Marketing Is Key To Indie Film Success

By Monday August 30th, 2010

You need to think like a blockbuster and grind like an indie. Assume you’re going to have to do it yourself but utilize as many partners as you can in the process. It’s going to take some smarts, some serious nichebusting and probably a crazy stunt or two to get your indie film noticed.

For every dollar spent on producing a major film, the studios have been spending 51-58 cents to release and market it in the United States and Canada.

Big studios behind Hollywood blockbusters put at least half and sometimes as much as twice their production budgets into grandiose marketing campaigns, and they handle all publicity. It must be nice, with the national TV ads, billboards, bus wraps, online contests, and corporate sponsorships… you just lay back and watch people flock to theatres.

On the other end,  there’s the low-budget indie filmmaker out there trying to make some noise with a first feature length film. It’s their job to produce (maybe direct, too) then figure how to distribute and market the final product in order to make money back. Unlike a blockbuster, the distributor that picks up the film probably expects the indie filmmaker to do a good chunk of the marketing and publicity. These days you’re responsible for making your film and selling it too.

So what’s the message? Indie films, more so than blockbusters, should have a marketing and advertising budget that exceeds, doubles or even triples the production budget.

It’s okay if your budget won’t stretch across all major cities and media outlets. Focus in on your niche audience and target your marketing efforts. A smaller movie marketed heavily to a highly specific audience segment is called a nichebuster. (source:

Who has $1,000,000 to market an indie film after making it for $1,000,000? Coming up with the first million is hard enough. The second million won’t come to fruition unless you make it a necessity. Production can begin once the first million is raised, so often times the marketing budget fundraising falls to the wayside. Adding a lackluster 10% to the production budget as a marketing line item is not a satisfactory replacement. It’s like building a house to sell and not telling anyone it exists or where it’s located. Nobody is going to buy your house, or your film. You need a strategy to reach an audience and make a profit. You also need partners, some great marketing ideas, and investor money.

There’s a major misconception that achieving distribution for indie films equals success. That’s not the case. Aside from the major studios and the handful of 2nd tier distributors worldwide, the rest are small companies often with minimal resources and no ability to recoup expenses. I’ve heard stories of small distributors picking up indie films, seizing all rights to the work, then pulling in a dismal return. Some approach the deal by telling the filmmaker it’s their responsibility to push sales. It leaves you wondering, “What do they bring to the table?”

Peter Broderick (film consultant) talks about the “New World” of indie film distribution that’s DIY (source: Profitable films will require a vast online community and innovative marketing to niche audiences, one friend and follower at a time. Here are some productive exercises to get you moving in the right direction:

1. Find a niche for your film
Decide who is going to watch your film. Even more importantly, find out who is going to become a fan, tell all their friends, and blast your film across the online social universe.

2. Research your audience’s behaviors and hobbies
Once you’ve established your niche(s), figure out what your target market watches on TV, what and where they eat, what products they buy, and what websites they frequent. How else are you going to know where to market the film?

My audience is… the techie couple that loves Apple products, surfs the web 2+ hours a day, loves ecommerce shopping and pays close attention to staying fit and eating healthy.

It’s a good start, but keep digging.

3. Specify a marketing budget
For our purposes, we’ll say it’s $1,000,000.

4. Figure out how people will buy/watch your film and how much it will cost
This is your conversion.  Figure out how many conversions you’ll need at the projected cost to make your money back. Investors will want to see this. For example, how many iTunes purchases at $2.99 will you need to make $1,000,000 back at a 70/30 revenue share? Upwards of 478,000 downloads. Sounds pretty daunting, right? If you break that up between theatrical ticket sales, Netflix/Blockbuster rentals, and DVD sales, maybe the number becomes a little less intimidating.

5. Choose your channels, break down your spending
With so many options, you really have to focus on finding your niche audience and getting the most reach for your budget. Blogging and social media initiatives have the most potential for generating buzz for the smallest payout, but they take discipline, a lot of great content, interest from your followers, and time to grow. Other mass media options call for a large initial buy-in for a big swooping impact, but the results may be spotty and less focused on exact geography and niche audience. A TV campaign, for example, can hit a massive audience, but it’s typically the most expensive option, it’s not highly targeted, and not built to engage your audience in two way conversation. Here’s a short list of options (by no means all) to get you started:

Brand Marketing – Website. mobile website, mobile app
Online Marketing – Search (text/image ads), online display, rich media, video ads, social ads (Facebook)
Traditional/Offline Marketing – Print (magazine and newspaper ads), outdoor (billboards, digital signage, bus wraps, etc), TV, Radio
Event/Sponsorship Marketing – Event screenings, event sponsorship (advertise to a built in audience)
PR/Content Marketing – Blogging, affiliate blogging (incentivize outside bloggers), SEO, social media (Facebook, Twitter)

6. Figure out who your advocates are and use them
This should be something you consider before making your film. It’s more than just what makes you different. You need to figure out how to use your talent and partners to become advocates, or spokespeople for your brand. In a conversation last year with a Philadelphia producer, Patricia Weisser, she explained how her interest in bringing Neil Patrick Harris to her film The Best and the Brightest, went beyond his acting talent. Neil brings an extensive online following (over 670,000 on Twitter – @actuallyNPH). Patricia added, “We really considered the Internet following of our entire cast during casting process. In fact, John Hodgman (PC from Apple’s “Get a Mac” campaign) and Peter Serafinowicz (Shaun of the Dead) have an equally impressive number of followers. Other cast members including Amy Sedaris, Kate Mulgrew and Bridget Regan have quite a rabid fan base as well.”

Other Indie films may choose to enlist the talent of an athlete or entertainer to add a recognizable face and a niche following. Hiring star power is expensive but extremely attractive to an investor or distributor.

7. Target cross-promotional opportunities (think product placement)
If all of your characters drink Pabst Blue Ribbon, maybe you need to call Pabst early on and pitch your film as an exciting sponsorship opportunity. Pabst, in an effort to promote their Pabst Art brand agreed to sponsoring the recent Philadelphia premier of Runner, a short film by Expressway Productions.

Or think of it in reverse, as a co-branded partnership. Can you team up with a company that is releasing a new brand or product, and become a platform for their launch? It’s certainly worth investigating.

8. Create a contest or promotion
There are many online contest platforms and compliance marketers out there who specialize in helping you reach your online fan base with a contest or promotion. Realtime Media (a compliance marketing agency) and Yunno (an online contest engine) are two options in the Philadelphia region. Their solutions will integrate into your Facebook fan page and drive buzz once your followers start generating content, publishing their activity, and “liking” your contest. This can be a powerful vehicle for building your film community.

9. Your film should have a life beyond the screen
If it makes sense, consider creating an interactive website for your audience. This can be as simple as a forum or a social platform where audiences can delve deeper into the characters, interact with other fans, and view behind-the-scenes content.

Sometimes films will go as far as to create games to create excitement for a movie. “Inception”, the recent release starring Leonardo DiCaprio, launched a number of web games that start the audience on the mind-bending journey. Read more about the viral campaign here.

10. Consider what services and distribution outlets to utilize: – Figure out where to screen your film based on audience demand

Film Baby – Expose and sell your work to a world-wide audience while keeping an average of 80% of the sales

CreateSpace – Self-publish then sell your work through and other sales channels

FlickRocket – Set up a fully-branded online movie shop

iTunes – Become an iTunes content producer and open your film up to millions

Netflix – Submit your film to Netflix, DVD-by-mail and online streaming service

Super D – Have access to retail outlets across the globe once you’re a part of Super D’s catalog of independent films.

11. Establish goals and metrics
Once you’ve chosen your channels, figure out how you’ll measure success. What are your online and offline goals and what are you measurement tools? Choose metrics for measurement (ex. page views, paid views, downloads, tickets sold, website impressions, Facebook fans & likes, Twitter mentions) and then define success as it relates to each metric.

You will likely spend as many years in sales and marketing as you do planning and producing your film. If that turns your stomach, then be ready to pay a consultant or producer’s agent to do the work for you. Even then, you should be the film’s biggest advocate and publicist, and you’ll have to champion the film with all your might to make it a success.

You need to think like a blockbuster and grind like an indie. Assume you’re going to have to do it yourself but utilize as many partners as you can in the process. It’s going to take some smarts, some serious nichebusting and probably a crazy stunt or two.

More Reading:

Paranormal Activity: Low budget Film Marketing

Warner Bros. viral tactics:

Macgruber: Mobile/App marketing for the film

Digital Ditribution: how to get your film on iTunes:

Article about hybrid distribution

Truly understanding your film

iTunes music store and the indie artist

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About the Author

Jason is co-founder and CEO of Brolik, a digital agency in Philadelphia. As an entrepreneur, Jason is passionate about helping other business owners navigate the complicated journey of owning a business and developing marketing strategies to grow their brand.
Follow @jaybrew on Twitter or connect with Jason on LinkedIn or Google+