DIY Marketing And Indie Creativity: The Perfect Match

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Nathan Ives is an indie filmmaker. He wrote and directed It’s Not You, It’s Me last year and, this year, he’s touring the US with the movie. Rather than relying on a traditional distribution set up, he’s hosting free screenings at independent theaters. Audiences can pay what they want to support the movie and the tour, as well as purchase DVDs and other merchandise. The movie itself is primarily available as video-on-demand.

When Ives completed the film, the distribution contracts that he received were not great. They usually included all rights and required him to pay $50,000 for marketing, as well as a 15 percent commission — just to get his movie out into the world. From a numbers perspective, it just didn’t make sense. So Ives came up with the idea of road tripping-with the movie. You can see a list of upcoming screenings on the film’s website.

A DIY Movie Marketing Campaign

This sort of do-it-yourself approach has become key for many creative entrepreneurs, but it’s still not an easy process. The mechanics of putting together your own tour still involve untangling plenty of knots. While we may think of a road trip as something that just requires filling up the gas tank and getting on the highway, Ives needed to ensure that his efforts directly supported getting his film out there. One of the hardest parts was lining up theaters to show the movie — there just aren’t systems already in place to easily find and contact independent theaters. Ives’ system relied on a lot of leg work: “It really came down to me doing a search for the ten largest cities in a state, and then doing a google search for indie theaters in that city. I would then call the theaters, the ones I could get in contact with, and see about rental. I would say it was about a 10 to 1 ratio: for 10 theaters I would contact, I would book one. Some didn’t rent, others were too expensive, and others just never got back to me.”

The money on its own doesn’t exactly make sense: Ives passes the hat after each screening to bring in some compensation for his efforts, but his goal is really push for video-on-demand sales: “Passing the hat definitely helps, but I’m losing money per screening — I’d say from $100 to $300 depending on travel expenses. My model is that a year of screenings will get the ball rolling with VOD sales. I think this is pretty typical of most marketing plans, they’re really ‘loss leaders.’ That said, now that the tour is going, I’m looking into sponsorships that may at least make screenings break even.”

Using the road trip as a direct marketing tool is an ideal option for reaching audiences, and it’s still less expensive than many of the other options. Betting on big wins, like winning a major festival and landing a distribution contract as a result isn’t exactly viable — despite the number of ambitious filmmakers who seem willing to pursue that option. It’s Not You, It’s Me did use the festival circuit, picking up some awards at smaller festivals along the way, but the film didn’t get into Sundance or Toronto. “While film festivals are a lot of fun and I’m a big supporter, I believe that unless it’s one of the top ten festivals (which are extremely competitive), while it’s fun, it’s not a viable marketing option for getting a film out there in a timely manner. Also, I read recently, that only half the films that got into Sundance actually signed distribution contracts, so a big festival is not a shoe in for a contract, and is definitely not a sure thing the film will make money,” says Ives. Even with the Sundance seal of approval, a filmmaker doesn’t have any guarantee of getting a better distribution deal than the typically inequitable contract offered to independent films.

The Power of Big Names on the Marketing Materials

The road trip has also offered a key point that makes it easier to get coverage and direct promotion. The well-known actors in the movie have their own followings, making it easier to promote the screenings. Ives has seen plenty of support from the cast of the movie: Ross McCall joined the road trip for several screenings, while Joelle Carter promoted the screenings through her social media account. And if anyone doubts the power of a big name getting behind a project, it’s worth noting that while I found Ives’ story interesting enough on its own, I recognized Joelle Carter from her work in Justified immediately. I was excited to watch It’s Not You, It’s Me just to hear her talk. (For Justified fans, Ellen May / Abby Miller is also in the movie in truly delightful fashion!)

The benefit of being able to connect to an actor’s existing brand goes far beyond convincing a blogger to cover the film. Ives says, “It’s definitely been a help. When contacting theaters and media outlets, it makes a difference to be able to say ‘starring Vivica Fox, Joelle Carter, and Ross McCall.’ It sort of legitimizes it, I think.”

Ives’ travel planning definitely doesn’t scream “expensive big studio movie” in any way, despite the names on the credits. His experiences definitely establish his indie cred: “The rest of the planning was sort of fly by the seat of my pants, consistent with my gypsy ways. I’d sleep on couches of kind strangers, in rest areas with the truckers, sometimes a cheap hotel. I kept an eye out for good diners and cheap eats — I once found a bar that had two tacos and a PBR for $3, and it was delicious!” It’s created a story as interesting as the film itself. “I found that far more media outlets were interested in my grassroots tour as somewhat of a novelty, than they were who was in the film,” notes Ives. “My advice to indie filmmakers who maybe don’t have the budget for known actors, is to find a unique marketing angle for the film, it will go a long way in getting it out there.”

A Long-Term Plan for Marketing Creative Work

Putting together this level of grassroots tour does present a particular problem that creatives need to be wary of: it’s incredibly time-intensive. Any time you find a way to spend less money on a particular expense, you almost always need to invest more time. In order to promote It’s Not You, It’s Me, Ives has had to delay working on his next film. All this is not to say that you can’t ensure that all this effort pays off. Ives explains: “The script [for my next project] is done and I’ve actually found a number of potential investors while touring. While ultimately I’m promoting ‘It’s Not You, It’s Me,’ I’m also building a substantial email list from the screenings which will be a big part of marketing my next film, and the next, and so on. My hope is, and it’s looking pretty realistic, to be shooting the next film in early ’15. Most of the money on films is made in the first two years of release. The end of this year will be 2 years for ‘It’s Not You, It’s Me,’ and while I’ll continue marketing it, I’ll definitely spend less time.”

The more you can consider a marketing campaign like what Ives has created to be a stepping stone in developing a bigger following for your work — the type of [true fan]{http://kk.org/thetechnium/archives/2008/03/1000_true_fans.php) Kevin Kelly suggests can fully support an individual artist — the better equipped you are for doing the work you love full time. You do have to make movie after movie (or otherwise create whatever work you focus on), but the marketing will get easier as you start to have those relationships already in place. That sort of direct connection is likely going to be the biggest driving force, long term, in how business models evolve.

The New Business Models Evolving Right Now

The technology of distributing movies (just like every form of media) have shifted, while the businesses involved in that process are still working out the mechanisms of using new tools. When you don’t have to physically move reels across the country — and when people consume far more media than just taking in a movie on Saturday night — there really aren’t as many limits on the business models that distributors have to rely on. Ives expects to see more variation in contracts very soon: “With so many options available, thanks to the internet, for self distribution, I think we’ll begin to see partnerships with distributors and filmmakers. Distributor contracts have typically been ‘All Rights’ which includes, theatrical, VOD, television, and DVD/Blu Ray. We’re just now beginning to see contracts where the rights are split between the distributor and filmmaker, and the two work more as a team. So while I think currently it’s still a either/or between a distributor or a grassroots effort for getting your film out there, I think very soon a hybrid model will emerge, benefiting both the filmmaker and the distributor.”

As new business models emerge, they’re always the results of the people who are already out there, working on selling the product that they want to put into buyers’ hands. Ives already has an ideal scenario in mind, which seems like a good bet, given what we know about how the mechanisms of distribution are shifting. “I’d like to see a model where distributors and filmmakers work together to get films out there. It’s time that distributors realize they can’t charge the heavy ‘marketing fees,’ upwards of $50,000 on indies, in a market extremely over saturated with films,” says Ives. “There needs to be a fair and equitable split between the filmmaker and distributor, where both can benefit, based on the work they’re doing to promote the film. I think greed to a certain extent has gotten us where we are and everyone needs to realize there’s not a ton of money to be made in the indie film market, but if we work together, we can create a sustainable business model where everyone can benefit, working in an industry we love.”

Creative entrepreneurship is exploding: the barrier to entry for anyone who wants to be a filmmaker, or a writer, or an artist, is a fraction of what it was just a decade ago. The work is not easy — especially if you actually want to earn a sustainable living — but it’s increasingly doable. We’re seeing more business models and marketing strategies to support them growing out of creatives taking matters into their own hands. Ives’ push to get It’s Not You, It’s Me in front of audiences is just the beginning.

You can rent or purchase It’s Not You, It’s Me through Amazon, as well as buy it on iTunes.

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