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Seven Release Strategies That Can Make or Break Your Movie

Photo of Dana Harris By Dana Harris | Indiewire September 6, 2011 at 4:09AM

Here’s the third in our series of excerpts from The Film Collaborative’s upcoming book, “Selling Your Film Without Selling Your Soul.” This one’s by box office expert and co-author Jon Reiss.
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Seven Release Strategies That Can Make or Break Your Movie
"Selling Your Film Without Selling Your Soul" will be published September 13.

Here’s the third in our series of excerpts from The Film Collaborative’s upcoming book, “Selling Your Film Without Selling Your Soul.” This one’s by box office expert and co-author Jon Reiss.

There's many elements in formulating a strategy to release your film. The most important consideration on the list? Knowing what you want to accomplish. Films can have a variety of goals and they aren’t all tied to making money.

1. Create a Unique Marketing and Distribution Strategy for Your Specific Film
Each film is unique and requires its own individual distribution and marketing strategy. Each film in the book is different; most have very different audiences. Similarly, each filmmaker has a different set of goals, needs, and resources. While the studio one-size-fits-all model worked well for some independent films over the last 20 years, it was a disaster for others. With the new hybrid model of distribution, you can craft a distribution and marketing strategy that makes the most sense for your film. 

You have a unique vision; use that vision to engage your audience in a unique manner. This will help separate you from the media noise that surrounds us every day.

One of the first films included in the book, "Bass Ackwards," implemented a unique distribution strategy launched the day after their Sundance premiere concluded. To date, they are if not the only, one of the few to have tried this method. 

“This really was an industry play as opposed to anything that got noticed by a more mainstream audience," said producer Thomas Woodrow. "The intention was to create publicity buzz through the unconventional nature of the release and to have that alone drive audience interest in the film. It was definitely successful on that level. We did far, far better revenue-wise and exposure-wise than if we had tried to go a more conventional sales route.”

2. Know Your Goals
I cannot stress this enough. I cannot repeat this enough. There are multiple goals that you can strive for in the release of your film, but you must prioritize what is most important to you. I categorize the goals for the distribution and marketing of your film into the following five:

1.  Money
2.  Career launch -- i.e., help for your next project.
3.  Audience/eyeballs to see the film
4.  Change the world
5.  A long-term, sustainable connection with a fanbase.
 
Choices you make in service of one goal will often sacrifice another goal. For instance, releasing your film for free on the internet might get you the most eyeballs, but it won’t always help you monetize the film.

You must make sure that everyone on your team is on the same page and doesn’t have conflicting goals. An example from the book, savvy and talented filmmaker Hunter Weeks from "Ride the Divide" had the goal of career launch to help his next project, but his producer Mike Dion’s goal was to make money to repay the investors. These goals are two that are traditionally in direct conflict because career launch is normally associated with some form of traditional theatrical, which in turn is usually a money drain and will not result in repaying investors.

They chose to go for the money. As a result of this focus, they have paid back their investors and garnered a lot of attention in the process, both of which will help Hunter launch his next project.

3. Set Marketing Strategy
Two helpful ways to think about marketing: 
1) reaching the audience that already exists for your film
2) thinking creatively of what audiences might be interested in your film.  
I recommend that you consider and conceive of a marketing strategy for your film early in the production process, even at inception. Who is its audience? How are you best going to reach them?  Are there particular blogs, organizations, print media that they subscribe to? Who will you bring on to help you outreach to your audience? How does this audience consume media?   Answering these questions will help to fashion your release strategy.
Case study film "Note by Note-The Making of  Steinway L1037" identified their core audience as Steinway owners and pianists who played Steinway pianos, then moved on to all pianists, music teachers and musicians. Another audience group they discovered through screening the film at festivals comprised people who worked with wood such as boat builders and carpenters.

“When we screened in Vermont I had all these people come up to me and say, ‘You know, I have a business; I make furniture and I loved watching these guys build this piano,’ said director Ben Niles. "It really gets down into doing things by hand, so I think anybody who likes to grow organic tomatoes or cook in the kitchen, or anybody who’s really doing something tangible can really identify with the film.”

4. Budget for Distribution and Marketing
In order to successfully execute a marketing plan for your film, a budget must be developed in tandem with your production budget. This is not an optional expense to be decided at the end of post. A marketing and distribution budget is a tool that balances what needs to be spent against what can be afforded, and helps make choices about which methods will be priorities and which ones cannot be implemented due to cost.

A well-analyzed, affordable budget will help to focus achievable marketing efforts without wasting time and money. Doing this will also make it seem that you have a sense of how you are going to make your investors money back (and that you care).

Case study "The Best and the Brightest" went into distribution thinking that they would receive distribution offers. When those did not materialize in a way that would make sense to sell the rights to the film, producer Patricia Weiser had to find a way to raise more money for a hybrid distribution approach. “Don’t forget to have a plan (and a back-up plan) and budget for marketing/distribution in case Fox Searchlight doesn’t write you a big, fat check," she said. "I had a plan (to use tax credit dollars for the marketing/distribution plan) that didn’t work out (investors wanted the money back). I think we’ve put together a pretty good back-up plan. We will see. The most successful people are those who are good at Plan B.”

5. Identifying and Engaging Your Audience
My  three-step approach to audience development and engagement:

1.  Know WHO your audience is.  This is not 18-25 year old boys/men. Or 35 – 55 year old women. As an independent filmmaker, if you cross over into a mass audience, great – but you need to be much more specific. 
2.  Know WHERE your audience derives information/congregates. In other words how you can contact them, engage them, communicate with them. It may not be by using online tools, but you have to know where.
3.  Know HOW your audience engages media, or HOW they will support you.

For case study "Pioneer One," the filmmakers already had experience connecting with torrent fans through their previous film "The Lionshare," a low-budget, narrative film about the world of file sharing. When it came time to start crowdfunding for the web series, they did outreach to every file sharing forum and publication they could to attract interest and gather donations. Not only did they surpass their initial goal of $6,000 to make a pilot, but they ended up raising all of their production budget (over $70,000 total) to finish the series through fan donations. The series is available where their fans are most likely to see it, via BitTorrent and YouTube.

6. Differentiating Core and Niche Audiences
The terms core and niche are often used interchangeably; this is a mistake.

The niche audience for your film is that slice of the population that has a particular interest in your film or an aspect of your film; the core audience for your film is those people within each niche that are your most ardent supporters. Those people will spread the word about your film not only to their networks, but to the rest of that niche. You can have multiple niches interested in your film, and within each niche there is a core who, combined, adds up to the whole core of your film.

While many of our case studies, especially the documentaries, had niche audiences, the key to their successes lies in getting through to the core audience first. With "Ride the Divide," it was cyclists living along the race route of The Great Divide and they chose musicians also based in those areas to include in the film’s soundtrack, further bringing in the core fan base. With "American: The Bill Hicks Story," it was reaching the fans of Hicks in the US and the UK including other comedians who were friends and colleagues of Hicks, not targeting all fans of standup comedy.

7. Engage Organizations to Promote Your Film
Know exactly where your audience derives information and congregates.

Many niches have organizations that support those specific topics and interests. Engage those organizations early in your filmmaking process (as early as conception and prep). It is important to have the proper attitude toward your audience and these organizations. Think, “What can I give them?” instead of, “What can they do for me?” If you think of the former, the latter will flow. People are very busy. You need to give them an incentive to be involved with you. That fact that you are making a film is not enough. How will the film service their organization, their lives and the lives of their members? In turn, they will help you promote your film to their direct audience.  

This has been used by great effect by documentary filmmakers.  Narrative filmmakers need to follow their lead. Case study doc "For the Bible Tells Me So" was able to reach their target audience through organizational partnerships with churches AND gay rights organizations, even though their initial thought was these two groups would be at opposition to each other.

“Most of the time, maybe 70% of the time, it was small gay groups alerting other small gay groups about the film, and those groups contacting First Run [the film’s distributor] and finding venues in which to show the film to the wider (non-gay) community at large," said director Daniel Karslake. "And then word would catch on, and people would want to be a part of the discussion. Just about everywhere, audience turn-outs were tremendous, and sellouts were common.”

When the 2008 National Convention of the United Methodist Church met to change their book of common prayer to stop condemning gay people, they ordered one DVD for each of their 900 voting members. A similar order was placed on behalf of 900 Bishops in advance of the 2008 Worldwide Anglican Communion.

Written by TFC co-executive directors Orly Ravid and Jeffrey Winter in association with filmmaker/author Jon Reiss (“Think Outside The Box Office”) and Sheri Candler, “Selling Your Film” will be released September 13 via Apple iBooks, followed by Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook and ePub. The book will be available for free initially and then either free or at low cost, supported by premiere sponsor Prescreen and official sponsor Dynamo Player. Prescreen and Area23a co-sponsored the printed edition of the book.

This article is related to: Filmmaker Toolkit, Distribution





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