Documentary filmmaker Stacy Peralta at Skate One/Bones Brigade. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )
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.
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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."
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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.
REVIEW: 'Bones Brigade' rides a skateboard back to the 80s
"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.