012: Making Money as an Independent Filmmaker with Tony West

By August 29, 2016 July 29th, 2019 No Comments

Tony West explains how having a built in audience increases ticket sales, how he got a sponsor, how he promotes his screenings, and how he makes extra money by selling his DVDs.

Tony has worked in television for over 20 years as a cameraman, sound tech, and editor. He has worked for all of the major networks including ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, FOX, and ESPN. He is a two time National Emmy Award winner for his coverage of Major League Baseball.

The Safe Side of the Fence is his first film as a director. The documentary gives a detailed look into what workers went through in St. Louis from working on the Manhattan Project and the challenges of dealing with the fallout of creating some of the world’s first nuclear waste.


WILLIAM: Today, I’d like to introduce you to Tony West who has worked in television for over 20 years as a cameraman, sound tech, and editor. He has worked for all of the major networks including ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox, and ESPN.

He is a two-time National Emmy Award winner for his coverage of Major League Baseball. The Safe Side of the Fence is his first film as a director. The documentary gives a detailed look into what workers went through in St. Louis from working on the Manhattan Project and the challenges of dealing with the fallout of creating some of the world’s first nuclear waste.

In this episode, Tony explains how having a built-in audience increases ticket sales, how he got a sponsor, how he promotes his shows while touring, and how he makes extra money by selling his DVDs.

Let’s get into it.

Hey Tony! Thanks for joining us today.

TONY: Thanks for having me, William.

WILLIAM: To start off, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your film “The Safe Side of the Fence”?

TONY: Sure. I’m from St. Louis, Missouri and I’m a freelance television cameraman. I mostly do major league sports like baseball, football, and hockey, sports like that, and I had worked in national network news for a while and I decided to do this film. This is my first feature film documentary that I’ve done. It’s about nuclear workers who became ill from their work doing the Manhattan Project in the Cold War. It is also about nuclear waste and our challenges of having to deal with that.

So, I kind of looked at the beginnings of our nuclear footprint as I might say, and the beginning of World War II, and I bring it all the way up to today, the nuclear workers and the current industry. I kind of compare the workers from the past to the workers of today, as far as like safety.

I think a lot of times, people feel like, “Oh, things weren’t very safe back then, but everything’s really safe now,” but that’s not necessarily the case. I saw the way we handle nuclear waste now, we still got a little ways to go, even though we’re doing better than we had done in the past, we still have a little ways to go.

WILLIAM: How long did it take you to make the film?

TONY: It took me about five years to make the film because I really made the film around my day job of doing major league sports that I keep pretty busy, and I was mostly by myself, so I didn’t have like a huge staff of people to say, “Hey, go find me a photo of this particular guy” or “Go get me some footage here or there.” I had pretty much do most of everything by myself.

WILLIAM: Does this take place mostly in St. Louis or did you travel around the US to get all of your filming?

TONY: I shot some in Chicago. It is mostly in St. Louis. The majority of it is in St. Louis and some of it is right across the river in Illinois and some of it is in Paducah, Kentucky.

WILLIAM: You’ve taken your film all across America for showings and I know you’ve got a pretty large audience at every single screening that you do. Can you talk about just the topic of your film and how you have a built-in audience so that when you start marketing, getting in that audience may be easier than other topics?

TONY: Well, by doing my research for my film, I quickly realized that workers in St. Louis at the Melapod Chemical Works site were not the only workers that were contaminated during the Cold War or the Manhattan Project. As a matter of fact, there’s a compensation program that has been set up for these workers called the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act. It’s a very long name, but that’s the name of it.

I could go to the Department of Labor’s website and track how many workers applied for that program and how many were compensated in all these different states across the country. Since my film is also about nuclear waste, there are a lot of cities that have challenges with nuclear waste that they have created during the Manhattan Project or the Cold War.

And so, I would target certain cities like Oak Ridge, Tennessee or the Hanford Site up in Washington State because I know there are a lot of workers there. And so, I know I’m going to have a lot of workers when I go there, or Rocky Flats in Colorado, who they have some environmental issues there along with workers.

Usually, if I come into a city and I know that I can do a little research about their site and I can do a little research about what’s currently going on in the area, and I can tell that there are workers there that are concerned about being compensated from their illnesses, and I can also tell that there are people who are concerned about contaminations.

If I have both of them, sometimes I go into a city and I have just people focused on, mostly workers, or if I go into certain towns, I have mostly environmental people. Usually, I always have workers there, but if I have both of them, I usually have a really big crowd.

WILLIAM: And what kind of numbers do you look for whenever you’re searching for how many people apply? Are you looking at hundreds? Are you looking at thousands?

TONY: We’re looking at thousands, so if for example, Hanford has paid out $1 billion of compensation, that one plant alone, that compensation program has paid out $12 billion across the country and there have probably been 10,000 workers who were at the Hanford Site that applied for compensation.

You’re not just talking about those workers. You’re talking about the family members of those workers also. And then, those are just the workers that know about the program that applied for it. There are a lot of people who don’t know about it and don’t apply. So, that’s part of what I’m doing with my film is in trying to let people know that this program is out there and, hey, you may qualify for this program.

WILLIAM: So, you’re really trying to go to a city that already has an audience that you know that companies have already paid out billions of dollars to the population, and then you’re trying to get those people to come to your screening so that for one, you can raise awareness of this issue and two, can help spread the word of your film.

TONY: Exactly. That’s exactly what I’m doing. I haven’t gone to any cities that don’t have a lot of workers. There are some states that don’t really have a connection to the Manhattan Project, and I have not gone to a city like that. There might be people who are interested there, but I have a limited amount of time to be able to travel around with this film, so I’m just really concentrating on areas that I really think I can make an impact on.

WILLIAM: Now, you have a sponsor for your film. Can you talk about how you got that sponsor and how that helps you travel across the country and raise this awareness?

TONY: Yeah. My sponsor is Critical Nurse Staffing and they saw my trailer, I believe, online and what they do is they provide healthcare for these workers who qualify for this compensation. So, we have a common interest. They’re looking to help workers and I’m looking to help workers. And so, once they saw my film, they said, “Hey, I think we should kind of team up.” And so, they really help with my expenses, with when I travel to another city.

It’s expensive, I mean, you’ve got a hotel. Sometimes I can drive when the state is close, but a lot of times, I’ll fly. They help with that. And not only did they help with the expenses, but they put out a lot of flyers for me and they contact workers because they want workers there also. So, they will set up in the lobby and have all their information and pass it out to workers.

There is also a non-profit organization called Atomic Resource Coalition and they’ve also partnered with me. What they do is they help workers get through the compensation program because the paper works are very complicated to file.

And so, being able to have two organizations there to help you with this common interest has been fantastic. I don’t think a lot of film makers think, “Hey, I should go out and get me a sponsor for my film,” I mean, I never thought of that. This is my first time doing the film and it wasn’t my plan to, you know I was just going to go around with the film myself.

If I had a distributor, that would be great and if I didn’t have one, I was just going to go by myself. I was just going to self-distribute the film, which I started off doing that. I guess the first few cities that I went to, I was just by myself. And then, my sponsor came along and it just made things really helpful for me because they can really get the word out and I have a lot bigger audience is there and I can reach more people, and that it’s all about. It’s just getting people to know about your film.

WILLIAM: And whenever you travel to different cities, what type of theatres do you look for when you’re renting them out?

TONY: I’m really looking for smaller independent owned theatres, like mom-and-pop theatres. It’s just most of the time, when I’m dealing with a theatre like that, I’m dealing directly with the owner, I mean, I make one phone call and the person just says, “When do you want to show your film?” And I’ll say, “Wednesday, on the 28th.” Good. We’re done.

That’s it, as opposed to dealing with big chain theatres, they have a lot of contracts with Hollywood studios and they never really want to deal with a person like me. And, they haven’t really done their research on what my film was about anyway and sometimes, they think that, “Oh, nobody’s going to show up to your little independent film.”

I do really well with my little independent film because I’ve done my research and I know how many workers there are, and I usually come in on a Tuesday night or a Wednesday night, so I’m not competing. A lot of times, people want to go to the movies on a Friday or a Saturday night and so, I’d go up against Captain America on a Tuesday and I beat it because it’s a Tuesday and my film is only there for one night. And people who are very interested in this topic, they know it’s going to be there for one night and they really come out there.

So, I could have 140 people in my theatre and another film could have, maybe, 15 people, so it’s not even close. Now, if I was going against them on a Saturday night, it might be a different story.

WILLIAM: And out of curiosity, because I’m not too familiar with renting out movie theatres. Do you four-wall that? Do you two-wall that? How does that agreement look like when you come into the theatre and you say, “Hey, I want to do a screening here,” what does that look like?

TONY: That’s a very good question. It’s four-walling is I guess the term and I basically contact the movie theatre and there’s a certain fee that they want. It is a rental fee, basically. You’re renting it for two hours prime time, whatever, 7 o’clock. The prices go high if you try to come in on a Saturday. That’s why I go on a Tuesday or Wednesday. You try coming in on Friday or Saturday or a weekend, the prices are higher.

So, you basically pay for that rental fee. They get the concessions and you get the gate. Now, sometimes, generally for the mom-and-pop theatres, they will sell tickets for me and with big chains, a lot of times, they don’t want to sell tickets for me or for any small independent.

WILLIAM: Whenever you rent out a theatre, how much are you normally spending to have that theatre?

TONY: It is a very wide range. On average, it could be $300, but it can be as high as $1,000 if you’re going into Los Angeles. It really depends on where you’re going. I’ve even had one person in Granite City, just to let me have the theatre because they just wanted their community to see the film, and they just gave it to me for free, don’t expect that to happen very often, but it did happen to me once.

WILLIAM: I mean, are we looking at like $500 rental, $1,000 rental?

TONY: I would say that it averages around $300.

WILLIAM: So that’s very reasonable.

TONY: Oh, yeah. Yeah, it’s very reasonable.

WILLIAM: And what do you sell your ticket prices for?

TONY: Usually, whatever that theatre does, so it’s usually $10.

WILLIAM: Oh, wow! Okay. So you can still make a pretty good profit, then, off of a $300 rental. And if you’re selling 140 seats, then you make out pretty well with that.

TONY: Yeah, you can do really well and also, I have my film on DVD, so I sell my DVDs for $15 at the theatre, too. What I do is I show the film, I do a Q and A, and then after that, I say, “Hey, my DVDs are available if you like this film. They’re out there.” I have a little table set up and they can buy the DVDs. So, between the DVDs and the ticket sales, if people show up, you do okay.

WILLIAM: So, how many DVDs do you think you would sell? What percentage of people buys afterwards?

TONY: Oh, quite a bit. I’m always surprised to how many people buy it. So, I would say if I have 100 people show up, I would probably sell 15 to 20 DVDs.

WILLIAM: So, that’s a pretty high percentage.

TONY: Yeah, yeah. I kind of thought the DVD was a dead technology but it isn’t. It’s a little bit older and I think people like to pass that DVD around, I mean, it’s very easy and it’s a technology that people can take and they hand it to somebody else and say, “I want you to take a look at this and do you like it?”

When I initially started traveling around, I think I was in Kansas City and the owner of the theatre asked me, “Why don’t you have your DVDs? What are you doing?” And I said, “Oh, I haven’t really thought about it. I was just trying to show my film.” And he said, “Well, everybody that comes in here that’s an independent film maker has their DVDs already.” And so, I said, “Oh! This is all new to me and I was just learning as I go.” Basically, I got the DVDs right out the next day when I got home. I started getting ready to get those ready for my next screening and I’m really glad I did.

WILLIAM: Yeah, definitely. That’s a lot of money, earning potential that you have.

TONY: No doubt about it. And then, also, sometimes people miss the screening and then I get emails later on that week to say, “Hey, people were telling me about this film. I didn’t know it was going to be there, or I was busy, or I was out of town, can I get the DVD?” I use PayPal and they just but it directly from the site.

WILLIAM: That’s awesome. Now, once you’re in your city, once you’ve called up the mom-and-pop place and you’re good to go, how do you start marketing your film in that area so that you have an audience?

TONY: That’s a good question. The first thing I do is I send my movie poster to the theater itself. I make that on Photoshop and I have the date and the time on this poster and I have that poster on an easel on the lobby. I just put it in the mail to them.

Then, I send my trailer to the theatre because what I’m looking to do is obviously I have this built-in audience who care about the environment and workers. But, I also want to reach people who just want to see a decent film, a good documentary, because there are a lot of people who just like documentaries about all kinds of topics even though they feel like, “I’m not a nuclear worker and this doesn’t affect me.”

So, I want to reach those people, too. If I can get a theatre to run my trailer ahead of other films, big Hollywood films, and people see it, that is really, really helpful. So, they come out of there and they see that movie poster in the lobby and they say “Hey, what’s going on there? I’m interested in that film.” So, that’s one thing I did.

I use Facebook big time. That’s huge. I contact people who are leaders in the movement in the area, so if there’s a big environmental group there, I contact them and then, there’s workers there and unions, I contact them and my sponsor helps me with that. And then, I try to get on the radio and I try to get in the newspaper, so I send out press releases.

Social media is great. There’s no doubt about it. It’s been able to get you out there when you can’t get into the mainstream media, but there is no substitute for being in the newspaper or on the radio or on TV. Nobody usually puts me on TV, sometimes after the fact. If you can get all those things working for you, the traditional media and the social media, I usually have a really big crowd.

WILLIAM: What kind of timeframe does it take you to start calling the mom-and-pop places, finding the city that you need to be in, and then start marketing, and then actually come to the city and do the screening? What kind of timeframe? Is this a year? Is this three months? What kind of timeframe does this take you?

TONY: It’s about two months. It’s usually about two months because I start calling the theatre and sometimes it takes a while to just get somebody on the phone, get the date lined up because if you don’t give them enough lead time, they’re going to say, “We already have the theatre booked.”

So, give yourself at least two months to book that theatre and start making your phone calls. Then, when you start initially letting people know on Facebook and in different social media that, “Hey, my film is going to be coming to this particular city in two months,” people are going to forget about that. But, you want to let them know and have it on your own website that, “Hey, we’ll be in South Carolina on August 30.”

So, people have that kind of sketched in their mind, but then, when you start getting two weeks out, you really start reminding people, “Hey, the film is going to be here in two weeks.” You don’t want to go too early because people will forget about it and you do not want to go too late because people will start planning other things, “Oh, I would have gone, but I’m out of town. I wish I had known sooner.” So, its right around that three weeks to two weeks area you really want to start hitting the area hard and letting people know, “Hey, the film is going to be there.”

WILLIAM: And this is a lot different marketing because you are not actually in the city doing the marketing. You’re in St. Louis and so, do you hire street teams? Do you hire people to help you with, “Hey, will you help me sell tickets to my show in your area and I’ll give you free tickets to see me?” What do you do in order to get people on the street there to talk about your screening?

TONY: Well, I don’t hire anybody because I don’t have any money. Most people believe in my film. They’re passionate about the topic, whether they care about the environment or whether they care about workers. So, those people are happy to get the word out as long as you let them know that the film is going to be coming there.

Usually, I call it “boots on the ground,” you know, contacting somebody because a lot of times, it’s very helpful to talk to people who live there because they’ll tell you, “Oh, you don’t want to do it on that day because that’s the big such and such football game,” or whatever, and that’s very helpful, or “You don’t want to put it at that particular theatre because that’s too far away and people don’t like that theatre because blah, blah, blah,” so, even before I really even book a theatre, I like to at least talk to some people in the community and say, “Hey, I’m thinking about bringing my film there. It’s about this subject. What about this theatre? Is this a good place to show a film?” And they’ll let you know. And everybody usually wants the film like, “I want it the closest to my particular house,” but, you want to be in the middle.

The challenging thing for my film has been nuclear sites usually aren’t right in the middle of a major city. They’re way out and workers live close to where they could get to that site. So, you want to get people from the major city, but you also want to get these workers. I try to get some place that’s kind of in-between, so I can get people from the city but I can also get the workers.

WILLIAM: Now, how do you find these people, these first contacts for your cities?

TONY: Well, my sponsor helps me out with that, but, also, there are a lot of union workers, there are a lot of websites, and once I make contact with certain workers in a certain city, they will tell me about workers that they know in another city. And a lot of times, people just contact me on Facebook. They see the trailer or someone has told them about it and they say, “Hey, I want the film in my city. How do I get it here?” And then I start communicating with them.

So, a lot of times, people are contacting me first, but if they don’t, I just keep doing my research. It’s usually websites around that have the worker websites or the environmental groups. They always have a Facebook page and I’m able to just contact them through Facebook or I just contact them through their main website.

WILLIAM: So, how many cities have you already been to?

TONY: I’ve been to 17 cities.

WILLIAM: Oh, wow! And how many do you think you can continue going to that you haven’t been to already?

TONY: Maybe four or five, maybe six, that I could continue to go to. Yeah, I’m pretty much getting to the point where I could start wrapping it up and start moving my film over to Video on Demand, which would be Netflix and iTunes and stuff like that. I’m basically looking at treating my film the same way as any other major film does, you know, you come out to the theatre, you try to get an audience. That way, you try to get some attention about your film. And then, you sell some DVDs if you can there, and then you go straight to Netflix or someone like that.

WILLIAM: So, to wrap this up, what’s one marketing technique that event producers can do today to start increasing their ticket sales?

TONY: I really think the business card– I know it sounds kind of funny to have a business card for your film, but it’s been huge for me. The name of my film is “The Safe Side of the Fence.” It’s a long name, but when you see the film, you’ll say, “Oh, it’s a good name.” It fits, but it’s a name that someone can forget or they’ll get it wrong or like, “The Other Side of the Fence” or just “The Fence” or whatever.

So, to be able to meet somebody on an airplane when I’m flying to the city and I’m describing the film, they’re really excited about seeing the film. I hand them that business card that says Thesafesideofthefence.com and then they can just go right to their phone or wherever and look at that website where I have a trailer and everything there and all the different links to different things.

It’s really easy to print out your own. I made my own business cards now with just like some software that I just got from my computer. You just go into like an office supply place and get these blank business cards, throw them in your printer and then, just have those business cards, just like when you were a person graduated from college and you walk around and you’re trying to get a job and you’re like, “Hey, blah, blah, blah, and here’s my card.” You want to have your card for your film. You really do want to have that card because it is, really, I’ll go around the city. And I like to go to tourist sites when I get there before my screening and I’ll meet people and I hand those cards out to them. Some of those very people I hand those cards to show up at the film that night. It really pays dividends to have that card.

WILLIAM: Do you find a day before, two days before, or how soon do you get in before your screening?

TONY: I usually fly in one day before and then, I wake up in the morning and I go to the theatre that morning and do what’s called a quality check. They show the film on the screen for me and I’ll look at the sound and the picture quality, and I go over tickets, how we’re going to handle the ticket sales that morning. And then, I go out to the site where the workers are or sometimes it’s a historic site.

I take a tour of the site or the museum and then, I get ready to show the film that night at 7 o’clock and then I fly out the next day. It’s usually like a three-day thing.

WILLIAM: So, how can we keep up with you?

TONY: My main site is Thesafesideofthefence.com. So, if you go there, you can buy the DVD from there or you can see my travel schedule and the next cities that I’m going to. My email is also there so you can contact me which is Tony@thesafesideofthefence.com and there’s a link to my Facebook page there The Safe Side of the Fence Facebook page. That’s how you would contact me or get a DVD.

WILLIAM: Yeah, I noticed you were posting a lot of photos from the different sites you visit, which I think is pretty fascinating.

TONY: Thanks a lot. Yeah, some people have told me I should do a travel blog and I haven’t yet, but I think I may do something like that because I have had a couple of people who said to me, “Hey, you’re one of the few people I know who has been to all of these different sites, so can you just put more pictures up about it?” And so, I think I would do something like that, and I think that’s also an opportunity to market, too, because then, you’ll be posting on these different sites.

I almost forgot. My film is in a couple of different museums, so if you make a documentary and there’s a museum that, I mean, I’m in the Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas and The Reach Museum in Washington State, so those museums are about workers in the nuclear industry. So, you can do that and get your DVD into museums and that’s really helpful.

WILLIAM: So, do they pay you for that or is that a donation on your behalf?

TONY: They pay for them because they sell them. I sell them to them at a lower price that they can make their profit on and I’ve only done that twice so far because I’m still busy just trying to travel around with the film, but I want to throw that out there to people.

There are other places that you can put your film. You want to get your film to as many places as you can with people who are concerned about that particular topic. So, you need to figure out where those people are when they’re not in the movies and let them know about your film because people can’t show up and support your film if they don’t know about it.

Somebody said to me early on and he said, “As much work as you put into making your film, that’s how much work you’re going to put in to getting people to see it,” and he is completely right because I have worked so hard and like, literally, almost every other day. I work on just marketing and getting the word out about my film. And you really have to simplify things for people. You got to make things very easy. People have to be able to find your film and find whatever they’re looking for in your website very easily.

Initially, I think my words were too small and someone said, “How do I get a DVD?” And I said, “Well, it’s right on there.” And she says, “Oh, I see it. The words are too small.” And so, I enlarged them. So, try to listen to the comments and stuff that people leave for you. If they say, “Hey, I can’t see this,” or “Where do I do that?” make it easier for them because it’s all about simplifying things for people.

WILLIAM: Well, thanks so much for sharing your marketing strategies with us today.

TONY: Thanks so much, William. Thanks for having me on.

WILLIAM: Alright, we’ll talk to you soon.

Show Notes:

The Safe Side of the Fence
The Safe Side of the Fence on Facebook
Contact Tony – tony@thesafesideofthefence.com

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