The history of independent film sound like many other elements of industry, an abundance of eager and inexperienced professionals flood the market with their offerings, and those with merit and proper promotion rise to the top.
While the framework of this process remains unchanged, the method of achieving it has undergone an evolution, as the internet opens free and affordable distribution channels for today’s eager filmmakers.
Where festivals were once the key to having your low-budget short or feature seen by an audience larger than your friends and family, YouTube and Vimeo have flourished as viable ways to release your work to the masses, without paying entry fees or establishing distribution deals. But as always, the means of distribution are flooded with productions that are unable to gain traction. Releases that either lack merit, promotion, or both.
You’ve locked-down the camera package you want, you’ve assembled your G&E A-Team, your production design is coming together, your director has a vision, and your producer has the capital. Even with all of this, you lack the most important piece of the puzzle. The piece that has allowed documentaries and narratives alike that were shot poorly or created on a shoestring budget to flourish: a story worth telling, and an audience that wants to hear it.
Engaging your audience with interesting characters and a compelling story will get them to forgive a shaky camera, lack of star power, or lighting and set decoration that leaves much to be desired. In the inverse, take away those pieces and you leave every flaw of your film open to analysis.
The final revision of the script played-out perfectly on set, you’re going through dailies and the edit and can’t wait to see the final cut. This is your masterpiece. This is your Memento, this is your Reservoir Dogs etc. Despite all of this, that link on your Twitter and Facebook wall aren’t gaining the traction you hoped they would. The reason for this is that you are likely not promoting your work in an effective manner. Look to your story, look to your desired audience (not the time to try and say your work “is for everyone”), and zero-in on your target.
Share it with more established filmmakers in the genre, or established online personalities that fit the audience of your story. If they like your work, they may share it themselves. Use message boards and your own social media channels, maintaining pride in your work without jumping into the void of C+P endorsements across Facebook walls and Twitter feeds. Maintain sincerity and personalize your posts. Word of mouth and positive peer reviews are invaluable tools when growing a brand and a following.
Combining the Two
You have a story worth telling, and you’ve managed to get it out to audience that wants to hear it. A prime and classic example is Melvin Van Peebles and his film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. For those unfamiliar, Van Peebles shot the film with a skeleton crew and $150,000 overall budget over the course of 19 days.
No studio backing, union crews, or large-scale promotion. He managed to get the film screened in only two US cities – Atlanta and Detroit. Regardless of all of this, the film went on to gross over 100x it’s budget in the box office. How?
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song was a film written to create a black hero in a racially damning time for Hollywood. The idea itself was initially scoffed-at by those in town, but Van Peebles knew that there was a massive audience that was begging to have a black hero to be proud of on the big screen. He created a story that needed to be seen, and made sure the people who wanted to see it knew about it. From the title itself to his working with the Black Panthers to encourage support in the film’s release, it was the right film for the right audience.
Spike Lee said it best: “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song gave us all the answers we needed. This was an example of how to make a film (a real movie), distribute it yourself, and most important, get paid.”
With the internet as readily-available and affordable as it is today, is there a lot of market saturation to work around? Are there hundreds of independent projects released regularly that fail to gain traction and flourish? Undoubtedly so. But look at how quickly internet memes gain traction and virality. Look at how successfully comedians have used Vine to parlay into paying work. Look at how many photographers have used Instagram as a platform to commercial work and exponentially increased visibility?
The market is flourishing for those who are able to captivate it. Keep your story’s merit in mind when promoting the final product, and you’ll have two very important pieces to your puzzle connected.