Should Independent Filmmakers Be Their Own Film Publicists?

Traditionally film publicists have been responsible for navigating the treacherous waters of a film’s publicity strategy. Although it benefits a film’s publicist to have some type of interest and connection to the project, their interests are primarily commercial.

Essentially an independent film publicist’s job is to do the filmmaker’s outreach work for them.  They will pitch for you, help you pilot through the film festival circuit, help your film receive reviews in local and national media, get your film online coverage, get “features” written about you and your film and help track and shape your project. They are also often responsible for creating “buzz” for your project, not only by rubbing shoulders with those who can help launch your film, but also by doing administrative tasks such as writing press releases and designing Electronic Press Kits (EPK’s).

Film publicists are not just spin doctors that manipulate audience’s into going to see the next tent pole Hollywood production. Film publicists are in fact an integral part of the indie landscape. A good film publicist will act as your film’s advocate and conduit to the media. This all being said, independent filmmakers now have the opportunity to train themselves and do all of their own film publicity in-house rather than paying the fees to get someone else to do it for you.

Due in large part to the changing media landscape (i.e. internet, democratization of the production process and too many films and not enough screens… to only a few issues) Independent films are not receiving much attention in the press nowadays. Of course there are some anomalies, but for the majority of filmmakers there is a common sense of anxiety knowing that your film likely won’t meet your publicity or distribution expectations.

Gone are the days when your film would be accepted into a festival and the crowd would be full of hungry and generous distributors looking to buy the next big indie hit.  For example, at Sundance last year (roughly 4000 films are submitted… roughly 177 films are accepted). Out of those 177 films, there are very few high profile deals.

Even when Independent films are being picked up by distributors at these festivals, the advances the filmmakers are making are often only just enough to cover the film’s expenses. Advances for many independent films are ranging from $25,000 to $50,000. This often doesn’t even cover the cost of making the movie in the first place.

Not only that but filmmakers are required to relinquish creative control which leaves their hard work in the hands of a company that may simply shelve their project in order to focus on the more profitable sections of their film catalog (i.e. films with named talent, high production standards and so on)

Example:

Lance Hammer’s film “Ballast” which was a Sundance sensation in 2008. The film won prizes at the prestigious Park City festival for both Best Director and Cinematography, but Lance pulled out of a deal with IFC Films in order to maintain the rights to his film since the offer, which was a normal offer (most offers currently range from $25,000 – $50,000), was not seen as a sustainable offer. Not only that, but the terms of the contract seemed “crazy” according to Lance who was referencing the part of the contract which would have him give away internet rights for 20 years. In an interview with indieWIRE Lace states:

“IFC is a really good company…The problem is the larger issue that’s plaguing every filmmaker right now: The distributors don’t really offer any money. That’s not that big of a deal if they would allow you to have control of your project, but they don’t.” Lance continues by saying: “Now that the film is done, I have to think responsibly because I want to have sustainability as a filmmaker. If Sundance is considered the acme of American festivals, and ‘Ballast’ was one of the films that was rated highly there, then it would be a total tragedy if I couldn’t make another film like it again.
It’s disheartening to know that independent filmmakers are having difficulties even just recouping the cost to make their films. Companies like IFC or mini-majors like Sony Classics, Fox Searchlight or Focus Features, are offering filmmakers back their cost (or less) for their advance in exchange for giving over virtually all creative control.

It’s the purpose of this blog post to help you re-strategize how you draw attention to your film and how you look at the publicity process. .  This blog post will help you come up with ideas on how to get more attention for your documentaries and films over a longer period of time.

Your goal is as follows:

Treat your film as a product within your catalog, not as a one-off sale.

Just as  entrepreneurs build their businesses slowly be increasing their product offerings, relentlessly working on improving quality, customer satisfaction, brand loyalty and repeat visitors, these are all things that filmmakers too need to start considering.

Think long term about your catalog of films. While you may not be able to create more than 1 film or documentary each year or two, over the years, this increasing number of projects under your belt becomes disproportionally more valuable.

What if you had some central hub (such as your website) where you have been audience building since your first film. Not only do you have your loyal supporters who have been purchasing your films since your first film, but you’ll also have new audience members who are not familiar with your first 3 films. This would give a prolonged shelf life to each of your projects. The idea however, is to create a type of HUB where not all of your promotional work goes into each project individually, but is geared towards your catalog of work in general.

This way each new project you undertake will start out where your last project ended. This will  allow you to leverage the efforts of your previous marketing campaigns.

In order to do this you need to build your audience. There are numerous ways to do this but for the sake of brevity we’re going to focus only on a couple of internet marketing strategies for this post. In future posts we’ll cover offline publicity strategies as well.

1. DEVELOP AN EMAIL MARKETING LIST

You need to have an email list. End of discussion. This will allow you to respectfully contact people who have chosen to give you their email address so you can keep them up to date with your film projects. Building your email list takes a lot of time. You’ll start out with a couple dozen contacts, but over the years your email list will balloon to tens of thousands as long as you’re offering something of value to your readers.

We use a service provided by Constant Contact. It’s easy to set up and implement into your existing web presence. You can sign up with them by visiting their website here.

2 DEVELOP A STRONG SEO CAMPAIGN

Search engine optimizing your web pages is a great way to generate interest in your film. However, in order to do this properly, it’s important that you create a content schedule so you know what topics you’ll be discussing and when you’ll be discussing them.

A few quick pointers for creating search engine friendly content

1. Ensure your meta tags are relevant and popular
2. Ensure your keyword density is high enough without sounding redundant
3. Use your keywords in your URL
4. Get inbound links using appropriate anchor tags
5. Distribute your inbound links throughout your website. Create “landing pages” designed to chase the “long tail” of online searches
6. Strategically internally link your website using suitable anchor tags

To bring awareness about your HUB you need to get online and establish relationships with other people in forums, blogs and social networking sites. Create realistic but ambitious website traffic goals for yourself.

Once you’ve optimized a page for a particular search term the work is done. For instance, if you’ve optimized one of your internal pages for the term “independent documentary” or “low budget documentary filmmaking” then, if you’ve spent the time to search engine optimize your pages properly, over time you’ll start to show up on the first page of popular search engines. hopefully you’ll be able to maintain these positions for years to come. The result could be anywhere from 20 to 20,000 possible leads / day depending on the search popularity of your keywords.

You can find out about the popularity of keywords by using any of the numerous keyword popularity tools online.

At first your website may begin by receiving only a few dozen unique visitors / day. However, over time if you’re working on your SEO (Search Engine Optimization) campaign on a daily basis you’ll slowly build up towards receiving hundreds, possibly thousands of free unique visitors / day to your website.

Again, sticking with the philosophy that you are building your business by building a catalog of films, not just promoting one film, all of this work will serve to benefit future projects as well. You will be able to piggyback future projects off the promotional efforts of your earlier films.

But it’s going to require that you take full advantage of the internet and get involved in forums, establish relationships with bloggers and set specific goals for your expected monthly website traffic. Analyze your website metrics each month and see what worked and what didn’t. Using Pareto’s principle, focus on the 20% that’s working and abandon the 80% that’s not.

3. BUILD YOUR ONLINE SOCIAL NETWORKING PRESENCE

It’s equally important to develop a strategy to grow your social networking empire. Gathering fans to your Facebook group, followers on twitter or YouTube subscribers can take time. The question becomes; how can you create a voice that is worth listening too? Do you offer behind the scenes information that filmmakers would find helpful or that fans would find interesting? Why would someone sign up for your newsletter, follow you on twitter or subscribe to your YouTube channel? You need to offer something in exchange (valuable information, members only information, prizes etc)

You don’t want your independent feature film to be remembered as a vanity project that cost a lot of money and took a lot of time. Through the internet you are now able to compete with multimillion dollar productions with monster P&A budgets. However, you need to have a strategy. The existence of the internet alone isn’t enough to launch your career as an independent filmmaker. You need a growth plan, a strategy and a metrics monitoring system.

You can easily monitor your conversion rates (CR) and website traffic growth. The measurability of the medium allows you to see how your hard work is paying off.

In future posts we’ll discuss in more detail the idea that independent filmmakers should be their own film publicists beyond simply using the internet. In upcoming posts we’ll discuss the idea of doing a strategic localized theater release, designing EPK’s, accessing the gatekeepers ( New York Post, Metro, Village voice, Hollywood reporter, New York Times, Time out New York, Variety etc) in order to help give your indie film a chance at a favorable review.

So while it’s unlikely that any of these gatekeepers will cover your online campaign, this is nevertheless an important first step in building a sustainable audience for your future film projects.

Good luck

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