The Peanut Butter Falcon was released by Signature Entertainment in October 2019, and the film was selected to receive additional support as a BFI FAN New Release title.
The Peanut Butter Falcon directed by Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz tells the story of Zak (Zack Gottsagen), a young man with Downs syndrome, who runs away from a residential nursing home to follow his dream of attending a professional wrestling school. A strange turn of events pairs him on the road with Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a small time outlaw on the run, who becomes Zak's unlikely coach and ally, whilst nursing home employee Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) is charged with finding and returning Zak.
Zack Gottsagen who plays Zak in the film has Downs Syndrome, and the film presented an opportunity to spark a debate about visibility of learning disabled people. The film’s distributor Signature Entertainment “ We had a real story about the themes of the film and wanted to elevate it in that way, to urge a dialogue about representation of people with learning disability on screen in the UK”
Signature Entertainment are better known for home entertainment films than theatrical releases, so purchasing the rights and planning a cinema release for the film was a big step for the company. Their campaign kicked off with The Peanut Butter Falcon’s LFF screenings in October; a partnership with Mencap highlighted the visibility of learning disabled people; and the BFI FAN New Release partnership connected them with exhibitors outside of London.
Signature Entertainment’s release of The Peanut Butter Falcon was supported by BFI FAN New Release; this helped to profile the film and maximise bookings across the FAN network and provided marketing assets and resources to support cinemas to maximise their audience reach and, in particular, to engage with learning disabled audiences in their area.
A partnership with Mencap highlighted the visibility of learning disabled people and connected the film with the charity’s network of groups across the country
To maximise the release of the The Peanut Butter Falcon
To use the film’s release to raise the profile of learning disabled people on screen
To encourage film exhibitors to put on relaxed screenings of the film
Increasing the visibility of people with a learning disability on screen: The Peanut Butter Falcon partnership.
"It showed how people with a learning disability should be defined by their talent; not defined by their learning disability.” - Mencap Ambassador George Webster
Working with BFI's FAN New Releases, The Peanut Butter Falcon made over £191k across the UK from over 110 FAN venues, which made up 72% of the total exhibitors that screened the film.
The film has also had success on non-theatrical networks and venues which has resulted in the inclusion of the film on in catalogues such as Cinema For All, Moviola and more regional networks such as Libraries Unlimited in Devon.
Signature said of FAN New Release that, “Regional support and targeted support for regional venue was extremely useful” and “contact with regional Hub, regular email updates and support was crucial to the film’s success.”
For Signature, partnering with Mencap was a key element of the films’ success right from the start at the London Film Festival. "It all paid off to have Harry from Mencap (Harry Roche, a Mencap journalist, with a learning disability) interviewing the cast and crew at the London Film Festival, it was worth the effort and not something we’d done before."
Mencap agreed, "It was fantastic for Mencap journalists to have the opportunity to interview Zack, Shia and the film's directors at the premiere alongside the world's press on the red carpet with a camera crew. Ten people with a learning disability and their guests attended the premiere too, we were delighted to talk to the directors about the film, inclusivity and visibility of people with a learning disability in Hollywood. Mencap journalist Harry Roche, who has a learning disability, interviewed Shia and Zack as part of the press junket and the video had 90,000 views on our Facebook page as well as the audio being broadcast as part of a review on Radio 2, reaching millions of listeners."
This video was also available as part of the marketing assets for the film and many cinemas screened it prior to the film.
Actor and Mencap Ambassador George Webster relished the chance to be involved in the partnership, “Working with Mencap and Signature Entertainment, I learned and developed new skills such as the importance of preparation and ensuring to ask good questions; being a part of the Q&A panel was great fun. I was really happy to be a part of the various opportunities that came with the partnership surrounding this film’s release and I appreciate all the support that Mencap have given me whilst working with them in my Ambassador role”
The partnership also enabled Mencap to reach key influencers, and realise their objective of advocating for learning disabled people, through a screening and Q and A at RADA Studios in London that was attended by press, charities, arts organisations, actors and celebrities.
A key aspect of the partnership for both parties was was mobilising Mencap’s Network of 300 local groups who connected with local cinemas, and organised their own screenings of the film.
Signature described how effective this was “The perfect partnership of Mencap regional groups talking to regional hubs. They didn’t need us, we just put the resources together with the New Release scheme. The excitement of these groups coming together, people with a Learning Disability, their families, their loved ones to see the film and the word of mouth from that it worked perfectly… they didn’t need any encouragement as they were so excited… seeing themselves on screen, their families and loved ones on screen was great from that point of view.”
Unlike some partner relationships, that can be exclusive, Mencap were happy for other charities to be involved, to amplify the message of the film. Many cinemas worked with their local Downs Syndrome groups to arrange tickets and organise events. In Scotland, a partnership with Downs Syndrome Scotland facilitated by the New Release freelance consultant connected exhibitors with groups in all the major cities, and an aspiring actor with Down’s Syndrome introduced the film at a number of screenings.
The role of BFI FAN network: The FAN network provided Signature with direct access to exhibitors through the Hubs, which was invaluable in getting bookings for the film. “Access to regional hubs, meant access to a wider number of exhibitors… having the FAN network with one contact per region was really, really helpful. I’m 100% sure without that we wouldn’t have got to the level we did.”
Resources and advice from Inclusive Cinema on how to cater for disabled audience members and put on ‘relaxed’ screenings were included as part of the film’s marketing pack; FAN members seized the opportunity to develop relationships with their local learning disability groups and many cinemas organised their first ever relaxed screenings. In Scotland ‘easy read’ programme notes for the film were produced, and an easy read audience survey using symbols and emojis was used to gather feedback from audience members who are learning disabled.
For Mencap key successes included:
The video created from London Film Festival interviews. The interview by Harry Roche, who is learning disabled himself had huge engagement on social media, and this kind of visibility of learning disabled people in the media is a key way to tackle the stigma around learning disability.
Another output from the London Film Festival interviews was that Mencap's critic with a learning disability, Amy Clarke, had her review quoted on the film’s poster, part of Signature’s 12 sheet London Underground campaign. Possibly the first time someone with a learning disability has featured so prominently on a film poster.
The chance to shine a spotlight on visibility, inclusion and representation and involve a variety of voices from the arts, charities and media, to discuss what can be done to improve the situation was a highlight. Mencap commented “ the audience participation was thriving, with ideas flying around about specific ways to improve visibility, make reasonable adjustments for people with a learning disability and how the arts can tackle stigma.”
This was echoed by actor George Webster "To watch a film where the lead character has a learning disability made me happy and excited to see this representation on screen. There needs to be more young people with a learning disability in acting roles across film and television for them to show that they can do these things when they are given the chance. We need to be given these brilliant opportunities to show off our acting talents!’
For Signature Entertainment the biggest win was access to the FAN network of cinemas. Four of the five top performing sites for the film were part of the FAN network, and Watershed in Bristol achieved bigger box office than any of the London sites. “Without that it would have been a much harder task and we wouldn’t have the number of sites that we did… “
What has been difficult
The team at Signature were mindful of balancing the need for Mencap to achieve their goals with their own ambitions for the film’s release, especially during the LFF and press junket. “For Mencap it was their one opportunity to work with a film for the whole year, and really prestigious at the LFF and having one of their reps interviewing such a big stars…. it was stressful but they have such a great team it was all worth it looking back.”
Ensuring the Mencap team had a positive experience was important; safeguarding interview time slots for the Mencap journalists in the ever changing interview schedules of the film’s cast was a challenge, and they worked hard to create a safe, calm and friendly space amidst the frenetic festival atmosphere.
For Mencap, finding a cinema that was truly accessible for their event screening proved a challenge “One of the biggest challenges was to locate a venue which was suitable for the screening. Many cinemas in London confirmed they were accessible, yet only catered for 2-4 wheelchair users. RADA Theatre Studios was the perfect location, with unlimited wheelchair spaces and all on one level. The lack of accessible cinemas and venues is an issue that needs to be tackled to ensure that film and the arts are available to everyone.”
What you would do differently if you did it again
For Signature, the release provided a great opportunity to establish relationships with exhibitors and increase their understanding of what cinemas need from distributors for a successful theatrical release. "It has been such a learning curve for us… it opened our eyes to the level of detail that is required for a theatrical window film.”
The team developed a much greater understanding of the steps cinemas need to take to arrange accessible and relaxed screenings, this meant they were able to manage the expectations of some local Mencap groups frustrated that there weren’t more screenings in their area.
Working with a national charity of this scale was also a new experience for the Signature team and they were aware of the volume of work required to balance achieving their aims with those of Mencap.
For Mencap, they relished the opportunity to work collectively. "There is an opportunity to bring all disability organisations and campaign groups together to tackle representation in the arts and how we can work with the wider film industry to foster positive change, inclusivity and create opportunities for all the talent in the disability community."
They also noted how far there is to go to improve accessibility and representation “There is still a lot of work to be done around accessibility in cinemas and venues to make them inclusive and suitable for everyone to enjoy film and the arts.”
Awareness / Attitudes
Everyone involved in The Peanut Butter Falcon’s release is convinced about the positive impacts of the film in terms of visibility and representation of learning disabled people.
“It was such a conversation starter about having a lead actor with Downs Syndrome, a proud thing for us to be part of that conversation. Yes it’s a great A list cast, and a commercial film, and a great genre, but to have that extra angle to it was great, and it will have a lingering impact – the fact that Zak and Shia presented an Oscar together, all of these things will have a lasting impact.”
“The partnership was a huge success. The release of the film increased the visibility of people with a learning disability in high profile film roles, and the bespoke screening allowed us to facilitate a vital debate with key industry players about the future of disability representation in media and film.”
For George Webster
“Zack’s involvement in the film and the promotion surrounding it, showed how people with a learning disability should be defined by their talent; not defined by their learning disability. The more people we see like us in the media, the more people will see that we need to be treated both equally and fairly.”
Signature partnered with MenCap nationally to support the film and promote it to audience members for whom seeing themselves represented on screen would be incredibly exciting. FAN New Release helped activate that partnership regionally. MenCap’s support was extremely positive as they not only promoted the film to their audience, but they also sent out press releases promoting the film and sent charity representatives to the London Film Festival to interview the stars on the red carpet. The resulting video was a great promotional asset and was able to be shared across social media.
The film was also supported by regional charities such as Scotland Down’s Syndrome, Down’s Syndrome Association and a number of other learning disability charities.
With advice and support from Inclusive Cinema, FAN New Releases was able to provide venues with guides and advice on how they can be more inclusive, cater to disabled audience members and put on ‘relaxed’ screenings.
As a result, a number of venues put on relaxed screenings for disabled audience members, some for the first time including: Watershed, QFT, Broadway, Phoenix Leicester, Cameo Edinburgh, Glasgow Film Theatre, Depot Lewes, Magic Lantern, Barn Dartington, The Barbican, DCA Dundee, The Kiln and Northampton Filmhouse.
Knowledge & Experience
For Signature, the partnership with FAN helped to establish them as a quality theatrical distributor and kick started relationships with independent exhibitors. “It helped reinforce our position as a proper theatrical company which maybe we aren’t as much before. BFI FAN has certainly helped our position in the market place for sure.”
Their work with Mencap has also prompted a discussion within the company about what they can do to shift attitudes “it started a bit of a dialogue company wide, that we should do our own bit to try and be a bit more open minded. We do some of our own productions and through Mencap I found out about talent agencies that represent people with all sort of disabilities, so in front of camera or crew, we are thinking about hiring a more diverse set of people”
What audiences said
100% of the people who completed the easy read survey at FAN venues would like to come to something like this again; 20 people said the film was ‘great’ and a further nine people ‘good’. Comments included:
“I would love to come back.”
“Very enjoyable, a great film.”
“Really enjoyable – especially good to see diversification.”
“Brilliant that films are being made to educate about disability.”
“Amazing all round.”
What professionals, press and partners said
Signature commented ”We couldn’t have hoped for better reviews and reactions, there were standing ovations at both LFF screenings, tears and laughter, people were loving it. ... people are so glad to see themselves or a member of their family represented on screen in such a genuine way, contrary to a depressing way”
Mencap said, “We really enjoyed partnering with Signature and would love to work with other distributors and industry bodies to talk about representation, inclusivity and promote talent.”