Friday, December 25, 2009

A Plea To Consumers (Part 2 of 6)

This is an article in a series called The Filmmaker's Guide to Value. You may read all the articles in this series by clicking here.

Jon Reiss recently posted a very thorough article called A Christmas (and Hanukah) List to Help Save Independent Film. It's a valiant effort and may actually help some independent filmmakers stay afloat, much in the same way that NPR has stayed afloat with listener donations. Which is great. If CC P2P services like explode and consumers find a simple way to patronize the indie filmmakers they like, we'll all live in a much better world for the arts.

Even so, I can't help wonder: isn't this just bailing a sinking ship? Don't misunderstand: I'm not saying independent filmmaking is a sinking ship, at least not in whole. Quite on the contrary, some recent indie films have been wildly successful, both artistically and commercially, e.g., Precious, Once, Paranormal Activity. Supporting indie filmmaking, though, comes naturally when the market enjoys the content. If you're telling a story people enjoy, you should—in theory, anyway— never have a problem finding some kind of funding for your film.

Last week, I started a virtual panel on Twitter called Infinite Distribution. The panel focuses on film distribution in the digital age which you can find and contribute to at #infdist. Lots of people have been contributing to it, including Jon Reiss (author of the must-read book, Thinking Outside the Box Office), but a few comments in particular resonated with me. Self Helpless is a no budget comedy being released for free over BitTorrent for 7 days, followed by a DVD release with related mechandise like T-shirts, etc. In itself, their model is worth writing more about (read more about their BitTorrent model here), but this is a collection of @Selfhelplessmov's tweets:

Make shit people want and give it to them for free. Not for everyone, but it works for us. The idea of retraining or cajoling audiences irks me... maybe audiences need to retrain filmmakers to make movies people will like. Training people to be more film-savvy seems weird. Making movies FOR the audience often gets left out of the conversation—before we can teach, don't we have to gain their trust by giving them good films?

Why are indie films struggling? I see two obvious reasons (though there may be many others): the market doesn't support indie films, and costs to make indie films are too high. This is a tragic and vicious circle... when the market does support those films, then the costs aren't too high, right? So are we seriously objecting to a lack of support in the market for fringe indie films that can't seem to find their market? As Big Champagne CEO Eric Garland recently said:
...growing a sector is a privilege and not a right. There is no right size. There is no correct or God-given size for any sector. Why do we get to make movies that cost $300 million to make? Because we have found venues where people will spend more than $300 million on the result. If people spend only $50 million then the price of a movie must be $49 million or less.

This economic principle is and always will be mercilessly democratic. It applies to physical products 100 years ago and to digital products today: if audiences for indie films only spend $1 million, then the cost of indie films must be less than $1 million. If audiences spend $50,000, then the cost must be under $50,000. If there is no market for a particular indie film, then that indie film must either adapt... or it will die. You can bail water on the sinking ship if you so wish, but sooner or later, your arms will get tired. Appealing to consumers' good nature to help fund independent movies for its own sake is putting a band-aid on a bleeding jugular.

Terry Rossio once wrote on Wordplay, either in a column or a comment, and I'm paraphrasing: "we can give you all the advice about pitching your story to a producer, about how to format your script, about all these other little tips and tricks... but it won't make any difference if you can't write a Damned Good Screenplay. You could even write a screenplay in crayon but if its story and characters were compelling enough, that multi-colored script will still get a green light. So stop worrying about two vs. three brads and start worrying about your opening words. Worry about your character development. Worry about your story." Indeed. Rather than focus all your efforts on how to market your product cleverly, just focus your efforts on improving the damned product. Good content advertises itself.

This article is part of a series called The Filmmaker's Roadmap to Value. You may read the entire articles by clicking here, or the other articles here:
  1. Save the Tower Theatre
  2. A Plea to Consumers
  3. A Rotating Film Tour (12/26 09:00 PST)
  4. What Are You Really Selling? (12/27 09:00 PST)
  5. Transmedia: Connecting With Fans (12/28 09:00 PST)
  6. CwF + RtB For Filmmakers (12/29 09:00 PST)


Sheri C said...

Really liking your posts, all the way up to the good content advertises itself bit. You know I am not down with that!

A great story is easier to market, but you still have to market it. What sets the talented busker in the subway apart from the talented performer in Carnegie Hall? Marketing! (and a good agent :))

As a person who sees many films (as screeners) that do not resonate with me, I definitely think that telling a great story well puts a filmmaker FAR ahead of the thousands of others who don't, but you still have to know your audience and get connected to them early so that it will be a seen film.

The value comes for the consumer in the relationship with the filmmaker and being a part of something great that resonates with them.

Ross Pruden said...

Savvy filmmakers/content-creators understand how important marketing one's product is. I wouldn't discount marketing altogether, but if it means creating a substantially better product? I'd have to think hard before answering; quality is viral.

Example: yesterday, I heard a friend *rave* about the Twilight books... FOR FIVE MINUTES. She hated the movie version of Twilight but lauded the books as "addictive". She went out of her way to describe how much she enjoyed the books and, though she wouldn't normally spend $60 on books, she'd buy the hardcovers to give to her daughter one day. I had no interest in reading the books, but now I do. This is the kind of advertising I'm talking about—it costs the producer nothing (after the initial marketing investment, of course) and continues long after the marketing budget has dried up—all because the product is intrinsically entertaining. If all indie filmmakers grokked this lesson, you'd see a lot more sales at Sundance.

Sheri C said...

Ok, now I get ya (and I have the hardcover books too!). By far, WOM spreads with a great product and giving people a great story to talk about will definitely get them talking. And they talk because they feel a part of something and want to find that connection with other people over the same thing. And that has value!

Miles Maker said...

Films are like any other product--marketing wins. It might take an entire weekend to discover a film is bad and it stands to make $30mil before that realization sets in by WOM. This is the reality of filmmaking--like any other product it's all in how you SELL it...

Movie trailers are a case in point--how does anyone know if they just saw the best 2 1/2 minutes this film has to offer? they don't, but if the trailer resonates they will want to see the film, and if they want to see the film they're likely to tell someone else about their desire to see the film, and that's when access comes into play (another subject altogether).

Good stories will always carry further--"My Big Fat Greek Wedding" and "Slumdog Millionaire" spread by WOM from modest beginnings. Not as modest as we're discussing now but modest nonetheless. I say all this to say that effective marketing with access and a good story will work wonders for indies and effective marketing with access and a bad story will do the same albeit temporarily. At the end of the day it truly IS all about story--provided the story gets OUT, and that's effective marketing.

What troubles me is the idea that lower production costs are necessary for indie films to be viable. Hollywood will live forever in some form or fashion because people want the BIG escape. As for us little guys--we want to be BIG, even if it just means making BIG indie movies. However we're increasingly limited to doing so with story vs. production value. This means our stories can't be small--and this is a challenging proposition!

To build on Sheri's comment about mediocrity: to conceive a BIG story on an indie scale takes a good writer and frankly too many indie filmmakers are writing their own stories and they're not very good writers! Even average writing suggests an average film--why do they insist on such creative control? We need to discover scripts the way Hollywood does; from REAL writers with compelling voices we can tap into that spark emotion in lots of people and offer your film some traction in a saturated market full of average storytellers. Then you can lay off the gifts and the gimmicks and focus on an effective marketing strategy...

[Miles Maker is a story author, content producer and auteur whose dynamic media ventures encompass three current web/tech sector megatrends: mobile, social, and real-time @milesmaker on Twitter.]