10,000,000+ views. 33 viral videos on YouTube's front page. 50,000+ subscribers gained.

In the last three years, my company has driven millions of people to our videos and our clients' videos, and turned many of those people into advocates for the material they see. We've done it through social networking, sharing, generating traditional PR, postings and links from blogs and websites, audience development and good old fashioned advertising.

Along the way, I've learned a few things about what YouTubers like (and don't like!). I'm applying what I've learned to promoting my new film, Drinking Games (premiering in LA on June 4th), and I thought other indie filmmakers who self-distribute -- or need to compliment their distributor's lackluster marketing efforts -- might benefit from reading about my experiences past, present and, eventually, future.

So, here goes:

How do we generate YouTube views?
48 hours of video are posted to YouTube EVERY MINUTE. There's no way your videos are just going to be stumbled upon. You must bring people to the forest to hear the tree fall.

There are three basic ways to drive eyeballs to your videos.

  1. Share them across social networks, and give others a reason(s) to do the same.
  2. Get postings and links from websites that already have large audiences.
  3. Advertise your videos online and on mobile devices.

A couple examples of film/filmmaker campaigns

Ari Gold, Adventures of Power

Ari and his team created an entire 70-video YouTube promotional campaign featuring original videos, deleted scenes, constant updates and interaction -- all free to the end user. Their videos have received over 500K views, gained over 3,000 subscribers, and three of his videos even reached the front page of YouTube, officially going viral. The YouTube fan base has led to stronger DVD and digital sales.

My film, The Graduates


The Graduates was the #1 comedy on Hulu for months, and remains in the Top 10 all-time after two years. We’re competing with major studio films and stars and have held our ground for two full years. Though filmmakers remain skeptical about Hulu, we’ve had a wonderful, profitable experience there, and the hundreds of thousands of people who have seen our film have in many cases followed us across social media, bought the film or the soundtrack, and remained responsive to the projects we’ve released since meeting them. The majority of our viewers discover the film through a few consistently updated YouTube channels and web series.

Two of the strongest performing videos are linked here. Notice that they appear to have nothing to do with the film or product they’re selling:

Marketing Power with a Halloween music video; 199,000+ views; officially viral, making it to the Front Page of YouTube.

Marketing 1800Recycling with funny “Fail” videos; 3,000,000+ views; Three videos went officially viral, making it to the Front Page of YouTube.

These are two of over 30 pieces of content we've taken viral for clients big and small. Couple this with a consistent output of content and some audience interaction, and you will have an active and growing subscriber base.

"Why does this matter, or how does this help?" are the questions we hear most often when explaining the value of a successful viral video or web series to a potential client. 

Taking the examples above, there's obvious value in getting hundreds of thousands of people to interact with your material. Couple that with a widely available film, and the viral video that had nothing to do with your movie just became a great ad for you and the film. People who are truly entertained by the viral video will visit your channel and poke around, and that's when they're most receptive to marketing materials like the trailer. You've won them over by not marketing at them, and now they will seek out your marketing. As the price of digital goods rapidly drops toward zero, filmmakers who build an audience on YouTube will have a huge advantage when it comes time to ask people to pony up for a ticket, a download, a soundtrack (unless you decide to make your soundtrack free) or a t-shirt, because not only will they want to spend (to help you keep producing content) they'll also share the videos, becoming advocates who advertise on your behalf.

What are some good benchmarks in terms of reasonable numbers to shoot for in terms of trailer views?

This is a complicated question, because we can assist clients in getting any amount of views, so it completely depends on two things: your budget, and your audience. If you've spent time developing an audience, you have to spend a lot less to get and keep people interested, which is why we provide so much (and such specific) advice on audience development before, during and after filming. If you've done nothing to develop an audience, it's going to cost money to get real eyeballs on your marketing material. Simply uploading a trailer to YouTube is a good step- it's about as basic and necessary as a website- but it doesn't guarantee a single view. I would focus the benchmarks on content creation and interaction with fans -- try to create and upload one new piece each week for a year. If you have a good concept and you interact with fans, your material will stand out, because you're a filmmaker, after all, making interesting content is your life.

Any other good marketing platforms you work with to market films?

Sshot-2010-11-23-at-10We use Twitter and Facebook, of course, but there is no silver bullet. You must (again) create content and interact with fans. The digital revolution continues to bring prices down, but the upside is that the same outlets that bring prices down also corral audiences into niches. 85% of the country visits YouTube, every conceivable niche is represented there, and they're all looking for entertaining content. It can be a massive platform for any filmmaker. Another upside of the digital and social media revolution is that with so many on-demand options, audiences are seeking and finding more and more independent films, months and years after their release and sharing their discoveries with friends. The need for an "opening weekend" is moot. Don't get me wrong, if you can have a big opening weekend anywhere, take it. But if not, your movie on Netflix or Hulu will look just as fresh in a year as it does today. We advise clients to keep their YouTube and social media presence just as vibrant and fresh two years after their release as on Day 1.

Bottom line: releasing an indie film today is much closer to opening a small web-based business than it is to releasing a studio film. How to put this into practice:

The perfect version of this is a filmmaker who spends the year leading up to her film shoot video blogging about the fundraising process, casting, producing, and any fears, hopes and challenges they face. These should be posted regularly, and interspersed with funny or interesting scripted content with a homemade feel, nothing too precious.

These videos establish her voice and build a small but loyal audience who happen to like that voice. Then the filmmaker uploads a few homemade videos from the set, showing off the cast and crew continuing the themes established in pre-production: it's important to think of your audience as peers. They're going to be cool with talking shop, so she should provide tips & tricks along with a personal look at the process.

In the 6-12 months following production, the filmmaker continues to create and post videos on a set schedule, with material growing progressively more produced, while remaining entertaining. Again, interspersed with scripted, themed content. For instance, if the film is about a chef, the filmmaker could have a homemade, super-low-budget cooking show about how they get by on a freelancer or indie filmmaker living.

Every tenth video could be a clip from the film or a trailer or some piece of fun marketing material. There might be three or four these total in the 6-12 months of post-production. All the while, she would interact with fans, commenting on other filmmakers’ videos and channels, subscribing to channels and YT’ers with interests related to her film. Assuming her film – like most of our films – does not get a huge distribution deal, and she partners with an aggregator to make the film available on Netflix, Hulu, iTunes and VOD, she would then post those links on her YouTube channel and script and upload a personal video blog about where people can find the film.

Kevin-smith-miranda-july-224x123Finally, she should spend the next year creating and uploading funny or interesting videos along a regular schedule, interacting with fans and producers constantly, and remind people once every three months that they can find her film on the relevant outlets. This is how she can build and maintain an audience – if she’s going to be making films for a while, it’s a good investment of her time and energy. People will connect with her and her voice, and will look for ways to engage others on the filmmaker’s behalf.

Kevin Smith and Miranda July are two great examples of filmmakers who use a similar approach to attract and grow an audience.

Here are a few key techniques and best practices for building one's audience or community via YouTube.

YouTube eliminates the distance between producer and user. This is the single most important thing to remember when trying to market on YouTube, and here’s why: along with the ability to create and upload self-produced content comes the desire to interact with other creators, peers. So, YT is built and populated by tens of millions of people who interact with content and producers horizontally, not people who want to passively accept content dropped vertically from studios above.

If you decide to step into their world, you have to understand and respect their mindset and tailor your marketing accordingly. In short, it shouldn’t feel like marketing.

Producers who succeed on YouTube create videos that feel homemade, personally delivered by a real human being, not a big Hollywood team directly to the individual audience member. This is why producers who present themselves to the YT community do better than filmmakers who only present their film, or their trailer. YT is not a dumping ground for deleted scenes and outtakes, it’s a place people come to be entertained. Finally, YT’ers do carry over some traits of traditional television audiences -- they like content they can count on. Videos that feel like standalone material aren’t worth connecting with, because there’s no promise of future entertainment. You have a dramatically higher chance of getting subscribers -- and having your videos shared -- if you upload regularly, on a given day, at a given time, with fresh content.

So… the takeaways are:

  1. Interact with every audience member, from day one. They’re your peers as well as audience. 
  2. Don’t just market. Create content that seeks to entertain. 
  3. Post consistently, for a long time.

These three things turn a lot of filmmakers off, and I understand that. We want to make films, and leave the marketing to others. That mindset -- while totally understandable -- is why so many films just sit on the shelf. Marketing is a lot of work, but if you invest the time wisely and follow the three simple guidelines above, you can build an audience over time.

Do you think this kind of marketing should be a distributor's job or are you willing to put in the work to create all of this additional content? Do you consider online audience building to be a necessary part of a filmmaker's job or do you shudder at the prospect? Do you have any tips that I missed? Let's open it for discussion!

[Kevin Smith (by Luigi Novi) and Miranda July images from Wikimedia Commons]