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A few weeks ago I got an email from a filmmaker and film scholar who offered some remarks:
“In the context of being an upcoming filmmaker you encourage intense online work on all social platforms available and everything relevant to promote your Idea and project. This includes creative funding and financing through all means of online investing.
In this work of advice, one should, especially as an indie filmmaker, note that:
-This takes an immense energy input.
-You may ” lose yourself” in the process of making the final script and artistic finalization.
– Following your advice may end your creative spirit, as it in whole requires you as a filmmaker/director to act as well as a distributor/agent for the project in all sense of means.
-It’s great that you give advice and encourage filmmaking. By doing this you should also mention the time and effort that is required. And that in most cases this will result in engaging an assistant responsible for distribution. All in all, we are talking selling & distribution, which is the skills of A professional agency – distributor, and not the primary focus of an Indie filmmaker”
I would like to thank the reader for sending this email, as I believe this issue is subject to constant debate within the indie film community. As far as I can tell, it usually boils down to three main questions:
Should filmmakers also become distributors/marketers?
What amount of work does this actually entail? And, most importantly:
Is it really worth it to sacrifice time and effort working on online communications and building communities for our films rather than focusing solely on the film’s creative process?
“Kubrick came-up with a specific trailer for each of his films and did not leave the editing room before they were finalized. Both Kubrick and Hitchcock were both well aware that regardless of the quality of their work, the success of their films highly depended on a successful marketing strategy”
1 A daunting time and energy investment? Yes. There is no way around it. Assuming marketing and distribution takes an immense toll on your energy input as a filmmaker, but the truth of the matter is, filmmaking as a whole is a humongous time-investing, energy draining, and exhausting process. And an even colder truth is, if your film does not reach its audience, all that effort you have already invested will be wasted. As an indie filmmaker you must realize that making your film is only 50% of the work and selling your film is the other 50%. Nowadays, if you want your films to be seen, festival screenings are barely a starting point, since festivals are just a fraction of your audience, so if you don’t save time and energy for selling your film, it just means you’ll be relying solely on finding a good sales agent or distributor. Does that guarantee success? It depends, mostly on the skills and outreach of your distributor and sales agents, but also in how invested they are in selling your film, and this is where taking the reins of marketing and distribution yourself can ultimately make a difference: no one will be as devoted and invested as you are in making your film a success.
2 Fears of “losing yourself” in the process of writing a final script and rendering artistic finalization, as far as I see it, is just a matter of personal approach to the work. I can’t speak for every filmmaker, but from my own experience, creating a marketing story for your film is a creative process in itself, or at least it should be if approached correctly. Working on marketing strategy from an early stage of production is not only a key factor to successful distribution, from a creative standpoint it can help you focus and understand your story, identify what makes your idea unique and interesting and ultimately enhance your storytelling. Furthermore, this work will pay off ten-fold when the film is made because if you really know your story, you will be able to communicate it easily to your fans significantly easing the load of marketing and distribution work later on.
3 Can or will this additional load as a distributor/sales agent wear-off your filmmaker’s ‘creative spirit’? I must admit every time I hear this argument, it makes no sense to me. It is one thing to decline taking responsibility for your own success or to refuse to take advantage of the myriad ways in which you can ensure a successful outreach for your film in the 21st century – online, this is- arguing that the workload or time-investment wears you out. However, it is an entirely different thing to argue that this work takes something away from your creative skills. If you follow my blog, you’ll be able to judge for yourself that marketing and distribution are foremost, and if anything, a creative process. If you are creative enough to come up with a good idea, turn it into a good story and into an excellent film, you will be just as creatively driven to come up with an original strategy to reach your audience and let it find its way to the communities living online. Don’t dump the responsibility on the argument that you’re “too creative” for this kind of work, for it depends on your creativity just as much as your film does. Failing marketing and distribution strategies are, often enough, lacking precisely of an original creative approach.
4 All that time and energy invested in something that a) should not be my responsibility and b) surpasses my professional scope and skills. Wouldn’t I be better off just relying on a “professional agency”? Just in case this point is still unclear, yes, marketing and distribution is a lengthy and hard process, so is film producing. Does that mean you need to take production to a “professional agency”? Obviously, marketing takes skills, but like everything else, these skills can be learned. And that is precisely the focus of my teachings during my workshops and what I’m trying to communicate through my own experiences in this blog. Ultimately, the tools are out there, it is only a question of whether you choose to learn how to use them, or not. Unless you have a ton of money in exchange for their work, a professional agency will not be able to do the same quality work you would do for your own film, for several reasons. First, they have more than one film to focus on; second, they lack your motivation and emotional attachment to fully invest themselves in a lengthy creative campaign; and third, no one knows the project like you do. You built it from scratch, you know it inside out, you are aware of its strengths, its ordeals, its narrative pulse, and only you possess this valuable and wholesome creative insight into the product itself. In short, they cannot sell it like you would because they are not you, they lack your unique, creative and personal relationship with the material and that is your most valuable asset. If you can have an assistant, that would certainly be of great help, but bear in mind you must learn the skills first in order to give your assistant the right guidance when the time comes.
In conclusion, I believe it is in our best interest to accept that filmmaking has changed in many ways. As the world we live in changes rapidly, creating stories and storytelling, so as the means and channels to communicate, are changing swiftly as well. If you choose to ignore the skills needed to communicate your stories to online communities, dismiss the available tools and rely solely on someone else to do the work for you, you’ll soon find yourself trying to catch up with kids that are now growing up with a screen glued to their hand and online communication skills embedded as their second nature. Until we accept that online film marketing is but yet another decisive and creative phase of those required to communicate the ideas that moved you to make the film in the first place, indie filmmakers will be faced with a disadvantage when fighting for visibility against big-budget films and streamline productions.
This is far from a groundbreaking discovery, let׳s not forget Hitchcock and Kubrick, major film referents in breaking the box-office with practically every one of their films, both demanded full creative control over their work, this is, from production to exhibition, including marketing and distribution. Moreover, Hitchcock’s full creative control over his later work with major studios was granted in exchange for him renouncing entirely to his salary as a filmmaker. In other words, he worked for free so he could do whatever he wanted, just like you, and his revenue, by contract, depended strictly on the box-office revenues from which he took a percentage. Not surprisingly, while Hitchcock involved himself personally in decisions regarding credits, poster design and the final cut of each and every language version of his films, it is also well known that obsessive Kubrick came-up with a specific trailer for each of his films and did not leave the editing room before they were finalized. They were both well aware that regardless of the quality of their work, the success of their films highly depended on a successful marketing strategy, and they were not prepared to leave such a key aspect in the hands of strangers. This was more than half a century ago when online tools were not available for them, but they did take advantage and invest themselves in selling their films in every other possible way. And yet here we are, questioning if we should involve ourselves in this ordeal.
Yes, marketing and distribution are an essential part of filmmaking, and I do hope that film teacher will take that into consideration, empower their students and instruct them to tackle these issues early on in production, and hopefully, we might end up leveling the playground for successful independent filmmakers, once and for all.