American Film Market 2011 conference: unofficial notes
Nov 6, 2011 9 AM: Marketing Conference notes part 1, "Limited and Specialty Releases"
Notes by B. Hahne
The original blog location of these notes is: http://2011afm.blogspot.com
This is day 3 of a 5-day series, check back at the blog for more as the days go by.
Clarifications or pithy comments by the note-taker will generally appear in [square brackets like this].
These notes are copyright (c) 2011 by Bruce Hahne. Noncommercial, nonprofit redistribution and/or pointing people to the blog is permitted and encouraged.
Disclaimers: "Free notes, you get what you pay for!" There notes are a summary, not a transcript, and represent my best effort to capture the panel discussion plus Q&A. They also probably contain errors. I'm not in the film industry, nor am I affiliated with AFM / American Film Market or with any of the firms associated with the panelists.
Moderator: Mark Pogachefsky, co-founder, MPRM Communications (PR agency)
- Jamie Patricof, Founder, Hunting Lane Films. Independent producer.
- Dennis Rice, Founder, Vision Entertainment. PR and marketing guy.
- Wendy Cohen, Director of Digital Campaigns and Community for Participant Media / TakePart. Participant Media: for "movies with a social message". Wendy works on the social programs / initiatives that surround the movies. The Visitor ; Food Inc; The Cove.
- Scott Mansfield, CEO, Monterey Media, which is an independent distributor.
Mark: As we know, this is the much cooler panel than the second panel today which is about the larger-budget studio films.
Mark: We got on the phone the other day to plan this panel, and the topic of having a marketing strategy came up.
Jamie: Difficult as an indep producer to have a global strategy, yet you need one, whether it's Fbook, Twitter, web site. Some sort of plan about how to use the media. Fbook has become the most important place to be for an indep film. You can start the Fbook page months before shooting begins. Start to build community. When I did Half Nelson 5 years ago it was via web site and it was very time-consuming, but now it's easy to establish a Fbook destination for your fans. Get ahead of your messaging since info about your film will get out there no matter what.
Dennis: Key message these days is you can't get started too early with marketing, and marketing means knowing who you're making the movie for. Need to think about marketing costs, who you've made the movie for, how many of these people are out there, and what's the most effective way to reach them. If there are only a few people you're making the movie for, then maybe it's not worth your time. Know your audience and create a strategy to reach them. When your production wraps, you want a solid base of information to let you reach your audience.
Wendy: The mission of our firm is to have films that will inspire social change. When a film is greenlit, before any filming, we're identifying the nonprofit organizations that might be interested in the film and sharing the treatment, etc. We bring the nonprofits into our community - their message will be heard within their communities. We spend time thinking about what we'd like to galvanize our audiences to do.
Scott: I'm the cautionary tale in the room here - yes, you should start early to craft a strategy about your audience and how to reach them. But example: we tried to work with a company and they had put 7 funny clips up on Youtube months before we talked to them, so we weren't able to get those clips onto Funny or Die. So timing matters WRT your assets - maybe you don't want to dump everything onto Youtube up front. Use the assets that you have - do you have a cast member with 280K Fbook fans? We have one film with a cast member like that, that's a big asset. Try to reach your core audience, then widen your audience.
Wendy: Core audience are your best friends and they SHOULD get first look at everything. Talk with them, not just TO them.
Jamie: that's the challenge in social media. For one of my films, literally every single day there were photos coming out (leaked), and we didn't always want this. But we did get 2K Fbook fans on somebody else's Fbook site for the film that we didn't even put up. On the flipside, with another film we've been very careful to not release anything, maybe one still photo, yet we still want to build a community. You want ambassadors - possibly you can use Klout to determine who these people are. For people like Wendy to work through nonprofits to market the films, that works much better than us shouting on a rooftop trying to market directly to the consumers.
Dennis: Media is fragmented today. You need to understand more than ever how to reach your consumers. Producers feel the pressure to not just make the movie, but to market the movie. And producers may feel obligated to cut a trailer, etc, and they put out assets in public and don't use them well. [I.e. his point is that producers should be producing, not necessarily marketing, or if they try their hand at marketing they can mess it up.] To me the internet is just another medium to reach your audience. Figure out where your community spends its time - just randomly putting out assets in various places on the internet can be risky. You're trying to compete with many other movies coming out every weekend - you need a calculated process for how and when to expose your product and where. The exciting part for indep film is that there are many ways for people to consume your movie now.
Jamie: Get your audience to take ownership of the project, get them to be "investors" in the film. I do have several films I'm working on where I really don't know who the audience is, films under $1M budget.
Dennis: Yes, it's generally a good idea to make more money than you spend [ha]. We can have a tendency to forget that when we greenlight films. It's often more expensive to market a film these days than to make the film. You need to think through the resources that you need - you need another round of investment, or you need to raise the marketing funds up front. If you just take something to Sundance you might get picked up and you might not. If you don't, then you have a movie complete and you have NO more money to control your own destiny.
Mark: Because often today's distributors are offering either a min guarantee OR a P&A commitment [i.e. not both, I think is his point. And for the jargon-impaired, P&A = "print and advertising", industry-specific term which means much more than it sounds.]
Mark: What about the idea that you're marketing for just the 12 people [distributors] who might BUY the movie [to distribute it]?
Jamie: At the end of the day you need to make the movie for the creative team, if you start thinking about what the distributor wants then that will impact the editing process, etc. [But that's the point Jamie, that you need to make a movie that people WANT TO PAY FOR. It may be worth noting that Jamie's suggestion to "make the movie for the creative team" is a red flag specifically called out by the head of IFTA in a presentation yesterday - he said that if your director says (s)he's making the movie for himself/herself, run very fast for the exit because you're not making a film that you can actually sell.]
Jamie (cont): You do need to provide assets to your distributors so they can sell the film.
Dennis: I'm representing an animated family feature film here at AFM coming out of S. Africa. We put together a marketing campaign: trailer, stills. Music was by Allan Menken and Tim Rice - this is an asset that we can sell with. My job was to generate inspiration for the distributors who might buy the film.
Jamie: Sundance and Tribeca aren't always the good places to go, it depends.
Wendy: It's about strategy - you come to the table with an idea of your strategy and if you do the social media stuff that can help the distributors.
Dennis: We see pictures where the producers have already decided in advance that this is a festival picture, even before the final edits are done. I had one case where I said "how do you know this is a Venice film festival picture, you haven't even seen the cut film yet!" but the producer said "we just think this is a festival play". And it was completely the wrong type of movie to take to Venice festival, Venice is sophisticated, cynical, snobby. It didn't get in, then it went to Toronto, then it died, never escaped from the bad buzz that surrounded it, that this maybe wasn't a very good film. It wasn't a bad movie, it just made the wrong strategic decisions about release.
Scott: Festivals can be a good strategy or maybe not. There are so many festivals now. If you won audience choice in Cleveland, I get on the phone to Cleveland and the theaters there tell me "yes, pretty much everybody in Cleveland who wanted to see this film has seen it". Anybody who can say something nice about your film is OK, fine, you got to be an official selection, that is something. But I have to deal with gatekeepers: I have to deal with the banner guy at iTunes who decides if the film gets to be in the special iTunes rotating film banner, I have to deal with the people at Blockbuster about not just whether they'll put the DVD in the rack, but whether they'll actually promote the movie in the store. There was one film where we were able to bring in the Make-a-Wish Foundation, it was a good fit for their message, and they sent out like 4M emails to their base about the film - it was an 800-pound gorilla working for us. You need to get somebody OTHER than you and your distributor saying it's a good film. And BTW if you can get 13 year old girls saying it's a good film then you're golden.
Mark: What about maintaining audience engagement?
Wendy: We toss up a Fbook page right away. We post questions, etc. But we also create content for our films and do that well in advance. For both Contagion and Waiting for Superman we created a separate animated piece which wasn't the film, it was, in a crass sense, an ad for the film, they were animated pieces about the issue. Short videos for web, we can post them everywhere. This starts to get people thinking about the issue. Making these was a pain, we worked with an animation studio which donated some time, but important to create material to get the conversation going.
Dennis: Agree, and put together a communication PLAN with a calendar so you roadmap what you're going to do, when are you going to release various content onto the internet? And if you've got the right movie, use user-generated content. Your audience may have relevant content to help promote the film. Picture coming out later, "What to Expect when You're Expecting", and the campaign is soliciting user-generated content, baby pictures, so they're co-opting all these baby pictures.
Jamie: The challenge is that Wendy and Dennis are paid to do these things. I work as a producer and I'm barely paid enough to survive, and I have these grand plans for the Fbook page and I'm going to do all this and that... but what happens when a film wraps [i.e. when primary shooting is over] is that everybody disappears, and I say "hey, wait, we have another 12 months of editing and marketing to go on this film!" but they all go away. I have to move on to another film, and getting onto Fbook every day to do content for this film that's wrapped is really hard. There are companies being created now which will do your social media marketing for you, but it costs money. I don't necessarily even have enough money to pay for snacks for my crew today, so I sure don't have $20K to pay a social media management company. So you need a plan. You need a filmmaking team and be realistic - maybe you agree that somebody will spend 1 hour a day on social media. Dennis and Wendy here aren't going to be there at the start of your film plans. There was another case where I had an intern slated to do the social media content for the day, and then we had to send that guy out to get breakfast for the cameraman, so it was essentially "do you want breakfast, or do you want social media?" Breakfast won.
Mark: I would have shot the behind-the-scenes footage that day. [ha]
Wendy: How many zillion film schools are there in the US? Anybody who goes to any film school in this country would love to be an unpaid intern for you doing your social media.
Jamie: Did you see the lawsuit over that? Somebody got sued over unpaid internships - Fox Searchlight lawsuit.
Wendy: You do the legal paperwork. There are so many people who would take drastically reduced pay to work on one of these things, they'll do your Fbook and Twitter and become ambassadors for your project.
Dennis: I think there's a way you can create a plan and get the basics started. There are a lot of resources out there.
Jamie: I agree that you have to give your distributor tools to help them sell the film, you need stills, etc. [Somewhat repeating himself here...]
Scott: The answer is that there is no answer, we're in the film business. Every film is different and every film needs a CRAFTED strategy, which still might not work, the strategies don't always work even at the studio level. Don't get depressed if you play a festival and it doesn't get distribution. There are big statistics about films that play at Sundance and Toronto and never get distribution. Of course there are always a small number of films that make it big even when going a year after a festival with no distribution.
Mark: Different strategies for different times. BTW if you get bought by Searchlight or Sony or whatever, they're going to want 100 production stills and so forth as well, just like anybody else.
Q: Is there an easy to understand list of film festivals that gives you a synopsis of who to submit to and the tone of the festivals? Like "Venice is snobby"?
Jamie: You need to do the research. Look at comparable films and how they did in the market and how they did at festivals.
Wendy: We did a film about bees and got a beekeeper there at the festival to do Q&A.
Mark: And remember that you can only PREMIERE once - if you really want Sundance, don't go to Ann Arbor first, then by definition you can't premiere at Sundance.
Dennis: And remember that going to festivals triggers a review by a critic, and you better hope that your movie is ready to be reviewed. That review will be discoverable on the internet.
Scott: Festival audience is an artificial audience, they tend to love film and be very supportive and they want to see lots of films in a few days - don't compare them with a real audience that's going to pay $10 to see your film.
Q: I'm a producer and I talk to writers about pre-production and pre-pre-production. Can you share a book you'd recommend filmmakers read before they take on their first indep film?
A1: _Adventures in the Screen Trade_
Jamie: Read case studies about films, there are lots of them out there. See Sundance material for producers.
Dennis: Landscape is changing so quickly that by the time a book comes out, the rules change again, so don't be dogmatic. From a marketing perspective we have to reinvent ourselves every 6 months now to stay competitive.
Wendy: Case studies are good, they're fun. BE part of the communities you think your film should be a part of, don't just show up on a site and say "Hi, I made this thing and I think you should share it / buy it."
Mark: _I Wake Up Screening_ is about the festival world.
Q: Used to be 2.5x cost of a film to do marketing. Now with social media that price estimate for P&A is up to 3x. What's up?
Dennis: There's no formula, you can't say if I spend $1M to make my film then I need $3M to reach the audience. It depends on who the audience is and how to reach them.
Jamie: Just spending money isn't the answer, and the filmmaking team can't just throw money at distributors and say "OK, go sell it" - you can't do a formula since every film is unique.
Dennis: It's how you spend the money, not how much money. But there can be times that you have just enough money to be dangerous and not enough to be smart - maybe you spend $4M to market, which is a lot for indy films but it's nothing compared to a studio spend, which is $20M to $30M minimum per picture. If you're competing with that, the movie that people will learn about is the one with $30M marketing spend, not your movie.
Q: By the way, I'm reading the tweets during this panel and would like to let you know that most people are enjoying it. But my question is that if we have an issue-based film, and we're using Kickstarter... we're doing an assisted suicide comedy. We're playing up that this is illegal but we're also trying to discuss this topic in film. We have a strong "anti" side to our issue, i.e. people are opposed to this. Is there a way that we can use them to help market the film?
Wendy: If we go back to Food Inc, and Waiting for Superman, there were large communities against these - "you're anti-farmer" etc. And we wanted to have the conversation openly and honestly. But we had to be very careful not to say certain things about certain companies so that we wouldn't get sued. Even here [on this panel] I need to be careful not to mention certain company names. What we did was a 1-hour event with the director, "this is the director speaking for himself" and that was very successful. Our position with Waiting for Superman was "we're telling this story, there are many stories to be told, this is our story, let's talk about it". If there's a way to respectfully embrace the anti side and have an open discussion, that's good. And do it online - Fbook or Twitter or some other site. [Incidentally, Waiting for Superman has been widely thrashed for being anti-union and for gross oversimplification of issues. Just saying.]
Q: I'm doing a Master's in film marketing with a specialization in social media. What are the innovations in social media and how are people misunderstanding them?
Dennis: I'm reminded of Blair Witch and how it internet-marketed itself. After Blair Witch, the most common question I then got was "what should my web site look like?" And my answer was this is the wrong question, you need to ask what your internet strategy is - find out where your audience spends time on the internet. The question I NOW get is "what should I do on Fbook?" or "what's my social media strategy?" but again, you need to look at where your customers are. If you're not careful then your "social media strategy" can result in people who turn on you and suddenly your social media campaign backfires on you.
Q: Give an example.
Dennis: I'm working on a picture and we needed to use social media to recruit people who had seen the movie. We did a bus tour [physical?] and a viral thing, created a groundswell. Used social media to get our fans to promote the film.
Q: About raising P&A money along with your production budget. Would you keep those monies separate, have separate investors? Pitch separate funds to investors, or just one budget pool?
Jamie: Probably need to treat it separately - you get people to invest in the P&A. You also need [marketing?] experts.
Scott: My feeling is that IF you can roll your P&A money into the same investment pool as your investors, then you're a god. The people who give you money to make the film DESERVE the same treatment as your "last-in first-out" P&A investors, but that almost never happens. Good to treat your film investors better - if you CAN do a single pool then do it. Even if you have a $600K film and you can do it instead for $550K with $50K for marketing, distributors will like that.
Dennis: In today's marketplace the most common situation is you go to a festival with stars in your eyes about how wonderful things will be, then you don't get picked up, you have some distributor who comes along, maybe with a bit of P&A money, and you never make enough to pay off your equity investors. By the way, if you're stealing from your P&A money to pay for post-production then you're doing yourself a disservice.
Q: About unpaid interns and unpaid positions. Aren't we perpetuating a problem of expecting work-for-free?
Jamie: It's impossible to exist in indy film today without interns. My company has 2-3 FT interns and 2-3 paid staff. We had a company tell us "no interns" and we told them they were insane. People are paying $40K for a year of film school, my 12 weeks I give an intern on set is worth more than that $40K, they should pay ME to be there.
Wendy: Especially if they can get course credit, it's good for the students.
Jamie: I had 3 interns this year and they were supposed to be office interns. One ended up as the assistant on a film, another was a producer's assistant on set. Their lives were changed by this.
[Somehow I don't think that the "ungrateful wretches" pitch is the response that all those starving film school students living on instant ramen really needed to hear...]
Mark: There are definitely rules and we're VERY strict about following the rules. When the Searchlight thing came through [lawsuit], I went through it line by line to make sure we were OK with our intern system. Of course, some of the interns don't like being locked up at night... [ha]
Q: For Wendy: I'm working on a project in Argentina, using Fbook. I put out the script of the film online before it was filmed, so anybody can read the script on Fbook and give feedback. Can that work in the US under the law?
Wendy: I don't know. Sounds like you're crowdsourcing notes on the script. I don't know about the legality of giving those people credit.
Dennis: Mass Animation, run by the former head of Sony animation. He has an animation creative cooperative online - recruited people around the world to generate ideas. If an idea is chosen then they set up a professional relationship. So these animators are contributing some of the content that goes into feature films. Good way to generate ideas.
Q [same guy]: About viral things, what viral things have been successful?
Dennis: At Disney, before Fbook, when MySpace was cool, we worked on Step Up, it had no stars. We asked people to send in their own dance videos and we created a panel to judge them. We chose the best to become part of the end credits but didn't tell anybody who won - you had to go see the movie to find out. We think we got a lot of box office just from people going to see the movie to see if they were in the end credits. Worked well.
Q: I just finished a film and have done a few private screenings. Good audience response, bad critic response. How do I deal with this?
A1: Don't show it to the critics. [ha]
Scott: The best marketing tool for your film, is your film. If audiences are watching your film and people aren't walking out and telling people about your film, there's a problem. If audiences like your film then maybe you do grassroots screenings, free screenings, whatever. Not necessarily festivals. Take your film to the public if the critics hate you. You need people to like your film and Tweet their friends. Sometimes you have to give it away to reach your larger goal.
Jamie: Paranormal Activity, the first one, did midnight screenings etc.
Wendy: They also used Eventful, a tool that lets people say "I want this film to come to my city".
Mark: Go to blogs where your audience resides.
Dennis: I don't know who you've shown the movie to, but sometimes filmmakers surround themselves with people who tell you what you want to hear. "A good movie deserves a good marketing campaign and a bad movie deserves an even better campaign" - you might need to open this up wider and have a really good marketing campaign.
Jamie: Every critic is different, you can't just say "the critics". We had critics who hated Blue Valentine, really hated us, yet the film was overall critically well received.
Dennis: Ask "who did I make this picture for?" and if that audience is responsive to critics, you're in trouble. If it's the audience for Paranormal Activity or Twilight, who cares, those people aren't responsive to critics, they're the ones texting each other from the theater saying "I just saw the 7 PM show, don't bother seeing the 10 PM show, this movie sucks".
Q: Thanks to Jamie for being realistic about producer time - most of these panels tell us indep producers to do all these different things, 1000 things we need to be doing. To Scott: should the producers go hit the distribution offices early to build a strategy?
Scott: Difficult to answer. If you don't have a name actor or such, something to make somebody jump on board, it's tough. My firm does NOT pre-buy, and we do NOT read scripts, we look only at completed motion pictures. Because so much can go wrong along the way.
Q: How about a first look deal? Or not worth it?
Scott: If you're financed, don't do it. If you're not financed, then maybe - I've sometimes written letters for people on my company letterhead that says "this sounds like a good idea, my company might be interested if this film is completed", but I always give myself the sentence at the bottom that says I don't have to do this necessarily.
Mark: You probably want a sales agent, have that buffer.
Q: You mentioned "ambassador", what do you mean? [Non-native English speaker was confused by the unusual use of the term here.]
Wendy: I meant the people we show early content to, we show them an early cut, people who are very interested.
Q: I have a social media problem. I have X and Y and Z and Tshirts and a good pitch reel and 9K Fbook fans and have been working on this since 2007. How do you balance building an audience with protecting the project?
Scott: You mentioned those different assets, but they aren't the movie asset. That's GOOD - you haven't tossed the best 6 clips of your movie online already. You have the CD, book, and Tshirt, grow that marketing machine without giving away the film assets. You can put out the word on Twitter about who is in your film, but if your actor is somebody interesting to your audience, don't take 50 stills of your actor and dump them on the internet. [I.e. save the stills for a more targeted, strategic marketing campaign.]
Wendy: Right, people do still READ on the internet, you can talk about the movie in a way that's not giving away production assets.
Q: How effective is a tiered release in this market?
Q: And, [long strategy description which was impossible to follow], how effective is that in the US?
Scott: Here in the US you're often going to have to 4-wall [this is a term of art, it means buying out theater space to show your film], plus pay for marketing and etc. Back to the tiered release question, I'm in that business. I'm not Fox Searchlight, though I did open [a film in] 200 theaters at one time, once, that wasn't nearly as much fun as I thought it would be. [I.e. he's implying that it sucked to do it.] My firm generally open 3-5 markets at once: the top 10 cities etc., and then we see what happens. Maybe we decide to play more cities because the critics liked it but nobody saw the movie. But if you're losing money on theatrical then you typically stop, because you're just digging a deeper hole.
I like doing limited theatricals for indy films, you can try different approaches, maybe your poster sucked and you need a new poster, so you try a different poster in the new cities. But if you play 200 venues at once then you're done.
Q: On timing of Fbook page WRT preproduction - please comment more.
Jamie: Start early, but you must continue to engage with your community, otherwise they won't come back. You have to keep giving them assets and things to make them want to come back. People are fickle, they won't say "I checked this Fbook site a month ago, maybe I'll go check it again."
BREAK and end of first panel