When I finished Troubadour Blues in summer 2011, I had big ideas about getting into film festivals, and I wasted a lot of time and money on festival submissions. I got a lot of rejection letters before deciding to go it alone. I don’t want to knock festivals in general, but they seem very closed to “outsider” entries like my film.

Instead, I’ve been booking my own screenings in small non-theatrical venues (music clubs primarily, but also coffee shops, bars, public libraries, classrooms, and, once, a yoga studio). I try to get one firm booking nailed down for a given area, and then try to fill in around it by contacting likely venues to see if they’re interested. There is a lot of reinventing the wheel involved as I learn to be my own booking agent, but there don’t seem to be any booking agents working with films on this level.

After the premiere at Buffalo International Film Festival, I held some screenings in Pittsburgh (where I live) and Erie (where I’m from) and did a mini-tour of New England in early January. I was at Folk Alliance in Memphis and the Winter Roots and Blues Roundup in Edmonton during February, and at South By Southwest during March. In June, I went on a 9,000-mile roadtrip to the West Coast and Southwest, doing screenings in 12 cities over 30 days. I’m currently planning screenings in the East and Midwest, where I can cover major population centers more efficiently.

My primary goal is to build awareness for the film; financial rewards are secondary. Therefore, I do what it takes to get people in the door, even if that means charging nothing at the door and trying to encourage donations — the old tip jar, a necessity for generations of traveling musicians. I try to bring in enough each night to cover my expenses, and the whole point of the exercise is to sell DVDs, so I urge people to buy a copy for a friend. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t, but I consider touring to be a long-term investment in my present and future work as a filmmaker. Besides, it’s fun.

I try to book at least two months in advance. I send out printed flyers, do a lot of social-network and e-mail promotion, and send e-mails to local press and radio, with followup phonecalls. I worked with a publicist, Kim Grant, on the Southwest tour and am likely to do so again in areas where she has strong press connections.

I’m completely self-contained, carrying a projector, DVD player and 90” diagonal pull-up screen in the back of a four-door Honda Accord. For sound, I carry a pair of powered speakers as well as a comprehensive kit of adapters that allows me to tie into house sound systems where I find them. I get there with plenty of time to deal with technical glitches, so I’m able to spend the last hour before the show greeting people as they arrive instead of frantically running around trying to fix something that’s not working.

Most of the time, I’ve shown the film as the “main event” with a local musician as opener. I’ve also done a few shows with Peter Case, the main artist featured in the film, where we’ve shown the complete movie followed by Peter’s full show. However, this makes for a long evening. I also made a 30-minute “teaser” version of the film that can be shown before a live performance, in lieu of an opening act. This works well for DVD sales, because people see enough of the film to become interested in buying it, but it’s proven to be a tough sell with artists and show promoters.

I try to learn from my mistakes. So, as a first step to outlining a new infrastructure for filmmakers to distribute their work, here are some observations on what seems to work for me.

1. The right venue. It doesn’t have to be big — 30-40 people is a very good crowd — but it has to be dark! Big windows are not conducive to screenings in summertime, when it doesn’t get dark till 9 pm or later. The venue has to be easy to find, ideally a location that will allow you to put a large poster outside that’s visible from the street. Because I’m showing a music film, I first look for music venues that book the kind of artists shown in my film, folksingers or singer-songwriters. If you have a film about standup comics, look for a comedy club. If you can’t find a genre-specific venue, look for community centers or public libraries, many of which are looking for programming.

2. A local partner or promoter. I found this to be the most important single factor in my screenings. I don’t know the market as well as a person who lives there. Moreover, I’m on the road, hundreds or even thousands of miles away; I can make phonecalls and send e-mails but I can’t go around town and put up flyers in prominent places. I can’t call all my friends and talk them into coming out. A partner who will take an active part in promoting the show is of utmost importance. Again, think of the subject of your film. Is there a local blues society, historical society or garden club that will take an interest in your film and help you promote it? Is there a way that both of you can make a little money from the show?

3. The right day and time. Commercial venues like music clubs make most of their money on the weekends, so they’re not likely to give up a Friday or Saturday night for an unknown commodity like a grassroots film. Even Thursday nights are busy nights for many venues, since this is the day that newspaper entertainment tabloids and free entertainment papers usually come out. Mondays, on the other hand, are tough. Try for Tuesday or Wednesday. Libraries and community centers are often willing to schedule an event on Saturday morning or afternoon, or Sunday afternoon or evening. This is seasonal, of course; people have more to do in the summer and are less willing to participate in indoor events; in winter, at least in the part of the country I come from, people become stir-crazy and want to get out of the house.

4. Some live entertainment to bring people in.Again, because I’m promoting a music film, I think in terms of live musicians, but it could just as easily be a juggler, a magician, a comedian, a poet or novelist. You might send a call out to local filmmakers to submit their short films for consideration, and present a program of two or three short films before the main feature. It’s not so much the entertainment value of an opening act, it’s the fact that local creatives have friends who are likely to come to your event — it’s good for word-of-mouth publicity.

5. Ask your audience for ideas. At each and every screening, I make a point in my closing spiel to ask people if they know any good venues in other towns (like the Cowboy Cafe in Cottonwood, Arizona, pictured above, which someone in nearby Sedona mentioned I should try). You would be surprised what people come up with. We’re a mobile society; people travel and relocate from town to town, and they have friends and family in other cities. I’ve gotten more than a few good leads just by asking the simple question, “Is there anyplace you can think of where I should try to show this film?”

6. Don’t give up. Marketing a film this way is a slow, uphill slog, and you’ll go through periods where nothing seems to be going your way. There are days when I don’t feel like getting out of bed in the morning, when I wake up wondering what possessed me to think I could promote my own movie. Then I think of the amount of time and effort I put into making Troubadour Blues; I think of the 158 people who had enough faith to back my film on Kickstarter; I think of the phenomenal musicians in the film and how they deserve exposure to a larger audience; I think of the heartfelt comments I’ve heard from people who have attended screenings.

I’ve resolved to give it another year, while my sales agent shops the film around to distribution companies and while I gather material for a second documentary. As I said, I try to think of the long run, of building an audience for my films and a network of venues in which to show them. I’ll have more to say on this subject in coming months.

Meanwhile, your feedback is always welcome. Thanks for your interest!