Whisper the word “marketing” to a filmmaker, and if they don’t shudder with fear, they didn’t hear you. It sounds corporate, and capitalist, and completely at odds with what people love about making films and writing scripts.
I understand and empathize with this visceral negative reaction; it was the one I had for the first few years of my indie filmmaking career. And then through reading, and gathering a community of fellow artists, and lots of trial and error, I realized the error of my ways.
When you think of marketing as corporate jargon, of course it sucks! Of course no one responds to it by watching your movie!
I think the core problem, other than that the word “marketing” is yucky, is that, similar to crowdfunding, everyone learned marketing from famous people with millions of dollars and name recognition and pre-existing platforms. Big media companies can market with a basic release date and actor reveal, because the company is known, and the actor’s have been in all our favorite past works and rely on their past to fuel their future.
As indie creators, we have neither the past notoriety, the platform, or the money to rely on classic marketing styles, so we have to get more creative.
And here’s the dirty little secret: when your marketing strategy gets more creative as a reaction to your lack of funds, it actually gets more fun. No joke zone, friends, I’m serious.
My favorite kind of marketing? Supplemental content, aka “smaller creative expressions to market a larger creative expression.”
I’ll give you some of my favorite examples.
I am a long-time lover of transmedia not just as a marketing strategy but also as a storytelling opportunity. Filmmaking is expensive, even when you’re making micro-budget content, like me, so sometimes fun characters and storylines have to get cut for cost. But what’s great about transmedia, content set in the same world/reality as your primary media, is that you can explore more cost-effectively the elements of your story you can’t on screen. The classic example of transmedia are social media accounts run by the characters, something revolutionized by web series producers like Kate Hackett and Bernie Su.
But there’s so much more to explore with transmedia, for furthering your story as well as attracting new audiences. Keep a blog from the perspective of your protagonist about a topic related to the film or their general interests, release faux family recipes, write poetry or music as your characters, or any other number of things that marry your skills with what would exist within the world of your story.
No, this is not just an opportunity for me to plug my practical independent filmmaking podcast again. Podcasts are certainly more work than running an in-character Twitter account, but far less work than making a short film or web series episode, and as such are often popular choices for supplemental content marketing. You could go transmedia with your podcast marketing scheme (like Maureen Johnson’s "The Final Clue," a fake true crime podcast about her latest novel, Box In The Woods, where a teen detective solves a crime introduced to her by a vaguely unethical true crime podcaster), or thematic (like the asexuality interview podcast I should have launched to promote my short film Ace and Anxious), or even take people behind the scenes (like "Bri and Chris Are Depressed," the companion podcast to the web series Sam and Pat Are Depressed).
Point is: audio has its own distinct, oft-untapped audience, so find your angle and your niche and consider launching a feed for the purposes of promoting your films and series.
Email might feel like your grandpa’s preferred communication method, but with the surge of platforms like Substack and hyper-niche independent journalism on everything from internet culture to extremism in comedy, it’s safe to say email’s here to stay. As such, there’s a lot of opportunity to not just get hyper-niche about a topic thematically aligned with your film(s), but to forge more intimate connections with your audience by going straight to their inboxes.
I think there’s also much to be said for podcasts and newsletters both in terms of how they can establish you as a thought leader in your genre/format/expertise. Sorry for bringing another gross corporate phrase into this post where I’m trying to distance us all from that, but thought leadership, and building credibility for yourself within a particular topic, can be a powerful promotional strategy. When you’re the person everyone thinks of when they think of [insert your expertise of choice], and then you release a film or series related to that expertise, it’s far easier to convince people to click through. You aren’t just anyone making a zombie web series, you’re the zombies in media expert making a zombie web series.
Be honest: which one, based on no other information, is more likely to entice an audience of strangers interested in zombies?
One of the best pandemic media experiences I had was a live virtual cooking class with Emeril Lagasse I “attended” with my fiancé and my mom, who we were living with at the time. Was it chaotic to attempt to cook at the same speed as a professional chef? Of course. Was it a weirdly wonderful experience that was made far more comfortable from our own home? Definitely. Did we pre-game with white wine a little too hard before the livestream even began? Let’s change the subject.
Livestreaming was popular long before stay at home orders became the norm, and not just for gamers. Don’t underestimate people’s willingness to log into a virtual event for something they’re even vaguely interested in, or at the very least RSVP with their email address. There’s less of a commitment required for livestreaming than signing up for a newsletter or listening to a podcast, and there’s a far lower barrier for entry in terms of producing it. Host a panel or live interview on a subject related to your film, Bob Ross a live painting or crafting class, Emeril a live cook-along with a recipe from or inspired by your film, emcee a virtual trivia night, or, hell, livestream a video game!
There’s so much to choose from, depending on the kinds of films you make, and even if some people don’t show up live, promoting RSVPs first is a great way to gather emails to reach out to later, since you already know whoever’s even considering attending is interested in something aligned with your film.
Somewhere in Austin, TX, my grandmother just felt a happy breeze rustle her hair, as she’s been hoping I’d be a teacher since I was five. Nobody tell her I’m in it for the money and the marketing opportunities. Just kidding! Mostly.
People like to learn, as much as Twitter would like us to believe everyone in the known universe is a massive rage-filled ding dong. And you, the filmmaker reading this article, are knowledgeable. Maybe you’re knowledgeable about filmmaking itself (guilty), or maybe you’re knowledgeable about the things you make films about. Whatever it is, give back! Capitalize on the deep curiosities of your audience and make it clear you can entertain as well as you can enlighten.
The big caveat here is, of course, don’t educate for the sole purpose of marketing. Unlike the other things on this list, education in and of itself is a valuable and necessary part of the human experience and should be treated seriously by those who want to offer it. Don’t cheapen someone’s genuine interest in learning by selling them something. The promotion should be a bonus addition to an uncynical desire to gift others with knowledge—it’ll be a more effective sales tactic that way anyways.
Supplement your films and series with other creative, curated, or educational content. Your world and community will feel bigger, but you’ll also be expanding the potential connections to audiences who’ll love you and haven’t discovered you … yet.
Forget marketing … go forth and create!
*Feature photo by cottonbro (Pexels)