Yes, you can (and should) market your film with integrity.
I hate marketing. Just the word “marketing” fills me with instant douche chills. The idea of engaging in what can be seen as a sordid activity for the sake of my filmmaking career makes the '90s teen inside me scream “SELL OUT!” in the mirror before drowning my tears in a sea of Eliott Smith’s mopier back catalog.
We didn’t get into filmmaking to become marketers. We make the film, the marketing department markets the film, the audience finds the film, and everyone happily sips craft cider in a hot tub in Apsen. This is the natural order of things. Here’s the problem: what if you are the marketing department? Are you willing to let your revulsion for the marketing part prevent people from seeing your movie?
After my father died from dementia in 2015, I used the little money he left me in combination with a modest Kickstarter campaign to make Sundown, a small, personal film about a family dealing with the sad and sometimes darkly funny realities of the disease. We had a successful festival run (eight acceptances, six awards) and were poised to get our little film out into the world. It was time to swallow my pride and think about marketing my film. Here’s what I learned...
If you don’t put as much energy into getting the movie out there as you did making it, you wasted your time.
1. It’s all about you
There is often a mental/emotional block you must overcome before anything is going to happen with your film. Your revulsion for networking and schmoozing could be called “integrity” or “ethics” but let’s face it—it’s probably fear. For me, the bravado of not “selling out” was often a shield to protect me from my fear that my movie wasn’t good enough. With introspection, I diagnosed myself with a full-fledged case of Imposter Syndrome. Once I realized I was getting in my own way, it became easier to let go. The audience can decide if my film is good enough. That’s not my job.
2. It’s just as important as making the movie
If you don’t put as much energy into getting the movie out there as you did making it, you wasted your time. As technology gets easier, there are a lot of films in the world. In order to get people to watch your movie, as much energy—if not more—is required in the marketing.
If you’re a shy or introverted person, this is obviously difficult. You may be most comfortable in a dimly lit editing hovel, going weeks without human contact. Luckily, the internet allows you to schmooze from your own home. As toxic as it often is, social media still offers a great opportunity to connect with people you’d never encounter in “real life.” Speaking of which...
3. It’s about people, not money
If a big money deal isn’t imminent (and let’s face it—for most of us, it’s not), shift your focus to finding people for whom your film may be meaningful. After Sundown’s festival run, we organized a second group of screenings at elder care facilities, public libraries, and colleges. We were hosted by Students Against Alzheimer’s groups and community organizations dedicated to raising awareness about dementia. Through Googling, social media searches, and cold-emailing, we found several excited partners willing to screen and promote the film. These events were among the most meaningful experiences of my life. Strangers dealing with loved ones with dementia would speak to or email me later saying the film made them feel less alone. It was incredibly moving and gratifying.
A more practical benefit of these events was press coverage that we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise which helped create buzz for the online release of the film. Word of the screenings got out to online dementia caregiver communities. Interest in Sundown was much higher than it ever would have been if we had been satisfied with a traditional festival run.
5. It’s weirdly fun
Marketing can exercise the creative muscle. Once I got through my emotional landmines, I found that coming up with a marketing plan and conceiving ways to reach people scratched some of the same creative itches of writing and creating films. If you think about it, filmmaking and marketing have the same general goal: to connect with people. Looking at it as a puzzle to solve helped me get through a lot of the mental block I had about “bothering people.”
6. You can separate the filmmaker from the marketer...
… even if you are both. When I decided to fully embrace my inner marketer, I had one line: it would not get in the way of the creative process. Exactly ZERO thought about marketing or appealing to an audience happened during the writing, shooting, or editing of the movie. I was going to tell the story I wanted to tell. There was no thought of “Can the parents be a little younger and sexier and instead of dementia could the dad maybe wield a machete of justice?” (That sounds kind of kick-ass actually). Not thinking about “making the film more marketable” during the writing and filming was just a personal choice of mine. It’s up to you to decide what your lines are, but be ready to live with them.
I did not get a single complaint about someone feeling bothered by my emails or social media posts.
7. You can do it with integrity
At first, I felt wildly unsettled about reaching out to members of the dementia caregiver community. They were dealing with a lot of suffering and grief. I worried that I would be perceived as some huckster knocking on their door, selling them something. But I got over it and decided to openly share my own story about my dad and let them know the film was coming from a place of experience, empathy, and love. That genuine spirit overrode everything—I did not get a single complaint about someone feeling bothered by my emails or social media posts. It seems like a no-brainer, but people want to hear about things that are of interest to them. You’re actually doing them a favor by telling them about it.
It is a fact: there are a lot of sleazy, amoral marketers out there. But you don’t have to be one. Through this process, I realized that marketing is only gross if I’m not providing something of value. If I believe in the film, I believe in getting it out there. Marketing is just a larger version of telling potentially interested people about something cool. It turns out that there’s no need to get all emo about it. Who knew?
What successful D.I.Y. marketing tactics have you used to promote your films? What didn't work as well? Let us know in the comments!