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 

WHAM

I put my short film, WHAM, online:

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.

At the Sidewalk Film Festival in Birmingham

I went to Sidewalk last week in Birmingham, Alabama and I meant to post something about it but I’ve been working from 7 7 7 to 11 every night (kinda makes life a drag…). Yeah I’m on a freelance producing gig that just has insane hours but I’m rebuilding my savings after not working for four months and making a feature film. Freedom awaits in November…

Sidewalk Film Festival. They really know how to take care of filmmakers. I woke up at 4am last Friday to catch the early flight from Chicago to Birmingham so I could get there in time for the filmmaker luncheon/retreat.

They took us to a now-defunct iron and steel processing plant that was built in the late 1800s and was operational until the 1980s. Birmingham is almost uniquely situated for steel production as all the raw materials are within 30 miles of each other, and it was the 2nd biggest producer of steel (after Pittsburgh) in the U.S. for a long time (my facts are a little hazy).

The old buildings look like sets from a post-apocalyptic world, as nature slowly reverts to the its pre-industrial state. The event was hosted by representatives of Film Birmingham. They were very eager for us to film something there and made it known that there wouldn’t be a lot of red tape.

 

Our guide (one of the many resident artists who have been given workshop space on the premises) told us that the plant was shut down overnight and the workers weren’t told — their personal belongings from their last day are still in their lockers and there’s still salad dressing and… something else… in the refrigerator.

The plant isn’t completely shut down — there’s a dolomite quarry right there.

 

   

Massive trucks bring the dolomite up from a 400-foot-deep quarry where the rocks get smashed in giant rock smashers so they can be used for gravel and other industrial things that need small rocks (it’s an ingredient in steel too).

Driving down into the quarry, which I sadly didn’t get a good picture of, reminded me of Taste of Cherry (I mentioned this to another filmmaker and he was like “me too!” and we became friends immediately).

The quarry processes 7,000 tons of dolomite per day. There’s something awe-inspiring about being around massive machinery and trucks. Living in a modern city, I feel shielded from any kind of industrial of manufacturing whatsoever. By the way, those trucks the guys drive — super high-tech. The loaders cost about $2,000,000 a piece and they have climate-controlled cabs, multiple cameras, high-tech seats that don’t bounce around, and a lot of other stuff I’m forgetting.

Back in town I walked around a bit and got food. I spent most of my time in the downtown area of Birmingham, which felt pretty empty and sleepy. Someone told me later that the neighborhoods to the south and east are more bustling with life and culture. I don’t know, it was weird walking around on a Friday morning/afternoon and barely seeing anyone on the street — the buildings weren’t abandoned or run-down though. It felt like everyone was on vacation.

Don’t forget your Jesus Cake. I actually ate here twice (they set up a stand on the sidewalk outside one of the theaters) and it was delicious. Very good Cuban pork, mofongo, and plantains. I asked what Jesus Cake is and the girl told me that it’s something like tres leches cake, and not a Cuban thing nor a Birmingham thing. So just a thing they made up.

What about the film festival, Robert?

This is a great festival. I mean, they really take care of their filmmakers and by take care of I mean they throw big grand parties with free food and booze in remarkable venues.

 

The opening night screening and party was at the Alabama theater. The opening night film was White Tide: The Legend of Culebra, an over-the-top doc about a Florida man (hah) who goes after $2,000,000 in cocaine that’s buried on Culebra, and island in Puerto Rico. It was a perfect fit for a raucous crowd of 2,000 on opening night. It’s a good story and very funny.

Then there was a big party on the stage of the theater. And everywhere else in this massive 3-story theater. There was just a party and food and drinks everywhere. It was a ton of fun. I made new friends and ran into some old friends that I didn’t expect to see there.

I talked to some locals and asked about the film scene there and what people thought of the festival. My understanding is that Sidewalk is the biggest thing that happens there every year. I talked to one woman who had been planning months before to come and had picked out all the films she wanted to see in advance. I also talked to other people who said that 80% of people in Alabama only care about college football and look at you funny if you mention some sort of non-college-football form of entertainment.

I talked to another local woman who works for the city, helping to promote it (I can’t remember exactly what she does). She told me about how the city is resurgent, about how 20 years ago it was dangerous to be downtown and how it’s developing and people are moving back and there are cafes and shops and how great the food scene is.

It’s the same trend playing out in so many cities across the U.S. There are so many small to medium sized towns now that are pleasant places to live.

The festival took over Linn Park in the middle of downtown Birmingham for a massive party.

I had a really good conversation at the party with someone about living in a small and pleasant city vs. a big and ambitious city. The question for her and for me and for probably a lot of young people with options is: is it better to live somewhere comfortable and pleasant and enjoy the good life, or should I ask for something bigger in life, something more ambitious? Am I being complacent?

I loved living in Baltimore. It was fun, I liked the texture of life, I was a big fish in a small pond (the improv pond). Good food, a great baseball stadium, very affordable, good art/music scene, and an actually weird place that doesn’t really give a fuck about trying to be anywhere else. Obviously Baltimore has massive problems too, with crime, education, etc., but those weren’t the reasons I left. I left because it felt too small, too hard to be ambitious there.

Chicago is a big city. I think it straddles the pleasant/ambitious divide. It can be either. It’s certainly more ambitious than cities like Baltimore or Portland, but less so than L.A., San Francisco, or New York. I’m not sure where Austin fits into this (it feels like it’s in the process of rapidly changing from pleasant to ambitious, which is causing a lot of angst for the people that want it to keep its old identity).

I think what I’ve been feeling in the last few years, when I feel the urge to move, is that Chicago is just a really big pleasant city and not really an ambitious city. When the woman from Birmingham tells me about the great food scene there, I politely listen, but I know that it’s nothing compared to Chicago. Maybe Chicago is an ambitious place for aspiring chefs (I don’t know, I’m really not a foodie).

But when it comes to film, entertainment, entrepreneurship and startups, etc. — I think it’s not an ambitious place. Not that there aren’t ambitious people here! Not that nobody is doing those things! It’s just not the big ambitious place where people move to seek those things out.

Oh yeah, my short film, WHAM, premiered on Sunday.

WHAM at Sidewalk Film Festival, DC Shorts, and Middle Coast

WHAM, a short film that I wrote and directed last summer is premiering this weekend at the Sidewalk Film Festival in Birmingham, AL. It’s a great festival and I’m really excited to be a part of it, in fact so excited that I’m waking up at 4am on Friday to fly in early so I can enjoy a full day of meeting people and seeing great films. If you’re near Birmingham this weekend, check it out.

The film will also screen in Washington, DC at the very excellent DC Shorts festival on September 8 and 10. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to make it back home for the screenings because of work, but it’s my first screening near my hometown in Maryland and it feels good to get to show m friends and family back home what I’ve been working on for the last few years.

And finally, it’s coming to Chicago for the first time on September 22 at 4pm at the Middle Coast Film Festival. I love this festival. The Deadline premiered there last year, so it will always have a special place in my heart (they programmed Off Book too). I’m a little sad that they moved it from Bloomington, Indiana to Chicago because I liked the excuse to take a road trip. It’s screening at the Davis Theater. Come see it and have a drink at Carbon Arc if you’re in town.

The Deadline is online

I released this earlier this year and completely forgot to post it here. The Deadline, my first short film, is now available to the public:

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.





<< Older posts | >>