Marketing Your Indie Film: A Few Key Tips to Wrap Your Brain Around
So, let's say you're about to make your movie. Congratulations! You've probably spent, in the indie world, years working to get to this point, and there are so many details that go into making a feature film that I couldn't even begin to think about enumerating them all here; suffice it to say, producing or directing a film involves a series of hundred or thousands of decisions, each with consequences that you might not be aware of for quite some time. And in the pressure cooker that is indie filmmaking, it can be difficult sometimes to see the forest for the trees (to use a totally original phrase that I just thought up, like right now).
At IFP Week, in a panel moderated by Jarod Neece, Producer and Senior programmer at SXSW, and featuring RJ Millard from Obscured Pictures, Ryan Werner, Senior Executive at Cinetic Media, and Gary Hustwit, director of, among others, the documentary Helvetica, the subject was "Wrapping Your Brain Around Marketing," and it addressed some of the issues that indie filmmakers need to think about:
A carefully prepared marketing campaign can often serve as the difference maker between successful hit and financial disappointment -- it takes a particular dynamic presence to garner attention.
Stay on Topic
Your film, like it or not, is a brand, and when you present it to the world, it's important that you have a unity in terms of what you show the world. Because it's "so hard to get attention, get people to remember [your film]," you want to make sure you have the most memorable aesthetic possible so when audiences look at your posters and production material, they immediately associate it with your film. According to Millard, who supervised the distribution of the blockbuster documentary Super Size Me, the image of director Morgan Spurlock that was featured so prominently in the now iconic poster helped to artfully convey the film's theme in a simple, visual manner, and was vitally important to building buzz around the film.
Pictures, Pictures, Pictures (Did I Say Pictures?)
Nearly every filmmaker has had the sinking feeling that comes when they are deep into the edit and suddenly realize that they don't have everything they need, usually in terms of coverage. You've spent so much time getting the vitally important shots, and with time and money burning, that sometimes those crucial masters and cutaways can fall by the wayside. Similarly, the panelists stressed how important it was to have high-quality, professional production stills. They recommended getting a photographer for at least five days, to capture every aspect of the production, from behind-the-scenes, to production stills that can be used in promotion, and everything in between, up to and including possible poster ideas. The point was hammered home that these photos shouldn't be a DIY venture, i.e., the director shouldn't be waving their iPhone around, even if it has the much-hyped iOS optical image stabilization. The fact is you will need lots and lots of photos.
Be Careful With These Images!
The reason that you're shelling out the money for a professional in the first place is, one, so that the quality of your photos will be as good as it can be, and two, so that you'll have a lot of them, and that is much more effectively achieved with someone dedicated to the task. A figure recommended in terms of volume was upwards of 300, which would be winnowed down and used for different purposes -- one for the first tentpole festival, maybe three for the second, and a good number for promotional materials. "Photos are gold," and are a key part of media coverage. If your film is covered in Entertainment Weekly or The New York Times (the only major paper left that reviews the average of twenty new films released in New York each week), they will want exclusive images, and you had better be able to provide them. It can make or break your media coverage, especially if you're a low-budget film; having high-quality pictures is priceless.
Another point stressed was graphic design, and how important it is not to skimp when it comes to your poster and all associated images. The main point was, this is how you are presenting your film to the world, and though your cousin Steve may be good at Photoshop, unless he's a professional designer, you might actually be hurting your film.
While marketing shorts is much harder (unless you happen to blessed with a "big name" in one of the roles, or as a behind-the-scenes player) there are steps you can take, but these mostly involve cultivating relationships with festival programmers, finding the right festival for your film, and common sense steps that make sure your film, which by its nature will have a different life than a feature, gets to the right people at the right festivals and VOD companies. Another bonus of having a name actor in your short (we should all be so lucky, I know) is that the actor will most likely have a publicist, and this publicist will be inclined to promote a project featuring their client. Again, if this is your situation, count your blessings.
Another salient point was that documentary film, in the new VOD era, has far more distribution opportunities than before, and it's not hard to see why. Oftentimes, films that people wouldn't go see in theaters are the very ones they like to watch at home, on one of the various platforms that cater to home viewing. While narrative features lend themselves to theatrical release, documentaries can often achieve the most success by pursuing alternative routes of distribution, something for all filmmakers to keep in mind.
Today, Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and other sites have utterly transformed film funding, literally turning it on its head, from a top-down to bottom-up proposition. Now, a film can be funded entirely by a volume of micro-donations, but the success of any given campaign is, of course, contingent upon the quality of your campaign. This is where the preceding elements can be so important; think of your poster and the images that will appear on your crowdsourcing page. And think equally hard about the quality of your video. A good video can make or break a film's chances for obtaining funding.
As an indie filmmaker, you have to use absolutely every resource at your disposal, and one of these is actually the most old-fashioned: the email list. Over time, a filmmaker who networks can generate a robust list of thousands of people who are willing to check out your press releases and announcements in their inbox. And these people can be vitally important. Because everyone and everything is vitally important. And in the age of Twitter and Facebook, always remember that your message will end up down the feed within minutes, depending on how many people your target follows. Therefore, you run the risk of losing out on a potential new supporter/fan. Phone calls are important, too!
And never, ever, promise something you can't deliver. If you say that you'll have DVDs for a Kickstarter donation, then you better be able to produce them, because otherwise people are likely to be a.) annoyed and b.) not willing to trust you in the future. Best to avoid both of those issues by only promising what you can deliver, which is a good lesson for life, actually. (The more you know -- )
If you're a filmmaker, then you should probably be hanging around with other filmmakers, and that means attending conferences like IFP Week, festivals, and other mixers and conventions where you can get a chance to network with your fellow filmmakers. After all, indie filmmakers are a special, scrappy breed, and there can be a great affinity and community among them. The relationships in the film community are frequently what get films made, and even if you're an introvert, forcing yourself to get out there, shake hands and yes, sell yourself, is vitally important. It's just a fact that people like to help their friends, so make some!
By following these common sense steps, a filmmaker can exponentially increase their chances for success in the marketplace. So much information is out there, and much of it isn't obvious, or can seem mysterious and, above all, expensive. But, though it's a cliché, you always have to spend money to make money (or just get your film out there), so budgeting money for these relatively simple procedures can give you a priceless return on your investment. In the indie world, especially, every dollar counts, so when you're spending your money, make sure you're spending it not just on the film itself, but on the numerous details that can make or break your ability to reach the marketplace.
In that vein, if you can afford it, working with a sales agent can be tremendously helpful, since it's their job to help you navigate your way through the obstacle course of getting your film out in front of the maximum number of people. And since that's the end goal, every filmmaker, no matter what their budget is, should have a plan in place for marketing their film, and this plan can be implemented months, even years, before you call "Action!"
Stay tuned for more coverage of IFP Film Week! We've got some great and useful coverage coming up, and information you'll definitely want to check out.