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Three Approaches to Marketing an Independent Film

Independent filmmakers don’t have the luxury of the publicity divisions employed by studios. Yet smart filmmaker know that a film’s marketing is crucial to its success or failure—and doing it well requires an enormous amount of time and effort. So, they tap the passion, wherewithal, determination, and moxie that drives them to make films in the first place to create posters, generate buzz, start an online viral campaign, and do whatever else is necessary to get their work in front of audiences.

Not everyone who goes down this tough, DIY road finds success. But there are some who do, like Bill Daniel, Sterlin Harjo, and Gadi Harel. Their experiences highlight different approaches to successfully self-marketing an independent film—and they provide different definitions of what success means.

Case Study #1

Filmmaker: Bill Daniel
Film: Who is Bozo Texino?

It took photographer/artist/filmmaker Bill Daniel 16 years, on and off, to complete his hobo boxcar graffiti documentary, Who is Bozo Texino? And when it came time to getting the film in front of audiences, Daniel got in his van and lived the life of a vagabond artist.

Beginning in 2005, Daniel, who currently lives in Braddock, PA, utilized the extremely fragile microcinema network in the United States to show his movie. He brought the film to screening rooms set up in music clubs, coffee houses, bars, conference rooms, lecture halls, warehouses, the side of a building, or on top of a van—in short, anywhere you can set up a screen and a projector and screen a movie that was created and is being distributed absolutely independently.

By taking his film across the country this way, Daniel essentially lived out of a 40-year-old van for stretches of time. He would take the van, which routinely broke down on him, across America to show his film to anyone and everyone he could.

“When it was it finally done, this film was mine and I wanted to bring it to who I want to,” Daniel says. “And the way I want to is I’m going to get in the van, print some posters, and call people I know in different towns and say, ‘Hey, where are people showing films these days?'”

This led to Daniel screening Bozo Texino, by his estimation, around 350 and 400 times between 2005 and 2009, and his approach was extremely labor-intensive. He would spend two days booking a screening for every day he was on the road. He would also spend hours silkscreening posters himself and sending them out to the venues ahead of his appearance.

By touring his film this way, Daniel lived like the subjects of his documentary: hand to mouth. He relied on the generosity of his hosts and strangers to allow him to bunk on a couch for a night or help out with his van. And there was never a guarantee that things would work out even marginally well.

“You live and die by your hosts in the town,” Daniel says. “More than three times I’ve rolled into a town and seen the stack of posters sitting on the desk with my express mail or priority mail envelope next to it. That’s the worst. That’s the slap in the face. That’s the pet peeve.”

Despite the dud screenings and the wasted efforts in some places, Daniel kept with the rather old-fashioned way of marketing his movie. He embraced the peer-to-peer way punk bands got the word out about their shows in the early 1980s. To Daniel, punk culture and hobo graffiti culture are part of the same tradition, a personal culture that has value and is important to him. He wanted his film and his distributing it to be part of that tradition.

And in that, Daniel found success. He completed a film that took far longer than he ever expected. He has been able to live and work as an artist without having to go back to working construction. And, as he says, “I’m still here.”

Daniel doesn’t judge the success of his film on its financial success, but rather it’s ability to resonate with the audience. “The film found an audience that was the audience I really wanted for it, the people who I really identified with and care for,” Daniel says. “So the fact that it didn’t have success outside of that—that it didn’t come with the gravy—is fine. It really did what it was supposed to: become a part of the culture that it came out of. That’s the essential thing because, basically, it’s a piece of folklore.”

For more information on Who is Bozo Texino?, visit Bill Daniel’s website at http://www.billdaniel.net.

Case Study #2

Filmmaker: Gadi Harel (co-directed with Marcel Sarmiento)
Film: Deadgirl

Gadi Harel and Marcel Sarmiento aren’t your typical independent filmmaking success story. In fact, theirs is the opposite of most indie filmmakers. They didn’t spend years on the road with their film, and they didn’t have a steady uptick in attention.

Rather, by some fortuitous self-marketing to a management company and an official from the Toronto International Film Festival, the filmmakers found their film Deadgirl on the midnight movie program for the 2008 festival in Toronto.

In their case, the best marketing tool Harel and Sarmiento had was the film itself.

They screened a rough cut for a management company—the company liked it and put them in touch with someone from Toronto. They screened the rough cut for that Toronto official—he liked it enough to take a chance on a couple of unknowns who made a movie on a budget of under $1 million with no stars and put it into the festival. And when they screened the movie in Toronto it was noticed by distributors and ultimately bought by MPI Media.

Once the film was bought, Harel and Sarmiento had almost a year between Toronto and MPI’s planned limited theatrical release. (Deadgirl opened in nine cities beginning July 24, and is scheduled for a September 15 DVD release.) This gave the filmmakers the chance to screen it at festivals around the country as well as internationally. They took the film to major festivals in Austin, Los Angeles, and Seattle, as well as a festival in Spain.

“It was just the two of us and it felt like, in a weird way, that we had never played at Toronto,” Harel says. “There was a long time were we almost forgot we had distribution and we were just operating like this is it, we have to sort of get the word out or nobody will ever see this movie and every screening was the only chance to see the movie.”

As MPI’s release date for Deadgirl approached, Harel and Sarmiento left the festival circuit and prepared for the film’s theatrical run. This meant the filmmakers working closely with their distributor on the marketing tools for their film.

For the poster, MPI went with the one Harel and Sarmiento, who are also graphic designers, put together for Toronto. They wanted to create an “iconic image,” according to Harel, that would cause festivalgoers to stop for a closer look. The poster, a close up of lips tinted pink and green and situated vertically, is provocative and not shy about it’s multiple meanings.

The same could be said about the film itself, a coming-of-age zombie movie about two high school guys who find a dead girl in an abandoned asylum who turns out to be not so dead. Harel says the movie has two sides: the coming-of-age story, and dark, disturbing horror movie.

For their part, Harel says he and Sarmiento were attracted to the Deadgirl script because of the coming-of-age story. He understands that people will come for the horror and that MPI is selling it as a horror movie. “I trust them, and they’ve done a great job. They’ve done for the movie what we hoped someone would do,” Harel says.

It seems like his marketing role now is to make sure people don’t expect the wrong kind of movie. Some Internet buzz and early reviews put Deadgirl in league with the Saw and Hostel movies. Harel agrees the film is disturbing, but says it isn’t torture porn.

“I think that most people who see the movie at this point expect it to be something that it’s not. And they’re either going to be surprised and pleased that it’s not, or they’ll be disappointed,” Harel says. “Everyone that will see it, I’m pretty sure, is expecting something else. And that’s the way it is—it has to be that way to get them to show up.”

More information about Deadgirlcan be found at the film’s official website, http://www.deadgirlmovie.com.

Case Study #3

Filmmaker: Sterlin Harjo
Film: Barking Water

As a Native American, Oklahoma-based filmmaker Sterlin Harjo has a tough time getting attention from agents and the broader independent filmmaking community. Despite screening three films at Sundance and getting distribution for two of them, he constantly runs into misconceptions from audiences about his movies.

“Almost as soon as you say Native American, before you say anything else, you think of drama, you think if this film’s a Native American film, I’m probably going to get depressed and sad,” Harjo says. “So it’s hard to get people into theaters to see the film sometimes. And those are the people who I think need to see this film because it will change their idea of what a film about Native Americans can be.”

The film in this case is Barking Water, a soulful road movie focused on an older Indian couple. Frankie (Richard Ray Whitman) is dying, and rather than see him die in a hospital his longtime on-again-off-again girlfriend Irene (Casey Camp-Horinek) takes him on a road trip to see people and places important to Frankie.

It’s the kind of film that would play well in arthouse and smaller, independent theaters. Yet Harjo, because of his heritage and the perception of what a Native American film is, must fight to convince audiences and potential distributors that Barking Water isn’t a Native film in the stereotypical sense. It’s simply an independent film that details a modern Native American experience.

“I like to attract fans of Native American films. I also like to attract people of just independent films. And that is the biggest thing. I try to push this as an independent film,” Harjo says. “It’s about Native Americans, yes, but a lot of people can really relate to it, and I think that’s key.”

To convey this message, Harjo has marketed the film himself to independent audiences generally and the Native American community specifically.

The first step was getting word out about the movie through the Internet, which Harjo accomplished by working within the Native American community. Ryan Redcorn of Red Hand Media designed the poster for the film, and then blasted all over MySpace and other websites. And a company called One Fast Buffalo designed a proper site for the movie that Harjo pumped up as much as he could.

Once Barking Water was complete, the second marketing push began: touring it. Harjo enjoys taking his films to a new audience and talking with them about the work and getting his projects seen. But he also finds it can be disruptive.

He compares being on the road with a film to being in a band, except rather than playing the same song every night it’s every couple of weeks. He’ll be on the road with the film, and his home will be hotel rooms. When he returns to Oklahoma, it takes him a while to get back into the groove of being home. And once he’s back in that groove he leaves again to show the film somewhere else.

“It’s really exhausting because you’re always on the road and you’re never home, so trying to just show the movie wherever and whenever you can and also trying to find a way to make a living off of film,” Harjo says.

Despite the disruptions and exhaustion, Harjo values the process of taking his films on the road. He toured his previous film, Four Sheets to the Wind, and that built up his reputation as a talented filmmaker and led to larger audiences for Barking Water. The Four Sheets to the Wind tour also landed him a DVD distribution deal for the film, and he says he’s in discussions now with a distributor for Barking Water.

Harjo admits that the success he’s found hasn’t led to a big explosion of money and fame. And he’s okay with that. The slow climb to acceptance within the independent community has allowed him to make the movies he wants while getting all the mistakes out of his system on relatively low-budget movies. And he maintains the creative freedom valued by all artists.

“I have final cut on my films, and I don’t have anyone telling me to change things. I think that’s the way to do it,” Harjo says. “It’s just a good place to be. I get to do what I want to do, and I get paid for it.”

More information about Barking Water can be found at the film’s official website, http://www.barkingwaterfilm.com.

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