Give me tips on how to promote an independent documentary film
December 18, 2003 9:42 AM   Subscribe

Does anyone have experience with promoting an independent documentary film? [no links to, or mention of the film itself... I'm not trying to be that guy -- more inside]

I was weary about posting this because of fears that this would be construed as self promotion. I will not link to or give the name of the film (I even removed the link from my profile).

We've gotten quite a bit of coverage from small-circulation music magazines (doc is music-related)... and we're doing quite well on the festival circuit. I suppose a 'buzz' is being created, but it's creeping at such an agonizingly slow rate that it's becoming discouraging. We've sent screeners out (300 or so) to everyone in our contact lists' contact lists, made press kits, distributed press kits, made trailers available on p2p apps and on a website, started an all-volunteer low-impact mailing list (with over 1200 people signing up for the service). We've hustled every freelancer we can get a copy to, and we're suspecting that we've exhausted these channels.

Does anyone have any experience with hiring a publicist? How did it go for you? What was the financial arrangement? Is this necessary to break into mid- and high-volume media outlets? (media-type people, please dispel my paranoid suspicion that a cabal of tastemakers are sitting in a smoky room waiting for their indie-doc payola to come rolling in)

We're just two Midwestern rubes that happened on the subject of a lifetime. Any and all advice would be welcomed.
posted by cadastral to Media & Arts (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
cadastral, you can't really under estimate a good publicist. However, there are many that aren't good and they'll put you in a worse place than you are now.

You might want to look at docus that you've liked or that have a similar theme, that you think were properly promoted. Then contact the prod company and ask who their publicist is and ask wha their experience was like.

Another good way to get a good publicist is to contact film fest offices (in particular, those people who progam well-known fests) and ask them if they could recommend a publicist in your area.

The problem with hiring a publicist is that you never really know whether the filmmakers themselves were great publicist who didn't kick into gear until the publicist they hired was ineffective, which is why I recommend going to the source.

It also depends what you're looking for for your film. Is it feature-length? Are you hoping to get a theatrical or sell it to broadcast tv?

If it's a short, your outlets are limited. You could try and get the film played in front of similar-themed features but TV is your best bet (Bravo! and such) though the pay sucks.

What about approaching music fests (SXSW, CMJ and NXNE, etc.)? I believe SXSW even has a film arm now. Perhaps getting screened during one of these would get the right people watching.
posted by dobbs at 10:26 AM on December 18, 2003

Response by poster: dobbs, thanks so much for the thoughtful answers.
It also depends what you're looking for for your film. Is it feature-length? Are you hoping to get a theatrical or sell it to broadcast tv?
Feature length. We've had two offers for DVD distribution (another nail-biting 'we don't know what we're doing' moment) and would love to have theatrical/television distro. We've heard that theatrical distributors might insist on DVD distribution rights... so we're holding off on that decision until after some more festivals.

Excellent advice. Much appreciated.
posted by cadastral at 10:48 AM on December 18, 2003

You should talk to david jacobs at mediarights. His organization specializes in hooking doc filmmakers up with distribution. I think he might be traveling now, or he'd probably be posting a lengthy helpful answer here.
posted by mathowie at 11:00 AM on December 18, 2003

You could try this. On a more serious note, if you can't afford a good publicist, pick, say, 30 newspapers you'd like to review your work and have a write-up about it. Then send a kit to them with a press release, etc. Then (and this is the important part) figure out who actually DOES the reviews at each place. Call the secretary at the newspaper, find out when that person is in and when they are NOT on deadline. Then call at the appointed hour and chat to the fellow for a few minutes. One of the 30 is bound to be interested enough to write something, especially if you pick a local rag.
posted by Happydaz at 11:40 AM on December 18, 2003

Cadastral, forgive me while I offer some clichéd advice. It's so clichéd, however, that i's almost always ignored.

*Get an intern, or two.
*The #1 issue is connecting with your audience.
*Enter your film into every festival that is remotely relevant.
*Documentary filmmakers work really hard - making the film is really much less than half of the work involved in making the film a success.
*Ask questions at every turn. People in the industry love to talk about it. (Have you talked to Sundance, POV, IFC?)
*You don't want a publicist yet, unless you have a big advance from a broadcaster or distributor.
*No one makes money off their first few films, unless it's a hit on the order of Capturing the Friedmans or Spellbound. Errol Morris hasn't even made money on his films. (He's made money other ways, though)
* offers an outreach toolkit (for $125) which was written by (successful) documentary filmmakers, even though it's geared towards social issue documentaries, the lessons are still useful.
*We also have a lot of articles which are free, but less geared towards fundraising and distribution. There are some very good articles about outreach (these are all self-links!) Start with The Weather Underground, Store Wars, The Murder of Emmett Till.
*We also have a Distributors List.
*It's a long road. The best thing about making this film is probably going to end up that it will be easier to make your next one.

Also, what's the film? Fell free to e-mail or call me.
posted by djacobs at 4:25 PM on December 18, 2003

i'd like to know about the film too.
posted by _sirmissalot_ at 11:33 PM on December 18, 2003

excellent post djacobs!

(i'd also like to know about the film. email me if you don't want to post here.)
posted by dobbs at 1:46 AM on December 19, 2003

Response by poster: Many thanks to all who offered advice. Special thanks to mathowie for pointing me to djacobs's mediarights site which is absolutely filled with excellent stuff.

It would be AskMe success story based on this link alone, but the other advice was very valuable, as well.

Thanks much!
posted by cadastral at 4:08 AM on December 19, 2003

The Hot Docs festival may be of interest as well.
posted by dobbs at 11:16 AM on December 19, 2003

« Older Rape support services/books/organizations for men?   |   Ship me some Texas Tomales! Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.