Thursday, August 19, 2010

Ask-an-Expert: Liz Ogilvie and Paola Freccero of Crowdstarter on Marketing

We launched our marketing and distribution services company, CrowdStarter, because the rug had been pulled out from under us. The company where we were working, B-Side Entertainment, ran out of funding and had to close. We both had done the corporate thing before, we’d done the traditional distribution thing before, we’d done pretty much every kind of job imaginable in the independent film world before. And all we knew was that we didn’t want to repeat any of it. But that didn’t leave many choices – except to start our own thing, and that’s how (after some beers and some cupcakes) our company was born.

Even though B-Side folded, we both felt like the company was on to something -- what if you really could market and distribute films profitably and effectively by harnessing the promotional power of the audience? What if you could apply the lessons of the music business to film and start going directly to consumers instead of going through middle-men? At B-Side, we were just beginning to explore those ideas and our early results said that there really might be a new successful business model there.

So, what does it mean to do away with the middle-men and go straight to audiences? What does it mean to harness their power? Well, in order to answer that, you have to understand the basic principles of how the independent film industry has traditionally worked.

Filmmakers have to market their film to film festivals and to acquisitions executives. Distributors have to market their films to exhibition chains and theater owners. The only people, in the traditional distribution landscape, who actually deal with real, live movie lovers and movie watchers - for profit - are the theaters. But what if the best, most enthusiastic audience for your film is made up of people who don’t go to movie theaters or at least is made up of MORE than those who go to movie theaters?

When films are served up to the right audience, ideally, a love affair begins. The audiences chatter, they share with each other, they go back to the theater and pay more money and buy DVDs and downloads and generally they push the film forward so that the audience and profits can grow. But, the cost of promoting a film and giving each of the middle-men their cuts means that it takes astronomical momentum for any of those profits to make it back to where it all began – with the filmmaker.

Going directly to the consumer means trying to start that love affair without having anyone take a cut in the middle. Going directly to the consumer means trying to start that love affair without anyone else trying to control the messaging of the film or the manner in which it’s consumed (in a theater, on a big screen, on a small screen, on a hand-held device, etc.). Going directly to the consumer means giving audiences what they want while keeping a bigger piece of the financial pie.

Ok, great. Where do I sign up, right? Well, not quite that simple. Some films perform spectacularly using the traditional system – many Palme D’Or winners (4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days anyone?), critical darlings, genre films (Let the Right One In, Pan’s Labyrinth, too many to mention) and well-timed documentaries (inconveniently truthful ones, especially) have been profitable for distributors and filmmakers. They NEED advertising. They NEED critical acclaim. They NEED the right art house. Some films are just bad. And they’re not going to perform no matter what you do to them, where you put them or what you say about them. Sorry, but it’s true and you know it – we all know it.

But then there are those special films. We know them when we see them. They appeal to some incredibly rabid fan base. They feature some unusual performance by some cult hero. They make people laugh or cry or yell regardless of whether any critic has actually ever seen the film. They may not look like they were made by Godard, but they deliver what they promise to an interested and engaged audience. Those films deserve to be seen but they rarely have the chance.

Do you have one of those? If you do, we’re hoping you’ll call / email / tweet / friend / IM us (pcfreccero and ogil1199). Nothing makes us happier than figuring out a creative, exciting way of connecting a really satisfying film to a really eager audience and watching the groundswell begin. Ok, maybe beer and cupcakes make us a little happier, but starting a crowd is a close third!

Editor's note: Liz Ogilvie and Paola Freccero will be speaking further about Marketing at IFP's Independent Filmmaker Conference. Comment now and join the conversation online and in person.

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