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in Filmmaking
on Sep 30, 2010

On the last day of Independent Film Week, I asked myself: Self, am I a filmmaker or a brand? Quickly realizing what a thorny Mobius strip of a question that was, I conveniently hied myself over to the panel entitled … Am I a Filmmaker or a Brand?, being moderated by writer/director/Hammer to Nail blogger Michael Tully (Cocaine Angel, Silver Jew), in what was billed as a “Cage Match” between Michelle Satter, director of the Sundance Institute, and Jon Reiss, filmmaker/author of the marketing and branding tome “Think Outside the Box Office.”

Thanks to a conveniently timed Facebook post, I just learned from IFP’s Community Manager Danielle DiGiacomo, who introduced the panel (and who is a filmmaker and producer in her own right) that the panel is available to watch streaming over at Ustream. While I plan to hit the highlights and share some reflections, this is one that’s worth watching whether you are A), allergic to the very thought of selling or “branding” yourself, B), if you’re walking around ready to sell little bits of your soul to the first bidder, or, perhaps most sensibly, C), somewhere in the middle. (By the way, fellow IFW bloggers Roja and Julia covered similar art and commerce terrain far more economically here, which is worth a read.)

Michael kicked off the panel by noting that in reviewing the panels being put on all week by IFP, there were lots of phrases like “branding, content, packaging, financing, financial realities, outreach, marketing, positioning, pitch yourself”, and wondered aloud that there didn’t seem to be any panels on the actual art of filmmaking; or, as he put it, “how to make a challenging movie and stick to your guns?”

Jon answered that he feels that a lot of the how-to make art films is done and has been done at film schools, other panels, and the Sundance Institute, but the focus of these panels reflects the very real financial crisis in filmmaking. He went on to say that these corporate-sounding buzzword issues won’t fully be covered until filmmakers have well and fully figured out how to connect their films with audiences or how to make a sustainable living.

Michelle picked up the ball and ran it a bit further down the field, saying that Sundance’s starting point is always going to be that you have a film, that you have a story, and that you have a vision, and will be respectful of the idea that the work of figuring out how that work is going to connect to an audience is important in the early stage of the work. Michelle and Jon, though allegedly going in to the octagon on this one, quickly found common ground in essentially acknowledging that all discussions of branding, marketing, and audience connection presuppose a work of passion.

Michelle addressed the corporate sound of the term “branding” by acknowledging that it’s a term which is often code for empty work or empty promises, but that discussion of branding in this context (IFP, independent film) assumes that you have an original voice; that there is something authentic that you want to put out into the world; and that an honest discussion of branding can become about how to use new tools to connect with audiences, and build new audiences and awareness for your work.

Not surprisingly, Jon wanted to agree with Michelle again, and said so, and Michael deadpanned that he wasn’t allowed to agree, as this was billed as a cage match. That got a laugh, and Jon continued to say that the film is always going to be the best marketing tool; if all you have is “an empty box of cornflakes”, nothing is going to sell that. He continued that the “whole brand vs. artist thing” is really a challenge to do both, to find ways in which you can be both a brand and an artist, and to make a brand of your artistry.

There was some talk about branding being conflated with the idea of standing on a street corner pressing flyers into the hands of passers by, and I think that herein the panel would have benefited from a case study that could have been held up to say, look at this film: here’s the trailer, here’s the interactive game online, here’s the graphic novel, here’s the website, here’s the Facebook page, here’s the director’s blog, here’s the audience outreach plan, here’s the short films released prior to the VOD drop, etc. As a note to IFP, perhaps a case study on branding and marketing in action instead of a cage match would be an interesting way to go for a future panel.

Michael asked Michelle and Jon what they would recommend to the filmmaker who believes in his or her vision, but just has an “ethical, pained problem with handing someone a flyer for your movie and actually doing the marketing”, particularly if for that artist that feels like cheapening his or her vision somehow. He continued to say that a lot of people he knows feel icky talking their films up.

Jon said that a filmmaker who feels that is taking the wrong approach to the notion of marketing and branding, and reframed those terms in ways which I imagine almost every filmmaker can find palatable: marketing is connecting your film to the audience that already exists for it, and giving them the opportunity to engage in your creativity … and then he acknowledged that if the director is constitutionally unable to do that, then there is not only an answer, but a title and credit ready to go along with it—hire someone who IS good at it, and make that person your PMD, or producer of marketing and distribution. (Remember that term, because I have a very strong sense that you’ll be hearing it a lot more in the next few years, and eventually you’ll be hiring someone as your PMD or seeing that credit before your own name.)

Jon suggested that a network is being created of people who can fulfill the multitude of responsibilities for which a PMD would be responsible. I don’t think he detailed everything that such a role could include, but the sense that I have is that it would mean everything from website and Facebook management to constructing interactive games, DIY distribution efforts, community outreach, commissioning graphic novels, and methods of audience targeting and connection that haven’t yet been dreamed up. (In fact, a quick check revealed that he has addressed the PMD role in detail on his blog here and here, addressing the purpose and responsibilities of a PMD, respectively.)

Jon also suggested checking out his own book “Think Outside the Box Office”, which, while clearly an act of naked self-promotion, really fit perfectly in the moment: of course it was self-promotion! The guy is an acknowledged expert on audience outreach, marketing, and branding, such that he was chosen for this panel by the IFP, he lectures on it constantly, and he has the confidence in his material to throw it out there without any vulnerability. Part of the Jon Reiss brand, in addition to being a filmmaker, is being a guy who knows a thing or ten about connecting with an audience. In my opinion, there’s nothing icky about that. (In the interest of disclosure, I’ve only met him briefly to say hello, and I haven’t read his book yet—I’m quite literally reporting on his brand here, and not the content, which I’ll simply assume is good.)

Though it further diminished the “cage match” aspect and ruined any remaining expectations for blood, Michelle agreed with Jon that the uncomfortable-with-putting-it-out-there filmmaker may find someone on his or her team who is good at it and will have fun with it, and made an additional point: “The marketing piece of the process is a very creative endeavor.”

Michelle went on to make a statement of great clarity about what she is looking for, and which I think would resonate with many producers and development executives, which I’m paraphrasing here as best as possible: “I don’t want to sit in a meeting and have someone just tell me their story. What I want to feel is the presence of the filmmaker in the room, why they want to tell this story, why they’re connected to this story, I want to hear about their vision, the genesis of the project, the initial spark, those are the kinds of things that excite me about a project.”

I think the takeaway there is that part of what a filmmaker is selling, before/during/after the production and distribution of his or her film, is that “presence … connection … vision … spark”—that’s what excites Michelle about a project, and that, in a nutshell, is the filmmaker’s “brand.” (And put this way, it feels very pure, and very far from the midway carnie yelling “Two for a dollar!!!”)

Michelle acknowledged that when Sundance started, it was without a sense of branding; and that they eventually found that others were labeling or “defining what we were doing.” She said that Sundance took a step back in order to control the message of what “Sundance” was, and that without doing that they would have been further exposed to being defined by others. She pointed out what should be obvious, but which the filmmaker fearful of defining him or herself should be aware of—allowing oneself, whether as a filmmaker or festival or institute or brand, to be defined by others can very quickly lead to the wrong definition.

There’s a value in controlling your own message, she said, and a filmmaker needs to be involved in crafting the “message” of his or her film, by which she meant everything from the trailer to the posters. She pointed out that no one likes trailers that don’t really sell a film, and that it’s the filmmakers responsibility to be on top of the message.

Jon circled around to the way in which filmmakers are “obsessed with the art and commerce thing”, and he referenced a musician (my notes didn’t catch who—apologies) who said that “if there’s still CDs on the shelf, that’s bad, because I didn’t sell out.” When he put it that way—using the so-often-pejorative term “sell out” like that—it struck a chord with me. Of course you want your work to sell out—that’s the indication that it’s been seen! What earns the phrase the negative connotation is when an artist constructs his or her work in a blatant attempt to ONLY sell, and betrays whatever artistic ideals he or she started with. And I think with the panel arrayed here, and inside the very world of IFP, there was a given at work, the given being that filmmakers are making meaningful work in accordance with their hearts and visions, and all discussions of branding and marketing thereafter acknowledge that.

Jon said that filmmakers need to realize the importance of selling, and that filmmaking should essentially be divided into fifty percent making the film, and fifty percent audience connection—and that the second half should start at the inception of the project. Michelle referenced a Sundance panel in 1981 where there was no talk of “branding”, per se, there certainly was talk of connecting with an audience—the reality in ’81 being very much like our reality nearly thirty years later.

Michael asked if the filmmaker should necessarily be the transmedia person (which I took as another term for the PMD), and Jon got a laugh by saying if it’s Lance Weiler, yes, but on another project it could be someone other than the filmmaker. Michelle pointed out that transmedia is how you extend the story world to other media. The corporate world thinks of this as marketing, but the filmmakers should look at it as both a creative challenge and opportunity, and consider transmedia an art form in its own right.

And thinking from the beginning is something that nowadays, every filmmaker needs to take responsibility for—as Jon said, to get a “3000 foot view” as early in the process as possible. And they both agreed that it is best done when the marketing and branding is organically integrated into the filmmaking process, so that “elements” can be created during the process. Jon mentioned the phrase “brand strategy”, to which, if my notes can be trusted, I have Michael saying “sucks.”

Jon said that an artist needs to own it, and brought up the Clash and the Sex Pistols as the best marketers of their own work, and that they did it with a sense of “we’re gonna do it ourselves, and if you don’t like it, fuck yourself.” He went on to say that filmmakers need to get over any precious attitude over the subjects of marketing and branding.

(At this point, I realize that I’ve pointed out numerous times that Jon and Michelle agreed. About three-quarters of the way through the panel, the IFP technicians were able to put the live #independentfilmweek Twitter feed up behind the panelists. Some joker on Twitter posted that this was more of a “birdcage match” than a cage match, which got a nice laugh. However, it’s worth pointing out tha when the director of the Sundance Institute and the punk rock documentarian guerrilla marketing whiz are agreeing, it might make sense for the aspiring filmmakers to take note.)

Michael asked what the filmmaker who just isn’t wired for it (self-promotion, branding, outreach) should do, and Jon said the drummer from the Sex Pistols—whose name he comically, if pointedly couldn’t remember—wasn’t wired for it, and fortunately he had Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious to do it. He further encouraged the audience to try it (marketing, branding, transmedia), and if it doesn’t fit, then to hire someone else who can do it—a PMD.

Michael asked why a film can’t just speak for itself, to which Michelle responded that indeed, a film should speak for itself, but the rest of these things all support the film. Jon said that a film can’t take the risk to be dependent on a viral buzz, or the power of word of mouth catching it on fire. Michelle said that she wants that sense of discovery when checking out a new film, and that the power of word of mouth is huge, but the takeaway from Jon here was that you can’t count on that.

As I understand it, what they meant was that it’s a very, very crowded marketplace, and to rely on something as fickle and unknowable as buzz does not honor the work you’ve put in to your film. As Jon said, it’s better to own the means of distribution (and I don’t think he meant to buy a chain of cinemas; own the distribution of the message.)

Jon pointed to Cory McAbee and Kevin Smith as filmmakers who have created a brand relationship with their audiences, and I think that comment underscores something important about the subject of branding: it goes beyond your current film.

Jon posted a lot of his opinions regarding branding and marketing at his blog prior to the panel, and its worth checking out. My personal opinion is that there will always be tension within an artist between the creative process and the selling process, but the most valuable approach is to take a bit of what both Jon and Michelle said: reconsider the selling process as an audience connection process, embrace the creative opportunities therein, and, if you’re not cut out for it—just as you may not be cut out for acting or editing or gaffing on your own projects—then hire someone who is, because in the indie film world circa 2010, it is part of the filmmaker’s responsibility to consider all of these factors when trying to sell your film.

And yes, even if you are attached to your project as the writer/director like I am, or even if it’s a microbudget indie, you are selling your work, whether that means to a development executive with a venture capital fund, or a producer who is going to go to war with you to get this made, or asking your friends on Facebook to throw $10 into your Kickstarter—from the moment we begin collaborating on this very expensive art form, to the moment that we project it in the dark in hopes that people will watch it, we are selling our work.

And in a more acute way, for those of us looking to utilize filmmaking as a means to sustainable employment, we are also selling ourselves. Regarding the Hollywood script market, I was once given the advice that the last thing you want to do when meeting with executives is tell them that you have a romantic comedy, a horror script, an action adventure, and a four quadrant family film. Because they will not know what to do with you, won’t know what kind of work to hire you for, and they may secretly think that you’re all over the map and don’t have a niche in which you excel. Is that true or correct? I don’t know, as I haven’t been out to LA meeting with executives lately, but I do know that when presenting myself throughout Independent Film Week, I didn’t look to pigeonhole my interests, but I did want to put across the sense that I have a distinct vision, aesthetic, and themes that I am comfortable and capable in.

Personally, I was at IFP with a character driven crime drama. But in meetings, I made it clear that this is not my only project, and that I’m essentially a subject matter expert on certain things that give me a bit of authenticity and a starting point when approaching certain subjects, particularly crime and justice issues. I also have a character centered crime drama short film that pushes my authentic take on that genre, and I’ve pursued some thematic issues (flawed men trying and failing, estranged fathers and sons) across a few different shorts and scripts so that when I talk about these things it’s not just one project I’m discussing but it’s my … brand. (I never would have thought that before this panel and this week. )

I think what was itching Michael with some of his questions for Jon and Michelle, and what I think itches all of us artists at some point in our career, perhaps particularly in early phases, goes something like this: if I’m an artist, I really don’t want to have to go out there and sell myself and my product like some sort of door to door salesman!

And I personally have a theory about why this is, in two parts: Part I is that when you invest a great deal of time, energy, heart, soul, money, and passion into a piece of art like a script or a film, it feels antithetical to the vulnerable, passionate place that created that art to get dolled up and go out and holler for attention like a midway carnie.

Part II is that even deeper than that antithetical feeling, and this is rarely discussed (and after posting this I may turn out to be the only one who occasionally feels this way, which would be embarrassing) is the quiet sense that “my work is so passionate and wonderful, I shouldn’t have to sell it, should I? Shouldn’t people just want to see it? Isn’t it wonderful the way it is, without being branded and brocaded and paraded and packaged?” Both of these feelings come from a place of artistic vulnerability: the lack of desire to go showing off your wares, and the hidden sense that everyone should just want to see them …

It’s understandable. But if you feel this way, my solemn advice is to get over it, or choose a cheaper medium than film. As IFW proved, via meetings, panels, and networking, independent film is a business, and if you don’t treat it as such, that’s fine, but then it would be irresponsible to ask people to help fund your work. Like it or not, just like nurturing actors and providing a safe environment for grips, working to ensure that people connect with your work is part of the filmmaker’s responsibility.

Perhaps providentially, I read just today in the New York Times a quote from Joe Bastianich which could and perhaps should be a rallying cry to sensitive artists the world over: Art without commerce is a hobby.

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