Sharon Lewis Discusses Marketing and Distribution Strategies for Brown Girl Begins
The lack of distribution opportunities for black female filmmakers can feel daunting. The challenges translate to the subject of my recent feature film, Brown Girl Begins. The movie focuses on the coming of age of a black teenage girl living in a segregated, poor island community off the mainland of Toronto. This world, called The Burn, has little resources—electricity, food or water—but lots of drugs; the heroine must fight to be heard and seen and needs to call on supernatural powers in order to do so. The lack of material resources and support, which drives the plot of the film, relates to the difficult experience I and my team had trying to finance this project. It often felt we needed super-powerful strength to keep going. What we heard over and over from financiers, producers, and distributors is that our “niche film”—without recognizable stars, a male protagonist, or a Eurocentric location—simply lacked an audience; it would not “sell.”
Our first step was to embrace our niche status and to find creative ways to deal with major budget hurdles. We decided to self-distribute Brown Girl Begins in Canada. This meant that our small team would choose the cinemas we would screen at and market all those screenings. In the U.S. we chose to forgo a theatrical release as we would be competing with big budget black sci fi films like Black Panther and A Wrinkle in Time. We screened at strategic festivals in cities where our target audience had a presence, such as Los Angeles, New York (more specifically Brooklyn), Atlanta, and Houston.
Our marketing strategy was partly inspired by Ava DuVernay, the director of the studio film A Wrinkle in Time. DuVernay began her career in indie films. With her distribution company, Array, she has kept her commitment to getting the work of marginalized filmmakers out into the world. Her distribution model has been to specifically target the demographic that her film will most appeal to, rather than attempting a commercial blitz. In fact, she sees niche as a positive—describing the audience for these films as the “rich/niche.” DuVernay argues under-served audiences make extra efforts to see films once they are made aware of them. Targeting directly and specifically to niche audiences runs counter to the impulses of most distributors, who understandably promote films in ways that appeal to as large a commercial audience as possible. To give you an example, I starred in an artsy black, Cannes nominated film in the mid-1990s called Rude. When I saw it on the shelf in the video store in L.A., on the cover were three gangsters that weren’t even in the film. This was a desperate attempt by the distributor to sell the film as an “in the hood” story. As you might imagine, it didn’t do well in terms of word-of-mouth or gain many repeat customers. So taking DuVernay’s lead, we started to really drill down on our specific audience and treat them as if this group was as valuable as the “mainstream” audience. We defined our audience and placed our attention on young black women who are sci fi nerds. Some might see this as limited, but what it did was give us an excited fan base to start with. And we learned that a committed fan base can help you market the film.
Then we used social media as our primary marketing strategy to engage our very specific audience. We did not spend money on ad buys, TV buys, billboards, etc…we didn’t have it and it wouldn’t work for a small artsy film like ours. We love Moonlight and champion it, but it’s hard when distributors, film festivals, and marketers, compare our niche film to a “niche” film that was shot for 1 million dollars and had the power of Brad Pitt behind it. Go on Moonlight, and thank you for winning the Oscar, but we want to make it clear that it is possible to market and distribute a film like Brown Girl Begins, with an ultra-low budget. (Our film made for less than $350,000.)
CROWDFUNDING AS A MARKETING RESEARCH TOOL
We used our Crowdfunding campaign to discover and hone in on our target audience. Brown Girl Begins is an afrofuturist feature film about a young black woman who is trapped in a world forced upon her. Ti-Jeanne, a reluctant priestess, must resurrect Caribbean spirits and survive the possession ritual that killed her mother, or her people will die. The film was inspired by the Caribbean-Canadian sci fi award-winning novel by Nalo Hopkinson called Brown Girl in the Ring. So right away we had fan base to draw from and reach out to during our crowdfunding campaign.
We made a branding checklist of themes drawing from the film and the book and used them to create our social media posts on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. We saw that “universal themes” in the film—ideas about empowerment, class segregation, coming of age, romantic love—resonated, but not as strongly as when we were very specific. So we drilled down further. Ours was the first ever Caribbean-Canadian sci fi feature film. “First evers” are quite an achievement and a way to grab people’s attention. So we reached out to social media influencers, online magazines that had an interest in the Caribbean, and to sci fi communities to support our crowdfunding campaign. Everyone who wrote about us or responded positively to our posts, we added to our database. Then we got really specific.
We reached out to people of the Caribbean diaspora, who feel segregated and are political about it. We became engaged in the conversation around racial violence on Twitter and elsewhere. These are genuine interests of our team and also social issues that are touched upon in the film, so in these online political engagements, were we not merely marketing, but using the film to engage meaningfully with communities we care about and identify with.
We, of course, reached out to sci fi fans who are very loyal, and Nalo Hopkinson had a good size following. We had an advantage with Brown Girl Begins, as it was adapted from a novel with an established fan base. It helped that the author Nalo Hopkinson was very generous with her time and support. Social media groups like Black Girl Nerds, Geeks of Color, Shadow and Act, who are all passionate about the under-served niche of female afropunk, and wanted to themselves reflected in film, were supportive both financially and in spreading the word.
When we started our Indiegogo campaign, we did what we were instructed to do: begin with asking friends and family for donations. Then start on the outer ring. Once the campaign gained some momentum (thanks Mum), we reached out (again, through social media) to followers of the author Nalo Hopkinson (with her blessing and big help I might add). People saw the campaign speeding along and joined the moving train. When it started to slow down, then it was time to introduce new perks that we knew would appeal to our Caribbean followers, books signed by Nalo, Uncle Cho Cho’s Caribbean pepper sauce recipe, avatars from the film, and of course the quintessential tool of the indie filmmaker—the t-shirt. We made sure that the t-shirt reflected the larger story behind the film. The message evolved from “browngirlmovement” to “thefutureisHERe” when the film was completed. Our film about a young black woman finding her voice has both a message and a movement. The making of the film is the message of an older black woman (myself the director) finding her voice in what can feel like a barren film world. We are saying the futureisHERe.
Crowdfunding is an excellent way to begin to gather marketing data and figure out what your audience wants to see and what kind of social media messages they respond to. The key to marketing this film on social media was to take the time to research and develop a community. With our budget, social media was our main marketing tool, so we needed to form a relationship with other communities, sometimes called “influencers” to let them know we were here and telling a story they’d want to hear. We tracked what tweets were being shared, what Facebook messages were being “liked,” and over and over the data showed that when we engaged our target audience, in authentic ways, we were integrated into conversations across these platforms. We used Google Trends tool https://www.google.ca/trends/ and discovered that “black films” (as a search) had a high interest in Nigeria. We discovered that the term “afropunk” resonated a better return than “black science fiction” for the audiences that we wanted to target. All of this helped us move forward with our marketing plans.
SOCIAL MEDIA ASSETS
We were lucky to have a talented director shoot our behind-the-scenes video. Our assistant editor worked with our social media person to edit it into shareable social media assets, mostly gifs. We were also lucky to find a program that would help subsidize the hiring of a social media coordinator who could continue to work with the community we were building from the crowdfunding campaign. Please re-read this last line. We really made use of government training programs to staff our social media and marketing needs. Self-distribution and marketing of a feature film is a huge undertaking. The team scheduled social media interaction every day, 7 days a week. It wasn’t difficult to generate the content, as we were genuinely interested in what we are discussing, but it all took a lot of time. My advice to indie-filmmakers is that they budget at least two-three hours a day to engage in social media conversation and to share.
Luck certainly played a role in our success. We were lucky to be able to access a free digital marketing course put on by Annelise Larson and funded by Telefilm Canada (our film was shot in Canada). Still, regardless of whether or not you have government programs to assist, we stand by our marketing principals, and they have remained unchanged: find the niche market that you want to see your film and target directly to them. We aren’t a studio film, we aren’t even an indie film with Hollywood players—we are an artsy, dystopian film shot on a shoestring budget. So we didn’t have the ability to compete with 30 million dollar films. We could not market in those traditional ways, and what we learned is that it’s okay. We took the basic principles of the digital marketing course which were fantastic exercises and drilled down and got as specific as possible about our audience. Again, we focused on our “firsts”: Black Girl Begins is the first Caribbean Canadian Sci-Fi Feature Film and the first time feature film director who is Caribbean Canadian.
We were told that no one would go to see a black sci fi film with a female protagonist. Also that a film with Caribbean, as opposed to African-American characters, wouldn’t have an audience. The very challenges we had because we were the first Caribbean-Canadian sci fi feature film were the very things that made us stand out.What are the themes of your story? What is outstanding about your film? They don’t have to be political but suss them out and form alliances with those that share your passion for those themes.Our producer has another feature film that couldn’t be more different than Brown Girl Begins, called Crown and Anchor, but in marketing the latter project the same principles apply. He has made sure that the punk aspect of the film, the alienation by the mainstream, is reflected in the soundtrack and casting and so is appealing to that niche community. Every film has a theme, and what we have found is that the more specific that theme, the more niche the project (how far afield it moves from commercial aspects) the more success is possible in generating interest on social media.
We now had a base of supporters for the film with our crowdfunding campaign and a good idea of who our audience was. During production, we continued to stay involved with our audience by sharing behind-the-scenes photos and keeping the conversation going. We also made sure that during production we used our onset resources to maximize the number of shareable assets we would have. We asked the actors to record diaries of the day on their smartphones; we hired a director to film behind-the scenes-footage; and, of course, we had a set photographer. We did attempt to set up an online depot for all the cast and crew photos, so that we could use them during the marketing phase, but unfortunately with the demands of production, it didn’t happen. I still wish we’d been able to do this. If you can set aside one person who is responsible for this, make this happen.
FILM FESTIVALS AS A MARKETING TOOL
Film festival strategy can be daunting, and we made some mistakes along the way. We spent money submitting to the larger film festivals, which was fine because entry into Berlin, TIFF, Sundance, Cannes, or Tribeca almost guarantees U.S. distribution. At first we applied to a number of sci fi festivals and women’s festivals, but we soon learned that we gained more traction in the festivals that had our core audience, young black woman who were socially and politically conscious. So, for example, we looked at where active Caribbean young women were located, and submitted the film to festivals in those cities.
Our success came from black film festivals. Our film played or is playing at key film festivals that we know our followers will go to: Urbanworld in NYC, the Pan African Film Festival in L.A., and the Montreal Black Film Festival. We learned through trial and error, from the feedback from the first couple of festivals, we stayed on our track.
RE-DEFINING THEATRICAL RELEASE
Given the political message of Brown Girl Begins and its artsy, experimental nature, we decided to look outside the traditional cinema experience for our screenings. We decided instead of an extensive theatrical run that our film would be placed inside cultural institutions: museums, universities, art galleries.
The next step was to contact institutions like art galleries and universities where we knew our film would be a good fit. We wanted as many screenings as possible to be “event” screenings. The screening of the film would be a community event, so we contacted local people who are connected to black communities and asked them to speak or appear at the screenings and discuss the themes of the film. They, in turn, helped market the film to their communities. Perhaps if your film is a punk film, it means contacting music film festivals. If your film has an anti-bullying aspect, then reach out to schools, etc. Our objective as filmmakers is to have people enjoy our work; that is the end goal of the marketing. It took me a while to get over my bruised ego, when our film wasn’t accepted by the so called mainstream. It wasn’t until I saw audiences enjoying our film—understanding and appreciating its cultural nuances—that I fully embraced an alternate marketing and distribution strategy.