Indie feature films need two things to be a success: Money and a Market. You may have money to spend on talent, crew, equipment, design, etc., but without a channel for marketing, the money is trapped inside a DVD disc that sits on your shelf. You may have a large and eager market who awaits your masterpiece, but without the financial resources to create a worthy picture, you will under deliver and lose your audience. Money and Market go hand in hand, and with the right finesse, you will begin to see your dream of cashing in on a passion/hobby/job become a reality.
Means to an End
Money is not magic, it won’t write your script or shoot your film, but it does provide a means to accomplish various stages of production. Without money, you are limited to freebies, favors, and selling your soul. Many films are made with super limited budgets, but any filmmaker worth his color-correcting knows that there’s no such thing as a “no budget” production.
Marketing is the avenue through which you hope to recoup your production costs, at the very least. Without it, there is very little hope that you’ll pull in anything. And for clarity sake, Facebook and YouTube posting don’t count as legit marketing. Although it’s great to get your film venture out there in hopes that someone will find your treasure and offer you a multi-figure distro deal, the reality is that the current market is saturated with indie DVDs of every genre. Unless you have a marketing strategy, with resources (people and organizations) to promote your film, you’ll just end up with "hits" and likes," and those don’t translate into dollars.
Finding money is a difficult task, one that requires people skills, a strong business sense, and/or rich relatives. There are many books and articles out there on funding a film, so I won’t pretend to know more than the next guy. If you’re looking for tips, see what tips are selling.
Marketing is something each of us can manage more readily. There are principles to marketing that matter before you begin pre-production. Knowing what you can hope to recoup on the back end, assuming you create a product worthy of an audience, should determine what you spend on the film, therefore it’s best to acquire a basic understanding of how marketing works.
Marketing is about one thing: who wants to see your product? Or more importantly, who wants to see your product enough to hand over cash for that privilege? You can typically count on family and close friends to make an investment through the purchase of a DVD, although they might also expect a free copy because they are family/close friends. But beyond the familial ties, who out there is willing to spend 1.5 hours plus of their life sitting through your creation, or dropping $20 on a DVD, and why does it matter to them? What are you “selling” that appeals to them? Knowing your market and its Achilles tendon is hitting closer to center.
Take horror films for example. Why are so many indie films of a horror genre? It’s simply because there is an audience for horror films, a market that pre-exists. It doesn’t matter why, or whether or not you think people should crave horror films, only that people will be more likely to rent or purchase an indie horror film as opposed to yet another coming-of-age drama. Another niche genre is faith-based or family films. There has been a growing market on the lookout for content that is inoffensive. Again, your opinion matters not, only that you understand where the market lives, and find a way to tap into it.
Another aspect of marketing is in understanding how to market your film? Do you place an ad in the trade magazines, run some billboards, buy some airtime, or do you post it on your Facebook page and then stand on the street corners peddling your product? Most of us will never have the funds to properly market our film, no matter how great it is, by running print ads and TV spots, but we can’t settle for hoping a Facebook post will go viral either. Therefore, you need to strategize in order to have a channel for distribution before you start prepro. Here are some thoughts on channels for marketing:
- Use talent that is connected to a channel of marketing. You may not have the resources or connections to pull in Hollywood talent, but if you can find an eager and strong actor that has a parent, spouse, child, or BFF with pull, you might be able to use that connection to market your film. Many parents will go above and beyond to market your film if it means promoting their child (or parent, or spouse, or good friend). The trick is to be sure that the significant person (not talking about the actual talent) has an audience, whether they tour for business, or speak at large engagements, or have huge followings through social media. Where you might reach a thousand people through Facebook, that person might reach a million, and because numbers matter, more is better.
- Find an organization that has an established and loyal network. If you create a film that appeals to that organization’s constituents, and they agree to promote your film, then you have at least established an avenue for distribution. Of course, that often means you create a film that appeals to that organization, limiting your story options.
- Find a cause that reaches country-wide, or even worldwide. Picking a stand-alone cause, however, isn’t enough. You need to find a cause that is supported by organizations and entities throughout the country, or the world. By tapping into that cause, and then into one or more of the groups that support that cause, you can potentially create a chain reaction that will open up screenings and sales. In this sense, it’s about supporting what matters most to your audience.
- Give back. Once you have connected with a group, on the way to producing a film that matters to that group, offer to give something of value back to their cause. Whether it’s special notice through credits, DVD extras which speak specifically about the cause, or even a percentage of sales going towards supporting the cause, it’s good marketing to give something back to the audience that supports the film.
- Look for an avenue to screen your film live. Grassroots marketing through community screenings is becoming a popular venue for indie films. Similar to attaching your production to a cause, grassroots screenings become manageable when some other group/organization is promoting your film and encouraging screenings on your behalf. Tapping into a grassroots channel is tricky, but consider screening alongside a band tour, through a religious denomination, or other such common movement that gets around.
- And finally, bring in a marketing team that will do the grunt work for you. A business marketing college intern might jump at the chance to run your film marketing campaign, bringing a fresh approach to fund-raising, front-end sales, community support, promotional screenings, or all the above. Some front-end compensation might be necessary, but create a marketing strategy that allows your marketing guru to make some cash on the back-end for a job well done (incentive). If a college intern isn't readily available, you might approach a local ad or marketing firm, looking for someone who is interested in a side job.
Count the Cost
There are certainly many other scenarios which play out through successful marketing, and stories you’ve heard and/or will hear over the years, but what’s important is that you count the cost before you start paying out. Set aside the production giggles during development and take a good, hard look at who your target market is, or who you need to target your marketing to. Do this before you lock the script and cast your film. "Development" is your time to look down the road and see what’s coming, making considerations about story, talent, locations, and who needs to get involved for the sake of a strong and profitable indie film production.
Also, check out Marc's video on "Setiquette" - How To Have Proper Etiquette On A Film Set.