An independent film maker makes a film. They make a website or MySpace page for the film, send it out to some film festivals, send out some copies for review and then maybe a few press releases. The film itself may or may not be put up for sale on the website and the film maker either makes no effort at all or takes great pains to get a distribution deal. The end.
This is a pretty typical scenario for what happens with an independent film after it’s made, but what’s wrong with this picture? What’s wrong with it is that it’s indicitive of what’s wrong with the independent film industry as a whole, and what’s keeping independent films from gaining a wider audience. A distinct lack of creative marketing.
So what’s wrong with this approach? Oh man, where do I begin? Let’s take this step by step.
The first step in our little scenario is the right one, but with a caveat. Making a website and a MySpace page for your film are pretty much necessities. The website is necessary because that becomes the central hub for information about your film, while the MySpace page is a place where you can collect a like minded group of friends and disseminate all the latest information out to them. Now why can’t you just put that information on the website you may ask? Well, you should, but people aren’t going to go to your film’s website all the time just to get the latest info. They do tend to log into MySpace frequently though, and your latest news and information can be sent out in the form of bulletins, which everyone on your friends list will have access to. So essentially, both the website and the MySpace page have their place and their purpose.
There are however things to be aware of when creating these sites for your film. The primary thing you want to focus on is appearance, and the second providing as much information as possible and doing it in a way that’s easy for people to navigate and read through.
How many times have you gone to a MySpace page and found it to be totally unreadable because of some god awful theme someone applied to it? These modifications are completely unnecessary and will likely annoy people more than anything else. They’re visiting your page because they want to find out about your film. They’re not coming to see how tweaked out you can make your profile look. The default look of MySpace pages is readable and easy to navigate, so just leave it alone and focus more on the content. The same goes for web pages. How many times have you gone to a film’s website, only to find that the site looks hokey and amateurish? If you don’t have a nice looking, presentable website for your film, it’s not really going to inspire people to want to see it. So presentation is essential if you want to give people a good impression of your film.
Now, the second item in our little scenario is where the film makers send out copies of their film to film festivals and to review sites. We’ll talk about the review sites first.
While not a necessity, sending out little creative chachkis to the reviewers can sometimes buy you a little better review. Not because you sent out a bribe, but because the reviewers will often view your film with a little kinder eye if you’ve been creative in your packaging. For me personally, it doesn’t affect my reviews, as I generally paint a balanced picture of a film anyway, but it does create a good impression when a film maker actually puts some thought into their presentation. I’ve recieved things like rubber, glow in the dark eyeballs, stickers, etc… It’s all about marketing and making a good impression. A great press kit helps as well. A cd of the press kit is fine, but when you include a real press kit with detailed info about the film, photos, lobby cards, business cards or whatever, it makes you look a lot more professional and gives a better overall impression to the reviewer.
Something else you can do when sending films out for review, is to offer to send an extra copy or two along for the website or publication to give away in a contest. Basically, by spending a few extra bucks on sending out an extra copy or two (even autographed copies), you just bought yourself a whole lot of free publicity when those contests run.
Also, always be sure to offer yourself or members of your cast up for interviews. Again, minimal effort, no cost involved, and free publicity. Make sure you do a great job with your interview answers, and people will not only be far more interested in reading it, but also far more interested in seeing your movie.
As far as film festivals, wherever your film is showing, try to be there. Obviously it’s not possible to go to all of them, but the ones that are close enough for you to attend, go to them. Print up a bunch of promotional flyers about your film with information about it and your website addresses. Take business cards and hand them out to people. Print up lobby cards and leave them laying around wherever you can. It all helps to create a buzz about your film. Lloyd Kaufman is the master of self promotion. At last year’s It Came From Lake Michigan film festival, I don’t think there was any place in the building you couldn’t find flyers for his new film Poultrygeist tacked up. They even put flyers in the bathrooms! Was he there doing it himself? No. He had people doing it for him, which brings me to my next point. Because of the internet, many of us have friends all over the country. So if you have friends in places where your film will be showing at a film festival, buy them a ticket, send them some flyers or whatever promotional materials you have, and have them go in your place. Most people would be happy to go and hand out flyers for you as long as they got to go to the film festival for free.
Speaking of festivals, if you go to a festival to promote your film, make a big production out of it. If you make a zombie film, dress up as a zombie. If you make an erotic horror film, go to the festival with a hot sexy woman dressed to the nines glued to each arm and have them at your side everywhere you go so people will notice you. That’s not a bad idea in any case, but still, do whatever it takes to get yourself noticed.
Another thing you might consider, and this goes for any screening of your film, not just the festival ones, is to come up with a theater gimmick. Theater gimmicks were big back in the 50’s and early 60’s, but they’ve sort of become a lost art. When the movie The Tingler came out, starring Vincent Price, theater seats were rigged up to a vibration unit, which was then triggered at a key point in the film in order to scare the hell out of everyone. William Castle, for one of his films, would have a skeleton swoop down from the rafters to scare his audience. See if you can work out something with the festival organizers where you can do something to make your film a real experience for your audience. Not every film will naturally lend itself to theater gimmicks, but if you can work something in here and there, it really creates a fun experience for the audience, who will then tell their friends about your film and the great time they had watching it.
As for press releases, make them interesting. Who wants to read a boring old press release about your film being shown at such and such on such and such day and such and such time? They’ll be asleep before they get half way through it. As long as people are looking at your press release, really juice it up! Use it to get people excited about seeing your film. Use exciting words like amazing, astounding, greatest, marvel and whatever else you can think of. Even if your film isn’t really any of those things, associating those words with it will put people in that mind set and they’ll be more excited about seeing your film. Then again, if your film is a boring piece of dreck, it may leave people with an overly bad impression since you had built it up before hand, but it won’t matter really at that point as they wouldn’t have liked it in any case. You can come up with all the awesome marketing ideas you want, but a bad film is still a bad film.
Now, on to something that really bothers me. So many film makers make their films, and then do this big run around the festival circuit without making their film available for sale on their website. Now I ask you, what’s the point in that? Now why make a film if you’re not going to sell it so people can actually see what you’ve created? Also, if you’re showing it at film festivals but not actually selling copies of the film, then you’re missing out on a lot of potential sales. Your first priority before sending the film out to any festivals or for any reviews should be to make sure you have it available for sale on your website so people can actually buy the thing and you can see some financial return for all your hard work.
This brings me to distribution. Some people say they don’t want copies floating around out there because it could hurt their chances at getting a distribution deal. Ok, here’s the thing. Distribution deals seem to be shrouded in secrecy for some reason. I’ve asked many people about their deals and very few have been willing to give any real details. Why? I have no clue, but from what I gather, the deals they get aren’t very lucrative. So to be honest, it seems to me that many people would be better off just getting a run of production discs burned and packaged so they can self distribute. Think of all the sales you’re missing out on while you go after that ever elusive distribution deal that won’t give you all that much of a return anyway. Sure you won’t have the discs out in a bunch of chain stores, but considering the number of discs available in every chain store out there, your film would likely get lost in the shuffle anyway. It’s better in the long run to focus on a target audience and really drive the sales home to those who are the most likely to buy your film.
Think of it this way. Getting distribution and having your film in chain stores or even being sold through the distributor’s website is like being one piece of candy in a box of candy. Your film becomes just one of many and often gets little more than a casual glance as people dig through the bargain bins looking for something cool to spend their hard earned money on. However, if you self distribute, come up with a good and creative marketing plan and focus solely on a target audience that would be receptive to your film, then you get people’s attention. You become the only piece of candy in the box for the moment the people are reading your marketing material. Hoe creative your marketing material is will determine if you’re a gooey nut cluster or one of those icky ones that people bite into and then spit out right away with a look of disgust.
Another thing to consider when making the decision whether or not to go after a distribution deal, is that while many distributors differ on how much information they’ll give you about sales and such. Some just pay you a flat sum of money for the rights to distribute your film and then once the deal is made, you’re out of the loop. They may tell you where it’s being sold, but often you won’t get any sales reports or anything else so you can know how your film is doing. This of course varies by distributor and whatever deal you manage to strike with them, but if you self distribute, then not only are you making the money from the sales, but you know where those sales are going, and can better tweak your marketing plan according to your sales records. You’ll be able to determine what’s working, what’s not working, what parts of the country you should focus on more, etc… By tracking your own sales and reaping the rewards of your hard work, it’ll leave you in a much better position, both financially and marketing-wise when it comes time to make and release your next film. You’ll also be able to compile a list of potential customers for your next film’s release that you’ll be able to send press releases to.
Now, that covers the items in our common scenario. Let’s move on to some other marketing ideas people can use to get their films seen and generate sales.
Colleges are a great place to market your film. Especially if you can arrange a showing of your film at a local theater or some other venue. Hell, you may even be able to make arrangements to show it at a local bar or club. In fact, that would be even better, and likely cheaper for you if you arrange a cover charge and then make an arrangement with the bar that you keep the cover charge and in exchange you’ll bring in a lot of extra business, and if the extra numbers don’t make up a certain number, then you’ll share part of the cover charge with the bar. The arrangements are really up to you to work out and can be done on a case by case basis, but usually some equitable agreement can be reached. Once the arrangements have been made, start plastering college bulletin boards with flyers for your screening. Keep the price low so college kids can afford it. Five dollars per ticket would seem to be a reasonable ticket price. You want to make money, but you don’t want to put people off by charging too much, so five bucks for a movie and a great night out with your friends at the bar doesn’t seem unreasonable. Remember, customize your marketing materials to your target audience. College kids who hang out in bars will more likely be impressed by something that sounds cheesy and pop culturish. So whenever possible, whatever your film is, try to frame it in a light that will entice your target audience to come see it.
If you do manage to arrange a screening, turn it into an event. Talk to the local free entertainment papers and see if they’d like to cover it and give you some advance publicity. Talk to the local radio stations and see if they’d like to do a remote from wherever the film is being shown. Especially if it’s at a club. It’s great for the station, because it’s a special event remote, it’s great for the club because it’ll bring in business, and it’s great for you because it’s free publicity. Really selling yourself to the station as a local film maker and espousing to them the benefits to everyone involved may help your chances. If you do try to arrange something with a radio station for coverage of the event, make sure you focus on stations that have an audience similar to yours. If you made a horror movie, focus on rock stations. If you made an urban gang film, focus on hip hop stations. If you made some sappy love story or some heavy drama, you can try to get an easy listening station involved, but typically they don’t do stuff like that, so you’re kind of out of luck on that one. Those types of movies generally won’t attract large numbers of people to screenings anyway unless they’re really something incredible and have a lot of buzz around them to start with.
Aside from the radio stations and the local free entertainment papers, it never hurts to contact the entertainment editors at the local newspapers to see if you can get some coverage from them as well. If you’re lucky, they’ll do a piece on your screening in their "What’s going on this week?" section, or whatever it happens to be called in their particular publication. Hell, they might even be interested in doing an interview with you about it. It nev
r hurts to ask.
Another local avenue for getting your film out there is to sell it at swap meets and flea markets. Go set up a table and put out copies of your film and the marketing materials you have available. Even if you sell only a few copies the first week, if your film is good and you keep going back, word of mouth may get you an increased number of sales in the following weeks.
If you have the money to buy a UPC code for your film, you can always try to get it sold through Amazon.com, or other retail outlets. You’ll have to look into the method for making those arrangements as getting into all that is beyond the scope of this article, but from what I recall, I believe they require a UPC code, which can be expensive to obtain. Personally, I would only find this option to be worth it if the film had a lot of buzz and a large number of sales could be made by aquiring the UPC code. If you don’t think the potential sales would offset the costs, then I would recommend skipping it. Again, selling through Amazon is like having your DVD on a shelf with millions of others. It just becomes lost in the shuffle. Still, as I said though, if there’s a lot of buzza, and depending on the film and how it’s marketed, it might end up being worth it.
Something else you can look into is the local cable market. Cable companies have public access channels just for people like you! Contact your local cable providers and see if you can make arrangements to have your film shown on the public access channel. If you are able to have your movie shown, be sure you promote the hell out of it so people know when and where it’ll be on. Also make sure to include a title at the end of the movie with the website info, so if people like it, they can go order themselves a copy.
One last avenue you could explore is getting your film into the Netflix or Blockbuster mail rental systems. Again, I’m not sure about the process for doing this, and I’m sure it varies between the two. Just research it and see if it’s a viable option for you. I have known independent film makers who have gotten their films into Netflix, so it is doable. The problem with doing this though, is that if people can rent your film, that will cut down on the number of potential sales. Then again, this could be offset by Netflix or Blockbuster buying a large number of copies of your film, and could lead to future potential sales to people who got your film, liked it and want a copy for themselves. The huge benefit of going this route is simply the exposure. Your film would be easily accessible to anyone across the country with a Netflix or Blockbuster account. And isn’t that one of the real reasons you make films in the first place? I mean, aside from the money aspect of it all, the core motivation for most people is that they want their movie to be seen by lots of people. That’s why this would be a potentially great option for some films, because you get both money and exposure.
The only real limits to your marketing strategies is your own imagination. There are a million and one cost effective ways to get your product out there, get it sold and get it seen. It’s just a matter of being creative and really focusing in on your target demographic. Hopefully I’ve given you at least a few ideas an helpful suggestions on how to do that. The rest is up to you. Just remember, the best marketing strategies are the ones that get noticed. So get out there and get yourself noticed!