The little Tugg that could! Innovative web startup gives moviegoers booking power


Technology hasn’t always been good to movie theatres. Attendance never recovered after the introduction of television in the late 1940s, and now there are more screens and delivery methods than ever, from iPads to video-on-demand to Netflix. Even with all these other options, movie theatres still provide the best viewing experience for content people care about. That’s where Tugg comes in.

For filmmakers and distributors, opening movies theatrically involves lots of risk. Today, people living outside of metropolitan areas and away from independent cinemas miss the majority of small releases. It’s just too risky for many distributors to assume these films will attract a sufficient audience. So people in underserved areas are forced to wait for DVDs or on-demand showings.

Tugg addresses the problems of both the audience and the filmmakers and distributors. People everywhere can see movies in theatres by organizing the screenings themselves, lubricated by the ease and low cost of social media. To erase the risk for distributors, filmmakers and exhibitors, the screenings don’t happen unless ticket sales hit a minimum that will cover costs for all involved. No one loses money with Tugg.

CEO and co-founder Nicolas Gonda first worked for an indie distributor and then as a producer on Terrence Malick’s films, while co-founder Pablo Gonzalez has a technology and marketing background. Pondering the release possibilities of Malick’s The New World, Gonda realized, “We were seeing a changing climate with the way people interact with their movie theatres, but not as quickly of a changing system in terms of how we decide where movies go and how we interact with audiences as filmmakers and distributors.” Distribution is a gamble, and small independent films often struggle to connect with their audiences, lacking the broad appeal or big marketing budgets of wide releases.

“What we theorized from the beginning was that if we could remove that risk, if we could guarantee an audience to the theatre, and if we could create a system where the cost of distribution and delivering the film were covered by the events themselves ahead of time, there wasn’t a speculative cost for the other entities. We focused on eliminating risk, and the opportunities that come as a result of that,” Gonda recounts. And that’s how Tugg was born.

Gonda cites an independent release that’s currently using Tugg, Extraterrestrial, as an example. “It’s a film that if it were released on 500 screens, it would be a short-term win but a long-term loss, because the cost of releasing it on all those screens would not be recouped by the amount of attendance that it would achieve. That’s the case for so many independent filmmakers. Up until recently, it was almost like we were seeing the same strategy thrown at so many different kinds of films.” The sci-fi romance, from Spanish filmmaker Nacho Vigalondo (Timecrimes), is hoping to get long-term results from using the service. “We’re seeing a real testament and innovation, that distributor Focus World was willing to take a much different approach, realizing that there are audiences that might not be able to go to a theatre within a two or three-week span.” Some groups want to show the film in early fall, “saying, ‘Our community’s focused on other things in the summer, let’s focus on September and October, that’s when we want to have that experience in the community,” Gonda reports.

Because Tugg is “agnostic” regarding whether a film already has a distributor, and does not act as the sole distributor, many filmmakers and distributors are using Tugg in conjunction with a traditional distribution plan. Films that speak to niche interests, like cult films and the kinds of scary movies beloved by horror junkies, are a natural fit for the service. The “Nazisploitation” flick Iron Sky is available on Tugg, but it’s also being released by Entertainment One this summer. Pre-Halloween screenings of the horror film Smiley, directed by the creator of the popular YouTube web show “Totally Sketch,” will be organized through Tugg. Paramount Insurge organized six screenings of the twisted horror movie The Loved Ones via Tugg, and word is they’re now planning something bigger for the feature, which sold out its screenings.

Gonda’s background in distribution and production has helped give the company an advantage in negotiating with studios, distributors and exhibitors. Tugg has agreements in place with theatre circuits including AMC, Regal, Rave Cinemas and Cinemark Theatres to partner on Tugg screenings. These exhibitors get a slice of each Tugg screening, plus the usual bonus, an increase in concession sales.

Tugg, which is still in its beta stage, has also been hard at work expanding its library, which currently numbers around 500 films. As exhibitors know, content is king, and even the most well-run theatre can suffer if it’s showing flops. Tugg faces a similar challenge in stocking its library with appealing films. “We’re in the process of closing more agreements that will exponentially expand that library,” Gonda reveals.

Currently, it can be difficult to find what Tugg events are taking place near your location, something that’s already being fixed with updates. “The goal is for people to not only find the films, but find their promoters, their curator,” Gonda says. “So many of us love movies, but we don’t have the time to find those that we want to see. And we definitely don’t have the time to waste on films we don’t want to see. We are seeing that people trust the promoters in their communities, and they can sell hundreds of tickets.”

Two Tugg early adopters include “promoters” Randy Berler, a recent retiree and connoisseur of independent films in Torrance, Calif., and Marc Ferman, a young cinema lover with fanboy taste in Miami, Florida. Though both have completely different preferences when it comes to movies, both promoters, in Tugg parlance, have organized multiple screenings, including sold-out shows.

Berler has been interested in film since his college days, when he organized a film club, but L.A. traffic prevents him and many of his neighbors from making the trek from the South Bay to the independent theatres that are 40 minutes away (on a good traffic day). He first organized a screening because he wanted to prove to local theatres there was a market for independent releases in the area. After his first screening, he gave up on the idea. “It became apparent to me that the people who book the films don’t live here, they’re in a corporate office.” Instead, he’s sticking with Tugg, counting on the service to provide him with his independent film fix. After screening the classic Three Colors: Red, people at Tugg helped him procure Monsieur Lazhar. Berler announced the Lazhar screening at Red, and quickly sold dozens of tickets. The 200-seat theatre sold out weeks before the July show. He has Headhunters planned for August, and is also eyeing Polisse for a future screening. He realizes Tugg can help him get access to independent films nearing the end of their runs that still haven’t played in his area. Since Tugg handles the ticketing, rentals and everything else, all he needs to do is promote and market.

Although the idea is to use social media in order to advertise shows, Berler had help from a local paper, Easy Reader News, which ran a piece on his screening. He mainly communicates with people through e-mail, but recently created a Facebook page. “Our audience is older, not the kind of people who are into Facebook, though they signed up. I started getting all these e-mails like, ‘How do I turn off all these notifications from Facebook?’” Though Berler’s currently the de facto leader of the group, he’s had plenty of e-mails from people who want to organize discussions and help out with future screenings. “The South Bay Film Society,” the moniker he created to market the screenings, is already becoming a reality.

Ferman, who was at South by Southwest when Tugg launched, has become an advocate of the service. His chose his first selection, the Alamo Drafthouse music/sci-fi release The FP, because he wanted to see it, even though he knew the “odd choice” would be “a tough sell.” That may not have been the best reason, he acknowledges, so he ended up buying some tickets himself before the deadline to make sure the screening happened. (He later sold the tickets to friends.) He’s since screened Comic Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope, contacting a local comic-book store to help advertise and give him comic books for a giveaway. “I know it was on VOD, but I thought there would be enough fans out there who would want to see it with a crowd,” Ferman explains. He adds, “I did the screening just before The Avengers came out to get the comic-book vibe. I used to be a music promoter, so I am a promoter by nature.”

Ferman brought that same thoughtfulness to his July screening of RoboCop. He spotted the sci-fi classic in Tugg’s library and realized the film was celebrating its 25th anniversary. He pulled out every promoting trick he knew, from contacting the NECA toy company that was releasing toys timed to the anniversary and asking for some product to give away, putting up flyers in comic-book shops and the like, and advertising it as a “one-night-only engagement.”

Promoters are paid five percent of a film’s revenue after costs are covered (“adjusted gross proceeds”), which generally amounts to a pittance. If promoters do spend money on marketing materials like flyers, it’s unlikely this fee will even cover their outlay. This doesn’t bother Ferman or Berler, who do the screenings for the love of film. It’s this passion that Tugg is counting on to drive its screenings. “We’ve found that promoters are more interested in being able to be cultural leaders within their communities. The financial incentive is an added benefit to it all,” Gonda observes. In coming quarters, Tugg plans to give opportunities for promoters to “convert their money into other rewards,” like cultural activities. “At this stage it’s a gesture and acknowledgement saying that we think of our promoters as our partners.”

Gonda hopes individual promoters like Berler and Ferman will build followings, making it progressively easier for them to recruit the necessary number of people for an event to get the green light. Organizations with built-in audiences have also taken note of Tugg. In Princeton, New Jersey, the American Repertory Ballet and Princeton Ballet School put on a screening of Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance. A star of The Do-Deca Pentathlon, Jennifer Lafleur, plans to introduce a screening near her hometown in Sturbridge, Mass., and be part of a Q&A after the show. Filmmaker Matthew Lillard, who directed the South by Southwest Audience Award-winning Fat Kid Rules the World, created a website, The website encourages people to request a screening in their town. Screenings of the film are planned or pending in over a dozen cities, including Phoenix, AZ, and smaller cities like Grapevine, TX, and Allentown, PA. Ferman has a screening of the film pending for July 26.

Gonda hints at future updates to Tugg’s services. The company is at work expanding the “promoter suite,” doing things like giving organizers access to analytics that will allow them to gauge the effectiveness of their different marketing efforts—like how many people bought tickets after seeing a Facebook call to action, for example. The web developers are also trying to make it easier to see what events are going on near users. Data from the beta launch has been promising so far. “We’ve seen an incredible receptiveness amongst people in places we have previously considered some of the more unlikely markets in the country,” Gonda points out. By showing exactly what people want to see, Tugg can be an antidote to declining theatre attendance. “We’re focusing on new moviegoers, people that weren’t going to theatres before that are now because these theatres are becoming relevant to their interests. That’s a theme that interests us and our theatre partners a lot.”

Gonda envisions Tugg as the delivery method of choice for small indie filmmakers. With the cost of even high-quality digital cameras more affordable than ever, there are plenty of low-budget filmmakers whose films go unseen. Their biggest need is a way to economically connect with their audiences. “We’re seeing people shoot documentaries in Syria on iPhones. There are so many other examples of how people are engaging with technology, and creating works of art, without multi-million production budgets behind them,” Gonda observes. “That body of work is growing at an exponential rate, but until recently the way to deliver those films to communities, and especially theatres and through communal experiences, wasn’t growing nearly as quickly as it was on the production side. That’s where we see the enormous bottleneck.”

Services like Tugg have the potential to change how people look at movie theatres. With Tugg, movie theatres are customizable. Their content is set by the viewers, the same way someone can change a channel to catch something more to their liking. With most people within easy reach of a movie theatre, the infrastructure for a service like Tugg is already in place. What’s more, there’s a real need. Drop-offs in theatre attendance “have been a huge wake-up call for everyone in the business. We need to acknowledge how incredibly sophisticated audiences have become and how everybody is more selective about what they experience.” Social media has been blamed for accelerating the pace at which bad movies decline. It can now happen the day after, not the week after, a movie opens. But the flip side is that people love talking about movies on social media. “Once you decide to grow in a way that interacts with these changes as opposed to ignoring them, you realize that we are in a business that speaks to everything that social media is geared towards. The most shared things are things that people love, not the things that they’re just passively interested in.”

“We live in a day and age where people are looking to the Internet and social media to create offline physical experiences, especially communal ones,” Gonda notes. Theatres are “a timeless but yet a new destination for cultural activities in our cities.” Tugg offers regular people the chance to program theatres in their community. By embracing the opportunities afforded by technology, it could usher in a new era for these time-honored spaces.