August 18, 2014
Editor's Note: You can now vote for the panels you want to see at SXSW 2015! If voted in, Paul will join our very own Emily Best, Mia Bruno of Gravitas Ventures, and Márcia Nunes of Tenacious Productions in “Price of Passion: The Filmmaking Entrepreneur,” an action-oriented conversation on the real work of making money making movies. But it’ll only happen if we vote! Do it, do it, do it.
Last April, my movie Favor was released on VOD and quickly ascended to the top of the iTunes charts. Within just a few hours, it was clear the film had turned into a hit, and in the months since, filmmakers have been seeking me out to ask the big, burning question: how did we do it? It’s fair to inquire; after all, Favor is one of those tiny, microbudget features that have neither big name actors nor corporate backing. Dozens of these are dumped onto VOD each week and almost always immediately fall away into the digital abyss. So what did we do differently?
Of course, when I give them the answer— that we created and ran our own pervasive, targeted marketing campaign— the color drains from their faces. They were looking for something easier; some simple, magic, secret button they need only press before sitting back and watching the fireworks. Instead my reply has crushed them, and what follows the facial response is often a grumbling series of statements about how they have no interest in marketing, and even if they did they certainly wouldn't know how to do it.
But here's the deal: if you've actually made a film, you've already been marketing it. You've been doing it all along, even before you shot the damn thing.
When you first had your script in hand, or even before that, when you only carried a notion in your head of what the movie would be, you went over to your producing partner and said, "I have an idea for a film." They replied, "What is it?" And then you opened your mouth and pitched it.
That's all marketing is, really— a pitch. What kind of movie is it? What’s it about? How does it feel? Why would someone want to see it? It is all these questions, presented with the conviction and passion one must possess to actually force a flick into existence in the first place. Every piece of marketing is just that pitch, over and over and in different forms. You've been pitching your movie since its inception; when you recruited your actors, when you approached your cinematographer, your art director, your editor, the owner of each and every location you shot in. Unless you made the film with your own money you had to pitch to your investors, and if you crowdfunded, you pitched the hell out of it in your video, in print, and day after day on social media.
Making movies is a collaborative effort, and pitching is vital part of that. It's how you convince people not only to join your production but to get on the same page about what sort of flick it is. And guess what? Pitching the audience is no different. The people who see your movie are not some faceless horde. They're living, breathing participants in the process, contributors armed not just with their response to your film but their advocation of it and, hopefully, an interest in your future work. The audience is as much a part of your team as anyone else, and various versions of your pitch— in the guise of trailers, clips, posters and news stories— are what you use to get them to sign on.
The trick is to stop viewing marketing as some cold corporate sales tool and see it for what it truly should be, an extension of the filmmaking process that stretches from pre-production all the way through distribution.
An added benefit of thinking about marketing this way is that it allows you to recognize that you’re refining your pitch along the entire journey. Our marketing campaign for Favor was highly successful and universally praised because of its relatable simplicity. We described our flick as a thriller based on the old saying, "a friend helps you move; a good friend helps you move a body." The trailers all began with this notion, clearly stated, and our poster refined the idea even further by presenting it as a cartoonish meme so immediately understandable that I believe it to be largely responsible for the majority of our VOD business. A potential viewer needed only a momentary glimpse to get the flick’s jist.
But that’s not where we started. To me, Favor has always been a complex drama about the inequalities of friendship, and the very first time I described it to my producer it took about fifteen rambling minutes. When I pitched it to the actors I wrote the lead roles for, it took ten. By the time we created our crowdfunding video, we were down to five minutes and had finally realized that the element that seemed to be the biggest hook was the "friend helps you move" mantra, pulled from a bit of dialogue early in the script. We continued to hone our pitch, whittling it down while gauging reactions to it throughout production, post, and our festival run until we'd distilled the whole thing to the bare and most effective essentials.
The process took two years and was a lot of work, sure, but it's something every filmmaker is already doing anyway. You’ve got your pitch, you’ve refined it through repetition and now only need to take the final step of applying it to the audience. Instead of looking at marketing as some massive job that's completely alien to you, recognize it as an extension of something you've already passionately done.