Yoram Schaffer

Why so many filmmakers are bad at marketing

And why that should change

Maybe that guy is a great marketer. It’s just an illustration

A disclosure: I’m a film professional for more than 20 years. First, as an editor (and one of the first Avid instructors for my local community). Then as a producer and to a lesser extent — as a film director (in documentaries). A few years ago I became a technologist in the film field and that allows me to have some kind of an outside perspective, which makes my observation less biased.

Therefore, I believe I’m qualified enough to assert that most filmmakers, regardless their age, gender, education, genre in which they specialize etc. — are bad at marketing.
One exception is US filmmakers and I’ll relate to that exception when trying to analyze it.

Promoting your film yourself, conceiving a strategy, writing down quantitative goals, setting milestones with means to achieve them, dedicate time, dedicate budget, track performance, adjust the tactics according to the results and repeat.
That’s basically what marketing films is all about.

Finding a distributor and tell her or him “do what you think is right and leave me alone” or “let me know when I need to attend a Q&A session or a panel”.
This is not marketing.
Also, in the not-marketing-section is submitting your film to festivals in the following manner: first, to the most sought-after (Sundance, Berlinale, Toronto, Cannes, Venice, Tribeca, Hotdocs, IDFA and a few others) and after you fail — to all the rest in a semi-anarchic manner. That is definitely a step towards marketing, but it’s the basic-obvious and sometimes a huge mistake that will cause the filmmaker to waste time on lost battles.

Many, just too many films are lost on the way to reach out to audiences, not because they are not good, but because they lack a marketing strategy.

The big question is: WHY

I’ll try to divide the community of non-marketers to a few categories, according to what I witnessed during the long years in which I’m active in the film industry:

  • Filmmakers that are actually proud of the fact they are not marketing or being bad marketers: “I’m an artist, not a door to door sales person.”
  • Filmmakers who are shy and prefer to stay behind the camera. They will gladly participate in Q&A sessions, but will wait silently and passively to be invited.
  • Filmmakers who really want to market, but have no idea how to do it.
  • Filmmakers who are used to have the backing of large bodies , especially TV channels, who do the marketing and PR for them.
  • Filmmakers who believe that instead of marketing to large audiences, they should make efforts to develop good relationships with decision-makers such as film funds directors, buyers, selection committee members etc.

I myself was a member of most of those group, except the one which fosters relationships with decision-makers. Actually, decision-makers used to hate me for criticizing them, which resulted, surprise, in me being banned in many film funds -:) — but that’s another story, which I will probably never tell (or elaborate), because it proved useless: My criticism didn’t make the wold a better place, no one listened to it and they had their revenge by boycotting me.

But there’s another, deeper reason for filmmakers to be bad marketers. Let’s see a counter example:

Most American independent filmmakers must be good marketers, because there’s hardly any public funding, at least not compared to the developed system which exists in Europe and other countries with government support for arts.
Since there’s hardly any public funding in the US, American filmmakers have to turn to resources which necessitate marketing, mainly crowdfunding or private funds and charities, most of them belonging to few rich families.

One might say that many other countries don’t have public funding and that the exception is actually Europe. That is correct.
So why are American filmmakers different from filmmakers in, say, Brazil or Argentina, which also do not enjoy much public funding?

For one main reason and it is that in the US, the risk and investment in marketing (and sometimes in financing the film through loans) can pay off itself. In other words, it‘s a calculated risk and therefore worth the hassle.

In the US, a determined indie filmmaker could make a tour of one or more years, screening their film and meeting various audiences in universities, colleges, community centers, conferences and much more, be paid for every screening, sell copies and license long term use of their creation.
In other countries, it is less rooted in the culture or those countries are simply not large enough to rely on such a tour.

That is exactly the point where I think most filmmakers are wrong: For many filmmakers, their true target audience are the film funds and the festival directors. That keeps them away from the public. They don’t make the slightest effort to reach to the audience out there (beyond of course, festival goers, which is a small subgroup of its own).
That is a paradox, as it creates a contained ecosystem in which very few people talk only to each other: when you become an experienced filmmaker, you’ll be invited to be part of the selection committee in a film fund where you’ll select proposals from filmmakers who are similar to you (that is a known bias — to choose those who remind you of yourself, because you see yourself as the right model). If you’re a festival director, you’ll be invited to be a jury member in other film festivals, while you will be inviting other festival directors to be juries in your film festival-:) A vicious circle.

All that creates a very homogenous environment, which is, let’s admit it — quite boring

So wake up, start communicating with your natural audience. It’s there, it’s waiting for you and it’s an enriching experience to meet them.
Start marketing your film.

Digital film distributor and founder of Movie Discovery VOD platform, QuickRights and Movies Everywhere . A former documentary filmmaker.