We’re now well past the two major events that kick off the film festival season, with both the Telluride Film Festival and Toronto Film Festival behind us. As expected by most, the news isn’t great at all, with many highly touted films that debuted at those festivals still lacking distribution deals. The failure of some – most – movies to come away with sales under their belts is just the latest nail to be driven into the coffin of the independent film market, one that’s fallen victim to a combination of over-saturation in theaters, too much production money being thrown around and an economic downturn that has bigger studios turning away from unknown properties in favor of comic adaptations, sequels and remakes.
Despite this gloomy picture the festivals are more highly covered by the entertainment press in the last three years then ever before, with almost every high profile movie blog sending one or more representatives and plenty of journalists there from what remains of the trade publications. In a funny way, coverage of the festivals has increased almost exactly as much as the actual sales market at those festivals has declined. More stories are filed but fewer deals are done.
One of my gripes in the last couple years has been that despite the saturation of movie industry writers buzzing about all those movies, very little of that buzz is carried over to when those movies are sold to a distributor are eventually released. If a filmmaker and his team sell their movie to one of the remaining buyers, that studio seems to discard whatever positive word-of-mouth and goodwill has been established through the festival appearance in favor of a marketing campaign that follows what for them is a more traditional model.
That’s why I’ve been thinking lately that studios have in their very own hands the key to turning the independent film market around and making their festival acquisitions a more profitable investment. And that key looks very much like a strategy involving embracing the word-of-mouth a movie already has in its favor.
The reality is that, with very few exceptions (the upcoming Up in the Air comes to mind) it’s really hard to market a festival film to a mainstream audience. Running a traditional marketing campaign for a movie like Moon, one of the most-buzzed about films from the most recent Sundance Film Festival felt very much like the studio was trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. More effective what director Duncan Jones’ interactions with fans and bloggers on Twitter, where he could talk to people and tell them about the movie’s theatrical expansion and other developments and thank people who had championed the movie for their efforts. Even Up in the Air, which features one of the biggest current movie stars is more…polished…than most arthouse fare is benefiting from director Jason Reitman’s Twitter presence, which has a similarly conversational and behind-the-scenes feel.
Both of these efforts have many things in common, but the biggest one is that they use social media tools to embrace, communicate and empower their fans. Which is kind of the point.
One of the problems with the studio model is that it’s one that’s only built to define success based on a single yardstick. More accurately there’s one set of tactics that a movie has to be promoted through because that’s how the infrastructure within studios has been established. If the movie is one that could benefit from something different, well that’s just too bad. It needs a mass-appeal poster, a mass-appeal trailer and then a distribution pattern that is meant to minimize financial risk but which has the side effect of minimizing audience exposure, thus dooming the movie. I’ve referred previously to this as kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy, where a studio buys a movie for the prestige value but then expresses doubts about its market viability and executes such a limited distribution program that they wind up proving their own skepticism.
So instead going down this road again and again, what if studios bought a movie and then:
-made sure all the positive reviews that resulted from the festival screening were linked to from the film’s official website
-executed an ad campaign promoting screenings on those blogs that were among the film’s initial champions
-used those blog writers as hosts for some screenings, letting them further express their passion for the movie
engaged in outreach to other online communities that were relevant to it (special interest groups, fans of the movie’s genre, etc)
-used social media to allow people to meet others in their geographic area that were interested in the movie and plan a real life meeting, with the studio popping for coffee, pizza or whatever
Basically find ways to harness some of the enthusiasm people have coming out of the festival and use it to expand the movie to more audiences. Don’t try to go wide at first and don’t even try a traditional platform release schedule. Let the movie work organically from point A to point B, with growth coming from the audience itself, with some sort of online ambassador – the director, a studio publicist or whomever is best and most passionate about it – making sure that the online buzz is extended and broadcast in the easiest and most engaging possible way.
These tactics aren’t going to work for every movie. Hell they may not even work for one. But the only people are going to turn around the film festival sales market are those with the money to spend, and that’s the studios. If they start innovating and experimenting with new ways to promote and publicize the movies that emerge from those festivals as favorites I firmly believe we’ll see a market currently suffering a massive downturn right itself and vibrancy return. Best of all, this sort of experimentation is going to prove out the legitimacy of other “true” independents that are already doing some of these things, possibly putting them on some people’s radars and bringing them more success.
The primary point, though, is that there’s all this positive word-of-mouth that results from film festival appearances, something that’s still sought after by filmmakers of all shapes and sizes. Letting that go and not building upon it is a missed opportunity to let fans of a movie contribute to the success everyone is striving for. - Chris Thilk