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How Are Filmmakers Like App Developers? It's the Marketing, Stupid.

Indiewire By John Casey | Indiewire June 22, 2012 at 2:45PM

Last week Apple held its Worldwide Developers Conference, or, as it is otherwise known, “Oscars Week for app developers.” Which begs the question: What do aspiring filmmakers and app developers have in common? Quite a lot, actually. Most notable, though, is that both often mistakenly forgo the marketing process for a focus on production.
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A version of this article was first published by Mobile Marketing Magazine. Casey is the founder of freshfluff.com, a site that promotes “smart, strategic PR and social media counsel and tactics.”

"I’m going to stick it in the iTunes store and hope for the best!”

That may sound familiar to mobile app developers, but the quote actually comes from independent filmmaker Mark von Sternberg. This was before a marketing strategy had been implemented for his film “Love Simple” but after it had already run the festival circuit and received no distribution offers.

It wasn’t until he partnered with two lupus organizations for cause-marketing programs (his film’s lead character is a lupus survivor) and developed a comprehensive media outreach program with a review strategy involving bloggers that the film gained an audience and an international distribution deal.

“I got lucky,” von Sternberg says now. “But in the future I’m not going to wait until production is done before I start to think about marketing. I’ve seen what an effective and well-thought out campaign can do.”

Last week Apple held its Worldwide Developers Conference, or, as it is otherwise known, “Oscars Week for app developers.” Which begs the question: What do aspiring filmmakers and app developers have in common? Quite a lot, actually. Most notable, though, is that both often mistakenly forgo the marketing process for a focus on production.

“I think many filmmakers shun, or even disdain, in a way, the notion that they have to ‘sell’ their film,” said producer Stephen R. Greenwald, a former film industry executive and author of “This Business of Film.” “There is sometimes a naive belief that the ‘film will sell itself.’ It won't; it has to be sold. Consumers will not make the effort or take the time to search for products they have never heard about.”

Many films, like apps, are never discovered by audiences. Both are, in many cases, well produced by creative individuals with a particular audience in mind, and they’re usually accomplished with tight budgets. However, in the end, many films, like the plethora of apps, are relegated to a small and crowded space in the iTunes Store.

In March, Apple made headlines by announcing that it had recorded 25 billion app downloads by users of more than 315 million iPhones, iPads and iPod Touch devices. According to a recent article in 148apps.biz, there are at least 657,575 apps available for download in the iTunes Store developed by 163,909 active publishers. That’s more than the population of Napa, CA, the favorite get-away destination for the folks from Silicon Valley. And the ocean of film content is no less imposing.

But despite the daunting numbers, mobile app developers and filmmakers often don’t feel the need to market their products. And that’s a bad idea.

“If you build it, they won't come,” said Nihal Mehta, an entrepreneur and expert in the emerging adoption of wireless technology for media properties and consumer brands. “There are nearly a million apps, and more becoming available every day by a growing number of developers, resulting in a fight for limited iTunes storefront and phone icon space. So developers need paid marketing and viral hooks in their app to succeed.”

The importance of implementing a creative marketing strategy to launch a brand's consumer product cannot be stressed enough. Doing so inevitably helps brands get higher visibility for their products on retailers' shelves. Simply writing and distributing a press release about a new product or app is almost pointless. The media is inundated with tens of thousands of new announcements every day. The likelihood of having a press release picked up is miniscule. Thus, advice to budding filmmakers and developers should be the same: Treat your creation not as a work of art, but as a consumer retail product; hire an expert to develop and implement a marketing plan.

One filmmaker that became a developer did just that. Rania Ajami, director of the feature “Asylum Seekers” and the documentary “Qaddafi’s Female Bodyguards,” recently started a children’s mobile content company called Jumping Pages. As she did with her films, Ajami was adamant that the first Jumping Pages product employ a smart and strategic marketing and promotional plan at the outset.

“When we began production of our critically acclaimed version of the epic David and Goliath story book app for kids, I realized that we needed to incorporate an effective marketing strategy early, which was particularly important since it was our first production and there was already a David and Goliath children’s book app available in the iTunes store,” said Ajami. “It worked, and as a result we are implementing and crafting marketing strategies aimed at the consumer at the earliest stages of development for our upcoming mobile productions.”

Films and apps, like all types of consumer products, should begin to formulate marketing strategies at least three to six months from the release/launch date. As Greenwald points out, “A smart indie filmmaker today will attach a marketing person to her or his film at the start of the development process.”

Just like the retail world, it’s not enough to have quality merchandise. Consumer brands that make it onto the shelves of a top retailer are assumed to have good products. What differentiates those products is how they are marketed to the shopper.

"Vendors who ultimately succeed are those that inevitably create excitement through some type of launch activity and marketing support behind their products," said Deanna Williams, director of media relations at Macy's. "As a company, it’s impossible for us to promote everything that's available in our stores. It's up to each vendor to compete to grab the attention of the customer."

Just as developers can’t rely on Apple, Google or Amazon to promote their product, neither can filmmakers afford to imagine their production as a fashionable blockbuster hit like “The Devil Wears Prada.” Instead, they should treat it like Prada shoes, by putting someone in place early who has walked the marketing walk and can help make that film dance off the cluttered iTunes Store shelf.