This is a very important distinction and I have been trying to find a better way of articulating to filmmakers why the story of a film is NOT the same thing as its marketability. I FINALLY found this explanation that I think might get through. I found this from Michael D. Sellars who in turn learned it from his mentor, Lenny Shapiro of Avco Embassy Pictures. The idea isn’t new, but ideas that spread win so I am helping to spread. From now on, I will include this information in my own consultations and workshops because it is so clear and succinct. Filmmakers and film schools put A LOT of emphasis on playability, and not nearly enough on marketability.
The ability of a film to attract an audience. This is one of the main things an industry executive is looking for when you pitch your film. Filmmakers all think this means their story. That’s NOT what execs are looking for. The story is your idea and it does have some merit, but what turns in their mind is “How can I sell this to an audience to get them to come to the theater on opening weekend or buy it on VOD/DVD?” It isn’t the story that will do this. That comes later.
Most movies derive their marketability from some combination of stars, director, underlying literary property (famous book, comic book,etc). At the indie level, festival acclaim comes into play, and reviews count, a MySpace [let's say word of mouth] buzz matters. But in analyzing the film from this aspect — the entire point is to answer the question, “Can the film attract moviegoers into the theater?”
This means that if you are making a low budget drama, with no notable names attached to it including the director and the producer, that is an original script not based on a best selling book adaptation, and it doesn’t get selected for major festivals and therefore isn’t going to have many critical reviews…this is going to be a problem. How are you going to get anyone to pay attention to it? What will you hook the audience with BEFORE they actually sit down to see the film and know the story? These are questions that need answers, ideally in the script stage. If you are trying to make one of these films and you don’t have marketability at the beginning (best selling source material, notable names), you MUST get it for the premiere. That’s pretty risky don’t you think? Most acquisitions execs would think so and the strongest ones would decline.
If you are planning to self finance your distribution, you should think about this too. What’s the marketing strategy for a no budget, no name drama, with no major festival accolades and no favorable critical reviews? Ummm….
This takes place once the audience has made the decision to sit down and watch the film. If it is an executive or a festival programmer, you probably hooked them with something to make them take time out of their schedule to do this. The something could be notable names or it could be a favor or somehow piqued their interest. This is a very small group of people to reach. If it is an audience, it means that your marketing strategy worked with respect to reaching and enticing them.
What is their experience once they sit down and watch the movie. How well does the movie “play”? Will it generate favorable word of mouth? Will it catch the fancy of reviewers?
To get that festival slot you desperately need for your no name, no budget drama to be marketable, it all comes down to playability. And if you don’t secure that and you hoped that great word of mouth will just spread, the movie had better “play” for someone.
For indies, the way it “plays” can be subjective. If your documentary about environmental protection attracts people actively involved in the environmental movement, it can play in their world much better than it would outside of that world. In fact, a film like this also has marketability because there is a core audience to target with it. Genre films also fall into this situation. They are less name dependent, but they had better play to that audience.
But if your film is intended to reach a mass audience, a diverse audience, or cross over from niche to mass and you can somehow attract a crowd to watch it (say you threw some serious coin into advertising, publicity and booking theaters), if it doesn’t deliver on their expectations, you have a playability issue and more marketing isn’t going to fix that.
Here’s a little more from Sellars regarding how studios deal with marketability.
Studios are often confronted with a movie which they know is “marketable” — they know that it will attract a great first weekend audience. But they also may know that the reviewers will clobber the film, and filmgoers will be disappointed. Even so — such a film can be financially successful if the “marketability” is good and the marketing campaign is carefully designed and executed… A great marketing campaign — a strong opening weekend — damn the dropoff and get on to the DVD — it can still work.
By contrast, a good film that delivers good “playabilit,y” but doesn’t have marketable elements is a problem. How do you get the warm bodies in theater seats to begin with? This is the true challenge to most good indie films.
So you need both aspects, marketability and playability. With indie films, one can’t succeed without the other. Marketability you can start creating in the development stage. Playability has to be achieved in the production and post production stage. For the film to be successful, you must have both.
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