Changes in filmmaking technologies have created more filmmakers, more films and more documentaries than ever before. A similar revolution has occured in film marketing. The Internet has made it easier than ever for a film to find its audience even before its finished. MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING, THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST and FARENHEIT 911 are all examples of films which found their market without going through the mass media first.
The following are suggestions that worked for those films and they will work for yours as well. How well they work will have a great deal to do with how much time you spend analyzing your market and planning your attack . . .
Know your fans. One thing filmmakers hate is being told to create movies people will "like". Independent filmmakers make movies because they have something important or interesting to say and they aren’t going to invest all that time and energy pandering to strangers they don’t even know. The good news is, you don’t have to. Once your film is finished, or almost finished, sit down and figure out who is going to like it. MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING was perfectly suited to the Greek community. These were people this population knew and situations they understood. So is it any surprise that the filmmakers decided to open the film first in Greek communities? Or that they made a specific effort to target those communities through their newspapers, their theaters and their churches? THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST made its first appearance on rickety screens in parish halls where people sat in folding chairs to watch it. Farenheit 911 appeared first before "liberal audiences" who already accepted its premise. Subsequent success from all these films came from making those first reviews the best they could be. Give your film the same good fortune.
Seek flattery . . . or controversy. MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING turned its small fire into a huge blaze by showing it to influential audiences in Hollywood, Cannes, Aspen and elsewhere. Those media magnates loved it, told one another, told the world that this was the first of a new breed of independent films. It didn’t have big stars. It didn’t have a big budget. But it did have a big heart. PASSION OF THE CHRIST and FARENHEIT 911 both thrived on controversy. PASSION OF THE CHRIST was an unabashedly Christian film in a nation embattled over religion. It was bloody, violent, showcased torture, and didn’t protray Jews (or Romans for that matter) in a particularly favorable light. For all the people who hated the film for those reasons, others loved it. And many, many more saw the film to make up their own minds. FARENHEIT 911, and its progenitor Michael Moore, was so well hated . . . the Political Right practically sold the film to the American public and to audiences overseas. O’Reilly "advertised" the show for weeks in daily rants. Tucker Carlson mentioned it so often he should have received product placement revenue. When your film is finished, and its gotten its share of great reviews, don’t be afraid to put it in the hands of the folks who will hate it completely. You’d be surprised how that energy can churn sales.
Go wide, but not too wide. When a film is bad, it goes into wide distribution immediately. The studios try to book it into as many theaters as possible as fast as possible because its only going to have one week in theaters. When a film is good . . . get it into theaters where it will do its best and then contact theater owners as it gains market share. Make sure they see the reviews. Make sure they see the trailers. Consider working with digital cinemas which can display films created and edited in digital media. Independent feature films have some advantages over studio films. You can draw people to specific theaters or theater chains, and you can execute some unique "co-marketing" agreements that the studios can’t compete with. Exhibitors are struggling to maintain their market share. You make that easier for them when you give them a film not every theater can show.
Key to all these strategies is to carefully analyze your distribution options from a financial perspective. Distribution through large film distributors may seem like the Holy Grail, but you are giving control over your film’s distribution to virtual strangers along with a substantial percentage of your profits. Consider paying cash up front to execute a "distribution service agreement" with folks like FREESTYLE or ROCKY MOUNTAIN. You’ll retain more of the back end on your film and you’ll end up with more control over its release. If you can create and fund a feature film for hundreds of thousands or millions you can create and fund a rational distribution plan as well. No film is really finished until it has reached its audience.
Start your marketing while your film is still in preproduction. Storyboard your trailers just as you do the rest of your film film. Make sure they sell the "sizzle" that made you decide to do it in the first place.
Viral marketing for a film or documentary is relatively easy for filmmakers who can stay true to their vision for a film, demand good production values, and take time to really understand their audience.