Minimum marketing spend for an indie film

April 15, 2013
posted by sheric

This is a question I hear often “About how much should I set aside for marketing and distribution of my film?” It is a tough question to answer precisely because even Hollywood professionals have a difficult time balancing  how much marketing spend is just enough to make the film appear successful, but not so much that it results in taking a loss. I’m looking at you John Carter, Battleship and Dark Shadows. One could argue that those films were not good and that’s why they “failed,” but the pressure placed on a studio marketing department to open big the first weekend in order to appear successful necessitates a large marketing spend (usually minimum $50mil).

In this video with Film Courage, I talk about the bare minimum marketing spend one should budget for an indie film when planning out the overall film budget:


But that doesn’t mean you should think “Right, 10% is the amount I should set aside” because you really do need to formulate your entire marketing plan. You need to pinpoint the exact audience you are going to try to attract with your film, figure out how best to communicate with them and work through all of the elements you are going to create or need to buy in order to reach the audience or reach the goal of the production successfully. Remember, the goal for every production is NOT the same. For some filmmakers, just getting industry attention in hopes of a better career will be a success (see David Lowery and Behn Zeitlin as examples). For others, “changing the world” or raising awareness behind an issue in hopes of the audience taking a more active role in solving the problem is a success (see The Invisible War as an example). For others, gathering the support of a core audience that will continue into other work will be the mark of success (see Ava Duvernay and Tiffany Shlain.). Outside of Hollywood, success is not always marked by huge profit numbers.

During the course of your audience identification investigation, you may find that without marketable elements such as star actor names or major festival wins or stellar critical reviews, it will be nearly impossible to reach the broad audience your story will need to reach. This is especially true for dramas (coming of age, tragedy, period etc.) and comedies. Most documentaries inherently have an audience to tap into because there is a cause or a personality being profiled that organizations/clubs form around. There is no quirky comedy or coming of age drama organization to tap. Understand?

Also, you may realize you need the help of a producer of note who can help position your project to a whole set of constituencies (managers, agents. attorneys, the media, distributors, and exhibitors) within their sphere of influence. Being able to tap those resources for help can catalyze the process of getting the film seen to a wider audience or catapulting your career in the industry because they are all gatekeepers for a reason. Can you go around the gatekeepers? YES, but it can be much easier to achieve success with their validation. Producers of that stature like to be paid and, well, they should be. Another expense that could make a difference to your film’s ROI.

Some indie  producers have seen this video and told me they are now going to set aside 10% (only) from their production budget. If that overall budget is only $50K, that means they are going to try to achieve an awful lot with only $5k to spend on movie marketing and distribution. You can spend $5K just getting a good website built or having a first rate trailer edited or hiring a publicist for your big festival debut. You’re going to need more than a good website, a trailer or a good publicist to promote your film during one event in order to execute the formidable work of getting audience attention on your project and selling it directly if no distribution deals are presented. I am all about NOT being dependent on the good distribution deal to come and save your film. Too many times that either doesn’t happen, or the distributor drops the ball and doesn’t give the film a meaningful release. You can only know that the film will have a meaningful release if YOU have planned for it.

A few line items that will be on your marketing and distribution budget are professional graphic designer, website designer, copywriter, web hosting, email service provider, search engine optimization service, ecommerce shopping cart and fulfillment, merchandise manufacturing (aside from DVDs), trailer and short video clip editor, advertising/media buys, publicist, on set photographer, DVD authoring/replication. digital encoding for iTunes/other online outlets and possibly VOD services,  DCP drive preparation, Vimeo Pro account if appropriate, online measurement tools, printing services (for posters/postcards), theatrical booker, festival consultant (a well connected one), festival submissions and travel expenses, premiere parties or other live event components. This is taking into consideration that the producer or someone on the production will be doing this considerable work for free or for backend. If you want to hire someone to do this work (who will also handle any opportunity/problem that comes up during the course of marketing and distribution and will be a full time community manager for your audience base), that’s another expense. Personally, I don’t work for backend, but you may be able to strike that agreement with someone. Point being, it will be really difficult to obtain all of this for only $5K and I have been as realistic as I can in this listing of needed marketing and distribution expenses. I really can’t see this being done for less than $40K excluding labor cost for a PMD or calling in a lot of favors. The high end can go as high as your ambitions for the film. *AMENDED BELOW*

While it is possible to find marketing budget templates on the internet that are not specific to film or to look at guidelines that some film commissions provide for marketing grants, most are not geared for the indie film world we live in now. They mostly speak to marketing plans that rely on big advertising spends and posters because they are still stuck in the mindset that the goal is to drive cinema attendance. Yep, Hollywood is still relying on that route, but as an indie, you can’t do that. A theatrical release may not be realistic or appropriate for your film’s resources. While these templates/guidelines are useful to look at,  you really need to assess what audience your film is specifically trying to reach in order to plan out the expenses that are appropriate. I write these kinds of plans, very tailored to your film. The plans include reading the scripte/watching the film, audience research, best positioning angle to take for the core audience, ideas for content creation and release to online channels, email best practices, publications to pitch for stories with contact details, and a preliminary marketing and distribution budget that includes the resources you will need to implement the plan.

As a producer, it is imperative that you have marketing and distribution expenses included in your overall production budget and you can’t know those expenses if you don’t have a marketing and distribution plan based on the core audience of your film. Otherwise, you are putting your production, your investors and those who agreed to defer their pay in extreme risk of not achieving the production goals.

Amended: In speaking with my colleague, Jeffrey Winter from The Film Collaborative, his advice is budget a minimum of $50K just for the theatrical campaign.  This breaks down into about $7K for organizational/online outreach, $20K in theatrical 4 wall fees needed for major markets such as NYC, San Francisco, LA, DC, Chicago (places where you will want major publication reviews, but whose policy stipulates a film must have a week long theatrical and in more than one city so it can be seen as a national release), $7K for a prominent publicist (needed to contact outlets such as NYT, LAT etc who probably won’t review if you called yourself), $500 for Blu Rays, $1000 for DCP, $1500 for poster design and printing (I think he’s giving you a break on this! You’ll probably need to spend more), $500 for shipping, $10K for a reputable booker to help you get screenings in more cities so you won’t have to 4 wall, $3K for a kick ass trailer,  the rest you can spend on ads.

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