Film Marketing: How to Build an Audience from Day-One [Part 2]

Part 2 in our series on "How to Build an Audience." If you missed our first article, you can catch up at Film Marketing: How to Build an Audience from Day-One [Part 1].

ROB: How long do you think this separation of projects that are baked and built and then, “Hey, go market this”—how long is that divide going to last, with that on one side and then where you’re thinking about a project from the inception, from: “Who is this audience?” “What does that mean for distribution?” “What that means for how it will be brought to the audience?”

Do you think that most things will go to a more intentional approach, or do you think there’s always going to be this synthesized blockbuster model as well?

ERIK: That’s a great question. There’s two things going on. One is that traditional Hollywood structures—think about a studio—is literally physically built that way, where you have buildings for marketing, a building for digital, a building for production, a building for distribution, and they’re all siloed off and really transactional. They just get passed around with the property.

So that’s partly going to have to change, and it is changing. There’s many, many smart people that are thinking about integration of audience marketing distribution. That’s being driven by new technology, new platforms—like Netflix, like Amazon Prime and Hulu and so many others, cable—who are thinking about these platforms.

The first thing they’re seeing is data. What are these consumers clicking on? What are they watching? How long are they watching? What are they drawn to? How do we understand them first? That ecosystem is now self-contained, which is an incredible thing, and very insular and a closed wall. We don’t know the data that they have.

The other thing that’s happening is just the necessity of economics and the rise of the independent is going to force this to happen. The independent filmmaker in particular is having to wear many hats, as I said, but is understanding more and more and driving the change.

I’ve got to think about distribution as I’m raising funds for my production. I’ve got to think about my audience over the next couple years because I need to build a brand as a filmmaker, let’s say, that allows me to go back to my second project and my third project with an audience already in place.

We talk about this a lot in our company. There’s three things that are driving marketing these days and content. One is it’s the most cluttered marketplace in history. That’s a Seth Godin term. The second is audiences are more fragmented and segmented than ever. We’re all in our tribes. Thirdly is that the traditional systems and old ways of doing things that were once so reliable are now breaking down.

You put those three things into a cocktail, you mix that up and try to drink it, it’s going to be a poison for most content creators because the solution ends up being, “I need money or I need something, a studio, to take this on” when the answer really is—I think—it’s about brands.

It’s about building a brand that means something with an audience, that allows them to say, “I’m with you. I’m loyal to this filmmaker” or “I trust this curated platform because they know and serve me well.” Something’s going to have to provide the consumer a better way to understand what’s available and what’s good.

ROB: What are some of those brands that are coming up, whether those are people or companies or channels, that you think are communicating well with an audience right now?

ERIK: On the film side, I use the example of Pixar, Marvel, Fox Searchlight, and Disney. Think about it in that sense.

I have three kids, and if a Pixar film comes up—I don’t even know what it is, the title, may not have seen the trailer—I’m going. A family is going to go see a Pixar movie because it’s built a trust and we know the quality. We know that it’s good storytelling. That is a brand. That means something to a family.

Fox Searchlight. Smart, interesting, arthouse type of movies. Has a following, has a brand.

If I said Universal or Warner Brothers or Netflix, that’s mostly seen as a global company, a curated company, an entertainment company, a platform, but there’s not a distinct brand of, “I know what I’m getting when I go to see a Paramount movie.” I know I’m getting a big movie, and that’s good, but I’m not saying it’s thrillers or it’s horrors or it’s comedy. It’s everything.

Netflix, I think the challenge will be—what is Netflix’s brand beyond just being a household delivery system? You’re seeing what’s happening. The original content they’re building is trying to create a Netflix style of content.

But beyond that, I think what’s going to happen is you’re going to see anybody or any entity that has a following or has an audience is going to create its own delivery system. The OTT, SVOD (subscription-based VOD), all these terms and acronyms.

If I’m Under Armour, I’m doing that. Obviously you’ve seen the Red Bull and GoPro. If I’m Chipotle, I’m doing that. I have loyal consumers who are looking for content, so why wouldn’t I build something that delivers content to them?

ROB: You mentioned Disney, Pixar, Fox Searchlight. There’s a certain element where they’re still building on a lot of brand already underneath them. I’m sure you quite often work with people who are in an earlier stage of that as well. How do you talk to them about building—I’m sure it starts with the audience—but how to get from an unknown to a brand?

Thankfully they have the advantage of the traditional ways that are breaking down, but they don’t necessarily have strength there anyhow. But everybody’s fighting with cluttered and fragmented and even, “Do I put my content through Netflix? Do I do an OTT channel myself? Do I go through Amazon?”

How do people start becoming that brand? I think that applies more broadly, and not just in content, even.

ERIK: It’s a great question. I think it always starts with this question of what is different about what you’re doing. If you’re trying to replicate and chase the current market, I think you’re going to be frustrated from Day 1 and all the way through your project because there’s so much that’s changing by the moment.

So I think you’ve got to be different. You’ve got to think ahead. You have to create something that has an existing audience. It scares me when I see projects that have maybe a beautiful script or they made the film, and you just don’t know who it’s even for.

You can spend time and money and strategy and build an audience—it’s happened in the past, and there’s a lot of success with that—but I’d much rather have a project that begins to think, what are the nonprofit partners? Maybe it’s regional partners.

A friend of mine is doing a film with the University of Georgia—I know it’s probably a curse word to you, Rob, because of your background. [laughs] But he’s doing a film about mascots, and the University of Georgia, I believe, is completely involved in it. So he’s already starting with this base of alumni and loyal fans and students.

To me, you have to start from a perspective of: “Do I have a great story? What is different and fresh about it? What’s the grit it’s going to take? It’s going to clearly take a lot of work to begin building small communities, one by one fans.

And then—I think overall, this is the challenge for anybody making content—how do you find the relational partners that are going to be with you for the long haul? So many things we see that break down are transactional deals. They’re trying to do a transactional deal with a distributor or with a foreign sales agency or a publicist. It’s all just very much transactional, and really the best projects are those that have communities of friends, of allies that are leaning in together.

One of our investors says this well. He says “You want partners that share the champagne . . . and share the aspirin.” You want a partner who shares with your victory and celebrates, but also feels the pain. If you lose or you don’t do well, you want partners who feel that as well.

That’s one challenge in marketing agencies. I say this as an experience of this—if a project goes south, do I get paid still? I’m disappointed for them, but I’m still winning. How do you have alignment with your project and your partners so that everyone is pointed the same direction and feels the same pain and the same celebration?

Erik Lokkesmoe