Only after years spent employed at various other ventures—including stints as a theater director in Chicago and a Web entrepreneur—did Marc Rosenbush finally move to California to pursue his dream of making movies.
By 2006 his first feature, Zen Noir, was complete and ready for release. But, despite numerous festival credits and a healthy following, the movie didn’t receive any distribution offers. So Rosenbush turned to his background in Internet marketing and began self-distributing the film online.
The moviemaker describes himself as coming from a “starving artist’s mentality,” where he was “embarrassed to be too aggressive a marketer.” But Rosenbush realized that “if I spent two years making a film that I care about and I honestly believe will be of value to people, then I’m doing a disservice to myself and the audience by not using any of my power to get it into their hands.” Sound familiar?
Two years after its initial release, Zen Noir is still bringing in money for Rosenbush—with little continued effort on his part. This has allowed him to concentrate on his sophomore directorial effort and his online seminar, Internet Marketing for Filmmakers, a paid course that lays out all the steps needed to find the same distribution success Rosenbush himself has found. In October 2008 he will be speaking at a two-day live event at UCLA. Reviewing the same techniques he touts in his online seminar, Rosenbush will even be inviting members of the audience onstage to help develop personalized marketing plans for their movies.
“I hear from people who get responses at film festivals like, ‘Wow, 10 years ago this would have gone to Sundance in a second.’ Or, ‘Fifteen years ago I would’ve bought this film for my distribution company in a second.’ Now there are hundreds of those kinds of films at festivals.”
The bottom line? If you don’t have a lot of money and need to do it yourself, you can. Here, Rosenbush outlines some of the basic techniques that have helped make Zen Noir an indie success story.
Mallory Potosky (MM): What’s the secret to marketing a product on the Internet?
Marc Rosenbush (MR): If there’s a sales secret, it really comes down to targeted traffic. It comes down to finding people in large numbers predisposed to buying what you’re selling.
MM: How can a moviemaker go about targeting the right audience?
MR: In my experience, the single most effective way to get the correct targeted audience to your site is by forming partnerships with Websites, companies or individuals who have large e-mail lists that are targeted to that particular market.
In the case of my film, Zen Noir, we went after large organizations and Websites that had huge lists of people interested in Buddhism and spirituality and David Lynch movies and anything we thought would be a good match. After a lot of phone calls and a lot of research, we ended up with giant lists of thousands and had many e-mails sent out the same day, endorsing the release of the film.
MM: For somebody who considers him or herself more of an “artist” than a marketer or business person, how would you suggest going about approaching these companies in the first place? What can the moviemaker offer in return?
MR: There’s a whole process that I describe in detail in my course where you can set up joint venture partnerships or affiliate partnerships. You can pay somebody a percentage of the sale or you can do a list exchange where they do an e-mail block for you and you do an e-mail block for them. Or the most sophisticated version, which we did, is where you can actually do a list exchange in conjunction with free gifts. It’s a very complicated system I had run across, one that publishing companies use to get books to the top of the Amazon bestseller list in one day. It involves a whole bunch of joint venture partners working together to get traffic to a site. It’s not a simple system that I can just explain in a few words, but my course gets into all the details.
MM: What do you estimate the cost or time to do this would be?
MR: The money is not the relevant part of it; the time is the much more important thing and the point that I always try to drive home with people is that filmmakers can be very caught up in this idea that, “I made this film. I’m an artist. Somebody else should sell it for me.” If the world were fair, that would be true. If the world were fair, everyone would buy everyone’s film. But the world isn’t fair and what happens is that the making of movies has become democratized.
Anyone can make a movie, but that also means that making films has completely outrun the ability of traditional distributors to distribute them. So where a film 15 or 20 years ago could have gotten into Sundance, now it can’t. Now it can’t even get into some of the second-tier film festivals! Even if it did get into those festivals, it probably wouldn’t get a distribution deal.
The question of “How much time can it take for a filmmaker to do it?” is not the relevant question. To me, it’s “How long did I spend making my film? How much money did I just spend making my film? Am I prepared to have it sit on the shelf gathering dust for the rest of my life?”
MM: What are some of the benefits of marketing your film on the Internet?
MR: One benefit is control over your relationship with your audience. Let’s say Miramax buys your film; they sell 100,000 DVDs and get lots of people to see it in theaters. You don’t own any of those people’s e-mail addresses, so the next time you want to make a movie you’re starting from square one again. If you sell it over the Internet, you are in personal communication with your own fan base. This is something that people in the independent music world started to figure out years ago. If you’ve got a mailing list of 20,000 people who bought your film, guess who’s going to buy your next film?
MM: Would you recommend marketing online from the beginning, or shopping a film around among other distributors before marketing it yourself?
MR: I think you should do both. I think while you’re taking the film to festivals or making the film, be collecting e-mail addresses all the time and building your list. That way, if the Weinsteins come in and buy your movie, it’s fabulous. You get paid $1 million to go away, but you’ll still have the list of fans to help support your film. But given the 99 percent chance that the Weinsteins are not going to buy your movie, you’re much better off having the tools you need and understanding the principles of marketing.
MM: What do you think are the key elements of a Website that can keep people interested—and encourage them to buy the movie?
MR: The secret is understanding how traffic moves, how to find the target audiences that are predisposed to buying your film. I could have 15 people come to my site who are exactly the right market for my film but there may be 150 people who come from some random list.
The second thing is understanding how to craft an offer that an audience will respond to; there has got to be a credibility value, which is someone other than you saying that this is worth seeing. If you go to a film festival—even if you don’t win any awards but have an official entry—that laurel wreath can be on your ad or Website. That builds credibility.
One interesting thing about my own film is that we didn’t get into any major festivals, but we did get into 14 smaller festivals and won seven or eight awards. It’s funny: If you haven’t been to Sundance or Cannes or one of the big festivals, the major studios don’t take you seriously. They say, “Oh that’s a little festival, that doesn’t mean anything.” But the audience doesn’t know the difference. The audience sees six, seven or eight critical notices that say “Winner of the Audience Award” and it doesn’t matter if it comes from a little festival. They say, “Wow. That’s an award-winning film.” So that has credibility.
The third component is financial value. Financial value is created through your pricing structure or through discounts, bonus gifts or add-ons.
MM: Your Website says that your participants will be able to sell more copies of their film through Internet marketing and distribution than going with another option. What is it about this system that makes you so confident?
MR: First of all, I’m not saying it will sell more copies than traditional distribution. What I’m saying is that if you’re going to self-distribute, the Internet is probably the most effective way to do it. There are several fundamental keys to the Internet. The first one is automation and that means that things happen without you once you set the system in motion. I took a trip not too long ago, came back after a three-day weekend and found that 700 additional copies of my film had been sold. It never stops. So automation is huge.
The second piece is the concept of huge, niche audiences that can congregate on the Internet. It doesn’t matter what the subject matter of your film is; there is some kind of niche audience that exists in massive numbers and this is the kind of thing people don’t realize creates such big numbers. My film was a Buddhist film, so it attracted a spiritual audience, a New Age audience, a Buddhist audience. It was also an art film so there was a David Lynch/Jim Jarmusch kind of audience. All those people hang out in groups on the Internet. All those people are customers of other Websites that own their e-mail addresses. So your job is to make deals with the people who own those e-mail addresses.
There are people in the independent film world talking pretty heavily about how to use MySpace and Facebook. That can be useful, but it’s not as instantaneous and efficient as giant e-mail lists, which is really the nuts and bolts of the entertainment industry: Moving traffic and making money.
For information on Marc Rosenbush and his marketing seminars, visit http://www.internetmarketingforfilmmakers.com or http://www.makeyourmoneybackseminar.com. For information on Zen Noir, visit http://www.zenmovie.com.