Of the 20 films in competition, only two came to SXSW 2016 without a hired publicity firm. This was one of them.
As the creator/conductor of SXSW 2016 premiere collective: unconscious, Dan Schoenbrun helped coordinate the team's outreach efforts. And judging from the packed, sold-out opening night, he must have done something right. No Film School sat down with Schoenbrun to get his recipe for success in bringing a film to SXSW for the first time — which includes, but is not limited to, having an impromptu parade.
NFS: How did you prepare for SXSW?
Dan Schoenbrun: A lot of breathing exercises! Taking something that started as an idea in your head out into the world is such an amazing and nerve-wracking experience. This is by far the biggest creative project I’ve ever been a part of, so I really wanted to make sure to do it right.
There were plenty of logistics to take care of in prep for SXSW, which anyone who has been through the finishing process should be familiar with. We had the usual hustle to complete sound design, color correction, DCP output and all that. Not to mention the less technical but no less intensive parts of getting ready for a festival: planning our marketing strategy, getting everyone on the same page regarding logistics, and just psyching ourselves up to make sure the premiere was the cathartic and amazing moment that we felt it deserved to be.
"When outlets were writing about which films they were most excited for, collective:unconscious was commonly highlighted as the 'weirdest' or 'most SXSW-sounding' film at the festival."
NFS: Did you consider hiring a PR firm? What made you take a grassroots approach?
Schoenbrun: PR is a crucial part of making sure audiences hear about your film, and we absolutely talked as a team about hiring a firm to help. But the thing about making an experimental film is that money is always a bit low, and publicists cost money, so we decided to go with a more grassroots route. Luckily we had a secret weapon in Sara Kiener (an absolute genius, who used to run an outreach and distribution company called Film Presence and is now in-house at Cinereach). Sara has been a massive supporter of collective:unconscious from the beginning — she even ran craft services on one of the shorts — and agreed to help us out pro bono with festival PR. Well, pro bono might not be the right word, since she recently asked me to buy her a ticket to see Selena Gomez as compensation for a job very well done.
I think our film’s very pithy premise — filmmakers adapting each other’s dreams — helped us get a lot of press in the festival lead-up. When outlets were writing curtain raisers to highlight which films they were most excited for, collective:unconscious was commonly highlighted as the “weirdest” or “most SXSW-sounding” film at the festival. When you have a film as strange as ours, it helps when the city you’re premiering in has a reputation for keeping things weird.
We also had the benefit of having a team of filmmakers and producers who are active parts of the independent film community, with many of their own relationships with press. In the end, our marketing and PR strategy ended up being a true group push. And we were as concerned with grassroots efforts as we were with getting traditional reviews and buzz. We just wanted to do whatever we could to shout loudly about the fact that this film exists, and that we're really excited about it.
NFS: What did you do once you were at the festival?
Schoenbrun: Started handing out buttons and eating breakfast tacos. The day of our premiere was one of the best, most surreal days of my life. The entire team met up at the No Film School house for a podcast, and stuck around to take a nap (sorry, No Film School, you should have known we like to sleep!). The five directors and I had coordinated beforehand to all wear matching outfits — white jumpsuits, with white sneakers to match. We wanted that weird cult vibe shining in full force.
After the nap we got everything ready to pull off an idea I had on the plane ride out to SXSW: to host a dream procession through the streets of downtown Austin. We wanted to let people know that the film existed by doing something fun and crazy, and also use it as an opportunity to exorcize some of the nervous energy that we had going into the premiere.
It was wild. The filmmakers and I led a 30+ person march through downtown Austin with signs reminding everyone that they were dreaming and encouraging them not to wake up. We all counted sheep out loud as a group, all the way from "one sheep" to "one thousand sheep." It was exhausting and insane! Once we finished, we ended up back at the Convention Center [SXSW HQ] and all laid down on the ground and promptly went to sleep. That last part wasn't even planned —it just felt like the right thing to do!
When we woke up, we were surrounded by security guards and even an armed Texas State Trooper, who accused us of protesting SXSW. But we were just sleeping. I wanted to tell them that the only thing we were protesting was reality!
"This whole project has been about the joy of making something. I wanted to be thankful and excited and to just soak in the joy."
NFS: What did you do for your premiere party? How important is a party for a film at SXSW?
Schoenbrun: We co-hosted a party with our friends at Oscilloscope Pictures (who were premiering Joel Potrykus’s film The Alchemist’s Cookbook the same night). We held the party at Cheer Up Charlie’s, a great venue on Red River that has hosted so many rad SXSW afterparties over the years. It was a pretty low-key affair; no open bar or major theatrics or anything like that. There was a taco truck though, so that was nice.
Premiere parties are fun, and at the bigger festivals sales agents will sometimes use them as an opportunity to schmooze potential distributors and make a big, glitzy splash. We were less concerned with that — we just wanted a centralized place to get our friends, family, and extended community together to celebrate the film’s premiere.
NFS: What did you learn about premiering at SXSW, and what advice do you have for others?
Schoenbrun: The big thing I learned, and am still learning, is that success is an internal metric.
I recently heard a filmmaker talk on a panel about being miserable that his film, which premiered at Sundance, didn’t sell to a major distributor, and how he was stressed about that the entire festival. Which I get. But on the other hand, it’s just like, come on, can’t we ever be happy?
There’s always something to be upset or disappointed or stressed about. And you can always hustle to get more press, get more people to see your movie, get more festival invitations or money or whatever. But I tried really hard to force myself to be in the moment at SXSW and not get too caught up in the stress of everything else. For me, and I hope for all of the filmmakers, this whole project has been about the joy of making something. I wanted to be thankful and excited and to just soak in the joy of sharing something that I’m really proud of with the world.
No Film School's coverage of the 2016 SXSW Film Festival is sponsored by SongFreedom.