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 

How much should indie films spend on marketing?

Most low-budget film producers, we typically reserve about $100 for marketing. In other words, whatever, if anything, is left over at the end.

It struck me the other day that a Hollywood film will probably spend 40-50% of the production budget on marketing.

So a $100 million movie will have $40-50 million spent on marketing. I don’t have actual figures so I might be well off but I think I’m in the ballpark there.

The equivalent would be a $100k indie film spending $40-50k on marketing. I don’t think anyone does that — maybe some distributors?

The marketing plan for most low-budget films seems to be:

  1. Get into a good festival
  2. Get a distributor
  3. Profit

The problem with this is that the distributor might not do any real marketing. They might not even know how to or they might just not care. We could argue about whether this is a good business strategy, but it’s almost certainly not a good strategy for the individual filmmaker.

The alternative, I think, is to do the marketing yourself. To figure out who will want to see your film and how to reach them and then how to create tension so that they want to pay money to watch your film.

I say “I think” because I haven’t done it yet, I haven’t tested it yet. I don’t know if it works. But I do know that spending a ton of money to reach a narrow audience is neither smart nor feasible.

So, how to spend $5k to get back $7.5k? And how to scale that to $50k or $100k?

If we can figure this out, we can make movies sustainably. We’ll see.

What is suspense?

Epistemic status: This is an attempt to write down what I think I know and understand about suspense — it’s a bit of a work in progress and I’ll update it as I think about it more. I’m writing it down and putting it out into the internet because it forces me to clarify and organize my thinking around this thing which I think is essential and yet often overlooked when it comes to how we talk about how to write.

For whatever reason, suspense seems to be thought of as a genre in of itself or a genre element reserved mainly for thrillers and mysteries.

For me, it’s an essential element of storytelling, something baked into the foundation of a good story — a prerequisite, a necessary condition.

Suspense is about keeping the reader wanting to keep on reading (or watching).

If boredom is the death of a story and interest is the opposite, then suspense is the emotional state of the interested reader or viewer.

Creating suspense means to put the audience in a suspended state, an incomplete state.

Human beings feel anxiety or tension when something is uncertain, undecided, or mysterious.

You can think of suspense as a kind of open loop. When you open the loop, the audience feels suspense that is not resolved until the loop is closed.

Suspense is an emotional state that can only be resolved by finding out what happens, by answering the question, by closing the loop.

Stories make a kind of promise.

When a loop is opened in a story, there’s an implicit promise that it will be closed by the end of the story. If you don’t close the loop, the audience will leave with unresolved tension, and possibly anger at being misled, or contempt at having the loop/promise closed in a way that is unsatisfying (deus ex machina or just shitty writing).

An unresolved loop can compel the audience to return next week (as in a cliffhanger) or just drive them nuts (as in an ending that doesn’t resolve enough).

Suspense is created by drawing the audience’s attention to something.

A woman looking at a tree feels nothing, but if you tell her that the tree could fall at any moment, she will be in a state of suspense: her mind will be focused on the possibility of the tree falling and the state will not be resolved until the tree falls or something happens to resolve her suspended state (e.g. convincing her that you were just kidding or that actually the tree won’t fall, of putting up a support to prevent the tree from falling).

To create suspense, you have to draw the audience’s attention to some uncertainty, mystery, or undecided outcome.

Two detectives looking at a dead body: one says that it’s on overdose. The other one says “no, I think it’s murder.”

Creating suspense similar to positioning in advertising or marketing, where you can change how someone feels about something just by pointing something out or posing them a question. Suspense has this in common with marketing: it’s about tension, tension that propels people towards action (buy this thing, keep reading, keep watching, etc.)

Sports have suspense built in naturally: who will win the game? Will the shot go into the goal?

But unlike stories, sports are only suspenseful in real time. If you know the outcome, watching a game is boring. How many people re-watch their favorite games vs. how many people re-watch their favorite movies?

[I’m still trying to figure out why stories are so different from sporting events when it comes to spoilers. People have been watching Hamlet for centuries and we all know what happens and how it happens, but there’s still something rewarding about going through it again.]

Sports are illustrative in another way: the uncertainty of an outcome isn’t enough to create suspense. You have to care who wins. The biggest, most improbably comeback in cricket is utterly boring to me. I can’t care about it, no matter how much I try. You couldn’t pay me to care about it.

So, stories need to open up a suspense loop, but they also need to make you care about what’s going to happen.

I think that people over-emphasize the role of character in how much we care. It’s not that character doesn’t matter, it’s just that it isn’t essential to creating a compelling story.

Certain story genres have suspense built in — mystery, thrillers, noirs. That’s why we associate suspense with those genres, but dramas and comedies and everything else need to keep the audience interested.

A body is found and the detective says it’s a murder but you don’t know who committed it.

But suspense isn’t confined to media — we use it all the time when we tell each other stories or gossip:

Someone says “did you hear about Jane?” or “did you hear about Jane’s relationship?” This can hook someone into a conversation or story much better than saying “Jane got divorced.”

A story about Jane’s divorce can have many suspense loops open.

The loops can be chained together or nested.

A chained loop goes like this:

  • Did you hear about Jane? [No, what happened?]
  • She got a divorce, but you won’t believe why. [Now I want to know why + the details].
  • Well it started when her husband found a box of fireworks in her garage. [Opens multiple new loops: why were there fireworks? Who put them there? How did her husband find them? How could this possibly lead to a divorce?]
  • And so on.

(a skilled storyteller brings a lot more than suspense — they omit superfluous details, they pace it well, they tell it with style, pick a good subject. etc.)

Some techniques for opening up a loop::

  • A question the audience wants answered (where’s he going, why is she in a hurry)
  • A puzzle.
  • A mystery.
  • Something unexplained (the ghost at the beginning of Hamlet).
  • An unexplained fact or phenomenon.
  • Any uncertain outcome.

A basic chain for a bank robbery story might look like this:

  1. Who is she?
  2. Why is she talking to this other woman?
  3. Why does she need to talk to her in private?
  4. Are they going to rob the bank?
  5. How are they going to get into the bank?
  6. How will they disable the security?
  7. How will they break into the vault?
  8. How will they get the money out?
  9. Will the police come?
  10. Will they escape the police?
  11. Will they get to keep the money?
  12. Will they still be friends after this?

Related: Editing and Forwards.

Deepfake casting

If you can create a deepfake of basically any actor, couldn’t you cast a film this way?

Instead of bringing actors in to read sides in an audition room, you could film a prototype of the scene with a random actor and then try out various different actors in the role, using AI to superimpose their faces and recreate their voices.

Then you could cast the best one.

Of course you could make a whole movie this way.

It’s not legal (or won’t be) but presumably you could get away with deepfake casting more easily than you could get away with making a whole movie this way, as it would never be released to the public.

I don’t know if I like that these things are possible, but they are interesting to think about.

Stories as maps

A story is like a map.

A map is not the territory and a story is not exactly what happened.

A map erases certain features to bring others into relief.

A story is condensed.

Because it’s condensed, it has a POV, a POV about what to include and what to elide.

A story creates meaning like a map, by picking the events, their order, and their connections, just like a cartographer chooses the scale, center, and what to include on a map.

A story starts somewhere and ends somewhere, and these are not arbitrary points.

A story can be true and a lie or it can be fiction and deeply true.

A good map helps us understand the territory at the level of detail that’s important to us.

A good story helps us understand humans, cultures, relationships, or societies at the level of detail that’s important to us.

Marketing, Drama, and Tension

Ever since reading This is Marketing by Seth Godin, I’ve been thinking a lot about the similarities between marketing and dramatic storytelling.

There’s a flatness to a lot of marketing. It doesn’t move anyone. It looks like marketing (or advertising), but it’s not really marketing. It’s not engaging. It fails to create tension.

(I’m distinguishing here between advertising, which is one form of delivering a marketing message and marketing, which is more akin to persuasion and not necessarily commercial in nature)

Stories can be this way too. Have you ever read a screenplay that just. feels. so. hard. to. get. through? It’s not just “I’m not enjoying this”, it’s “my brain does not want to keep reading and I don’t know why it’s so hard to just keep reading.”

If there’s no tension, then you don’t want to know what happens next. A story without tension, without forward motion, is worse than nothing at all. I’d rather stare up at the sky and watch the clouds pass by than sit through a movie with a story that I don’t care about.

Anyway, it feels like there is something important here, that stories and marketing both rely on the same mechanism to capture attention or to propel action.

Tension moves a story forward. It makes us want to turn the page. It makes us interested in the product or an idea, it makes us want to purchase something or learn more about a political candidate or change our mind about something.

And it feels like discovering a secret, because once I saw it, I could see something that had been hidden all along.

Marketers get caught up in tactics, without thinking about how to move people. Dramatic writers (i.e. screenwriters and playwrights) create series of events that may be connected, but have no propulsion. No reason to care, no reason to want to know what happens next.

So they look like a screenplay but they’re empty in a way. Just because there’s a series of scenes doesn’t mean there’s drama. Just because an ad is displayed on Facebook doesn’t mean it’s marketing.

But we don’t talk about how to create tension. Sometimes we talk about structure or acts, but rarely about “how do you keep someone interested?” (more on this later).

Tension is value-neutral, an essential component of these practices. It can be used to sell harmful products and it can be used to keep you watching an empty TV show.

We’ve all made a purchase we regretted or finished a TV show or movie or book and felt empty at the end, propelled by tension to an unsatisfying or cheap ending.

Reasons to watch movies

To go on an adventure (without personal risk).

To learn about a new culture or country; to see how other people live.

To have something to talk about with your friends.

To challenge your ideas or worldview, or to confirm it.

To laugh and have a good time.

To be scared.

To cry.

To feel understood.

To argue about something.

To escape the pain of your present life.

To participate in the culture, to be “in the know” or “in the conversation.”

To raise your status.

To develop taste.

To learn about fashion.

To rebel.

To be inspired.

To sit in an air-conditioned dark room for a while.

To distract yourself.

To share an experience with friends.

To have something to recommend to others (raise your status).

To be part of a group (“people like us watch movies like this”).

To connect with other humans.

To have something to talk about.

To have and accomplish a goal (“I’m going to watch all of the films of Ingmar Bergman.”)

To learn how to make your own movies.

To learn how not to make your own movies.

To find a new identity or a new way to live.

To watch an actor that you like watching.

To be completely engaged and lost in a story.

To remind ourselves to be more x or y.

To have something to hate or dislike or define ourselves against.

To critique or learn to be critical.

To give notes or help someone who is making the movie.

To understand someone else (through the movies they like).

To get turned on / in the mood for sex (alone or with partner(s)).

Catharsis.

Drama / melodrama / comedy / farce

I love this definition of the big four genres, by Sidney Lumet in Making Movies:

In drama, the characters should determine the story.

In melodrama, the story determines the characters. Melodrama makes the story line its highest priority, and everything is subservient to story.

For me, farce is the comic equivalent of melodrama and comedy the comic equivalent of drama.

Travailler, toujours travailler.

Roding then took Rilke outside for a tour of the grounds. As they walked, Roding began to tell Rilke about his life, but not in the way one might speak to a journalist on assignment. He understood that Rilke was a fellow artist, and so he framed his stories as lessons that the young poet might take as examples.

Above all else, he stressed to Rilke, Travailler, toujours travailler. You must work, always work, he said.

“To this I devoted my youth.” But it was not enough to make work, the word he preferred to “art”; one had to live it.

That meant renouncing the trappings of earthly pleasures, like fine wine, sedating sofas, even one’s own children, should they prove distracting form the pursuit.

— from You Must Change Your Life: The Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin by Rachel Corbett





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