A Case for Social Media, Outreach, Marketing and Distribution Producers

The first time I heard of a 50/50 film budget, I was like, yeah, right, like I’m going to spend 50% of my production budget on M&A (Marketing & Advertising). 

That was the fall of 2009 after having spent all but $1K of my budget on MAKING a film. The remaining 1K was earmarked for festival submissions.  Not long after I started spending my own money to cover outreach and marketing expenses so the film would meet some deserving eye balls.  Not including my labor, 20% of the production budget for distribution seemed about right.  But then I started factoring in my time and realized how long an outreach, marketing and distribution process lasts. 50% now was very reasonable.

Shortly after I began running numbers for my next project and not only did I budget much differently with the experience of the Do-it-Yourself (DIY) hybrid distribution freshly tucked under my belt, but I saw how an interconnected budget could save a lot of time, money and creative output if approached holistically from the onset.  What was more, it made me think about my project in a much more focused and yet more diversified way that quickly led to trans-media ideas (more on that in a next expose) and also helped shape my elevator pitch.

Last week I spent a day at Digital Hollywood’s Media Summit in New York and sat into their Content Summit seminars. I found my experiences of the past five years echoed and supported by the panelists and many in the audience who engaged during the Q&A sessions. 

All panelists from five panels were asked to list their main challenges and what trends they saw emerging in the next six to twelve months.  Audience engagement, discoverability and content curation where mentioned by most.  It all leads back to the fact that in the US alone annually 15,000 films are being made. How do you as filmmaker stand out in the crowd, how do you get your film noticed? How do you find and engage your audience? Which communities are you able to tap into and how do you keep them engaged? 

 To take a step back and look at the landscape for independent films and the paradigm shift of the past decade with the event of social media and how content is being consumed, it is clear that the indie distribution models have changed radically and the DIY hybrid distribution model is becoming the norm. (More on the hybrid distribution model in a later post).

Much of these changes are to the filmmaker’s advantage who now have much more control over their work by negotiating separate deals per distribution window to the best deal-offering distributor, rather than being stuck with a packaged all-or-nothing deal and running the risk that a project lands on a shelve somewhere to never be seen again, or it being wildly successful, but never making another penny for the filmmaker (and everything in-between).  At the same token it puts the onus to reach out and market the film on the filmmaker until distribution deals can be reached and distributors will look at those social media numbers and at any trans-media materials that are in place. Hence the 50/50 budget.  But, who better to market your film than you? 

 So: unless you have a studio contract, or a distribution deal in place when you start shooting, or are sleeping with the right people (yes, plural) – you’re out of luck if you do not have a marketing and distribution strategy in place, and I’m not talking about a wish list of: “we’ll get theatrical distribution, or we’ll sell it to TV”.  That’s not a strategy, that’s a (pipe) dream. I’m talking about a REAL, in your control and executable strategy. 

The Sundance Film Festival (festivals traditionally being your first window of distribution) received over 8,000 submissions in 2013 and 160 films were selected; that’s 2%.  Many filmmakers totally forgo the film festivals or submit to small(er) niche festivals just to continue building their fan base. Of course there are those films that do get a theatrical distribution deal and it’s beyond fantastic if that happens and you have to re-do your distribution model – awesome problem to have, but until then – let’s be real. 

My experience and that of fellow indie filmmakers does go to show that a solid outreach, marketing and distribution strategy is key in order to create synergy and a roadmap for the entire production that does not only help focus on the main goal of making the best possible film, but also makes sure that from the onset no opportunities for outreach, collaboration and budgetary synergies are missed. It is as important as unique story and kick-ass script, an air-tight budget, and of course, funding.  A crystal clear understanding of who your audience is going to be is crucial and cannot be stressed enough.  As much as “1234” is not a password, “general public” is not an audience. 

Audience behavior has changed from passive consumerism to expectations of interaction and dialogue. As I heard yesterday: “audiences are in your face and you HAVE to engage with them, and the sooner you do so, the better you control the conversation.” (Mayad Tousi, Producer “The Square” Oscar Nominee 2014). For engagement with your audience multiple entry points are as important as offering (cool) content they want to share with friends. 

How do you raise above the increasing noise of content produced?  How do you gather audiences that are all over the place and how do you travel them back to your content?  No matter if you engage audiences on a website, through FaceBook, on YouTube, or through a blog, if you look at all these entry points in context of your film and your message, there is an overall narrative that can run parallel to your film and enhance it greatly. And, by the way, that is where we are at the cross roads of social media marketing and transmedia content.  You can enhance a larger scale production (i.e. feature film) with bite size, shareable and supportive video elements, and other media as in photos, graphics, animations, or FB profiles for characters. When you create new content, as for example a “making of” web-documentary, a coffee table book, or a game based on your film, you are producing transmedia content.

By coordinating the work that you would do anyway to distribute and market your film you can begin to engage and collect eyeballs along the way AND have an audience that is part of your film and as such willing to participate, i.e. spend money and spread the word.  You do need a person to take all of this on, and that’s, you guessed it, the social media, outreach, marketing and distribution producer.