TSU, but graduated and went on to have great careers. Too few students who start college stay the course. They become disengaged and disconnected from society. One longer-term goal is to use Dr. Starks and the film to help stimulate a serious societal discussion on how to reverse that failure.
Too few people have seen the film, and we encountered too many obstacles in getting the film in front of the many people who wanted to or should have seen it.
However, the good news is that it will be available for others to enjoy and from which to learn and be inspired well beyond my lifetime.