Arts and Culture
5:35 am
Wed July 10, 2013

Heard of Tugg? Austin Startup Changes How People Go to Movies

There’s a screening tonight in Austin for a movie you probably haven’t heard of.

It’s not part of a film festival or a private event. It's happening in prime time at the Alamo Drafthouse on Research Boulevard.

"’GrowthBusters' is an independent documentary film that brings attention to the fact that we’ve outgrown the planet and it’s time to embrace the end of growth," Director Dave Gardner said.

"GrowthBusters" is Gardner's first big documentary. As a small fish in the big pond of the movie industry, he has limited options for getting it on movie screens. So he turned to an Austin-based startup: Tugg.

“Tugg now means that it’s possible for small, independent films to be seen on the big screen," Gardner said.

Tugg lets filmmakers – and regular people – set up screenings at participating movie theatres across the country. As long as enough tickets for the movie are sold – Tugg takes care of everything else.

Tugg’s been around about a year and half. Since its launch at South by Southwest in 2012, it’s had more than one thousand screenings – at least one every state.

Tugg has a database of more than 1,400 films. And screens everything from older films – such as "Beetlejuice" or "The Bodygound." But many of its screenings are of independent films such as "GrowthBusters."

“If I’m not mistaken, this year, there were around 12,000 applicants to Sundance Film Festival. Of that, 200 were selected. Of that, a fraction, a tiny fraction received traditional distribution," Tugg Co-Founder and CEO Nicolas Gonda said.

Gonda is probably best known as a producer – working with Austin-based filmmaker Terrence Malick on films such as "The Tree of Life." He’s a big fan of movies and theatres but saw room for improvement in the delivery method.

“I think a lot of us have grown accustomed online to being able to find the content we want," Gonda said. "We can browse Netflix, we can browse iTunes, Hulu. Up until recently, the move theatre has been much more of a broadcast approach. Where, you’re told what’s there and you decide if you want to see it. We’re reverse-engineering that. We’re letting the audience decide what they want and have the same sensation that they do at home.”

Audiences get to watch what they want and movie theatres get to fill up seats. But Tugg’s biggest fans may be filmmakers.

"Honor Flight" is a documentary about taking World War II veterans to visit the memorial in D.C. Jo Jensen is the marketing director for the film and says much of its success is thanks to Tugg.

“Tugg allows us to bring Honor Flight to different communities kind of through a grassroots mechanism. We’ve had over 100 Tugg screenings now and there’s no way, theatrically, we would have been able to have that experience," Jensen said.

Jensen says all those screenings built a strong fan base and many of those fans went on to share the movie with others. But Tugg remains part of its distribution formula.

“Even though the movie is available on iTunes and Amazon, and we actually have a number one-rated DVD, which is pretty neat, our goal is really for people to have a shared experience when they watch the movie," Jensen said.

That's what Dave Gardner wants to see for "GrowthBusters."

“There’s nothing more exciting than actually sitting in a big room with a huge crowd of people and watching it on the big screen," Gardner said. "Most of the Tugg screenings we have for GrowthBusters have some kind of question and answer session, public discussion, sometimes they bring in experts.”

And for films such as "Honor Flight" that have ties to non-profits – Tugg’s also set up a fundraising mechanism.

“When you buy your movie ticket, you can donate to the local non-profit," Jensen said. "So we’ve raised tens of thousands of dollars for these local Honor Flights from Mississippi to Colorado to Ohio. So now we know, directly because of the movie screenings, they’re flying veterans – which is pretty neat.”

Tugg’s co-founder, Nicolas Gonda, says it’s a complete circle – from interest to engagement to action – all within a single showtime. And that’s one aspect of the startup he’s most proud of.

Listen to an extended interview with Gonda, below.