Summertime means summer movies: Big and loud sequels, remakes and franchise-starters. So where does that leave independent movies? Those micro-budgeted affairs that traffic in nuance and feelings, not CGI splendor?
Independent movies have been hit hard in recent years, what with reputable indie studios shuttering and their movie grosses shrinking from already miniscule numbers. So how can a humble documentary or dysfunctional family portrait compete with Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen in theaters this summer? It’s not as hopeless as it sounds.
In fact, with more people packing into theaters during the sweltering summer months than any other time of year, the season is ripe for success. But it requires imagination, foresight and a little viral marketing luck.
“The name of the game is marketing—and marketing means dollars, something that isn’t synonymous with ‘independent films,’” says Carol Bidault, executive director and founder of the Washington D.C. Independent Film Festival.
For Ryan Werner, IFC Films’ vice president of marketing and PR, this means relying on old-fashioned print reporting to gain an edge on the best the big studios have to offer each summer.
“What drives most of the movies we work on is the press,” says Werner. The trick, as he sees it, is to find those studio movies that won’t attract a throng of feature stories on opening weekend and target those dates for release. For example, news outlets could spin a half dozen features from the latest Harry Potter saga, but might only run a review of a film like Fantastic Four—leaving plenty of room for some indie love.
Werner says online press outlets like Slate, Salon and Movie City News can be just as helpful in spreading the word about new independent projects. “The traditionals are incredibly important, but online absolutely helps,” says Werner, who points to past indie successes like Wordplay ($3.1 million) and An Inconvenient Truth ($24.1 million) as examples of how the indie spirit can overcome the barrage of ‘round-the-clock studio marketing.
Sometimes, it’s best to simply offer audiences an escape from summer’s dog days. Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World, which followed the moviemaker as he tracked a science expedition in Antarctica, featured the tagline, “This Summer Go Someplace Cool,” recalls Stephen Garrett, co-founder of Kinetic Trailers. “You can be a little more shrewd and play off the season. There are always people looking for alternative films; you have to exploit it.”
Eric d’Arbeloff, co-president of Roadside Attractions, says smart studios can wait a bit before unleashing indie films on the public. “In the July/August timeframe, a certain fatigue has set in,” d’Arbeloff says. “That presents an opportunity.”
Last August, Roadside Attractions released I.O.U.S.A., a sobering look at the nation’s economy. The subject matter was hardly cinematic catnip, so they distributed the film to more than 350 screens accompanied by a live “Town Hall” event, broadcasted via satellite, with financial wizard Warren Buffett.
“We’ve gotten to the point where everything—on some level—has to be ‘event-sized,’” says d‘Arbeloff, who has high hopes for his studio’s upcoming 3-D, science-fiction film, Battle for Terra.
Instead of playing to the season, Roadside chose to cater to the medium, premiering the trailer before February’s Jonas Brothers: The 3D Concert Experience.
The summer blockbuster as a cultural phenomenon dates back to Steven Spielberg’s 1975 classic, Jaws. Ten years later, according to Robert Marich, author of Marketing to Moviegoers: A Handbook of Strategies and Tactics, arthouse theaters began offering counter-programming to attract summer moviegoers.
Marich says that 1985’s Kiss of the Spider Woman helped punch open the summer market for more serious-minded fare. The film earned $17 million in its theatrical release, a figure that Marich says would still impress today.
Nearly every summer offers an example of the little indie that could—like Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ Little Miss Sunshine, which opened in July 2006 and hauled in nearly $60 million—but these films are the clear exceptions. “There are lots of failures,” notes Marich.
Some independent movies can’t even find their way into theaters during the summer months, says Sharon Simpson, a partner with movie marketing firm Stir Movies. “Many movie directors I talk to literally can’t get the screen time in theaters. They can’t even pay for it!”
Those fortunate enough to nab theater space during the summer months would be smart to begin their marketing campaigns early, advises Simpson. “The day the rights to the screenplay are secured, buy the domain name and get something online,” she says. “Let long-range marketing do its work.”
Social marketing is a must, too. Sites like Twitter and Facebook can push viral videos far and wide, and today’s Web offers the option for paid targeted ads that wouldn’t have been possible even a few years ago.
Thanks to all of these strategies, not every independent studio is running scared this time of year. Eamonn Bowles, co-founder and president of Magnolia Pictures, says the summer is often an easy time to “cut through the noise.”
While some weeks feature a barrage of new releases, there are often less movies per weekend. That’s an opening indie studios can exploit according to Bowles, whose studio will release Lynn Shelton’s Humpday this summer.
Over at IFC, Werner is set to release In the Loop, a dark comedy starring James Gandolfini, which eviscerates how the U.S. and British entered the Iraq War. The film’s sharp dialogue and brisk festival buzz “lends itself to viral marketing,” says Werner, who adds that he expects to leverage Twitter to expand on the existing buzz and use video of various In the Loop characters to spark a viral component to the ad campaign.
Still, Werner recognizes the brutal truth of the business for indies: “It’s tough all year long.” MM