Nearly 400 people crammed into an auditorium in the Chinese 6 Theatres in Los Angeles' Hollywood & Highland shopping center to watch "One Day on Earth," a documentary made by thousands of volunteer filmmakers around the world to promote awareness about climate change and other global issues.
The sold-out screening on a Sunday afternoon was organized not by the theater or a major studio, but by filmmakers who promoted the movie to their fans through a new service called Tugg Inc.
The Austin, Texas, startup has launched a grass-roots movie distribution business that enables consumers to select the movies they want to see at local theaters.
Since its formal launch last month, Tugg has formed partnerships with several major theater circuits, including AMC, Regal, Cinemark and Rave Cinemas. It has hosted more than 50 "Tugg events" nationwide, filling auditoriums with specialty films -- movies like Fox Searchlight's "The Tree of Life" and the Stanley Kubrick classic "Dr. Strangelove" and documentaries such as "One Day on Earth" and Morgan Spurlock's "Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan's Hope."
"In the past, movie theaters have been forced to be somewhat narrow in their programming," said Nicolas Gonda, chief executive and co-founder of Tugg. "Now, with Tugg, they can be as diverse as the interests and the imaginations of the people in their communities."
As more theaters convert from film to digital, there is growing interest in using services like Tugg to program so-called alternative content and attract new customers to the multiplex at a time when attendance in the U.S. has been in a long-term decline, in part because consumers have more entertainment options.
The subject of how theaters can marshal the forces of social media to grow their business was a hot topic last week at CinemaCon, the annual trade show in Las Vegas hosted by the National Association of Theatre Owners. Tugg participated in a panel discussion called Social Networking and Marketing in the Digital Age.
"It really seems like they have an innovative platform to reach people through social media in a way that we haven't done before as exhibitors," said Spencer Klein, senior vice president for film and alternative content at Rave and Bow Tie Cinemas.
Klein said he was particularly surprised when a group of architecture students at the University of Pennsylvania organized a sold-out screening of "The Pruitt-Igoe Myth," a new and relatively unknown documentary about the decline of American cities. "It was pretty eye-opening," he said.
AMC has hosted Tugg events nationwide, including one in Austin for a film called "Crazy Wisdom" about the Buddhist leader Chogyam Trungpa, which was organized by the Austin Shambhala Meditation Center. The tickets were sold out within a few hours, and AMC had to move the screening, held at 10 a.m. on a Thursday, to a larger auditorium.
"It showed that there are guests out there who want to see some of this content that is not accessible through normal channels and who will mobilize if given the opportunity," said Robert Lenihan, president of programming for AMC Theatres.
Each Tugg event is promoted by an "organizer" -- which can be anyone -- who chooses a film he or she wants to see locally. Organizers draw from a list of more than 300 titles on Tugg's website, which includes independent, foreign and specialty films as well as repertory titles.
The organizer selects a local theater, locks in a date and then aggressively promotes the event using Facebook, Twitter or other social media. If people reserve enough tickets -- a screening typically requires at least 50 advance ticket purchases -- Tugg then books the film in one of the theaters that have signed up for its service.
Because tickets are purchased in advance, theater owners have a guarantee that they won't be left holding the bag if no one shows up to see the film. "It eliminates a huge question mark" for theater owners, said Gonda, whose company receives a fee for each ticket sold.
Tugg holds particular appeal in smaller, regional markets where it has become harder to screen independent or special films in theaters in recent years.
Spencer Howard, a 25-year-old college student who writes a movie blog in Columbus, Ga., last week organized a Tugg screening of "Comic-Con Episode IV." He posted a notice on his Facebook page encouraging people to reserve seats and handed out fliers at a bookstore. Within a few days, Howard had sold 57 tickets. He expected a nearly full house.
"People are delighted because they feel like they are part of creating this event," said Howard, who already is organizing his next Tugg screening -- for "Rocky" and a Spanish sci-fi movie. "The attitude is, 'We don't get anything cool here.' By doing an event like this we can prove that wrong."