“How would I market a movie on no budget?”
I got asked this question on Quora, and it got me thinking. What can a filmmaker (or a small team) do to support their movie without spending any money?
Clear Your Head and Set Your Priorities
“This movie is for everyone.”
I’ve heard producers and filmmakers say those words. No movie is for everyone. Especially not the movie for which you have zero budget. Zero budget means that you need to zero-in on your objectives first.
What do you want to achieve? Do you want to sell out one theater in one location for one week? Do you want 1,000 people to watch your movie online for $1.99? Do you want to find 25 advocates that will each organize a screening in their neighborhood? Are you planning to become an underground phenomenon first and find traditional distribution later?
Focus on one goal to start the marketing process. I’ve created a tool that can help you do just that: it’s a free marketing template that asks all the right questions. It will help you create a great marketing plan.
Get in the Head of Your True Fans
When you were making your movie, you had a specific group in mind, a tribe of like-minded individuals that would enjoy your art. Now it’s time to involve them in your project.
A good way to prepare is reading the “1000 True Fans” essay by Kevin Kelly. He’s not a movie marketer, but his advice applies especially to your independent/underground movie.
If you’re able to excite your 1,000 true fans in all the right ways, you may have already won the marketing battle, as your loyal fans will do the work for you.
If you think this doesn’t apply to your project, then unfortunately, you’re doomed. Your launch will be a horror story in itself.
Join Your Fans Where They Already Are
How do you connect with the 1,000 true fans of your project? You go find them where they hang out. Do they love a certain forum? Are they redditors, instagrammers, snapchatters, discorders?
Most inexperienced marketers make the deadly mistake of creating a “marketing destination,” and then hoping that moviegoers will flock to this new heaven.
The world doesn’t work that way. You’ve got to come to my favorite hangout and — softly, gently — invite me to discover something that is relevant to me. After that nudge, I may develop the intention of coming to visit you at your home.
In marketing, the right pronoun is not me, my movie, my product. The correct way to address the marketing problem is with the pronoun you, your desires, your expectations.
If you do a “me” campaign (come watch my movies), you need to be Steven Spielberg. If you’re not, you have to develop a “you” campaign.
Join the conversation, talk to your potential fans about what they care about. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that hearing your message will change their lives.
Earn permission before starting any “me” action.
Digital Is Your Friend
It would be great to have your poster in every cinema lobby of every theater in the world. You can’t have that, though. Instead you can be present in all of the digital outlets that have a movie database.
Invest some time in being present with your best synopsis, complete cast and crew listing on all possible sites. Push your social media destinations, add trivia and background information on your movie, provide a full digital press kit. Sites need to be able to pull your trailer, poster, movie stills, and production notes at a single click, with no hurdles.
Invent a PR Story
Spreading your “official” assets far and wide is not enough. Your movie has a story. Your campaign should develop its own independent stories as well. You want to anticipate the talking points for journalists and critics to steer the conversation and frame your product with the words that you prefer.
One single story doesn’t sell your film. You need to find different angles that will appeal to different news outlets and their specific audiences. You also need to time these stories so that they come out at specific times that are coordinated with your other efforts.
Social Is Free, But…
Be vigilant and present on social media, but don’t over-obsess about what happens there. If you focus on social for your digital launch, you may miss your goals.
On social media you need to bend your message to the specific norms of each platform and each tribe. It’s very hard to succeed, especially if you have a time limit (like the ticking clock of the release of the movie).
Finally, my top tip on digital is: don’t put all your eggs in one digital basket.
Use Your Talent’s Social Presence
Your financiers, your producers, your cast, your crew, and your audience speak “digital.” They are on social media, take part in online communities, belong to closed groups, interact on some sort of mailing list. They are all — at different levels — digital media savvy.
This digital literacy is an asset only if you take on the role of the director of the (digital) choir. Make sure that everyone has access to your best assets, that you have guidelines for everyone, that every interaction furthers the core message of your movie.
Use Another Social
If your competition is outspending you on Facebook, then you should not enter a fight you will lose. Rather invest in a social network that no movie is using. This seems counterintuitive, but at times it could be better to be the king of a small island where you find your core audience, then to be another nameless blip on the giant social network with a million users.
If your movie features an office environment, why not promote it on LinkedIn? If it’s very visually pleasing, why don’t you go on Pinterest? Does it feature music that would work on Tic-Toc?
Will you be able to distill your movie into a meme specific to a social network? Will your cast and crew be able to play with you around alternative narratives that thrive on specific and niche social networks?
Use Your Talent
Your talent should not only support your digital presence. They should be supporting the movie in the real world.
The simplest formula is the “special screening” where the cast & crew greet the audience and answer their questions at the end. This doesn’t need to be a big event. You could organize such a “special screening” every day of a given month, either in one specific theater or by touring your country/region and meeting different audiences along the way.
Your cast & crew should also be available to host premieres and movie parties, and obviously, they should follow the movie when it gets selected at festivals, competitions, or special events.
Make sure that everyone is putting in their work to support the release of the movie they worked on.
Turn Every Screening Into an Event
Imagine for a moment the life of the average advertiser: they are tasked to turn ice cream, toothpaste, and degreasers into something exciting. And they succeed.
You instead have something that’s already, in itself, exciting. And you can use all the techniques that marketers use to make toilet paper exciting, to further support your release.
How? By creating a press story around your upcoming event. By making sure that your talent attends as many screenings as possible. By combining your screening with debates, conferences, or even simpler activities. By asking fans to participate. By offering the fans something in return — like simple prizes, or access to you and your talent. Make every screening count.
Create a Celebrity
Even though your cast and crew may be obscure to the public at large, you can still make them a celebrity. Not to all, but to the tribe that will mostly be interested in your movie.
Find out what are the right outlets to build up the narrative that will make your talent a celebrity and use the same techniques that Hollywood uses, by controlling the kind of pictures that get released, placing your cast & crew in the right place at the right moment, and giving access to selected media.
Partner With Exhibitors/Platforms
Cinemas and online platforms are eager to find new ways to bring in fresh new audiences. You have to prove that your film will do just that, and you can secure their alliance. Try to also understand if they could have your film exclusively, even if just for a short period of time.
Piggyback on Somebody Else’s Marketing
If you don’t have money to guarantee exposure to your film, why not use somebody else’s money? There are many events that will actively look to partner with movies like yours in order to have a compelling lineup.
Join all festivals, competitions, prized and events. Make your artwork available early on. Make sure you have no legal restrictions, so that said artwork can be exploited inside the event. Ask, barter, and beg for extra exposure, and put yourself and your cast at the full disposal of the event.
Create a Great Poster
Basics are important. Create a memorable movie poster. Get a great artist to pen it. Make it unique. Make it stand out. Make it so awesome that people will steal it from the cinemas.
Create a Stunning Trailer
If there is one material where you can’t fail, it’s the trailer. Focus all your efforts on creating a short, compelling, and strong trailer. Don’t ask your director or editor to cut it. Get a pro to do it. Pay them in celebrity, royalties, and Monopoly money if you need, but get it done by an expert trailer maker.
Don’t Buy Ads
If you don’t have money, you should not buy a single ad. Even if it comes at the best discount. Even if that billboard is what you always dreamed about. Even if that TV placement is offered to you and only to you. Don’t buy ads. They are — usually — a waste of money anyway. Especially for you they will be worthless, because you don’t have the scale. You can’t invest enough to go above the threshold of visibility.
Instead, if you have some change, give the maximum possible visibility to your trailer in theater chains and online. That’s the only “ad” that has been proven to boost your revenue.
Do Not (Ever) Spend Money on Outdoor Advertising
In case this wasn’t clear, do not buy posters, billboards, or anything of that sort. Buying outdoor posters is a fun hobby for billionaires that wish to become millionaires.
All companies are desperate for a (new) story to tell in their communication. That’s why most companies will be happy to partner with a movie. Look into any forward-thinking industry. Focus especially on the media: radio, TV, and internet sites are eager to find new ways of positioning their brand, and cinema is a great way to do so.
Don’t Create a Website
In the era of social, getting people to land on your site is really hard. Don’t waste time or money to create your own destination. Do it only if you can have something gorgeous happen on your site, something unprecedented and so cool that I will tell all my friends.
But that’s rare. So stick to the basics: don’t create a website. It’s not worth it.
Don’t Hire an Agency
Hire yourself as the top marketing officer of your movie release. Trust your abilities to learn new skills and go spread the word far and wide. Learn how to do marketing, instead of delegating this job to a third party that knows the job but is not as passionate as you are.
Time It Right
Marketing is not only about the message, the media, and the materials, but it is also about time. Figure out if your launch needs a slow, progressive buildup. Or if your fans will enjoy more of a concentrated blast in a short period of time. Find the timing that is right for you.
Know When to Stop
Marketing is great. But you can’t do everything, and you can’t do everything all of the time. Your task is to know when is enough, when to pause your efforts and start measuring and evaluating what you’ve done.
Market, Learn, Repeat
Marketing is a learning process. If you only ever launch one movie, you won’t be great at it. Launch a movie, measure the results, learn from the data, and then start again for the next one. You’ll become a pro in no time.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my walkthrough on how to launch a movie on zero budget. If you did, be sure to subscribe to my (almost) monthly newsletter where I share my thoughts on innovation, technology, marketing, and entertainment from my very own personal perspective.