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‘You Can’t Bulls—t’ And 6 More Revelations On How To Market An Indie Film

A recent panel at SIFF featuring pioneers of the industry laid out hard and fast examples of indie distribution success.

"Manchester By The Sea"

“Manchester by the Sea”

Last Sunday, MOMA Chief Curator of Film Rajendra Roy sat down with a group of independent film veterans at the Seattle International Film Festival for a panel entitled “Who Should Release My Movie?” The guests included VP of Acquisitions at The Orchard Danielle DiGiacomo, SVP of Acquisitions and Theatrical Distribution at Well Go USA Dylan Marchetti, President of Acquisitions and Ancillary Distribution at Bleecker Street Media Kent Sanderson and Vice President Distribution and Acquisitions at Participant Media Rob Williams.

The panel primarily centered on how indie filmmakers could get their movie seen, and how to find the right audience to give a film prolonged attention in a hugely competitive specialty market. They also discussed the rocky road of VOD distribution, the dangers of awards season, the values of playing in a fading DVD market and what kinds of films among hundreds of pitches they give their attention to. Read the best highlights from the panel below.

READ MORE: Snapchat is Cannibalizing Theatrical Releases And 7 More Ways The Marketplace is Changing

In today’s climate, you have to be honest about your film, or you are screwed.

For popular but small distributors, you can’t take full swings on what audience you pitch your movie to, or what you are telling them in the first place.

“You can’t bullsh*t,” said Well Go USA’s Dylan Marchetti, distributor of films like “The Assassin” and the recent release “King Jack.”

“There are two revelations: On social media, you can’t market a movie as anything other than what it is, because on Friday and on Saturday everyone’s like ‘guys, this movie’s terrible’… I’ve seen films drop 70% on second weekend because of Twitter,” he added. “Second, you’ve got to really be savvy on the way you tell people about films and who you tell about them. For our distribution, we have a flexible model: lot of our films are traditional theatrical, some are day and date, but it’s not random.”

He discussed the virtues of taking a theatrically-minded approach where more attention would be given to a film, as Well Go USA did for “Kumiko The Treasure Hunter,” or marketing more specifically to a core audience as they are currently doing with “King Jack.”

"King Jack"

“King Jack”

“When you’ve got a film like [‘Kumiko’], I know that when we put that film out on VOD, it’s a big question of will they put a big square around its name or will it get lost on a list somewhere,” said Marchetti. “If I put it there it will do well for a week, and then get lost in the shuffle. But if I spend three months putting it in theaters, people will see it and talk about it and see the trailer when they see other stuff, so then if it’s on digital it’ll get attention.”

“My logic is, we can’t justify spending a million dollars in this business on marketing this movie,” said Marchetti. “Then we’ll lose that money and go out of business and won’t be able to make movies anymore. But if we put it in a couple of theaters and also make it available on VOD it can get national attention. I can do a national release without having to spend millions of dollars and do commercials.”

VOD or not, you have to be creative in who you market to.

“Every movie has a core audience,” said Bleecker Street’s Kent Sanderson. “How big that core audience is varies movie to movie, but it’s all about finding the right way to, once the movies’s in theaters, reach your theatrical consumer. Marketing in theaters, getting trailers, getting standees up. On VOD, it’s reaching your VOD audience, on DVD, it’s reaching your DVD audience to make sure they’re aware and interested that it’s on that platform. The one thing that most of our movies except big studio stuff have in common is that the life cycle after movie theaters will be bigger.”

Sanderson cited Bleecker’s “I’ll See You in My Dreams” as a solid success story for the label last summer, and a targeted marketing campaign to thank for it.

“Sundance movie, Blythe Danner, really lovely…so you could probably imagine that we didn’t buy ad time on the Sci-Fi Channel,” said Sanderson. “That’s just not what that audience follows. We put it out in papers and reached out to older audiences through social media platforms, and when the time came to release it on VOD at that point we’d brought a lot of television to promote VOD for the film. It’s choosing your marketing for what’s best for the film.”

The Orchard is more than happy to release VOD numbers, but other outfits don’t see the need.

Many indie distributors are anxious about making their ancillary revenue data public. The Orchard, on the other hand, is happy to casually discuss them.

“We had a documentary out last year called ‘Cartel Land,’ about the cartels south of the border in Mexico,” said The Orchard’s Danielle DiGiacomo. “The way we got people in theaters was a lot of group sales, a lot of targeting where immigration and issues relating to the cartels were major social topics. We went to our digital media, we partnered with Mic Media, we were able to target people who’d already bought tickets through their email. It ended up in the digital window and I can actually say because we’ve reported the numbers is that we’ve gotten 2 million in VOD sales and 550k in just the first two weeks.”

"Cartel Land"

“Cartel Land”

“So long as we report theatrical box office, we will report VOD,” said DiGiacomo. “Even if it’s not so great we just feel like the filmmakers deserve it. It’s been part of our business since the beginning. And actually in the next few months in the next few months we’ll report a breakdown of the ‘Cartel’ numbers and where came from what.”

Participant’s Rob Williams as well as Sanderson and Marchetti naturally disagreed.

“VOD is a little less linear than moviegoing,” said Williams. “With theaters there’s an average ticket price and though the revenue split with the distributors varies, it’s usually around the same.” 

“The industry is complicated and releasing numbers is complicated because there needs to be context for what you’re seeing,” said Sanderson. “Box office is very simple – it’s people showing up. In an age where windowing and pricing vary wildly, and that’s only changing more and more, I’m not sure where having a blanket sharing policy is necessarily educational.”

Marchetti offered a slightly varied argument: “We don’t get the numbers immediately. The truth about VOD grosses is that there are some platforms where I can look the next night and find out what we did and there are some platforms that kind of estimate and report and the actual reports come out two months later. There are other platforms that report quarterly: There are other platforms that report quarterly, and you can ask for one quarter on one film and that’s it. There’s no real way in reporting our VOD gross.”

Their thoughts on awards season? They “f*cking hate it.”

The distributors sounded off on the awards season model they believe have overcrowded the theaters with quality films too late in the year for anyone to see all of them.

“Do you like movies? Raise your hand if you only like seeing them between October and December,” said Marchetti. “I love going to the movies, but when it’s August I go, ‘Man, I’d love to see something that’s not full of explosions.’ And there’s nothing out. Then in November there’s 10 movies that are all really good and I can’t see them all.”

They used the middling box office run of “Carol” from last year, which opened strong in limited release before struggling to receive attention on a nationwide scale against other Oscar contenders.

“The problem is you are at the mercy of those awards,” said Sanderson. “If you’re sometimes holding those screens for a number of weekends, you’re only going to play in that market for a limited amount of time. If the film is not performing there, you’re going to fall out of that theater and you may not be able to come back. If your audience is not seeing your movie because they’re seeing the other awards movie in that theater, you’re in for a problem. I’m going to take a pitch from one of my favorite Three Stooges references – everyone’s trying to get through the same door at the same time.”

The problem to Sanderson was not the quality of the films – all of which he thought were “really good” – but the lack of appetite to “go see a searing drama four times in a weekend.” They have since taken this lesson to heart for recent Bleecker releases like “Eye in the Sky.”

Eye in the Sky

“Eye in the Sky”

“We obviously release movies in the fourth quarter,” said Sanderson. “We released ‘Trumbo’ in the fourth quarter and that got an Oscar nomination we were very happy about that. But we just put out [‘Eye in the Sky’], and that’s grossed $18.5 million right now, whereas ‘Carol’ did about $12 million. A great movie’s a great movie, and sometimes having that runway where you’re not trampled by other awards contenders in weeks two, three and four can be everything.”

DVD and Blu-ray is not the way for everyone to go, but it shouldn’t be ignored.

Sometimes spending a fortune on exporting production of DVDs will not be helping your film, but again, every film is unique.

“We have to recognize the way the business has evolved over the last 10 years,” says Sanderson. “The major retailers have consolidated: You really need to talk about Walmart, Best Buy and Redbox as your drivers. But if you feel there’s business to be done on VOD, like if the movie has a big cast that would play well at those labels, then yeah, that would make sense. But when we’re talking about thousands and thousands of movies a year, there certainly isn’t enough shelf space at Walmart to accommodate all of those movies. Making thousands of copies of DVDs and not having a place to sell them is not going to work.”

“I’m a firm believer in an art business culture, and if there’s one thing we have to discuss internally and be honest with ourselves, it’s that film is both art and a business,” said Marchetti. “I think it’s getting to a point where we’ll have to have a really difficult conversation about how much of this is really art and how much is business. And that’s okay. So I think if you’re distributing your film yourself you deserve the right to make a really, really good Blu-Ray because you’re probably going to have people who want to put that on their shelf.”

DiGiacomo used her documentary-centric release schedule to offer a counterpoint. “I think that DVD post-theatrical is still viable, something that gets sold with public performance rights,” she said. “For professors screening films especially, those rights are at least $300. So there’s revenue to be made on that side, and a lot of people don’t think about that attention.”

To pitch a film to one of these distributors, you need to have someone with you who knows the game.

In an age where self-promotion is key for a budding filmmaker, these distributors suggest ways of standing out from the pack.

“Working with a sales agent can be great,” said Sanderson. “They understand how to go to market. Sometimes that means showing a script earlier and having to do pitch meetings with distributors sooner, but sometimes that means…there’s something to be said if you feel like you have something that’s going to play well that first night. And if you end up in a situation where you have a bidding war, and a sales agent is going to help guide that process.”

“I’m probably getting 300 pitches a month,” said Marchetti. “When you contact a distributor, you always want to be able to put your best foot forward, you’ll want to be able to tell us why people are going to want your film and what makes it special. And it’ll sound cool if I see a rough cut. If you have some sort of representation, if you have a friend in the film industry or you have a sales agent on it – that helps us sift through the pile. Because it is a pile. We know how much goes into any single film and we respect that, but there is simply no way to appreciate all of them.”

“More films are being made now than ever before,” said Sanderson. “And that’s both a great thing and a challenge for getting noticed.”

Even in the age of VOD, nothing beats the theatrical experience.

All of these labels – especially Well Go USA and Orchard – have made a large amount of their business through VOD. But they don’t just understand the value of playing a film in theaters: They know it adds another cinematic language to the experience.

“‘Weiner’ was a documentary I really liked, watching the campaign unravel and the access they had was incredible,” said Williams. “Two audience members at a premiere we hosted got into a fight over seats. And it was the most New York screening event ever. Everybody was screaming at each other, then everyone was screaming onscreen for two hours. And that’s an ‘Only in NY’ kind of thing, but it completely enhances the picture.”

“Anyone who doesn’t cry in movies…I don’t know. I cried when Gandalf died,” said Marchetti. “At Sundance I saw [‘Manchester by the Sea’], it’s a movie that Amazon is putting out sometime in November, and I saw it with a crowd of 1,200 people. And seeing a movie like that is putting it through an amplifier and turning it to 11. You could just feel the audience around you emotionally experiencing what this guy did on the screen and it was incredible. You can’t do that anywhere else.”

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