It’s sad that so many good films never get beyond the festival circuit. They get a buzz, some nice reviews, maybe even win an award, but they don’t get distribution deals and then they disappear, never to be seen again. Many filmmakers still think that their job is finished when the film is done, that it’s somebody else’s job to promote it. That’s where they’re wrong.
I’m writing this in a noisy hotel lobby at the Americana Music Association festival/conference in Nashville. It’s a market, like film festivals used to be, where music buyers and music sellers meet and try to do business.
In the music business, the major record labels have imploded, radio doesn’t have the impact that it once did, physical record sales are at the lowest point in 40 years, no single distribution platform has emerged to take the place of CDs, live performance is a more significant source of income than recordings, and artists are learning to do everything for themselves.
But in the film world, many people still think it’s still 1994, when Kevin Smith got into Sundance with Clerks and his career was launched. A surprising number of filmmakers spend a lot of time and money applying to Sundance, Tribeca, Toronto International, SXSW, and the other major festivals — at $50 to $100 a pop — only to receive rejection after rejection.
The problem for filmmakers is that festivals are overwhelmed with entries (Sundance received more than 10,000 this year; SXSW about 6,000), but have become accustomed to the steady cash flow from submission fees funneled through Withoutabox, the online engine for festival submissions. The further problem is that festivals aren’t very honest about the number of slots that are “curated” — a nice way of saying they are promised to producers’ reps and sales agents with whom festival programmers have ongoing relationships. I have it on good authority that fewer than a dozen of the 120 slots at Sundance 2012 were actually picked from open submissions.
Troubadour Blues got into only one festival, the Buffalo International Film Festival, and that primarily because the film’s central subject, Peter Case, is FROM Buffalo. It seems you have to have a big name, a gimmick, an inside track, or all three, to win festival acceptances, and the market just keeps getting more glutted every year. I finally grew tired of reading rejection letters, even the polite ones (“We loved your film, but we received so many deserving entries this year and we just didn’t have room…”). I decided that my money would be better spent buying my own projector and screen, and my time would be better spent on the road, booking and promoting my own screenings. I summarized my experiences in a previous post.
I’ll be the first to admit that I am no expert on the subject of marketing and distribution, but I’ve learned a lot through ten months of trial and error. Continuing in the spirit of the past two blogs, here are some of my observations about marketing/distribution on an extremely limited budget.
Timeliness Is Everything. People in the digital age are like overstimulated kittens; content creators dangle colorful bits of yarn in front of them in hopes of catching their attention, but they quickly lose interest until some new sparkly bit comes along. The two to three months after your film comes out is the best chance you’ll get to promote it. Reviewers are interested because it’s fresh; consumers want to be the first of their friends to have it. Forget what you’ve heard about the “long tail” — jump on every promotional opportunity you can get as soon as your film is available to the public. The story hook about your film when it first comes out is that it’s new; after the first three months you’ll have to reinvent your promotional campaign along different lines.
When Troubadour Blues first came out I had no problem getting press coverage, DVD sales were brisk, and screening opportunities were plentiful. The initial buzz quickly wore off, and I had to start hitting the road, touring the film in earnest. Now that I’ve been doing this awhile, I’m finding that journalists are getting interested in my story — a guy who made a film about hard-traveling musicians, now on the road with his own projector and screen promoting the film at music clubs, house concerts and church basements. This provides a new story hook to pitch to journalists and reviewers.
The New Fifty-Fifty. Probably the most important single concept in Jon Reiss’s great book, Think Outside the Box Office, is the rule that you should plan on spending the same amount of time and money promoting your film as you did making it. I look at this sort of like the Golden Rule, something to stretch myself and reach for — I spent 10 years and $30,000 making Troubadour Blues, and I just don’t have that much time or money to promote it.
However, “The New 50/50” is certainly going to dictate how I raise and spend money for Don’t Give Up Your Day Job, my followup film. Again, this goes against the grain for us DIY filmmakers, who are so accustomed to cutting corners and saving money, but it’s the reality. As my distribution consultant Peter Broderick told me on more than one occasion, you can make a film by yourself, but to distribute it you need a team. In my case, I have teamed up with a sales agent, Dan Gurlitz, who pitched the film to distribution companies. We’re currently reviewing an offer from a distributor with a strong focus on music-related videos, who can get this film into places that I can’t on my own.
You Can’t Have Too Much Advertising. My experiences in this area have been hit-or-miss, with more misses than hits. What I’ve learned is that advertising only works if you’re prepared to do a lot of it; two or three ads, even in highly targeted publications, don’t seem to do the trick. I used to think of advertising as persuasive communication (as a longtime teacher of rhetoric and communication, I’ve been conditioned to think this way) — someone sees your ad, thinks “I’m going to like this,” and takes action by buying a ticket or DVD.
Now I’ve come to think of advertising in much less rational terms. Advertising helps build the natural buzz that occurs when your film is first released, so you’ve got to hit consumers on multiple platforms at the same time — that way, people will see it everywhere and start to think “this is worth paying attention to.” Unfortunately, this costs money; my incremental strategy (buy an ad whenever I have enough money in the bank account) hasn’t given me enough simultaneous exposure to be helpful. As hard as this is for us hand-to-mouth filmmakers, you’ve got to set money aside for an initial advertising blitz, or find businesses within your film’s ecosystem that will sponsor co-op ads with you.
Ecosystem? What’s That? The ecosystem of a film is the network of groups and individuals that you think you can count on for support. I’ve included an illustration of mine below; it includes groups that exist to support folk/roots music, markets where the music has a strong following, artists who appear in the film and their fans, and so on.
The connections grow weaker as you move down from row to row. Ideally, each cell in your ecosystem will represent a small network of interested people who are connected by some organizing device, such as an e-mail list or Facebook group, to facilitate communication. The idea of the ecosystem is that it represents, again ideally, a ready-made audience or support system for your film. I wish I had paid more attention to refining mine; as I look at it more than a year later, I feel that I’ve missed some important connections and hope I can revisit them.
Strengths and Weakness of Social Networks. My networks on Twitter and Facebook are slightly different. On Twitter, I’m mainly connected with fellow professionals (filmmakers, musicians, and industry types). On Facebook, my network is more skewed toward personal friends. I use both regularly and make sure to alternate between posts related to the film itself (screening dates, special deals at my web store) and posts related to the larger world of troubadours. I keep an eye out for news related to the artists — somebody wins an award, puts out a new album, appears on the Letterman show — and I publicize them in hopes that they will return the favor. Most have been very generous about this.
I did not have much success with paid advertising on Facebook, which seems to be very good for building brand awareness by getting users to “like” a page or “join” an event, but not so good at converting clicks into actual purchases. I spent $300 (admittedly, not a huge amount) on a month-long campaign on Facebook, targeted toward users whose tastes run to folk/Americana/roots music. I only recorded two sales attributable to the ad. It’s not that people are clicking the ad and then not buying once they arrive at my e-store — they are just not clicking.
Out of more than a million total impressions, only 360 people clicked the ad. Only a few of those stuck around and visited other pages on my site. And it’s not a particular ad design, because I changed it every four or five days during the campaign. Facebook just doesn’t seem to work for generating retail sales. Since the campaign ended, I’ve read in several marketing blogs that people log on to “hang out” and catch up with friends, not to click ads, and that users don’t tend to follow links more than one or two clicks outside of Facebook.
That’s about it for now. In the coming months I plan to re-focus on promoting the film via live screenings in markets that I haven’t visited yet (most importantly, New York and Washington DC) and in important markets where I haven’t had much of an impact yet (Boston, Nashville, Austin and Los Angeles). I’ve temporarily stopped taking comments because of a large volume of spam, but I’d be glad to hear from readers via e-mail. It’s email@example.com.