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.

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.

Add marketing to the list of things you need to know

Just when you start thinking “I’m really getting a handle on this movie-making thing” there’s another whole field of study and skill to learn.

I’m working on a marketing plan for my (still unnamed) feature film. It’s really hard, despite the fact that I’ve been working in ‘marketing’ as a day job for the past ten years or so. Or so I thought.

I realized, while reading Seth Godin’s new (and fantastic) book This is Marketing, that I haven’t really been marketing. I’ve just been working on tactics. SEO, paid search, advertising, analytics.

In the past couple weeks I’ve been thinking about the story of the film, how to talk about it in a way that resonates with people, that creates tension and makes them want to see it. And about the stories that my target audiences tell themselves, how they view the world, what they care about, why they choose to watch one movie or another, and why they tell their friends to watch a movie (or not).

The irony is that I think about that all the time when writing screenplays, how to create suspense and tension and create the feeling of “what happens next?”. It’s weird how bad we are at applying what we know in one domain to another.





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