This weekend I headed down for Chris Jones’s 2-day course on the new models of distribution for independent film with Sheri Candler, indie film marketing guru, and Jon Reiss, pioneer of DIY distribution and author of the “new model” bible Think Outside the Box Office.

I could spent hours here – and thousands of words – going over everything we learned, but to be honest, you’d be better off buying the book.  Instead, I thought  I’d see what elements have really stuck in my brain and give a few notes.  This is not intended to be a comprehensive review of the weekend, but rather a toe-dipping to introduce any of you unfamiliar with these people’s work.

DAY 1 – Sheri Candler

Sheri Candler – indie film legend and marketing supremo – spent the first day introducing us to the “new” concepts of marketing.  I say “new” with inverted commas because actually, a lot of what Sheri was teaching us is fairly standard practice in the commercial and business worlds.  It’s just that not many filmmakers consider any of it at all and if they do, they approach it way too late.

What Sheri is preaching (and preaching really is the right kind of word for it) is audience identification and engagement.

IDENTIFICATION – it’s no good, as an indie filmmaker, making a horror movie and saying that you want to target horror fans.  There are far too many out there for you to successfully reach and you’ll end up throwing away money that you don’t have and won’t recoup.  Instead, you need to drill right down into you audience and find the core.  That may be, for instance, people who like independent horror movies featuring zombies.  If you can, it should be even narrower than that; the more precise you can get your target – or core – audience, the better you’ll be able to connect with them.

ENGAGEMENT – isn’t just sending out flyers and posting on internet forums.  To get a true following for your movie – a hardcore fanbase who will spread the word into wider circles – you need to full engage with them.  From the start.  That means finding out where they congregate (usually where online – forums, websites etc) and joining with them to start discussions about the subject – not just YOUR MOVIE.  This is a crucial soft-sell approach, without which it’s not real engagement, it’s just advertising.  At this level of movie making, advertising doesn’t really work – connecting with and befriending your audience is the key.

The biggest lesson I took out of day one is, without doubt, that the earlier you start the better.  You should be starting your audience “outreach” in pre-production or even as you’re finishing your script, but you should certainly do it before you reach post-production.  The kind of engagement you need to promote your small indie flick is too complex to take a stab at once you’re ready to release – you need to be building it from the beginning.

The other key element to this is budgeting – when you’re budgeting and fundraising for your film, make sure you include the marketing costs in there, too.  This isn’t simply advertisements (in fact, they may not feature at all), but you will need GREAT key art, a BRILLIANT website and also the TIME to engage your audience.  All of this costs – especially if you’re hiring a pro, which is something that’s really worth thinking about.  A professional can handle things for you while you focus on your movie and keep an over view of all the rest, because it will take up a lot of your time and your mental “bandwidth” to be doing both.

At the very least, you’ll need help in doing it.  You have help making the film (more than likely) so why not get help marketing the film?  As Jon would go on to tell us on Day 2, reinforced by Sheri herself, the ideal marketing, publicity and distribution spend is going to be 50% of your budget.  Allow for it.

Tomorrow, I’ll hit you with the key take-aways from Jon’s 2nd day session with us, which was packed with a ton of information and ended up running long without losing any of the filmmakers listening.  The whole weekend was exceptionally generous in the sharing of information and tips and none of the filmmakers there could thank Jon, Sheri and Chris enough for their help.

On Wednesday, I’ll also talk about some of the guest speakers we had visit over the course of the 2 days.  Right now, I think this is enough for one blog!

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