Marketing indie films: marketing starts with the product

Epistemic status: These are UNTESTED and speculative assertions on my beliefs about how people choose what to watch, as I think through marketing my first feature film. Thoughtful feedback is welcome.Average films won’t break through.

You can’t out-average Netflix. They have a giant factory for making average films and TV that average people want.

The average person that is sitting at home with average wine mainlining average entertainment products into their eyeballs DOES NOT GIVE A FUCK about your indie movie, especially if it’s average.

So the product can’t be average. It has to be new or smart or different in some way so as to distinguish itself from the existing mass of movies. People who are looking for something new don’t want an average movie.

If you’re Hollywood, you can make a mediocre movie and spend $10-50 million marketing it and convince people to go to it (within limits of course).

Since you have almost no money for marketing, you cannot do this. The film itself must be compelling to generate word of mouth, to get people to share it with their friends.

Therefore, the your film must be remarkable in some way. It must be original or bold or daring or new, or it must have something to say about the culture (that isn’t being said elsewhere). It must be something that is hard to find elsewhere. It must be something that people will want to tell their friends about (see above).

Ideally, it will have some or all of the following:

  • Great writing.
  • Great story.
  • Great characters.
  • Something to say (about the culture or the world).
  • Saying it with style (voice).
  • Cinematography doesn’t matter, but images do.
  • Something new.

More on how to identify and reach an audience later. I invite you to contact me with thoughtful feedback or questions.

Marketing indie films: how do people choose which films to watch?

Epistemic status: These are UNTESTED and speculative assertions on my beliefs about how people choose what to watch, as I think through marketing my first feature film. Thoughtful feedback is welcome.

Most people want the average thing, they don’t want the new or good thing. If they want the new thing, it’s the average new thing, the kind of new thing they already like. They want a new flavor of Oreo, not a new paradigm for consuming flavor.

Most people have high opportunity costs when making entertainment decisions. Many alternatives exist: the known quantity sitcom that can be re-watched for the xth time, the new same safe content, video games, VR, sex1.

The algorithms will not save you.

Most people are not willing to make risky choices for high upside / high chance of failure entertainment decisions. These people, the masses, they’re not your market, ignore them completely.

Spontaneous discovery is almost impossible in a crowded field. Because of the higher time investment, it takes more work to overcome a potential movie viewer’s objections or resistance.

You need to target a smaller group of people. You can call them cinephiles or neophiles2.

People look for signals of quality in their buying/watching decisions:

  • Names involved (known actors or director). Occasionally a known distributor (A24).
  • Critical approval.
  • Festival/gatekeeper approval (must be a name-brand festival: Sundance, Toronto, SXSW, Cannes, Tribeca, Berlin).
  • Word of mouth.
  • Distribution platform***

These are all signals that can convince the right person to watch a film, if you can get in front of them. Signals may increase reach but they are not guaranteed to increase reach.

Names are the most powerful and often enough to sell a movie internationally.

Critical approval provides social proof and aids in the purchase decision, but probably isn’t powerful enough to overcome a bad trailer. Critics are only influential with a small group of movie-watchers.

Critics only mean something if they have an audience OR they write for a publication with brand equity.

Critics with large podcast or online audiences can be influential. Local critics for small publications might look good on the poster but are unlikely to send a lot of people to your movie.

Word of mouth means hearing good things about a movie from friends or people on Twitter or other sources that you trust (with movie recommendations). Word of mouth is essential because it’s free.

What you want: people to watch your film and think “holy fuck, my friends need to see this.”

Even better: “holy fuck, MY ONE FRIEND WHO LIKES THIS SPECIFIC KIND OF THING NEEDS TO SEE THIS.”

If your film isn’t inspiring this kind of reaction, then either a) it’s not good enough to generate word of mouth or b) you’re not reaching the right people.

Word of mouth has to do with status and belonging.

When someone recommends something it can raise or lower their status. Recommendations have to do with taste and people who have taste in films recognize that their status is in play when they recommend something.

Word of mouth is also about belonging: people want to share cultural experiences with others. If your film makes people want to talk about the film, then your film will be better with others, i.e. more likely to be shared (“watch this so we can talk about it”).

If enough people within a subgroup are talking about something, a film can exponentially spread as everyone wants to be part of the conversation. When this happens on a nationwide level, you get Game of Thrones.

Focus on a small subgroup or subculture or a narrow audience band.

***Distribution. Distribution has lots of ***asterisks*** around it because it CAN be a signal of quality or it can be just a means of transmitting data. Filmmakers sometimes get confused and think that distribution is marketing and that’s why distribution is dangerous.

Most distributors do not do any marketing.

The distributors that do do marketing are not sitting around thinking about innovative ways to market your indie film. They are going through well-worn paths that sometimes work and sometimes don’t. They have a portfolio of films and they are playing the odds and hoping for a breakout.

That being said… A film landing on HBO is a signal of quality. A film landing on iTunes is not. Netflix is somewhere in the middle — it’s certainly prestigious but it’s not a guarantee that people will watch. The thing is, your microbudget indie isn’t getting onto a prestige platform unless it has a lot of the other quality signals already.

There’s another factor that’s a little different: genre.

Genre brings a set of expectations about the story/style/tone that certain audiences will immediately recognize and be interested in. Some neophiles are only looking for the new film within x genre (the new horror).

Horror is the genre with the most devoted and passionate fans and thus the easiest to work within. Pure drama (i.e. drama without any genre conventions) is the absolute hardest to market (even Hollywood has trouble doing it with huge names and huge budgets).3

Ideally, you would have all of these factors working in your favor.

I invite you to contact me with thoughtful feedback or questions.


  1. Just kidding, the only people who still have sex do it quickly to get it out of the way so they can go back to watching TV 

  2. Even these narrow bands should not be targeted en masse — the person looking for the new horror film is different from the one looking for the new comedy or doc, and even those genre-level bands are probably far too broad to target meaningfully. 

  3. Also, a lot of ‘dramas’ are quite boring and completely lacking in any actual theatrical drama. They’re just dramas in the sense that they’re not comedies or thrillers or whatever, and I’m sorry if you happen to spend 90 minutes with a dramaless ‘drama’ I feel your pain 

The long dark winter of the edit

Blessed without a day job I’ve had hours upon hours to sit with my movie and polish the cut. The days blend together. I think I was sick a few weeks ago. Or was that last week? My birthday was a month ago and I’m not sure what I did that day or night.

I was thinking today, why does it get harder as you get closer to being done? There’s the sort of obvious answer, which is that it’s scary to ship stuff. It’s scary to say “here, this is it.” Much easier to say “this is the rough cut, what do you think?”

But I think there’s a practical (and unavoidable) reason why the last 20% takes 80% of the time.

It’s like when you go to the ophthalmologist1 and she’s flipping back and forth, number one or number two, how about four, that’s four, now five, etc.

It gets harder with each level because the difference is more noticeable, she’s tacking in from a wide chasm to a narrow one so each step gets progressively harder to detect a difference. When you can’t tell the difference anymore, that’s your prescription.

So movies. At the beginning, there’s lots of fast progress. You start the day and you have no scene and then a few hours later you have a scene. It’s not done necessarily but you took it from 0 to 0.8 in a day.

And then as you get deeper in, the changes become finer. It’s harder to tell the difference. Is it better this way or that way? How can I tell, I’ve been looking at this for days, maybe I’ll send it to a friend to see what they think.

All of this and the quality approaches a local maxima, an asymptote, as close as necessary to perfect.

And as you reach the asymptote, you start to question: are we really there? Is it done or do I just want it to be done?


  1. just realized I’ve been misspelling that as “opthamologist” my whole life 

Newsletter: Berlin + Feature Film Update

Reposted from today’s newsletter:

It’s December and for most Chicagoans that means turning inward to look deep inside ourselves and ask the age-old question: am I really going to do this fucking winter thing again?

“No! No, I am not!” I declared to myself while waiting for Amazon autoplay to kick in the next episode of Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

I am going somewhere that is two degrees warmer on average, slightly less windy, but even grayer and rainier. That place is Berlin and I hear that it is NOT lovely this time of year. I don’t care. Coffee tastes better in the winter. And it’s a great time to GET STUFF DONE.

Anyway, I’m going for a month.

// still-untitled feature film update

I spent a weekend in November in NYC with Anna, the editor. The movie is like almost there. I screened a rough cut for some friends this week and the consensus was “it’s like almost there, but here’s 20 things you should think about or change.”

So, back to editing. ETA is still TBD but looking at Q2 FY2019.

Also, I’m really proud of this movie! It’s really weird! I’m still very shocked but eternally grateful that my friends read the script and said “we should make this.” I think half of doing anything big is just having friends who will shrug their shoulders and say “yeah, why not?”

Here’s a picture of the production from when it was summer:

(photo by Jeanne Donegan)

Have you seen The Favourite yet? It’s so so funny. And good.

That first assembly

I just got the first cut of my feature film this week from the editor in NY.

I still don’t have a title so it’s called Dinner Party. Still untitled. It’s a rough assembly of the first 32 minutes.

Watching rough cuts, especially that first one, is never really pleasant. Mostly I was dreading it, dreading that it would be bad or stupid or terrible or a waste. That’s self-doubt of course, but the fear is real. Sometimes what you make is not good.

Some of it works really well, some of it needs work. I’m relieved. It’s going to be OK. With a lot of work, it might be better than OK or perhaps good or very good or excellent or even great. I won’t know until we put in the work.

Better ugly than dull

One of the big takeaways from making this first feature film was that everything about budget and production can be questioned. I think that everyone knows this. That you can just say fuck it and do it low-budget, but then when you try to do it and get people on board, a lot of people get scared that they won’t have enough resources.

I found that a lot of the cinematographers we talked to, all of them excellent, were approaching the low-budget film from the starting place of a high- or medium-budget indie film. For instance, they were thinking that you just do a scaled-down version of stuff and we wanted someone to come at it from a completely different approach. We kind of had to figure this out along the way and realized that we were framing and positioning the value proposition of working on this film in the wrong way.

We wanted someone to look at it as an opportunity to experiment and use the camera in interesting ways, to create a different kind of beauty. Not the kind of beauty of just beautiful images, but the beauty of using the camera poetically or creatively in new ways.

For me it was about this: that making something dull would be tragic, but making something ugly would be acceptable. And the choice between making it purely beautiful in an aesthetic sense would mean more time, more crew, and of course more money. In other words, it was a choice between making the film now or waiting months or even a year to make it, while we raised more money.

I was in part inspired by The Celebration, which I watched for the first time in the months before production. Visually you could say that it’s ugly. It’s shot on video and it’s very grainy, especially at night when the ISO is ramped up. They used only practical lighting, no outside lighting equipment. And it shows. But, it’s also one of the most intense, grab-you-by-the-throat films I’ve seen in the past few years. The camera is wild and maniacal and the story is incredibly emotional and gut wrenching (and hilarious at times). I would much rather watch something emotionally powerful than sterile and pretty.

In the end, we did end up with some gorgeous shots. But more importantly for me, we got some emotionally charged pictures. One of the final images of the film, which I can’t talk about yet, is one of the best shots I’ve ever captured. If it works the way I intended, then it will be the kind of image that resonates and stays with the audience long after they’ve watched the film.

I haven’t started editing yet, so I don’t really have a good sense of how well the film will come together, but I’m confident that it will not be boring.

Wrapped on my first feature film

We wrapped a week ago. My first feature film as a writer/director/anything. The working title is Dinner Party Movie and that will definitely be changing.

It’s the most difficult thing I’ve done, the most I’ve ever given myself over to a singular pursuit — six weeks of intense commitment, devoted almost entirely to the single endeavor of making the film. And of course there was much work before that.

 

We shot 71 pages in 10 days, doing 8-10 hour days. And yes, there were some actual 8-hour days in there, which is hard to believe. Most people assume that an indie production will be 12-hour days, which I don’t really believe is sustainable for more than two or three days. The work will start to suffer and attitudes will sour, and then the culture will start to break down. At least that was my fear — we never really pushed it except for a single 12-hour day in the 2nd week.

 

People have asked me if it was “fun” and I always laugh and say no, no it was not fun, at least that’s not the first word that I’d use. Yes, there were moments of fun and joy and laughter and all that, every day. Making it with friends meant it was an infinitely more rewarding and relaxing experience. But, it was intensely overwhelming, stressful, and mentally and physically exhausting. Joyful yes, fun no.

 

The biggest difference between directing a short and a feature: I felt my role was much less about directing each scene with precision, but rather about steering the whole project in the right direction, tone management, making sure that each piece would fit into the larger whole — about seeing and feeling how the whole film would cut together, constantly cutting and re-cutting it in my head.

 

I learned that we can question just about everything related to production and budget. The going rates for things are always negotiable. You don’t need x number of crew. Most crew positions can be done without. Everyone knows this and yet hardly anyone really believes it or is willing to follow the premise to its conclusions and make something this way.

 

People told me that I was very calm and relaxed on set. Outwardly, I suppose I was. I’m not frantic and I didn’t yell or snipe at people. Inwardly, my God, a different story. I was waking up in the middle of the night panicked, waking up with crushing doubts about myself and the material, and often feeling like a complete failure.

Then there were the highest of highs, times when I felt like the work was very good and that the final product would be very good, and then I’d wade back into another eddy of anxiety and depression and back and forth for two weeks.

 

There were many moments of fun, joy, happiness, and excitement. But I could always feel the bear behind me. And now, to be free from the bear, is a sweet sweet feeling.

 

The weekend before production

We start filming on Monday. It’s a 10-day production, over the next two weeks, with the weekend off.

This week has been a whirlwind of last-minute prop pick-ups, phone calls, meetings, waiting to hear back from rental houses and friends about what we can use and how much it will cost. Yesterday I spent the afternoon finalizing the shot list and our approach with the cinematographer, Zoe.

And of course, Costco:

We spent $406 on crafty and supplies and hopefully that lasts the whole two weeks. Most people understand that working on a micro-budget indie film means that they’re not going to get paid a lot and I am dearly grateful for their contributions. But you have to feed them! I try to get healthier options but the producer reminded me that some people like to eat gluten and sugar.

We got to the coffee section at Costco and were severely disappointed. I’ve never had Kirkland-brand coffee1 but I’m incredibly skeptical.

I found reviews online and it’s well-reviewed on Amazon but I started reading the reviews and they were all people saying “I used to drink Maxwell House and switched to Kirkland and it’s just as good!!!” So, no. Besides, I believe that even if Kirkland coffee was just as good as, I don’t know, Metric, it wouldn’t matter. The branding does affect the flavor.

But it doesn’t matter because we lucked out — the producer, Josh, emailed all of the local Chicago roasters and one of them finally got back to us — Metropolis is donating a 5lb bag to the production! That’s some seriously good coffee and I’m really overjoyed.

Part of making a movie, in my mind, is about the culture you create on set. Little things like having good coffee ready for people in the morning, they go a long way. Movie making is hard work. It’s really hard. But it’s not some crazy ritual of suffering — it’s a lot of fucking fun, or at least should be. Yeah, there are a lot of down times and yes, there are painful compromises at every turn (when you don’t have money), but there’s a real joy to working incredibly hard with a tight group of 10-15 people for two weeks straight. But, you better have some good coffee.

One compromise we made was not having a full-time makeup person on set, which led me to my first purchase of makeup, a jar of Laura Mercier translucent powder. The makeup person recommended it. Basically, you need to keep the actors’ faces from looking shiny on camera and this creates a matte look on their faces.

I was re-reading my dog-eared pages in Werner Herzog’s book and he said that he likes to carry a small makeup kit with him whenever he directs so that he can touch up an actor before a take if he feels like the actor needs a little more time to get ready, not unlike a baseball umpire dusting off the plate as a courtesy to a catcher after taking a foul ball to the body.

Besides saving money, going the DIY route with makeup saves time.

We’re taking the approach that if this film succeeds, it will succeed on story, performance, and interesting visual storytelling. It will not succeed because of breathtaking-ly beautiful imagery, incredibly meticulous set design, or high production value. Not that we don’t want it to look good. And I think we are going to deliver some truly striking images, but my goal is to move the audience with emotion, not abstract beauty.

My living room has been transformed into a holding pen for all of our props, crafty, and some lighting and grip equipment.

OK, I gotta make some last-minute rewrites and then load all that stuff into my car and drop it off at the location. We’re setting up the location house today and tomorrow, and maybe even stealing a few establishing or non-talent shots, then a table read tomorrow afternoon, and hopefully a few free hours to do my laundry and cook some food for the week.

Bang on, as my English friend says.

And thank you to all the people who have offered material and emotional support, lent us gear, gave us honest feedback and good advice, encouraged us, and said “yes” when others said “no.”


  1. the Costco store brand 

The Party (2017)

I watched The Party tonight. No, not the Peter Sellers one, although I love that movie, but a different one made in 2017.

A single-location stageplay film, like the one I’m directing later this month. I really enjoyed this. Good rhythm and loved the use of the wide-angle lenses, makes for really interesting depth of shots and brings you close to the characters.

And it made me feel a lot better about shooting in a single location — this film takes places in a single house and most of the action is in the living room. My film has the same basic parameters but it’s actually spread around the house more. Yes, I guess it can feel claustrophobic, but at 72 minutes or so, it wasn’t an issue.

Coming down the home stretch. Casting is wrapped. Cinematographer is on board. Location is signed and paid for.

I went to Fedex to print a copy of the script and put it in a binder. I like working with a paper script so I can annotate it and put all the notes in the margins, the notes that I’ve been collecting off and on for the last few years, since I started writing the script in 2015.

I went back and looked at my first draft from 2015 and much of the dialogue is the same, although much has changed. Kind of amazing how much from the first draft stayed though, like an almost fully-formed film just came out of me. OK, that’s an exaggeration, I did have an outline.

And the story as it is now, takes places at one location — an upper-middle-class home in Chicago (we’re filming in Ravenswood). The original script was split between the story at this house, and another two characters that are on their way to the dinner party at the house. In 2016 I split those characters off into their own screenplay, so in a way, I have a little cinematic universe going on. Maybe for the sequel…

A day after printing the script, I was already changing things. The writing never stops (and how I look forward to starting fresh on something new when this is over).

 

Also went to Bed, Bath, and Beyond to pick up this Global chef’s knife. Good knives are expensive apparently. This guy was $124 before the mandatory 20% discount. I should return it but maybe I’ll keep it — I’ve never owned a really good (and sharp) cooking knife.





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