It’s become rather evident that the way films are distributed has changed forever. Theaters, though mostly opened now, still aren’t seeing the same box office number that they were before the pandemic hit and every major film and television distributor now has its own streaming service. And whether or not individuals are remaining cautious about the illness, since lockdowns began in early 2020, our overall habits have changed. We are staying home more often. That means, the way we consume our entertainment has changed and, likely, won’t revert back to what it once was. Perhaps movie theaters will become the exception rather than the norm. Perhaps they will become a novelty as drive-in theaters have become. This changes the game for independent filmmakers. Anyone can get their film on Amazon or YouTube. You don’t necessarily need that magnanimous distribution budget, you simply create an account. The thing that hasn’t changed, though, is the need for excellent marketing planning. The only question remaining is: what are you willing to do in order to spread the word about your upcoming film? Devious as that may sound, please don’t go about graffitiing public property in the middle of the night- unless, of course, you have permission… that might actually be awesome if you can pull it off. Put a pin in that one and come back to it. Marketing can be expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. The whole idea is to make people want to watch the film. You don’t have to follow cookie-cutter marketing tactics to build your audience.
Take Fight Club for example. They created a couple of PSAs that played in theaters before other films started rolling in order to create questions about their upcoming film. Obviously doing something exactly like that would require hefty finances and sway with the theater bigwigs, but we do have social media websites that could do even more good for you than what theater PSAs did for Fight Club. If you follow the link above you can watch their very short announcements. These took virtually no time to film or edit. This strategy might be worth considering in conjunction with a few other ideas, depending on your movie’s theme.
Toy Story 3
Toy Story 3 took on a similar marketing strategy when they released several old toy commercials on their YouTube page and then upped the ante by creating a commercial for Lots-O Huggin Bear with the same feel and classic VHS tape lines that you’d get from the late ‘80s, early ‘90s toy commercial. They probably didn’t have to go that far with their creativity to market another Toy Story sequel that was basically a guaranteed success, but they did. Pixar and the creators of Toy Story clearly took pride in the films they made and enjoy marketing as much as filmmaking.
Hunger Games launched a competition called the “Ultimate Fan Challenge” in which people register and use specific hashtags, earn points, enter competitions, and unlock badges to increase social shares. This tactic has produced unlimited unique and free content for the films that get shared all over the internet by fans, generating more brand ambassadors overnight and building their audience.
The Dark Knight
From defaced Joker cards left at comic book stores for customers to happen upon to film websites, political campaigns where fans could vote for Harvey Dent, pizzas, cakes, bowling alleys, and bat symbols, the marketing team for The Dark Knight pulled off, arguably, the most impressive ad campaign in film history. Take a quick minute to read over the details of everything they pulled off in just the 15 months before the film was released. Obviously, hiring a plane to write in the sky is costly, and convincing pizza parlors to send people Gotham pizza and batman paraphernalia takes some cash and influence. If you don’t have the massive marketing budget that The Dark Knight had, don’t worry about it, you can still gain some inspiration from their ad campaign. For example, business cards are really cheap. Design a few thousand awesome ones that fit the theme of your film and leave them all over the place. Use the business card to lead them to your website (which might be the most expensive part of your campaign). Make sure your website is TOP notch. Hire a web designer (unless you have the skills yourself). The average annual salary for a web designer is between $50,000 and $75,000. That shouldn’t be too hard to factor into your initial budget- especially since film investors like to see a well-thought-out marketing strategy. On your website, you launch your own competition like Hunger Games did, plan scavenger hunts, give sneak peeks and behind the scenes, etc. Your possibilities are endless.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Star Wars is a massive and decades-loved film franchise. Everyone has heard of it. It’s kind of like Coca-Cola. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t have some not-so-great moments. Everyone has their own opinions, but I’d say that the general consensus is that the prequels didn’t do the franchise any favors. So, Disney had to do a lot of catch-up work in order for The Force Awakens to have a good audience turnout on opening weekend. Their strategy was simple: start early, go big, and endear the cast to worldwide audiences. Without apologizing, Disney apologized for their mistakes. They forgot who their target audience was. Not this time. This time, they played on the nostalgia of the originals. Their first images released were black and white photos of the ensemble cast, sitting around the table for their first table read- clearly enjoying themselves and each other. Disney seeded the thought that this film would be a casting win, just like the originals, and thereby played to the goodwill of their audience. They started gaining trust with their super fan base. Their marketing campaign began about a year before the film’s release date. Considering your film and your budget, what are some methods that you can fit into this three-fold marketing idea?
Captain America: Civil War
Clearly, Captain America: Civil War had a massive marketing budget (something like $200M), employing methods ranging from pizza boxes to motorcycles, but aside from that, they created competing Twitter accounts so viewers could take sides: are you a Captain America fan or are you an Iron Man fan? The general audience went nuts casting votes, sharing memes, challenging their friends, and entering debates. Let’s say, you don’t have a hundred previous films as Marvel does. This is your first shot out of the gate. How do you employ debate tactics when no one has ever seen your film? I would challenge you to consider the limited release plan that Napoleon Dynamite enacted, creating a cult film right from the start.
The Napoleon Dynamite marketing campaign, I can nerd about all day. It was absolutely genius. The independent filmmakers started off by submitting it to Sundance Film Festival and it went over really well. Fox Searchlight ended up acquiring it, but they knew what they had. I think that’s the key. Really knowing your product and how to convince other people that it’s great. It might be a good idea to hire a marketing manager, at least to consult with. The marketing team in charge of Napoleon Dynamite understood the gem of a film that it was. They also knew that the general audience might not see it as a gem. They might find it really weird. They knew it would be an instant cult classic, they just needed to find their people. So they set up free screenings and handed out “Vote for Pedro” T-shirts and frequent moviegoer cards and chapstick to people who would bring their friends. The grass-roots campaign steadily grew. Word of mouth was their biggest asset. They successfully created a good kind of pure pressure. Kids at school wanted to know what their friends were quoting all day, so they’d head to the theater and find out. Napoleon Dynamite didn’t kill it on opening weekend at the box office. They knew they wouldn’t. So they didn’t even try. The whole point was to get people to see it and that’s just what they did. Maybe that’s the same for you, people just need to see it. It’s okay if it grows slowly. How can you create a similar peer pressure to get people to see your film?
The Blair Witch Projects
The Blair Witch Project is known to have one of the best viral marketing strategies to date. The first film came out in 1999, just as the internet was starting to become commonplace. Their main focus was to create uncertainty among the public. Were the stories true? Was it completely manufactured? Friends would debate and research and question every bit of paraphernalia that came out. The marketing team for The Blair Witch Project handed out missing person fliers and had local newspapers write stories about the missing people and their whereabouts. All of these aspects would drive traffic to their film website that focused on the myth and scare potential viewers. Over time, the producers would add information to the film website, even videos of the “home footage” that was captured. From there, people entered chatrooms and message boards (remember AOL?) to discuss their theories about what was going on. Viewer skepticism and involvement was the leading cause of their film’s success. Marketing budgets don’t have to be huge. A lot of brand marketing strategies are simply framed around saturating the market. To do that, you get people to talk about your film. How can you get your target audience engaged? How can you get your fan base to promote and market your film? We’ve looked at 8 different films that took film marketing to a new level. The common thread I’m seeing is passion and a “go big” mindset. Films and tv are made successful by involved audiences. I don’t know of any attribute more appealing to another person than passion. If you are passionate about what you are doing and creating, you can always find people to hop on the bandwagon. Your passion can’t end at the final cut. Your passion for your film or television show must extend through the marketing strategies for your film. Since the pandemic, people have been home a lot more. People have been using the internet a lot more, just desperate for entertainment. Online marketing is going to be where you want to focus. If you build the best film website there ever was with superb content writing, a well-made film trailer, and highly sharable memes and images, you could have the same success story that the rest of these films have had.