Karen Lam is a well-respected filmmaker in the horror genre. Her shorts include “The Cabinet” (2006), “Doll Parts” (2011) and “The Stolen” (2012). Her first feature was “Stained”(2010) and she is currently in the process of pulling together her second, “Evangeline.” Her work has been seen and won awards in festivals all over the world. She is also known and admired for her acumen in building a strong and loyal fanbase online. In this issue of From Search to Screen, I’ll share Karen’s theories about digital marketing success and the dramatic changes for independent features she has witnessed over the past few years.
Your Brand: Filmmaker vs Film
Movie marketing is an investment – of money, of time, of resources and energy. Digital marketing for indie film is usually a DIY investment. Most indie filmmakers tend to think/plan project by project. They set up a three prong online promotional strategy for each movie: website, Twitter and Facebook. The film opens and they tweet about it. Done. On to the next one. Rarely do they worry about carrying the audience with them. Karen has spent countless hours growing her online following, but her focus is more on herself and her online persona than on her movies. Her underlying rule is that as a filmmaker her personal brand is a better investment than the brands of her individual films. Instead of putting her movies first and looking for one indie blockbuster success to establish her career, she focuses her efforts on building personal relationships with her fans who then follow her wherever she leads. Investing in this long-term strategy gives her a valuable asset to leverage when she puts together deals and for a potential monetization strategy in the future (without any gatekeepers like a distributor or platform like iTunes). At this time of big changes in the indie film landscape, she is definitely one to watch as she tries to figure out how best to leverage and involve her fans in her brand.
New Challenges for Indie Filmmaking
When Karen’s first feature “Stained” was produced it came together under the typical Canadian model of distributor and government investment. As she works to close financing on her next movie, she has learned just how much things can change in three years. It has never been easy to make a movie, but now it’s more complicated than ever. A couple of things she has noticed:
- No more DVD sales mean much less potential film revenue. People no longer buy or rent DVDs in the same way they used to and this has had a huge effect on film financing. Karen has found that in trying to sell distribution for her movies she has seen territories that used to be worth $250,000 now valued at only about $25,000. She sees a significant and growing gap. Movies only seem to get made in one of two models: Hollywood mega budget blockbusters (often involving an international co-production partner) and micro budget indies (hence the prevalence of “found footage” films). There seems to be no room for mid-level films any more.
- Consumers want it for free. The platform subscription model (such as Netflix $8/month all-you-can-stream video content buffet) is contributing to the illusion that content is free. People are becoming less and less willing to pay for individual copies of movies, especially through the big gatekeepers. All of this decreases the revenue potential of indie films and makes raising the financing increasingly difficult.
- International co-pro focus. Filmmakers are also having to look farther and farther afield to find additional sources of investment. In her research Karen has discovered that countries like the US and even China are not worth pursuing for financing. The places in the world that have capital to invest in making movies are, surprisingly, Saudi Arabia, South Africa and Russia. Filmmakers need to know where those opportunities are in order to focus their resources effectively.
Online Opportunity for Filmmakers
But despite the difficulties listed above, there is a continued allure and romance associated with making a movie. Television and web series do not give screen media creators the same kind of prestige as film (especially one that has garnered some awards and international acclaim). In Karen’s philosophy, the movies themselves become part of the filmmaker brand, and the online world represents unique opportunities to build and own that brand like never before. Not only can she have conversations directly with her fans (no gatekeeper in the way) to find out exactly what they like and don’t like, she can also reference online data to check her assumptions about them. For instance, she was sure her audience skewed to women over 35 years of age, but the data revealed to her an even split between men and women 18-24 years old. Also, for whatever reason, a HUGE following in Brazil. This kind of knowledge has never been available for filmmakers before and can inform strategic decisions and ideas unlike anything to date.
Digital Marketing Lessons Learned
So what are Karen’s biggest tips for fellow indie filmmakers when it comes to digital marketing?
1. Define your online personality. Part of building your personal brand as a filmmaker is knowing very clearly who you are and what kind of stories you want to tell. Defining this will help shape your strategy.
2. Don’t fake it. Whoever you decide you are online needs to align with who you are and what you are passionate about. Karen began as a fangirl of genre and horror herself. She is truly interested in and engaged with her fans because they share this passion.
3. Be respectful. In this brave new world of fandom, your audience truly shares in anything you produce. They help you get there. It is important to have real and meaningful responses to any feedback you get from them. At the end of the day, that mutual respect breeds loyalty and that is the new coin of the realm.
4. No opportunity is too small. The wonderful thing about online is you can reach everywhere in the world and so opportunity can come from ANYWHERE. Karen spends a lot of time being interviewed for blogs and getting her films into small horror niche festivals. This has resulted in some unexpected and profitable opportunities, ones that she could not have had without the Internet.
What Do You Think?
Have you had experience with marketing an indie film online? Did you find similar or different digital marketing challenges as those experienced by Karen and her team? What were the results? I’d love to hear from you. Share your thoughts, ideas, questions below or send them to me at annelise (at) veria.ca or on Twitter @veriatweet.
Or revisit the previous issue: [CASE STUDY] Digital Marketing for Web Series: Seth on Survival/My Lupine Life