At last my response to Panelgate

August 1, 2010
posted by sheric

This is another excerpt from my interview with Mike Monello. I wandered a bit off track from audience engagement to ask him what he thought of THAT manifesto (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’ll do fine without knowing). Mike’s the MAN, obviously he was preaching to the choir with me.

MFM: Recently in some indie film publications and on festival panels, the idea of filmmakers striving to reach an audience has been reviled by filmmakers who believe their sole purpose as artists is to make great art, not worry about the audience. If they have a great story, people will just find it. The cream will rise to the top. What do you think about that?

Monello: “Yeah, my daughter wants to be a princess when she grows up. And that is my response to those filmmakers. Good luck with that, would be my answer. I would hope that we are adult enough to say that the ‘art’ part of your work is already a given. We have to think about the business because this is a business. At what point will you acknowledge that you have to deal with both? If you insist on being a princess, well, I can’t help you with that. Go and play the lottery while you’re at it.”

“As for the idea that if you have a great story people will just find you. We know that is not true. When I worked with the Florida Film Festival in my early days, I saw great film after great film and they never went anywhere. It is just not true, absolutely not true. Here’s a test. Post your film to YouTube and see how many views you get, if they will just find you.”

“There is a minute percentage of films that hit the right zeitgeist and for some reason do build from word of mouth. Blair did hit at a time when the horror films were SCREAM, the ironic and funny horror films. We consciously decided to make a film that would scare people, we were serious about being a scary film. And we hit at a time when the audiences too said ‘I want to be scared’ and that was pure luck. If you want to gamble on hitting that luck and being found, I wish you well with that strategy.”

“As an independent filmmaker who has a hand out for money, you have a responsibility to be honest. If you are making a personal film, only for your vision and exploration, and you don’t care if anyone sees it, then you need to be honest with the investor when you present that investment proposal. I don’t think you will have a lot of success raising money, but hey maybe you will. Most investors want to see that you are confident in your skills of being able to pull it off and that you have a lot of enthusiasm for the story and that you have an understanding of what to do with the movie after you have made it; that you have a plan to earn the money back. The biggest problem is too many filmmakers are motivated by the sexiness of having their film up on a big screen. The best filmmakers are not motivated by that, they are motivated by reaching people with stories.”

You can read the entire article here.

New Articles to Check Out

July 30, 2010
posted by sheric

I have written two articles for next month’s issue of Microfilmmaker Magazine that will go live on Sunday August 1, but I am so excited for you to see them, I will give you a sneak preview here.

About a month ago, Randy Finch made a post entry on Ted Hope’s fabulous Truly Free Film site explaining a MFA track he teaches at the University of Central Florida called Entrepreneurial Digital Cinema. For some reason, this post turned into something controversial. You should read that post and the comments and then read my article. I decided to follow up on what Randy and crew are doing down there in Florida and a story excerpt is here:

We wanted a program that did not stress the goal of blockbuster in the first three months. Rather, the filmmaker would take a longer view for a ROI and would develop low cost works that could withstand such a strategy.  Individual filmmakers would have the chance to be more personal with their work while at the same time better equipped to meet market changes and make these changes work for them. One faculty member saw us as creating ‘pirate ships’ with tiny crews, braving the waves of change while the larger entities moved inland for protection. Our ‘pirates’ could be taught how to read the weather, the waves and better assess their risks. The collapse of the distribution models was the proverbial ‘opportunity’ we all hear about – it will redefine everything: the art; the audience; the filmmaker; the business,” said Steve Schlow.

This month I attended the ARG Fest conference in Atlanta and one of the featured speakers was Mike Monello of Campfire.  Coincidentally, Mike is a graduate of UCF film school! You may remember that Mike was part of the team around The Blair Witch Project and helped to shape the early audience engagement that made the film such a spectacular success when internet marketing was barely a term and certainly not being used to market an independent film. I sat down for a chat (and a brain pick, come on!) with him to talk about what techniques they used then that are applicable to the tools we have now (and we have many more than they did in 1999) to market indie films. This bit is about what they did after they got the initial enthusiasm for Blair started.

“The more we put up, the more the people started to devour it.  It was a combination of seeing pieces of footage that were really intense, with a history that had massive holes in it because we didn’t put the whole thing up,  and it gave a space for people to imagine what they wanted and tell each other stories. The mythology was based on stories that were around, urban legend. I don’t want to say they were historically accurate because none of it was factual information, but it all had resonance with people. It gave people a reason to talk about their own local witch legends and their own scary camping experiences and it just all ballooned from there.”

“We were conscious of the fact that we needed to keep everyone engaged until we had the film available to see.  So, we would read the forums of what the fans were saying and looked at the topics they discussed and we’d think ‘that’s interesting, they are curious about this thing in particular’ and we would look at the information we hadn’t released yet and release what spoke to that curiosity. If we had holes in the information people wanted to know, we would fill those in.”

To read both articles in their entirety, visit www.microfilmmaker.com

I posed a question to myself because I keep hearing about how these highly successful, supposedly low to no budget films utilized low-no budget marketing methods to achieve their success. Is it really possible to market a low budget film with no noticeable marketing budget?

This weekend I have been putting together case studies on 2 films that are often used as examples, What The Bleep Do We Know (2004) and The Blair Witch Project (1999). Both are universally regarded as examples of using online and word of mouth marketing techniques to create awareness and generate sales. Were they really low budget? How much did they spend on the production and marketing of the films versus the return?

I started with What The Bleep because I am going to see another filmmaker this week to talk about his film with a spiritual theme and I wanted to come up with some ideas ahead of time that we could start thinking about using. At least he hasn’t started on production yet, so this is an excellent time to consider the marketing and come up with a budget and strategy.

For those who don’t know the film What The Bleep, it is a hybrid documentary which combines documentary-style interviews, computer-animated graphics, and a narrative story that proposes a spiritual connection between quantum physics and consciousness. The plot follows the story of a deaf female photographer; as she encounters emotional and existential obstacles in her life, she comes to consider the idea that individual and group consciousness can influence the material world. Her experiences are offered by the filmmakers as an illustration of the movie’s thesis about quantum physics and consciousness. The 2004 cinematic release of the film was followed by a substantially changed, extended DVD version in 2006. *info courtesy of Wikipedia.org.

Now, this “low budget” documentary was made for roughly $4 million and an additional $2.5 million was spent on marketing it to a very niche audience. Worldwide, both theatrical and DVD sales, the film has grossed almost $16 million and counting. So take the production budget and add an additional half for marketing! In studio numbers, $6.5 million is low budget, but to most filmmakers I know, it is the end number they are hoping to make!

The producers of What The Bleep did initially use a variety of grassroots methods to spread the word about the film because they couldn’t find a distributor. These methods included self funded screenings, using their Ramtha School of Enlightenment connections for attendance, contacting every spiritual chat room and message board they could find online etc. They also hired a marketing company to organize further screenings, design and print posters, fliers, postcards, hired people to distribute them, entered small spiritual film festivals and won several prizes. They were rejected by all of the major film festivals in the world. Ultimately, they were signed to the Samuel Goldwyn Company for theatrical distribution and Fox for DVD distribution. I am sure the marketing budget went up significantly from there.

Now Blair Witch.

Figures vary, but the official production budget number released by Artisan was $350,000. Ok, that is low budget especially given that the return worldwide was close to $258 million! Marketing figures are imprecise but it has been said the filmmakers spent at least $15,000 for their website. That was a lot for the late ’90’s but they sure got a bang for the buck. The site featured all kinds of footage, “old” newspaper clips of the legend, “diaries” of the filmmakers featured, “official” police interviews about the missing filmmakers and a general blurring of the lines between fiction and reality. Very creative and effective. The site went live a year before the release of the film and 2 months before the release, MTV had devoted a whole show about the proliferation of fan sites that had sprung up on their own devoted to the film. A documentary about the Blair Witch Project was aired on Sci Fi channel and on Bravo and trailers were run on IFC. The doc must have cost additional money to make. Time on these channels must have been paid for as well. Also, they hired Louise Levison to write their business plan, so that was an initial expense. Campfire was hired for a viral marketing campaign, but it is unclear if that happened before or after distributor Artisan took over. Even so, the filmmakers have to take the marketing spend out of their cut so, in essence, they paid for it.

What I am getting at in this query is that while there can be a low budget approach to marketing a film, the “extremely low budget success” film does not exist without a firm, focused marketing plan and budget to go along. These films did not rely solely on the marketing talents of the producers (who knows if they had that kind of background previous) or on using free labor like film students and friends. Professional talent was utilized and paid for regardless of how much money was spent on the methods.