In the modern world, digital marketing & advertising needs to be a part of the launch strategy for your independent film, and it’s all about attention.
Attention is a filmmaker’s currency. If you can command the attention of an audience, then you can share your work with them. It starts with reaching just one person. Then two, and then ten. If you resonate with your audience and do your job well enough, then you will be allowed to create again.
The modern audience has a lot of competitors vying for their attention, in the shape of cinema, Netflix, Amazon, YouTube, Disney+, PayTv, Free Tv, etc. Not to mention other non-film media: mobile phone apps, video games, podcasts, audiobooks, etc.
We live in an entertainment age. Entertainment on top of entertainment, all competing for prime position in the consumer’s home.
Social media is also in the attention business. The longer they have your attention captured, the more likely you will click an ad and buy something. There is a delicate balance for them – they need to make sure that the user experience is positive. Otherwise, they will burn trust, and people will move on. But the right mix of dopamine-triggering-loops and personalised content delivered directly to people’s feeds whenever they need a hit has meant this billion-dollar industry can sell you stuff and sway elections.
Social media and marketing are in the attention game. Your filmmaking is also in the attention game.
The aim of this game: take human attention and put it onto you and your work. The bigger the attention from the largest amount of humans possible means more potential resonance with audiences.
Once the sole domain of traditional print, television, radio, etc. – distributors are increasingly incorporating digital marketing as part of their strategies. But the uptake has been surprisingly slow compared to some other industries.
The bulk of marketing efforts from the larger distributors still focus on the old methods. According to Stephen Follows, film data analyst, Over 80% of the marketing spend from these distributors is focused on a mixture of TV, Outdoor, Press, Radio.
The goal is to market the reasons that might excite the audience – the stars, the story, the hook. With data from audience test screenings and a careful bet on what the project might return at the box office, a marketing budget can be set.
If they can make the case compelling enough and grab attention on a large enough scale, they can push people through the door, whether virtual or physical. And if the film resonates with enough of the audience, they might just create that elusive word-of-mouth effect.
Mass-media marketing is a scattergun approach to attracting attention. And it is costly. Each eyeball impression from a billboard is added up through an expensive marketing strategy that (hopefully) accumulates in a general awareness in the target population.
So where does that leave an independent movie without the backing of studios, stars and multimillion-dollar distribution deals?
Digital technology brings with it the new ability to target people based on their location, interests and demographics, at an almost forensic level. Where traditional marketing is a scattergun, digital marketing is an algorithm powered precision rifle.
Digital marketing technologies can show different ads across the internet to your audience who have already shown an interest in your film using a technique called retargeting. ‘Cold’ potential audiences are served impressions of your advert or trailer and engagements are tracked across a multitude of platforms. Once a potential audience member has shown interest in this way, they can then be considered a ‘warm lead’ and retargeted to take the desired step – perhaps to purchase a ticket, or rent the movie on iTunes.
Imagine if a billboard could track people eyes, and tell if they were interested. And then show them an advert at the point when they were most likely to take action.
It would be cool, right?
But digital technologies bring a whole new set of challenges. The learning curve can be steep. And the internet is too often based around free content, which can make it tricky to monetise grass-roots content online. Audiences expect content to be free or part of a cheap subscription package.
It’s one of the challenges for the Lift-Off Global Network. We continually ask ourselves: ‘How can we engage with audiences and make them feel the value in this work so that they will pay for it?’ It’s quite a challenge.
Without revenue, the art is free (sometimes it should be), but to move into the professional world, you must be able to eventually generate income from your work.
There are a considerable amount of powerful tools at your disposal – and I only see a tiny fraction of filmmakers utilising them. Most filmmakers assume the ‘if I build it, they will come’ approach. Or rely on festivals and hope for a magical deal from a distributor. But the reality is that until you are making waves in the industry until you have ‘value’ in the industry’s eyes, it will be tough, if not impossible to get other people to back you.
You may find a sub-par ‘sales agent/distributor’ to sign your project for all media and all territories. But they won’t put any money into actually marketing a release, and yours will become a part of a big collection of films packaged and peddled under their banner to the lowest bidder.
You must use all of the tools at your disposal to connect with your audience first. Once you have proved your audience is interested, it will be much easier to connect with legitimate partners.
How many of these do you use?: Website, Trailer, Poster, Social Media, Lead Capture, Email Marketing Machines, Digital Advertising and Retargeting, EPK (Electronic Press Kit), etc.
Not using all the tools available is like trying to drive on the motorway but never shifting out of third gear.
A considerable amount of talent goes unnoticed, especially at the grass-roots level. Why? Because there is an incredible amount of noise. The digital revolution has been extraordinary by allowing anybody who has the desire to pick up a camera and start shooting. But it has also flooded the market with lots and lots of product.
The final judging rounds in the Lift-Off Network Festivals are full of ’10/10′ projects. And the panel has to whittle them down to fit into our screening schedule. The process can be brutal, and often films with immense merit have to be passed on.
In reality, it’s up to you to make the industry take notice. And you do this by creating work, connecting it with audiences and producing better work. There is no magical relationship – whether industry-gatekeeper or agent, that will suddenly mean you have ‘made it’.
All of this starts with the audience’s attention. Once you are resonating with audiences, then the industry will sit up and take notice. Not before.
Once you are proven, you might attract the partnership of a large organisation and their marketing department that is willing to spend the big advertising bucks on your next project.
But until then it is up to you and your team to do everything in your power to play this attention game on whatever scale you are at.
So what do you do?
The good news is that you probably already have everything you need. It’s all about the story. The story has all the power. Hopefully, your story has heart and a reason for being.
What is the story? What are the elements of the story that will resonate with the audience? Why do they care?
Everything begins with aligning your project’s digital assets with this. What is the unwritten contract that you are making with your audience? What is the hook? Why should they care? If you can communicate this with your digital assets, then you are off to a good start.
Here are some example digital adverts for ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.’ (Credit: Intermission Film)
Each one has a slightly different focus. They have been designed to ‘hit’ specific segments of the market’s interests and generate attention.
(resonance – Americana nostalgia, stars, director, action)
(resonance – bruce lee, action)
(resonance – 60s nostalgia and Tarantino’s reputation)
Each of these adverts was tested with various segments of the audience, and the results tracked.
With digital advertising, if an advert does well against its KPI (Key performance indicator), it can be considered a ‘winner’. And it will be rolled out on a bigger scale, perhaps with a larger budget depending on the goals of the campaign. If it doesn’t do so well, it can be turned off.
When employed correctly, this digital marketing technique can pour fuel onto small embers and turn them into a roaring flame. If you have a positive response from a small test audience, it’s likely that if you scaled up, it would still do well.
A films value is not released until it is connected with an audience. This is the challenge for the distributor and for the independent producer. And it’s part of the reason why the market values stars, proven directors, adaptations of stories with a baked-in audience, and sequels.
On a smaller independent scale, if you can prove your resonance with your audience, then you reduce the perceived risk in the distribution, and you raise your value in the market.
If you can make the audience feel drawn to your project, if you can command their attention, you can win.
Communicate it in the pictures on a screen, in words to your email subscribers. Nurture them, make them feel a part of something. Give a hint of it in your trailers and pictures spread across a carefully planned marketing campaign.
Rooster Teeth, founded 1st April 2003, is a new media company formed primarily from directly developing their own content-audience relationships and experimenting with different platforms and content. One of their first projects, Red vs Blue, was created by dubbing over screen captures of the popular video game Halo. Rooster teeth grew to immense size over the years and are currently involved with animated production, live-action production, video game development and manages a series of digital channels, podcasts and networks.
Like Rooster Teeth, you need to make something for a specific audience. Far too often the answer to the question ‘Who is the audience’ comes back as ‘well, it’s kinda for everyone.’ This is creative death for the filmmaker. Do you want to make something that repeats an old pattern, or do you want to make something that carves out a new path and adds something to the conversation, whatever the genre?
Serving underserved audiences has been one of Netflix’s secrets. The platform has a content development & acquisition strategy that focuses on the underserved audiences of the world. Sure, the re-runs of Friends might help to keep a mass audience. But by acquiring content for the underserved, they can attract new and niche audiences, and then keep them on the platform with their algorithm – by learning what the user wants and serving them more of it.
The independent creative is wise to start small and then scale up. If you have never made a short film before, do that. Connect with and find your audience. Lars Von Trier can make his film precisely because was able to connect with small audiences, and each project scaled up, and with each step, his voice was defined.
On your journey start to promote yourself with cheap/free tools: Websites, Trailers, Posters, Social Media, Lead Capture, Email Marketing Machines, Digital Advertising and Retargeting, EPK (Electronic Press Kit)
Promoting yourself using social media can feel sleazy. We have all seen the news stories of Cambridge Analytica, trying to sway elections, changing democracy.
We need more creative people using these tools for good.
Consultancy helping independent film content to reach new audiences. Ben Pohlman works with filmmakers, sales agents and distributors to craft Distribution-Marketing Campaigns to increase both impact, audience reach and revenue potential.