Stacy Peralta was fighting off bronchitis inside Santa Barbara's fabled Skate One complex — a kind of Willy Wonka world for skateboard manufacturing that he and former business partner George Powell established in 1978 to distribute their groundbreaking Powell-Peralta line. While the factory hummed with the day-to-day business of cranking out hundreds of candy-colored urethane wheels and pressing plywood into signature decks for Kilian Martin, Tony Hawk and more top riders, Peralta ripped into a box containing DVDs of his latest documentary, "Bones Brigade: An Autobiography."
"It is so cool to finally see this, to hold the movie in my hand," the pro skater turned filmmaker said. He sounded stoked but more than a little weary too. He's spent the last three months relentlessly promoting the new documentary by crisscrossing the country and personally meeting thousands of skateboarding aficionados who deeply identify with the Bones Brigade, the seminal skateboarding team Peralta founded in 1979 and chronicled in the documentary.
Now, with two days to go before the film's official theatrical release, the director had already managed to recoup "Bones Brigade's" entire $500,000 budget. In fact, he reached that target a few weeks ago.
Call it payoff for Peralta's Sundance gamble.
In January, "Bones Brigade" premiered at the Sundance Film Festival to a sustained standing ovation, and the filmmaker found himself fielding distribution offers from a trio of competing movie companies. It was Peralta's "show me the money" moment.
But his experience with his well-received previous docs "Dogtown and Z-Boys" and "Riding Giants" — which also debuted at Sundance and landed a theatrical release via Sony Pictures Classics — taught him a bitter lesson: Getting your movie played at the multiplex doesn't necessarily dictate brass in pocket.
"I've never made a dime off any of my films," Peralta says. "There is no money for these films in theatrical distribution. And as a filmmaker, I cannot support myself under that platform. I support myself doing TV commercials. So this time, I decided I didn't want to go that direction. Really, I had nothing to lose."
Instead, Peralta air-walked into a radical, new kind of distribution plan, working with indie movie incubator the Film Sales Co. and the technology company Topspin Media on a decidedly grass-roots release scheme that has managed to unleash a wave of pent-up demand for all things Bones Brigade. Viral promotions on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram have directly targeted the documentary's core skater audience, who, in turn, are proselytizing about "Bones Brigade" across social media to help rewrite the book on indie movie marketing.
The "Bones Brigade" website features a unique merchandising campaign that offers reissued skateboard decks and riders' personal mementos, such as signed trophies sold in conjunction with streams of the film, even a $5,000 package that lets fans skateboard with six Brigade members to benefit charity.
Thanks to the campaign, Peralta broke even on the project before the movie officially reached theaters last week and before its release on DVD and video on demand this month. "Bones Brigade" is currently the
No. 1 documentary on iTunes.
"I do believe we have finally crossed a threshold — we've found a way to do this," Peralta said. "It's not applicable for every film. But it's applicable for many films. It's giving small fry like me a chance."
This DIY distribution approach, which would have been inconceivable even a handful of years ago, has far-reaching implications for monetizing independent movies that may appeal to a niche but zealously dedicated audience.
"Independent films are hardly the same kind of product as your typical Hollywood blockbuster," said Bob Moczydlowsky, Topspin's vice president for product and marketing. "A skateboarding documentary is not the same product as 'Transformers 9.' Why would you market them the same way?"
The movie bookends Peralta's 2001 autobiographical documentary "Dogtown and Z-Boys," which focuses on the groundbreaking skateboard team for which he rode in 1970s Santa Monica. The new film, meanwhile, lovingly charts the Bones Brigade's central creation myth: how top teen skaters Tony Hawk, Steve Caballero, Lance Mountain, Rodney Mullen, Tommy Guerrero and Mike McGill banded together to explode the boundaries of the sport and revolutionized modern skateboarding in the 1980s.
They were molded into fierce competitors by none other than Peralta himself, then co-chief of Powell-Peralta. And in a pre-X Games world, the team came to define skating's edgy, countercultural aesthetic and the gravity-defying maneuvers its members innovated — the McTwist and the flat-land Ollie most notably — became the lingua franca of modern skateboarding.
"Bones Brigade" was greeted with a hero's welcome at Sundance, where the Film Sales Co. quickly sold its distribution rights in Australia and Japan. Peralta bypassed all of Hollywood's theatrical deals covering the U.S., however, and brought on Topspin Media — a software firm providing a self-service platform that primarily helps music artists including Paul McCartney, Trent Reznor and Eminem independently release and market their music. Job one: to bring the film straight to the Brigade's core demographic.
Topspin first initiated a campaign that allowed fans to download the Bones Brigade's long out-of-print 1987 skateboarding video "The Search for Animal Chin" in exchange for a relatively tiny opportunity cost: an email address. That transaction allowed the company to create a database of Brigade aficionados and early adopters — a crucial first step in Topspin's direct-marketing push.
From there, the firm began marketing the film on Instagram, compelling fans to send in more than 10,000 of their own photos of Bones Brigade-related imagery. That, in turn, helped funnel traffic to BonesBrigade.com, where the faithful could purchase movie tickets and DVDs.
More important, it capitalized on fans' deep-seated nostalgia for '80s skateboarding, offering Bones Brigade merch and even the chance to organize special prerelease screenings of the film. Average transaction on the site: $115 — a price point substantially higher than any single DVD sale or iTunes purchase.
"For $750 you can host your own screening," Moczydlowsky noted. "You can screen it for one night for up to 500 people. You can sell tickets and keep the proceeds."
Each Bones Brigade member took to their own social media accounts to stump for the movie as well. But in what may be the most game-changing aspect of its prerelease promo push, there have been approximately 50 "quasi-theatrical" screenings, some in connection with Vans, a sponsor of the movie, across North America, as well as in England, Belgium, Holland, Spain and Germany.
"We've hosted limited public screenings as one-night events," explained Andrew Herwitz, president of Film Sales, which is handling North American theatrical distribution duties on "Bones Brigade." "Sometimes a group rents out a skate shop and shows it there. It played at Toronto's Hot Docs film festival so cinephiles could interact with it. Other times it plays at more significant venues, real movie theaters."
"You find the theater," Peralta said. "We'll book it and Topspin will sell tickets through our website."
Brigadesman Tony Hawk, long considered skateboarding's most transcendent athlete, has been regularly talking up the film to his 3.2 million Twitter followers and attended six fan-instigated screenings.
"The way this has been done, I definitely think the fans feel closer to us," said Hawk. "Also, they know this is very personal for us. We're not just turning on a PR machine."
Also thanks to Topspin, Peralta went from having a nonexistent digital footprint to maintaining a 10,000-strong Instagram presence and interacting with potential ticket buyers daily via social media.
And unlike his previous films, the writer-director-producer owns the rights to "Bones Brigade" so the upside is all his. Exhausting as it all has been, the experience has made Peralta fundamentally rethink his methods.
"The merchandising component is becoming part of my thinking for the next film," he said. "It adds another element: What do I have to strategically do to make it work for the next one?"
Then there's Peralta's relationship with the studios: "I don't know if I'll go back to the old way again."