Monday, September 13, 2010

Ask-an-Expert: Liz Ogilvie and Paola Freccero of Crowdstarter on the Plus Side of Free

FREE does not mean the end of the world for your film

We’re writing from the Toronto Film Festival – which basically is the first week of school for the film industry each year – and in between soaking up English language remakes of festival darlings, eating popcorn for breakfast and air-kissing the same the 200 people we saw at the last festival, we went to check out a panel on marketing independent features and docs. The panel talked about all the usual stuff – social networking, grassroots outreach, materials, PR, etc. But at one point, the topic of “free” came up. As in, should you give away your film for free in the interest of promoting it? As usual, this started a lively back and forth between the traditionalists (“piracy!” “lost profits!” “de-valueing the product!”) and the modernistas (“word of mouth!” “audience building!” “if they want it for free they’re going to get it anyway so why not give it to them!”).

This debate got us thinking: why does everyone think that giving away a film for free is a new idea? It’s been a marketing principle since, well, since there were such things as marketing principles. Sure, it looks a little different now, but really, this is NOT a new concept and, frankly, it’s nothing to be afraid of…

Back when we started in the industry (scarily enough, 20 years ago!), independent films and docs were the next big thing. It was the era of Sex, Lies and Videotape and Roger and Me. These films did not have marketing budgets. They had publicists and occasionally a young person working at a distribution company who answered the phone and organized promotions at the same time. Back then, we called them “Word of Mouth” screenings, and when we wanted radio stations to talk about the film on-air, we gave them “Run of Engagement” passes. Basically, we gave away the film for free. Why? For the same reason people do it today – to get people talking. Back then, we didn’t have social networking and blogging – we didn’t even really have email. But the concept of getting a core audience to be early adopters of a film so that they could “evangelize” was exactly the same as it is today.

This is the moment where some of you will say that screening a film in advance of releasing it is very different from giving someone a free DVD. True, you can’t copy or upload a screening. Back to that debate in a minute… So, if giving the film away in a hard format freaks you out but you can’t afford to rent theaters to show the film, use one of the many secure streaming platforms, show it on a flat screen in your living room, bring it to some bar on your Mac. There are ways.

But let’s go back, as promised, to the notion of giving away the film on DVD. We always have to restrain ourselves from chuckling when we have this debate with filmmakers. “There is no way I am going to give out DVD’s of my documentary on the ancient art of eyebrow threading!! What if someone puts in on Bit Torrent? Or sells it on the street?”

Wanna know our answer to that? CONGRATULATIONS!! If your film is compelling and distinctive enough that someone wants to post it to Bit Torrent or sell it in Times Square then you have done something right. That means people are talking about it. That means people want to see it. And THAT means that the honest, law-abiding entertainment consumers of the world will pay for it.

Ok, so you’re the filmmaker who’s thinking “but MY film is WAY more interesting than a doc on the ancient art of eyebrow threading, so it will definitely get pirated if I give away a DVD.” To that, we say, in the nicest possible way, don’t fool yourself.

You know what – unfortunately -- ends up on Bit Torrent? Avatar. The Expendables. Toy Story 3. Why? Because they are seen as highly valuable commodities. How did they get that way? Marketing, and LOTS of it. And stars, big giant super stars.

You have to create value and demand for your film if it doesn’t have a $50 million marketing budget or the most famous actor in the world in it. If you’re one of the lucky people to have made a $100,000 indie starring Meryl Streep and Matt Damon, awesome! YOU have to worry about piracy. But for most of you, your biggest fear, at the moment, should be OBSCURITY.

So, back to where we began. Let’s not fight about “free” anymore. Let’s not even spend time discussing it. Free is not a new concept. It’s a time-honored tradition. Now can we please get back to our popcorn and air-kissing?

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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