With the Park City festivals (Sundance, Slamdance, and other 'dances that come and go with the years) just a week away, I thought this was a good time to check in with Chris Thilk about some of the philosophies and techniques of promoting an indie film at a large festival. Let's say I'm a filmmaker with a feature film playing at Sundance or Slamdance. I'm aware that million-dollar advance checks are few and far between, but I'd like to give my film the best chance possible for finding a distributor and/or an audience. What are some realistic expectations to set for this experience?
The expectations you have going in should be in direct proportion to the leg work you've put in prior to the festival, whatever it is. If, in support of your movie, you've already done some outreach to movie blogs that might be interested in the film, have built up an audience on Facebook or Twitter and generally can go in to the festival with some wind at your sails already your chances are much better.
I don't have a lot of money for a publicist. How can someone with a limited budget be heard over the hype?
First off, dissuade yourself of the notion that you're going to be heard by a large audience. The best strategy for creators of niche products - whether we're talking about small movies or small beers - is to be heard by the right audience. That takes a lot of work upfront as you do research into potential communities of fans and such but then participating in those conversations is exactly as hard as having a conversation over email or even real life. You'll never break through the hype around something like Transformers, but that's not where your goal line is. Your goal line is finding the audiences and communities who are interested in what you have to say. Again, that takes a lot of upfront work, but it's every bit as essential to the movie's success as finishing the script so don't consider it an add-on effort.
What are some of the most/least effective gimmicks and techniques you've seen at Park City?
Everyone wants to throw a party but good conversations are few and far between and there's little to no follow-up from those parties. If there's one thing that came out of Sundance '09 it's that connecting one-on-one with people you've only met on Twitter or Facebook has long-term value for a movie throughout the festival circuit, the theatrical release schedule and even in to the home video market. The least effective tactics are the ones that de-emphasize the one-on-one conversations and the best are those that maximize its potential.
Is it worth promoting a short film in Park City?
Sure, you know why? Because almost everyone has a plane ride home. So if you can promote it with a screener DVD that someone can use to fill in the 25 minutes before their flight boards you become not only useful but also potentially entertaining. In terms of at Park City itself I would say "yes" as well for the same reasons. If you can find a venue where you can have your short playing on a loop while people stop for coffee you can take advantage of those periods of down-time people are looking for in a way that features can't.
How do I get my film mentioned in the press?
Again we have to define "press" as being "the audience that's interested in your subject matter." And it's a matter of telling the story. Ask yourself what the story not only of your film is but what the story behind your film is. You may never hit Variety but if you can get mentioned in the weekly email newsletter of a film discussion group, on the blog of an advocacy group that's related to the issue in your documentary or in the print magazine of the sport your film depicts the world of that's what counts. It's all about 1) Finding the right outlets, 2) Finding the person to talk to there and 3) Starting a conversation with them about your film and why it speaks to the audience for that outlet, whatever it is.
How much of this advice applies to other film fests I might play?
Sundance is unique in that it kind of straddles the line between artistic showcase and buyer's market. Other fests are more one than the other. Sundance also has the branding cache that some others don't, especially among the general movie-going public. But most of the tactics that can be employed at Sundance are applicable elsewhere, though maybe not at the same level. You can still go where your movie is and invite people for a cup of coffee and a bit of conversation, you can still work to identify niche media that will be interested in your presence there and other stuff.
Chris Thilk is the author of Movie Marketing Madness, a blog dedicated to the intersection of two passions. For valuable critique of the ways that large and small films are brought to market (beyond the simple notification that a new trailer is available), I highly recommend MMM.