Initially developed by the movie industry in the 1930s, the marketing maxim “The Rule of 7”, states that a prospective customer needs to “hear” or “see” an advertiser’s message seven times before they will take action to purchase a product or service. Industries and marketing mediums have adopted this theory over the last ninety years. What the movie studio marketing teams discovered in the 1930s holds to the film business of today. Potential moviegoers need to repeatedly be informed of a film before they choose to see it.
“Marketing is not a function, it is the whole business seen from the customer’s point of view.” — Peter Drucker
Many filmmakers believe that if they make a good movie, they will show up to watch it. “Build it, and they will come” was an iconic line in Field of Dreams, but it is not a sound strategy to get the viewing public to be made aware of and choose to watch your film. The problem with focusing solely on the quality of the product as a marketing tool is that nobody will know that it is a good film unless they first choose to watch it. Competition for viewers has grown exponentially. Films are no longer solely competing with other films for the potential viewer’s attention. Films are competing with all other forms of entertainment that are available to the potential customer. A potential viewer sitting at home has the option of streaming thousands of feature movies, television shows, YouTube clips, live streams, and video games, all with equal ease. The competition for the viewer’s eyeballs can be even more challenging when the film requires the customer to spend money, and much of the competition is free.
“You are competing with every piece of content ever made for every person’s attention. You need to be entertaining. Don’t outsmart. Out-entertain.” — Dolf van den Brink, President and CEO, Heineken USA
In the 1930s, studios understood that winning this competition started with awareness and ensuring that “buzz” was generated around a product. Studios still understand this today, spending as much money on the marketing of a film as they did on the production. Studios purchase large blocks of ad space for their blockbuster movies, strategically time the release multiple trailers, and have their stars make the press circuits. This strategy ensures that the potential viewing public has been repeatedly made aware of the film’s existence and encourages them to spend their money to see it. Independent films do not have the resources that a major studio does, so the tactics will need to be modified, but the general theory is the same. The first step in getting people to choose to spend their entertainment time and money on an independent film is to make them aware of it. And the more they can be made aware of it, the higher likelihood of them choosing to see it.
A bad film that people are aware of will do better commercially than a great movie that is unknown. The goal should be to make a good film, but that good film will be better appreciated if it gets the attention of the moviegoing public and gets watched.
“Marketing goes wrong when it is perceived by companies as a bolt-on activity.” — Michael Perry, UK businessman and former chairman of Centrica
There are specific ways that an independent film can increase awareness, especially if this is part of the filmmaking plan for the conception stage. Here are six strategies that can be incorporated to increase the awareness of a film:
Movie stars sell movie tickets. In the golden era of Hollywood, the term “Bankable” star came into use because banks would be willing to lend against movies with certain star actors because of the known demand in ticket sales those stars would bring. Independent film productions may not be able to afford A-list talent, but they can still benefit from the choice of actors lending some star power to their project. This effect can be magnified by having actors play against their traditional type or grouping actors together. In the 2018 movie Black Water, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren teamed up to escape a submarine prison in a rather standard action movie. What set this movie apart and garnered its attention in the media and from fans was that this film represented the fifth time Van Damme and Lundgren had shared the screen, but only the first time they were allies. This star power, coupled with a new twist, drew attention and a significant increase in viewers.
Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren on the set of Black Water (2018)Built-in fan-bases
Some types of movies have built-in fanbases, which can help generate buzz concerning a film. These fanbases will consume large quantities of similar media, and then discuss it with other members of those same fanbases. This buzz generated by existing fan bases occurs across genres, like horror and action films, and in less obvious places such as holiday movies or movies with a particular setting. By identifying and tapping into an existing fanbase and focusing marketing efforts there, the buzz about the film can increase and bring it into more widespread awareness.
Many journalists, newscasters, and freelance writers look for exciting story hooks that can grab viewers’ attention. By understanding what these journalists are looking for when pursuing stories, there are steps to increase the likelihood that an independent film will be the subject of an article. When announcing the movie Payline, the press release emphasized that its production aimed to be eco-friendly. This “green” hook got the attention of journalists that led to articles in Forbes and The Hollywood Reporter. By mindfully structuring press releases and reaching out to journalists with angles that fit their interests, it is possible to get additional press and awareness.
The internet allows large amounts of publicity and awareness generation with little effort IF a piece of content catches people’s attention and is easily shared. This “meme” culture and the value of virality is known across industries and was even tapped into by Mayor Bloomberg’s presidential campaign. While what makes something viral is continuously in flux, most can be defined by being short content, entertaining, and often surprising/new. The marketing team for the 2020 film Money Plane used this strategy by releasing a short clip of the film star Kelsey Grammer, best known for playing the intellectual Frasier Crane. In the clip, Grammer curses while describing the ability to wager on alligator fornication, while also saying the name of the movie. In the first 24 hours of that clip’s release, it had over 250,000 views.
Kelsey Grammer in Money Plane (2020)
In Seth Godin’s book, Unleashing the Ideavirus, he describes individuals or outlets who have the sway to tell their circle about a product or service and convince that circle to then spread the word. These “sneezers” spread the “virus” of an idea. These “sneezers” are somewhat analogous to the modern social media influencer. In the case of the film business, this “virus” is an awareness of the film. Structuring a movie’s marketing to get the attention of a “sneezer” is an essential part of growing the awareness of an independent film. These “sneezers” can then act as evangelists for the film, informing their audience who then go on and tell others. In our current world, these “sneezers” are more potent than ever, able to spread awareness of a product to many people.
“Some people are far more likely to spread an ideavirus than others. Malcolm Gladwell (author of the brilliant book and ideavirus, The Tipping Point) calls this the Law of the Few”~Seth Godin, Unleashing the Ideavirus
Not all beneficial marketing needs the film front and center. In many cases, it is easier and less expensive to have your film piggy-back on the news from other sources with deeper pockets. The film Money Plane starring Adam “Edge” Copeland and Kelsey Grammer used the return of “Edge” to the WWE to its advantage by piggy-backing its marketing to take advantage of all of the press and coverage that arose from a Hall of Fame wrestler returning from retirement. “Edge’s” return to the ring was a highly publicized event, including a documentary, interviews on radio/print/television, and countless fan-generated pieces of content. In most of these, Adam “Edge” Copeland talked about what he had been doing while retired from wrestling, which included his work as an actor and his newest project Money Plane.
The first step in getting people to choose to spend their entertainment time and money on an independent film is to make them aware of it. Planning for eventual marketing in the initial stages of the film allows the taking of steps to increase awareness later. An independent film does not have the same resources as a major studio, but many of the same methodologies applied in creative ways will aid in growing awareness. And the more the public can be made aware of a film, the higher likelihood of them choosing to see it. A movie can be incredible, but unless people know about it and see it, it will never be successful.