Promoting Independent Films via the Internet

Usually low budget films do not have the funds to generate a buzz prior to obtaining distribution.  What little money there is normally goes to basic promotional tools such as production stills, press books, and a web site.  These efforts by themselves have little hope of creating expectations about the film and its potential at the boxoffice, especially when there are up against thousand other movie sites competing for the same attention.  Other means must be found to make people aware and lured them to the film’s web site. 

Internet news postings are one way of building a following.  However, going through a paid newswire service can be expensive; about $400 for an entertainment-news emailing that reaches over a 1,000 media outlets.  There are, however, free news services.  These companies make their money by offering news release writing services and also bump up fees to obtain a better position on the listing of news releases.  I’ve used PrFree.com and paid $32 extra for color and positioning and the release was posted on three news services.  Namely: NewsBraze.com, EWorldWirePress.com, and PrFree.com.  The news release I did was also linked on numerous search engines referencing the above news services and includes Google, Yahoo, AOL, MSN, Ask.com, DogPile, AlltheWeb.com, MegaCrawler, and Search.com.  Other free PR online services include I-newswire.com, and PRWeb.com.  http://mashable.com/2007/10/20/press-releases/ lists additional sites.   You should know that there are numerous restrictions such as length of title, subtitle and total copy that need to be adhered to.  It’s a matter of filling in the online form.  

 Some sites allow photos also, but there may be additional fees as well as restrictions.

One great advantage to online newswires is that they remain on the web for a long, long time and assist in generating stories in periodicals.  They also help build a pedigree for your film.  These releases become important factors in initiating interviews and layouts in various publications. 

In constructing these newswire releases there will be a temptation to concentrate solely on the film and its story.  This approach will likely narrow your demographics.  A better approach is to connect the theme or purpose behind the movie into a current social or political issue or universal topic.  In this way, you attract a wider audience and pull them toward your movie web site where more information is available.   By starting off with a general topic with universal appeal you will be able to generate more hits.  If you have an actor or director with name recognition, then a profile may be advisable. And remember that the number of hits converts into building buzz.

It helps to have teasers and unanswered questions that can only be resolved by going to the web site.  Selection of tags or keywords in the application should also be given considerable thought, as this is the primary means of attracting customers to your press release and eventually to your web site.  Keywords are the devices that allow the search engine to compile likely links for a given request.

Another way of generating buzz about your film is use of video-streaming sites such as MySpace and YouTube.  These and similar sites help generate word of mouth and also help feed viewers to your film’s website.  The speed at which this can happen is phenomenal and the cost is minimal.

However, you should know that many video-streaming sites such as YouTube have restrictions regarding commercial endeavors.  It pays to read the User Agreements closely.  That being said, it is still possible to use these sites to promote your project.  It just has to be done within the site’s guidelines.

Except for content and formatting costs, this is almost free advertising.  With hits on some sites numbering in the hundreds of thousands, the return on investment is well worth the expense. But what type of content will generate these numbers. 

 People crave things that are exceptional, unexpected, yet desire only short highlights.  All these tidbits have one thing in common; water cooler talk-ability.  They have the spark and the inertia to be re-communicated numerous times.   A simple, memorable short message that can be easily related is best.  It has to have that, “You got to see this,” tangibility.  Think of these mini presentations as exclusives, inside information, secrets, or gossip that has to be retold.  Then you have a step up on the competition.

It’s difficult to say what will work.  Something crude and outrageous may turn off viewers in one instance yet when coupled with another film, it pays off.  How does one know?  Public tastes change rapidly with the advent of the Internet.  Trends use to recycle in the space of years now change in months.   What works now only works now.  And if you have a variety of ideas, stories, and visuals, then success through trial and error is more likely. 

Word-of-mouth is not something marketers conjure up.  Conversations can’t be turned on after the fact.  You have to plan for them and supply your customers (distributors, sale agents, and filmgoers) with something to talk about.  In many cases, it’s more than the product (the film) itself.  Fostering the conversations you want these people to have about your film should be an explicit part of the film’s development and production process.  

These conversations might relate to the film itself and its genesis.  Provocative stills along with a cover story can help create such talk.  Technical aspects of the production are also of interest to the many quasi-filmmakers out there.  Use of dailies, behind-the-scenes footage as well as interviews can also be fodder for the water cooler gang.  In addition, consider unique locations, local assistance, and historical revelations.   Bloopers and outrageous confrontations also have a way of creating contagious talk. 

All these things are opportunities that should be written down or recorded as they occur.  It requires a certain mind set to collect elements that won’t be used for months.  It all comes down to preparation.  Key still photos, for instance, should be predetermined from the script so the collection includes the ones that truly promote and tell the story.  Likewise, cast and crew backgrounds should be compiled to provide likely story items.  A good still photographer, videographer, and a publicist can do much of this work.  But when budget restraints limit hiring them, an effort should be made to attain the bare essentials for a promotional campaign.  

One of the major problems in obtaining these materials is the lack of awareness by producers, cast and crewmembers as to how valuable these promotional elements can be. A single photo or a news story can help open doors.  But when you don’t have the funds for a publicist or still photographer, one must find other means of acquiring these promotional items. Cast and crew can still assist in obtaining a good share of them.  It only requires having a digital still camera and a digital video camera on set and instructing the cast and crew on operation and objectives.  Simply asking, “This is what we need to promote the film,” can get the ball rolling.  A digital tape recorder is also advisable.   To collect and compile these promotional materials, some means has to be established to file and archive them until they are needed. 

Uploading clips to online sites will differ depending which site is used.  Each site will have instructions and tools as to how this is done.   PCMAC.COM has a listing of leading video streaming sites under the title “Online Video Gets Real.”  This article describes each site, its attributes and faults along with a rating.  One of the factors in selecting a streaming site is one’s control over the material.  Do you want the video to be private or public, allow or disallow comments, and prelude people from rating your work?  Another factor, does the site allow links to other sites?  Many do not.  This is an important consideration if you have a web site for your film, and there are ways to convey this information and still stay within the requirements of the user agreement.

PCMAC.COM also has articles related to numerous topics on streaming videos. 

The size of membership and demographic of the site should also be considered.   For instance, YouTube and MySpace cater to the younger audience while AOL_Video.com caters to a more mature audience.  ComScore.com references numerous articles listing the rankings of video streaming sites, their demographics as well as their share of the market.  Don’t overlook second-tier sites like Metacafe.com and Break.com as well as international sites.  Dailymotion.com is an up and coming French site that has a particularly strong position in the U.S. video-sharing market. 

Most video-streaming sites don’t allow links to other URLs so it’s important to brand your product (your film) in a consistent manner.  It should have a consistent identifiable moniker that when plugged into a search engine will lead viewers to your site and other listings.  The title of your film should be mentioned in your description of the clip.  Some clips will have a title card showing the film’s web site.  Likewise, directors and leads that have web sites supporting your film should also be mentioned in the description.

For examples, plug in [film clips] in site’s search box and you will find pages of independent as well as studio productions clips.  When you find a film similar to yours plug in the title in the search box and you will find a variety of trailers, interviews, behind the scene, plus music video presentations.  The same could be done with short films.

You will note on a particular movie that different members upload clips.  Some clips might be from the movie itself, other interviews, premières, and some are reviews.  It behooves filmmakers to engage video-streaming site members and draw attention to their movie long before it reaches the screen, especially members who posts clips relating to feature films.  These people are like bloggers except they stream videos instead of words. 

Internet traffic is what generates word-of-mouth and the streets on the web run in many different directions.   They are sometimes connected by direct links while other times you have to plug in a title, keyword, or tag, which will lead to a storehouse of information. For independent feature films, all these venues are interconnected and knowing the flow of information greatly assists in generating the required buzz to make your film a success. 

An Internet promotional plan should be one that makes the search easily assessable and seldom more than two clicks away.  The chart below illustrates the many considerations in facilitating the flow of information from, to, and through the web site.  The objective of this journey should be firstly to entertain, then inform and create awareness.  The end goal is to create a contagious rapidly spreading buzz, an engaging conversation that infects everyone from distributors to the media to filmgoers.

Chart Illustrating website information flow

Chart Illustrating website information flow

Bloggers are the double-edged sword of online marketing for their comments can champion or kill a movie and do so far in advance of its general release.  That said, their inclusion in your marketing campaign should be tempered with a bit of caution.  It only takes a few misinformed bloggers to put a damper on your promotional efforts.  To avoid a ground swell of negative information one should be selective which bloggers receive early information about your film.  If you go with respected and perceptive bloggers like Ann Thompson of IndieWIRE, Jeffrey Wells at Hollywood Elsewhere, or David Poland at Movie City News, you have a better chance of being treated fairly.  Anne Thompson dedicated an entire column to the film-blog phenomenon. [Variety, Fri., May 4, 2007, “Blogs reshaping film coverage — Thompson on Hollywood.] This article has references to a number of bloggers.  You might also look at www.About.com for their listing of the best Movie Blogs.  www.IndieWIRE.COM has a list of Blogs We House and Blogs We Love.  Between these two sites you should have over fifty of the top blogging sites for film.

Another option is to establish your own blog for the production.  While this may seem like a good idea at first, it usually doesn’t work out. The information becomes so sugarcoated and sanitized that it has little word-of-month value.   The most interesting aspects, the on-set confrontations, the gossip, and behind-the-scenes escapades are filtered out.   A blogger, un-tethered and unfiltered, would find such juicy items appealing and his readers would appreciate their entertainment value.   

Getting your information to these bloggers will take some doing, as most don’t have a return email addresses on their blogs.  Those that work through a publication or online website can be contacted through the company’s email address.  Some bloggers will have a message window whereby you can send a brief note or comment.  Here you can refer them to your website with a request to contact you for additional information.  Another way of reaching these bloggers is to send out a newswire dedicated to specific online media writers such as bloggers, reviewers, and entertainment writers. Paid newswire services such as Businesswire.com, PRNewswire.com, PR Wire, Market Wire, PR Leap, and US Newswire offer selected media lists for your online releases.

With more and more filmgoers using the web to select movies, online reviewers provide clues as to which films might be worth seeing.  The better online reviewers belong to OFCS, Online Film Critics Society.  To qualify for membership in this organization, writers must maintain an annual online publication quota of at least 50 professional-level reviews, no less than 400 words per review.   A membership list is available by Goggling “Online Film Critics Society.”  The list contains the e-mail addresses of each member along with the site or source on which the reviews are printed.  With an email, one must persuade the reviewer to see your film so you can send him or her a DVD of your film.  Most online reviewers are more interested in reviewing mainstream and blockbuster films nearing their release date so your email and web site have to be most tantalizing.  It’s helpful to address this email to one member at a time and also write an intriguing subject line.  It also helps in the body of the email to reference another movie the reviewer liked.   Quotes from these online reviewers are helpful in building a pedigree for your film.

Wikipedia has an excellent overview of “Film Criticism” and also has a section about Whore Critics.  These are reviewers whose judgment can be bent by “free vacations” and “elaborate gifts.”  The site Hollywood Bitch Slap has a list of Critics Whores and lists the number of quotes they’ve received in the past year.  The site also lists leading television, magazine, periodical, associated press, radio, and web critics.

Critics can also be contacted through mailing lists provided by critic associations or societies in major metropolitan areas.  These organizations can usually be located via the various search engines such as Goggle and Yahoo and lists can be obtained via an email request.   Another source is the Broadcast Film Critics Association: www.bfca.org.

A great resource for promoting your film is the Motion Picture Domestic Press Directory put out by the Motion Picture Association of America, MPAA.  They are located at 15503 Ventura Boulevard, Encino, CA 91436.  The cost is $35.00 inclusive of sales tax (payable by check to MPAA).  If you also want the information on CD (text only – Microsoft Word), add $2.00 each to the amount.  Having the information on your computer makes it easier to copy, paste and compile mailing labels.  The directory includes trade press, wire services/news bureaus/daily newspapers, print press (general, freelance, magazine), photographers and photography agencies, Internet press and entertainment site contacts, TV press and entertainment program contacts, LA radio & TV stations, Broadcast Film and the Los Angeles Film Critics Associations.  If you have any question concerning this 80+ page Directory contact Linda Vitale at (818) 995-6600 or email: Linda_Vitale@mpaa.org.

Online entertainment magazines and entertainment writers also carry a lot of weight in promoting your film.  There is a multitude of these sites and reaching these people is a real challenge. While the above directory lists some of the major players the lesser-known sites offer more opportunities for low-budget independent films.  Spoolbox.net has links to some of these film news sites and lastlinkontheleft.com has a longer list.  Most sites will have a contact link at the bottom of the home page.  Others will have email links for feature writers.  Pitching story ideas to these people, especially on limited budget films, requires a unique angle or slant as well as entertaining newsworthy elements. And the availability of lead actors and director along with photos is definitely a plus.

One should not overlook the potential of smaller periodicals in promoting your film.  Small weekly publications and local magazines are more receptive to your efforts than are the larger dailies and nationals.  These secondary media outlets can be helpful with festival and limited release efforts. Directories for these publications can be found in larger libraries and most directories list contacts by state and city as well as category.  A good number of these periodicals now list email addresses for their publication as well as individual writers, editors, and reviewers.   This makes it possible to send your release and press book via the Internet and avoid costs for postage and stationery.

IMBd.com postings also figure into your promotional campaign and the credibility of your efforts.  If the information is incomplete, it lessens the merits of the film and its consideration by interested parties, be they reviewers, writers, or distributors.  Tag line, contact information and a synopsis are instrumental in receiving consideration.  Likewise links to the film’s website is a must. 

Reader comments also figure into the promotional equation, though with less impact.  On IMBd there is space for such entries and these evaluations, while having much less impact, do encourage dialogue about the film and tend to up the word-of-mouth inertia.   Most large newspaper sites also have facilities for reader comments, but one must be an online subscriber to submit (usually free).  These comments can create buzz for your film and one should encourage friends, acquaintances, and fellow filmmakers to post comments.  It helps to outline the process to make the entry easier.  If your film has 10 comments, it ups its pedigree quotient more so than if it had none. 

The same process could be repeated on social networks such as YouTube and MySpace.  Here again, one must be a member to post comments.

All these promotional venues have little value if the stories, photos, and background information are not available.  So it helps to budget and plan early on, beginning during the pre-production phase.  If one waits too long, the rigors of the shoot itself override promotional considerations and when participants move on to other projects, it’s difficult to collect the desired elements.  The following is a list of desired promotional elements:

Cast Bio’s & Resumes. If none contact them and help them write one.

Crew Principles: Resume and Bio’s (Should include producers, writers, director, DP,  production designer, editor and composer

Cast and crew credits plus character role vs. player list

Credits as they appear in the film (required by some reviewers)

Production notes on financing, casting, crew, location & sets, effects & transformations  (makeup/wardrobe) Include behind the scenes’ stories.

Notes about the cast (leads and feature players)

Notes about the filmmakers: producers, writer, director, DP, production designer, editor,and composer

Headshots of major cast members, producers, and production principles

Production stills (photos that tell the story and relate relationships)

Stills of filmmakers in action (usually director, cameraman, actor)

Script (Press kit version should conform to completed movie)

Synopsis, short version, tag line, log line

Tape or DVD of film

Trailer or demo reel of film plus video clips for streaming sites

Stories, jokes, bloopers, anecdotes, working relationships

Photo releases if required by cast and crew principals

Announcement Stories: start of production, festivals, awards, distribution agreement

Drop in stories (Generic short fillers for periodicals)

Column items (Short 2-3 newsworthy lines)

Related clippings about the movie, its production and distribution

Testimonials and quotes by people who have seen the movie

Reviews by critics (not sent to critics)

Poster Art and Ad Elements (Photos, graphics and copy)