In this guest filmmaking article, producer Doug Gritzmacher outlines the grass roots movie marketing strategy his team utilized for Soldiers of Paint
A lot of filmmakers are asking me how to promote a movie.
It was about a year ago while on a trip in Acadia National Park that I received a call from First Run Features saying they wanted to distribute my film. I was in the park driving to a photo location I had scouted out for sunset. Cell phone service is non-existent in the park, except for a high-elevation piece of road with an overlook. I was passing this spot when I got the call.
“Hi, this is Marc from First Run Features. I just got done watching your film and I love what you guys have done. We’d love to talk to you about distributing it.”
Come again? First Run Features is a renowned distributor of independent narrative and documentary films and was our top—read: dream—choice. And they loved it. Just like that, six years of the hardest work I had ever known with no guarantee it would ever pay off, just did. Finally, my filmmaking partner and I could exhale a breath of relief. We’d made it.
Or so we thought…
Here is our trailer:
First Run Features released our documentary film, “Soldiers of Paint” in May of this year.
After the release, it didn’t take us long to realize that just because you have a distributor, and a reputable one at that, you can sit back and watch your film fly off the shelves.
While the distributor made our film available to buy, we realized it was still up to us to get people to buy it!
So on top of having to become producers, editors, graphic artists, transcoding technicians, and web developers, we were now going to have to become marketers and salesmen. In other words, we had to figure out how to promote a movie!
If you are like me, you got into filmmaking so you wouldn’t have to work in business.
But as independent filmmakers, we don’t have the luxury of a nation-wide multiplex release, or the marketing budget to blanket the earth with billboard ads, or tie-ins with Big Gulp cups and Happy Meals. So what can we do?
If you are trying to figure out how to promote a movie, I bring you the Internet!
How To Promote a Movie
Thanks to the Internet, we have tools available to us to market our films without the benefit of a big Hollywood marketing budget. Those tools are part of a strategy that I developed for our film that entails creating one consumer at a time. And if you’re trying to figure out how to promote a movie, this is what I call “the ground game.”
The ground game is a term I borrowed from the political world.
During his 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns, Barack Obama employed a ground game to deft effect. He went back to the future in utilizing door-to-door canvassing, a tactic as old as politics itself. It is also one of the most time-consuming ways to conduct a campaign, but the Obama campaign utilized modern technology to make it efficient.
They were able to implement this by slicing and dicing information from public records and consumer lists to isolate which voters were worth the time and effort to engage directly. This proved to be more effective and efficient use of resources than relying on phone banks, fliers, and commercials to blanket every potential voter.
This Obama strategy can be utilized by filmmakers learning how to promote a movie. You simply find and then target those who would be most interested in your film (this assumes you know your target audience. If not, figure that out before reading further).
These are the same tactics I am currently using now for my film, “Soldiers of Paint.” They are an aggregation of information pulled from personal research, trial and error, and implemented practices tried by others. I’m passing on to you to provide in one place exactly what I couldn’t find for us—current tactics for marketing independent films.
Keep in mind that many of the following tactics are in progress and the success of some remains to be seen, but they are worth a look and if you try them, let us know how it goes!
Grow Your Email List
Our film is about Oklahoma D-Day, a paintball game in which 4,000 soldiers re-stage the Invasion of Normandy. Yup, this includes real tanks and airplanes, too! Check it out HERE.
This is an annual event and we returned to the game for each of the six years it took us to complete the film. Each time we took clipboards with email signup sheets and passed them around during screenings and at the field’s store and cafe. We collected more than 500 emails doing this. This is critical. Why?
The people who take time to sign up to receive emails from you want to receive emails about your film. These first people are and will be your core fan base. They will be those most likely to stick with you throughout the making of your film, eagerly anticipating its release. These early adopters are most likely to tell their friends about your movie. Once more, they likely have had the opportunity to meet you in person.
People are much more likely to be invested in something when they have a personal relationship with the people behind the projects.
You want to be sending emails to your lists whenever you have news, and it doesn’t have to be groundbreaking. This could be news about completing principal photography on your film, hiring of an editor, or a release of your film on a new platform.
By including your fan base in on the process, you are making them feel as if they are part of process, which makes them even more invested in you and your film. It’s a win-win.
How do you email your fans?
For our email list, we use MailChimp. There are several email services available, but most require a fee. MailChimp is free up to a certain limit, allows you to send HTML emails, and includes analytics.
I recommend sending HTML emails over text emails. HTML allows you to make an email constructed by graphics, which are visual and more likely to grab your fans’ attention. I design my HTML emails in Photoshop and then upload to the web. I input the link of the graphic to image-maps.com where I can create individual clickable regions on the graphic. Then I import that into MailChimp.
Don’t have events where you can collect emails? No problem. You can also gather emails through your website. Which brings me to the next most crucial tactic for selling your film…
Your Movie Website
Now that most people we know seem to have a Facebook page and with the increasing flexibility of Facebook fan pages to allow more and more information to be displayed in various ways (i.e. tabs, see notes on Facebook below), it is easy to wonder why a website is worth the bother at all.
I know several filmmakers who have indeed eschewed websites and instead focused their resources on a Facebook page only. But I think it is still vital to have website separate from Facebook to represent your film.
First: A website allows you to package your film how you choose. This is important for branding your film as well as creating an emotional experience for consumers. We all know how swayed we are by packaging and it is no different for your film.
Second: Your website provides one-stop shopping for consumers. Our film is available on at least six different platforms. Our website serves as a central hub and includes links to each platform.
It is also a place where we can point people we contact using other tactics.
Third: Your movie website helps bring customers to you through Internet searches. While most of these tactics are focused on you finding your customers, search engines allow for the reverse—people to find you.
We have engineered our website with precisely this in mind. While we made our film to appeal to a broad audience in the tradition of “Murderball” and “The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters”, we know our target market is paintball players, so on our website we focus on the terms “paintball” and “movie”.
This way, when someone types “paintball movie” into Google – we presume this is a paintball fan looking for a movie about paintball. So we want our site come up in search. (Currently we are coming up on the fourth page. Over time we hope to get closer to the first page of results).
For optimal SEO (search engine optimization) I suggest creating your website with Worpress.org (not WordPress.com). By building your site on a blogging platform you are making your site a breeze to crawl and index for search engine bots. Additionally, a blog allows you to keep your site current by posting regular news updates and enrich your keywords count. We make sure all our blog posts include the words “paintball” and “movie”.
You also don’t have to be a web developer to make a WordPress site. There are many pre-built themes that are easily customizable and some through drag and drop functionality. It’s never been easier to build a website.
For more information, check out this article how to set up a filmmaker website.
Social Media For Your Movie
A study performed in August 2013 revealed that through social media the average user receives 54,000 words a day, or the length of the average novel, and 443 minutes of video, or four “Star Wars” movies. You are about to add to that.
Social media, love it or hate it (I fall into the latter, sigh), is a highly effective tool for finding customers. This is because you can search and target users based on interests, such as the topic of your film.
As of this writing “Soldiers of Paint” has 3,051 “likes”. Half of that number was built up over a 5.5 year span; the other half, over one month. The difference? Paid ads. The first half was acquired organically—reaching out to people via our website and in person to “like” our page. Clearly, that got us only so far.
On the suggestion of our music supervisor, Devon Leger, who runs a music publicity business with an active Facebook presence, we tried a paid ad. Boom! Our likes started to explode. Each morning brought new excitement as we logged on to Facebook to see how many new likes we had accrued.
Once we doubled our number, I paused the campaign. I did this because I have no way of knowing how many of those new likes translated into sales. Our film is available on DVD, iTunes, Amazon, and YouTube, none of which give us access to analytics. So it is impossible to see if there was a spike in sales during the month of our paid ad.
(As a side note, this is where I see self-distribution via Vimeo on Demand being an advantage to the filmmaker: on top of getting a much larger percentage of sales than can ever be had from a distributor (90%!), Vimeo provides analytics reports so a filmmaker can track sales numbers to see what advertising efforts may be paying off).
So why use a paid Facebook ad at all? Like Obama strategists who sliced and diced information to find voters most likely to be persuaded to vote for their candidate, so does Facebook allow for slicing and dicing of Facebook users to find those most likely to be interested in your film.
With a paid ad, you have the ability to target who sees that ad as narrowly as you wish. Based on our existing “likes”, we knew our fan base skewed heavily male and at which age range. And since our distributor only distributes in North America, we didn’t have to waste money on ads showing up on the pages of Facebook users in, say, Japan.
Our ad had this target: Males aged 17-44 in North America who have an interest in paintball.
You can see what a powerful tool Facebook ads can be and why, even without knowing how many likes convert to sales, they are compelling to try out. Either way, you can help facilitate converts by making it easier for visitors to your Facebook page to purchase your film. I do this with Facebook tabs.
Take a look our page. Notice the little images below our banner image? We have “photos”, “Watch Trailer”, “Get the film”, and “Reviews”. These are called tabs and customizable via third party plugins. Most charge a fee, but I found this simple, yet free, option.
If you decide to try out a Facebook ad, know that how your ad looks will have a significant impact on its effectiveness. Use these guidelines when designing your ad: 1) Create a catchy headline, such as a question, which immediately engages the user; 2) People react best to pictures of other people, so, if possible, utilize in your ad a face, perhaps of an essential character from your film; and 3) Use a color scheme that contrasts with the color scheme on Facebook. Think reds, oranges, and yellows.
Twitter For Your Movie
The first time I logged on to Twitter was three months ago. So I hardly seem like someone who should be imparting advice on how to use it for marketing. Yet, it didn’t take me long to recognize the power of Twitter for marketing. I went on to read a lot of blogs and try out many suggested tactics to begin taking advantage of that power immediately. I was met with mixed success.
I’ll assume you are much more up to speed on Twitter than I was a few months ago and that you have an account for your film, in your film’s name. Ours is @soldiersofpaint. So you got that. Then what?
You want to find users who have an interest in what your film is about and get them to check out your profile. Twitter allows for searching using the “#” followed by the search term. This symbol is called a hash tag. And it is what people put in tweets so they are searchable by a specific search term.
For us, a search on #paintball turns up all tweets with that term. From there we can look at who might be interested in paintball and thereby, our film. But we do not tweet to them: “Hey check out our film @soldiersofpaint!”
This is considered bad practice. Instead, as many bloggers suggest, we find people who are asking questions about your topic and answer them with a tweet. You don’t need to mention your product since receiving a tweet from you will encourage them to check out your profile. You can also “follow” them and hope they follow you back and in so doing see your page.
This is what I have tried, even employing several third party platforms to help (Tweetdeck, Mention, etc). It’s a major time suck with not much to show for it. Searching on specific terms includes corporate users mixed in with individuals and users who just happen to mention the word but have no other discernible interest in paintball, WWII, or documentary films.
We gain maybe one new follower a week, but many of those are people just like us—following us hoping we’ll check them out and buy their product. Ugh.
One useful tool for Twitter is called Tweepi.com. With it, you can find the followers of a popular person or brand. A good example for us is @socialpaintball, which is a paintball blogging and forum site that has more than 16,000 followers. Plug @socialpaintball into Tweepi and up pops all of its followers.
You can do the same thing on Twitter, but Tweepi goes further by making the followers sortable, so you can find followers who are real, are active, and include in their profile information suggesting they may be interested in your film. All you have to do from there is click on the check boxes of those you want to follow and click “follow”. Wow.
The hope is the same as before, that by following these people they will see your film. Tweepi just makes it much easier and quicker to get to these people.
Promote Your Trailer
Assuming you have a trailer (this is a MUST!) you may have chosen to post it on Vimeo over YouTube. Vimeo has a more professional connotation than YouTube, so you may be forgiven for doing this. But in so doing you are missing a valuable opportunity for finding your target consumers: TubeAssist. For $14/mo TubeAssist will drop a message with an attached YouTube video into the YouTube inboxes of 200 or so users per day who match a keyword that you select.
In our case, I chose “paintball”. This means that every YouTube user who has posted a video or comment related to paintball on YouTube will receive my custom message, which points them to our trailer, which points them to where they can buy the full movie.
That’s 6,000 potential consumers we are reaching a month in our target audience at a rate of 47 cents a day. For my money, TubeAssist has so far been the single most efficient tactic for reaching our target audience and creating consumers.
A word of caution. With all outgoing messages, you want to make sure you are offering value to your prospective customers. And there is a fine line between a friendly message and spam. When we test this, I do get many messages from YouTube users thanking me for making them aware of our film. But we also get a few people who tell me to F* off.
Many users do write back. It is important to check your YouTube inbox often and respond to messages. Following up with a personal message helps turn your prospects into customers. And, don’t forget, the benefit of using the Internet to connect with your target audience goes both ways—consumers get the opportunity to get to know the creators of the content they consume on a more personal basis. A more personal relationship means they are more invested in you and your film, which means they also are more likely to spread the word about your film to their friends.
How To Use Forums
One of the great things about the Internet is the ability to connect with others who share a similar interest, no matter how esoteric. One important way people do this is through online forums. Case in point—reenactors.
There are numerous reenactor forums where people discuss everything from whether Union cavalrymen stationed in the West wore moccasins (yes, possibly the 11th Ohio Cavalry) to what the wire on a German WWII helmet should look like (zinc galvanized with some oxidation and some marriage with the surface of the helmet).
This is where our film comes in. While our film doesn’t so much contain reenactors as people who play soldiers in a game based on a WWII event, there are people who dress up in WWII-period garb. So we have posted information about our film on some of those websites.
We also post regularly on three different forums populated by paintball players. PBNation is the most popular and where I have started five threads between several different categories. I update each thread regularly by sharing new information. This keeps the threads near the top of their respective categories and each time I refresh the thread it catches the attention of new eyes.
I like forums even better than Facebook for engaging customers in a discussion.
I like forums even better than Facebook for engaging customers in a discussion. Each reply refreshes the thread and with forums you are often connecting with new customers, whereas on Facebook you are too often “preaching to the choir”, or people who are already aware of your film, and even then only about one-third, at best, of your fans even receive your posts.
Press Coverage and Reviews
As helpful as the Internet may be in finding and targeting individual customers, figuring out how to promote a movie is still time-consuming and hard work. What if you could get your film noticed by hundreds or even thousands at a time?
Utilize press coverage.
And I don’t mean a review in “Entertainment Weekly.” That ain’t ever gonna happen. Or if it does happen, it’s rare. But thanks to blogs, getting a review or mention of your film by somebody is more possible than ever.
Our film has been reviewed on at least eight different sites and bloggers, some solicited by our distribution company and some by us. Our first review came from Film Threat. For $10 they will write a review of your film. There are no guarantees it will be positive, but if it is, as ours was, it gets your film on a well known website and provides you with quotes from a recognizable name you can use for your other marketing efforts.
Additionally, we have been seeking out blogs and websites related to our target audience. “Behind the Bunker“, a website with a weekly live podcast about paintball topics, recently reviewed our film and conducted a live interview with us. We were grateful for the coverage and they were likely grateful for the content we provided them.
Be creative in finding blogs and websites that may have an interest in covering you and your film. For example, we hit up our respective online alumni magazines and succeeded in getting an interview and review in both, including Loyola University and Washington State University (forthcoming).
Write a Press Release
If you are looking to distribute a press release, Prweb.com is one place to go for that, but it is not cheap. They have several price points, but you’ll have to spend at least $250 per release to make it worthwhile. But even then I’m not so sure it is. Like anything else, it will involve testing to get your conversion rate.
You can be somewhat discriminatory in who receives your press release, but more than likely it ends up in a stack of other press releases by whoever receives it. I would personally rather spend my time contacting directly different press outlets I have researched and identified as having an interest in my film. I am more likely to get a response to a personal message. It’s also free.
At the same time, if you are looking to expand your Internet footprint and potentially increase your SEO, then syndicating a press release through Prweb may still be worthwhile.
Take Action and Market Your Movie
Alright, ready to get started? Yes, I know, it’s a lot. Just when you thought you had finally cleared your plate by finishing your film, I just dumped a whole heap more on it. But you won’t be doing it alone.
While learning how to promote a movie is time-consuming and forces you to wear yet another hat, it can be fun to watch your fan base grow. Eventually, if all goes well, promoting your movie will become less time consuming as that community you have worked tirelessly to nurture begins to work for you. Last week, after we sent a notice to our email list that we had just completed a deal with Netflix, we found that email posted on the timelines of several Facebook fans. It takes a village to make a film, they say. Why would selling it be any different?
For more information on how to promote a movie, check out the Indie Producers Guide To Digital Self Distribution.
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Doug Gritzmacher is a Washington, DC-based cinematographer, photographer, and documentary film producer. His contribution as a cinematographer has resulted in Emmy and Telly awards. His cinematography work has appeared on the National Geographic Channel, History Channel, The Discovery Channel, and PBS, among others. His still photography has appeared in Smithsonian Magazine and others. As a producer, he has won five film festival awards. His latest film, the feature-length documentary “Soldiers of Paint”, was released in May 2013 and is available on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon.