The internet has turned traditional business models upside down. This includes the market relationship between sellers and buyers.
Gone are the days when enterprise could say, “if we build it, consumers will come.” Today, consumers refuse to buy what they don’t want. In fact, consumers are designing the products they do want. Case in point: threadless.com, an online, community-based T-shirt company. Members submit T-shirt designs, and the threadless community votes. The top few designs are printed and sold in the online store, and designers take home a chunk of the pie.
A variation of this type of online crowd sourcing has also pulverized the conventional ways people buy and sell movies. While Hollywood continues to roll out gazillion-dollar marketing machines to make sure audiences know where to find its new releases, entrepreneurial do-it-yourself moviemakers are doing the same thing, using the internet and spending a lot less money.
The web’s flattening of the movie market landscape has enabled DIY media creators to play with the big boys. First, do-it-yourselfers mastered digital video production tools, and then they moved on to harnessing web-based technologies to promote, distribute and deliver audiovisual content to their selected audiences.
What this means is that you too can make back your blockbuster’s credit-card-infused production budget – and then some.
The online potential for movie marketing became clear the instant user-created content exploded on YouTube and MySpace. Not only could you post videos of your singing cat, but you could give the thumbs up or down to the other guy’s latest mashed up movie parody. But not all do-it-yourself content is created equal. Consumers want the good stuff, and they’ll pay for it when they can find it.
Here’s a movie marketing success story brought to you by mass audiences and the internet. You can call it a “what-next story,” because it’s about what can happen after you’ve made the rounds bicycling your movie around the festival circuit.
In the summer of 2007, two DIY filmmakers made history when their autobiographical movie, Four-Eyed Monsters, became the first feature-length film ever posted on YouTube. The backstory goes something like this:
Shooting FEM on Mini-DV with a fist full of credit cards, New York filmmakers Arin Crumley and Susan Buice plunged one hundred thousand dollars into debt. But, even during production, they were working on making their money back. They posted engaging behind-the-scenes episodes of Monsters on MySpace and asked podcast subscribers to supply their zip codes if they liked what they saw and wanted to see the finished movie on local screens.
A quirky telling of the filmmakers’ personal tale about dating hell and the fear of relationships, Four-Eyed Monsters resonated immediately with audiences. The 81-minute biopic won a truckload of festival awards but didn’t make a dime until the buzz paid off in sales. FEM fans came through with both offline and online money-making opportunities. First, they helped the filmmakers book local theatres for screening the movie. Then they hyped the movie on Spout.com, a movie review site that paid the filmmakers one dollar every time a Spout reviewer recommended Four-Eyed Monsters. Spout cash registers rang up $48,000 for the filmmakers.
There are other stories like this, and the next one could be yours.
The Audience Is Never Wrong
Do-it-yourselfers Crumley and Buice are not only selling Monsters on their website, but, like many DIY creators, want to reach as wide an audience as possible. So, they’ve made deals with online distributors and content sellers like bside.com.
Bside.com, which carries Four-Eyed Monsters DVDs and DRM-free downloads (no digital-rights-managements issues), is a one-stop movie exchange, where filmmakers, festival programmers and audiences connect to sell, review and buy original, independently-made content that doesn’t include singing cats.
“The audience is never wrong,” reads the slogan of B-side Entertainment. And they should know. The Austin, Texas entertainment technology group does more than sell content; it also crunches marketing numbers for film festivals. B-side’s software tracks the appetites of film audiences around the world by sifting through the chatter of online movie communities to discover what’s riveting and what’s not.
Last year B-side sold its data to Hot Docs, the biggest documentary festival in North America. The Toronto fest claims that the audience feedback info B-side provided helped festival marketers boost attendance by more than thirty percent. One of the films that B-side tracked for Hot Docs ’07 was Curt Johnson’s Your Mommy Kills Animals. The film explores the animal rights activism movement and has its own marketing tale to tell.
Leading up to the festival, New York-based director Johnson and his Canadian distributor, Vagrant Films Releasing, created a buzz with a Mommy music video and production blogs posted on MySpace and Facebook. During the week of the festival, they unleashed a six-foot bunny into the streets of Toronto – along with an army of youngsters wearing Animal Liberation Front masks and handing out Mommy flyers, buttons and stickers. The controversial doc opened to a packed house of rowdy foot-stomping 18- to 25-year-olds.
Vagrant president Ryan Bruce Levy is a believer in shifting marketing strategies into whatever shape they need to be to find their demographic.
“You sometimes have to kind of show your distributor who your audience is,” Levy says. “I think collaboration, grassroots marketing, taking to the web and utilizing these new technological advances to find your audience are going to be the wave of the future.”
The DIY crowd is harnessing the power of the web and doing the heavy lifting it takes to bring their screen properties to market. The best way to do that is to build online communities around original, well-made and powerfully-told screen stories.
If you’re serious about selling your film, here are some movie marketing morsels:
- Start a website for your movie with its own domain name. Caution: If you wait until the movie is complete, you’ll miss your shot. It takes about six months for a website to attract regular traffic. So, start now. Post a few simple pages at first: pics and bios of principals, the logline, maybe the film’s treatment, if you’re comfortable with that. Once you’re in production, post well-shot production stills with clever captions.
- Spend some bucks on e-mail management software. Users should be able to submit their e-mail addresses so you can generate production updates for list members. If your film is about social issues, consider adding relevant magazines and organizations to your mailing list. Take the time for weekly, well-written episodic updates and teasers on your blog, and mail them to subscribers. Tip: Address your mailings as if they were going to a single user.
- Exchange links with other DIY auteur-entrepreneurs. By striking polite agreements that say, “I’ll link to your site if you’ll link to mine,” you’ll increase traffic to your movie’s page and watch your search engine rankings go up.
Movie trailers are the most clicked-on content on the web. As you get closer to post production, if not sooner, you will want to post a trailer that runs no longer than two minutes. Check with your internet provider about bandwidth and streaming issues. You don’t want to interrupt any marketing momentum by making it painful for your fans to finally watch a snappy, breathtaking preview of your film.
Many of the thousands of movie-related websites were built by enthusiasts and fellow DIY creators. Some will post a banner of your film for nothing. Prepare several well-designed versions, and get them rotating on as many sites as possible.
If you get your film accepted by festivals or if it’s showing in theatres, be sure to post locations, screening times and reviews on your website. Mirror this info in mailings to your subscribers.
Check out “watch, rate and interact” sites such as inDplay, B-side, hungryflix and workbookproject.com. These and others that sell premium do-it-yourself content are best bets for marketing your DVDs and DRM-free downloads. Ultimately, what sells your film is its connection with an audience. Know who your audience members are, find them, share your story with them and make sure they know where to find your movie.
Peter Biesterfeld is a documentary maker, freelance writer and Professor of Documentary Production.