So you’ve finished your movie. You’ve taken it on the festival circuit, and you’ve signed with a digital distributor who will be releasing it onto a score of VOD platforms.

You’re scanning through your contract and suddenly land on a sentence which stops you cold:

“The filmmakers will be solely responsible for advertising and publicity.”

Such verbiage is not uncommon these days. Most digital distributors are merely assuming the role of aggregator, arranging choice placement on various VOD channels but providing little to nothing in terms of marketing or publicity support. Of course, you could bypass these distributors and release the movie yourself using sites like Vimeo or YouTube, but either way, the task of getting the word out about your movie—like so much else in this long journey—falls squarely on your shoulders.

Distribution experts recommend that indie productions allocate a large portion of their budget—say, 10 percent—to publicity, ads and other costs associated with the film’s eventual release. It’s great advice, in theory. But the reality is the majority of independent features being made today fall into the “microbudget” category (defined as costing less than $50,000), and many of these are made for under $20,000. When a film is produced for that little, every dollar is needed just to complete it. And even if, by some miracle, a moviemaker could actually hold off spending that 10 percent, it still wouldn’t be enough to mount any sort of traditional P&A campaign.

Before you despair, though, remember this: You made your movie with little more than blood and sweat, and you can approach getting the word out about it the same way. Here’s a basic, inexpensive outline for an indie no-budget marketing campaign. Consider this a starting point with plenty of room for whatever embellishment and customization your particular movie, or its specific release, might warrant.

The Strategy

Back in the early, lean years of Miramax—when it was a scrappy little start-up run by two former rock promoters; eons before becoming the specialty wing of Disney—the Weinstein brothers wisely realized they could stretch their distribution dollars a lot further if they put their efforts behind getting a movie mentioned in the press rather than placing ads. A story in the news cycle would get just as many eyeballs as a commercial, and employing teams of publicists to create these stories cost less than running even a single TV spot.

The same is truer now. While it’s unlikely your little indie movie is going to be covered on CNN, there are thousands of entertainment web outlets hungry for content. These days, most audiences see movie trailers not in the theater, but online—and not through paid ads, but in the guise of news stories. The studios have paved the road for sites to pick up film marketing materials (trailers, spots, posters, clips) and spin them into news posts. While a little indie trailer won’t get the same enthusiastic attention as one for the new Tom Cruise movie, you can still get a surprising number of outlets to cover yours when it drops.

All this considered, it might be wise to forgo any paid ad placement (unless you can inexpensively hit a very specific target audience that applies directly to the subject matter of your film), and focus your efforts on getting press coverage—in other words, a publicity campaign. So if you do have a few thousand dollars to spare, the smart spend would be to hire a publicist, particularly one experienced with indie movies. For the sake of this article, however, we’ll assume you’re out of cash, and that means you, or someone on your team, will assume this role.

What You’ll Need

1. A New Trailer

Like most moviemakers, you probably already have a trailer, one you cut during post-production and have been using to publicize your festival run. But you want to reinvigorate interest in your movie among those already aware of it, as well as excite those who aren’t. This doesn’t mean you need to necessarily throw your old trailer out, but it does mean that, at the very least, you should take a hard look at it and see where it can be modified or embellished.

First, make sure your trailer feels like a “real” one, because most of those created by indie moviemakers do not. How long is it? A professional trailer rarely exceeds two and a half minutes. Does your trailer contain explicit language, nudity or gore? Try to steer away from anything that could offend a general audience. Does it explain the premise of the film clearly and concisely, or is it a random jumble of dialogue that seemed cool in the cutting room?

There are lots of great articles on the web about how to construct the narrative of a trailer, but the simplest way to think about it is this: Before you made the movie, you had to verbally pitch it. You pitched it to your investors, or your Kickstarter backers, or your actors… in fact, it’s likely you had to pitch it so often that you refined it to a beautifully tight two minutes. And that’s all a trailer is, really—your pitch, now told using narration, graphic cards and dialogue bites. You don’t have to hit every story point or give up plot twists, but you should make sure your trailer clearly sets up the broad strokes of what the movie is about.

Lastly, it’s a good idea to add any “prestige” value your film has accumulated to the trailer, including festival laurels, award mentions and reviews. Highlighting these third-party accolades can go a long way to making your flick seem more important.

2. A Press Kit

This is a PDF document with your movie’s synopsis, cast/crew biographies and any other pertinent details that a reporter or critic might need to know. A quick web search can provide you with some good sample press kits. Once completed, make it available to download from your website and to email to journalists upon request.

3. Publicity and Production Stills

Hopefully someone was taking photos while you were shooting, because now you’ll need them. Ideally you should have 10 good behind-the-scenes stills, as well as pictures of your actors posing in character on set. (If you don’t have the latter, frame grabs from the actual movie will work as long as the resolution is high enough.) Like the press kit, you should make these downloadable from your site.

4. An Online Screener

Chances are good you already have one of these, but in case you don’t, upload your entire flick onto the video-hosting site of your choice (YouTube or Vimeo), and create a private, password-protected link.

5. A Press Release

Essentially, this is a brief document announcing your movie’s distribution, including the release date and the platforms upon which it’ll be offered. A quick web search should help you find samples, but remember that shorter is better. You’ll be sending this to press outlets where it will be read by a tired, overworked editor who’s inundated with stacks of these things. The clearer and more concise you are, the better the chance your press release won’t go directly to the trash.

Leslie Wimmer Osborne (the writer's wife and editor) cuts the trailer for their feature Favor

Leslie Wimmer Osborne (the writer’s wife and editor) cuts the trailer for their 2014 feature Favor. Courtesy of Conspicuous Pictures

6. Film Clips

You’ll need three or four short clips from the movie, preferably running about a minute. Like your trailer, these should be free of any spoilers, swearing, nudity or gore. If need be, you can cut a longer scene down so that it plays more concisely. At the end of the clip, bring on your title as well as an “end card” which displays your release date and the platforms your film will be available on.

7. Additional Promotional Videos

During your campaign you should release new promotional material regularly, so you’ll need to generate some. An easy option is cutting a few 30 second versions of your trailer that each focus on a different aspect of the film—maybe one is all story, one is all action and another all review quotes. If your movie has a featured song in it, consider cutting together a music video with shots from the film or, if available, performance footage of the artist. Did you shoot behind-the-scenes video of your production? Why not construct a “making of” piece, or get some interviews with your cast? If your feature is a documentary, you could take deleted sequences and turn those into “web bonuses.” Just make sure the videos are relatively short, ideally under four minutes.

8. Contact Lists

One thing a professional publicist brings to the table is their all-important press list, which is a directory of contacts at news outlets they can use to get a movie coverage. Since you’re acting as the publicist, you’ll need to create your own. Before you resort to Google searches and unsolicited query emails, here’s a way to get a head start:

First, if you’ve played the festival circuit—even the smaller festivals—you’ve probably been covered already by a least a few outlets per festival. Some of these are local newspapers, others may be bloggers, but they’re all press, and your movie is something they’ve demonstrated interest in. Get the names and contact emails of the journalists who covered you.

Next, let’s look at the festivals themselves. Even smaller, regional fests have email lists and social media pages that can reach thousands (if not tens of thousands) of people who already like to watch indie films. Contact every festival you’ve played and find out who’s in charge of their outreach. Remember, a festival looks good when a movie they’ve programmed finds distribution, so they have a solid motive to help promote your release.

Lastly, consider the subject matter of your movie. Is there a niche audience, or a social cause at the center of it? If your film is about cross-country skiing, identify cross-country skiing organizations throughout the country. They may be very interested in e-blasting their members about your flick or posting your material on their website. Find out who their publicity contact person is and add them to your list.

9. Self-Generated Articles

A lot of high-profile news outlets use moviemakers as contributing writers, especially for pieces dealing with the film business. Come up with several story ideas that you or someone on your team—your actors, composer, producer, editor—would be willing to write and then, when the time is right, pitch them to these outlets. It doesn’t matter if the article is specifically about your film or not. Tangential coverage is sometimes better because it furthers the awareness of your movie without the reader feeling like they’re being advertised to.

Even if the news outlets don’t respond to your pitches, go ahead and write the articles anyway. At the very least you can publish them in blog form and still increase your web footprint.

10. An “Added Value” Campaign

Everybody likes the chance to get something for free, and there’s no reason not to take advantage of that. The easiest way to do this is to concoct is a contest. If your film is about the singles scene, make the prize dinner and a movie for two (especially if it’s your movie they’ll be seeing). You can give away t-shirts, posters… really, anything will work provided it ties back to your film and contest entry is free. Entertainment websites tend to be very keen on contests because it’s giving something tangible back to their readers, so it should be easy to find one willing to become your “exclusive” partner. You provide the prize, and they’ll promote it.

Another way to approach “added value” is to create something an unlimited number of people can receive, provided they do a specific task. For example, you could offer to email your director’s commentary track to anyone who watches your movie on iTunes the day it’s released. They send you a copy of their e-receipt proving they’ve rented your film, and in return you forward them the commentary. It’s an extra incentive which costs you very little.


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