You have spent years making your film, you dream to distribute your beloved “kid” in the movie theaters, you want to raise awareness and eventually change the world, but the best that can happen is that you are selected by some festivals and then screen your film in your city’s theatres and nowhere else. This could have been my case.
“The audience doesn’t want to see this stuff”, the distributor said to me “too far from current affairs, too depressive, too silent, too slow, too tough...” My film has something wrong, I assumed. But people kept coming again and again to local screenings, bringing other people with them, often their mums or dads, being touched, turning Q&A’s into long marathons of shared thoughts and feelings. So, eventually the film was not wrong! There was an audience for my film, somewhere, probably not the distributor’s audience, but a specific one. The point was: where and how could I reach these people out ?
There's a bad, a very bad word that I use now to answer: marketing.
I know, it's disgusting, I'm a filmmaker, and I'm a pure soul and I am a dreamer, I don't call my film a “product” and my audience are not “my target”, I'm not a sniper. Above all, I didn't know a damn thing about marketing, except what I had learnt attending EAVE and a three weeks training program on multiple stream revenues, organized by EWA, where I met my master, Kobi Shely from Distrify, the “devil of the m-word” in person. So, equipped like a geek beginner and motivated by the conclusion that I had nothing to lose, I started my adventure with the “m-word”, and I set my plan: to use marketing tools to distribute my film in movie theaters, in Italy, without a distributor...and then sing “I will survive”.
Here's how I succeeded and how it went better than I thought.
STEP ONE: Know Your Film, Its Potential, And Threats
My film: The Perfect Circle is a love story set in a hospice in Northern Italy, for terminally ill patients. Two couples spend together their last days, until the protagonists, Ivano and Meris die. The daily observation catches humour, and disenchantment, rage and acceptance of death and the film is build to bring the audience to accomplish an emotional journey that leads them from grief to a progressive lightness, until the final catharsis. Both audience and protagonists end the journey giving a new meaning to life. My best asset was that in Italy there were no competitors, no documentary filmography (I did some benchmarking), plus I discovered there is a huge well-organised network of hospices and organizations related to palliative care and thanatology.
I had a good selling point: the film as a cultural tool for anyone who wanted to raise awareness about issues related to the film. The biggest threat? Death! Death scares people. My protagonists are not heroes. It's very hard to sell a film about death, to bring people to a movie theatre to watch it. The word death was a no-go, so it disappeared from the synopsis, loglines, one-liners. The emphasis was on the positive feelings told by the audience: relief, new meaning of life, love as a weapon, tenderness, compassion. If it was hard to bring people to watch the film, I had to invest into establishing relationships with people who wanted to re-watch it, who fell in love with it, and shared my urge to raise awareness about the need to redefine the meaning of life, to provide tools to cope with death and to consider “care” as an extraordinary relationship that enriches the human being ontologically. This means to be available for the audience, to create dialogue with them, specially with ambassadors, to write back when they write to you, to share thoughts, to be open to learn from them. It requires time, but it pays back in terms of personal enrichment and “meaning”.
STEP TWO: Open Your Eyes And Ears, Look For Big Events
I attended the case study of “Lost down in memory lane”, a Belgian documentary with an audience similar to mine. They explained how the screening of the film in the Belgian Parliament spread the buzz, and engaged many associations related to the issue of Alzheimer. They were able to make a deal with a distributor for 80 runs in movie theaters. They said it was very hard, but they succeeded, eventually. They brought a huge crowd to their screenings, thanks to their marketing activity, targeting people sharing the experience. Thanks to many sold-outs events, they got 6 more months of distribution. I also attended a Master Class by Emily Best, from Seed&Spark, who talked about a US “theaters on demand” platform named TUGG. People register to their site, they choose a film, a city and a movie theatre and book a screening. If a minimum amount of tickets are booked, the screening (now called Event) is confirmed.
Googling around, I discovered there was an Italian version of TUGG, Movieday.it. What a surprise! Good to know! During a master class, Kobi was suggesting keeping an eye on Change.Org, to see if there were campaigns that could fit mine. I did so, and found out there was a citizens' legislative initiative to bring a law about 'End-Of–Life' to discussion, in the Italian Parliament, finally. Many famous people were supporting that campaign. I could be part of something bigger than I thought and I could participate in a big change.
STEP THREE: Do Not Be A Social Network Snob! Pay For Social Media Ads.
I used to be so, even though I used to spend a lot of time expressing my unpopular opinions on Facebook. I learnt how to use these tools in a productive way, reaching out to “my people” and give them “a home”, where they could “share” their experiences and eventually “change the world”. I focused on Twitter and Facebook, but other projects might find more interesting to use different tools. I tested, through some Ads, some pictures and loglines and discovered my choices were totally unpopular. So, I changed the iconography, the tone and the language. I discovered cinephiles and arthouse fans were not my audience. They never reacted to my ads.
My audience were women, 35+, sharing the experience (Keywords: palliative care, palliative medicine, thanatology, Cecily Saunders, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, grief, 5 stages of grief, caregiver, palliative medicine vs hospices, end-of-life. How did I find them? Google!), living mostly in Northern Italy.
I used to read the data section on Facebook ad manager tool even more often than my watch, and I could collect a lot of info about the quality of my campaigns and how I could improve them. Twitter was good to connect with bloggers, and journalists, let my posts travel, and Bit.ly was a precious tool to check how popular were my posts on Twitter. FB was more interesting for everyday activity, events, daily chat with my “fan base” (very low number of “likes”, btw, but often behind every “like” there was an organization or an institution). I never bought any AD on Twitter, only Facebook. For the first six months of campaigns I spent around 230 Euros (ADs or Boosts, according to my needs).
STEP FOUR: Build Your House, Invite Your Guests With Newsletters and Facebook Ad Campaigns.
This is where your soul can be pure and passionate, and caring, and make a real difference. Together with a friend, Barbara, we decided that our house for The Perfect Circle would be a blog -www.theperfectcirclefilm.com, a sort of educational hub about end of life and palliative care, with posts about the film and about my personal experience with the film, while traveling with it. The tone had to be confidential, intimate, inspirational, secular, very different from many hospices' blogs, too self-referential and medical, the style had to be very personal.
I started writing many posts, which we published, one by one, once a week. “Bowie's death and the thankful letter of a palliative doctor to the artist”, “The 8 things I have learnt in the hospice (lists work very well on FB and Twitter), “Here and now” (about the experience of feeling hic et nunc) Were the most successful ones, with a very, very high rate of interaction by the audience on Facebook, a good one is when your CTR-link is 2,5%, I got nearly up to 5%.
The Facebook page is the door, which people get to the blog through. Every time I posted something on the blog, I shared it on the film's FB. I boosted it to a specific target and shared on events' pages.
I used my pixel number for every AD and Boost, so I could create lookalike audiences to enlarge my audience.
The FB page of the film is updated daily (except in the summer break), with a daily activity also on events' pages, well aware that our audience is quite passive with social networks and web tools. Often, I shared articles, which I found on pages of organization, which I needed attention from; Last, but not least, newsletters and mailing lists, which I created on Mailchimp (up to 2000 addresses for free). I spent days on searching on Google email addresses for the mailing lists (1: Professionals; 2: Friends; 3: Press; 4: Politicians from the Chamber and Senate, members of the Social Affair Commissions). Mailchimp is really cool, because you learn who reads what and how many times, so you can consider to give a call to people with a stronger interest and involve them for a screening. You can view those unsubscribed, but don't take it personally. I used to send newsletters only when there was something to say, never more often than once every two weeks.
Most of the requests for screenings came from people in the mailing lists. Updating the mailing list is a never-ending work.
I attended some palliative care National Congresses to learn more about the issue, the language, the concerns, to enlarge my network, I studied a minimum bibliography to get to know palliative care better, so that I could be of some comfort for people who wanted to share their feelings with me. I was afraid I could be harmful, saying the wrong thing, at the wrong time. The truth is, that I am fond of the holistic approach of palliative care and it helps my life to know it deeper.
STEP FIVE: Think Big, But Be Realistic
At a certain point the question was: how can I launch the film, create enough a buzz to have the attention of doctors, nurses, volunteers, psychologists, thanatologists and people in the field of 'terminal illness'? This is a very institutionalized world, and I had no track record. I was just a filmmaker who went through a personal experience with a terminal disease with my mother, and with some sort of “home-made palliative care”. Because there were no palliative practitioners in the area who wanted to make a film out of a personal experience.
How could I have their attention? I thought of my personal network. A friend of mine is a Parliamentarian and I asked her if she thought it was possible to screen the film at the Parliament. “Of course, we have to! They are discussing the ‘End-of-life legislation'. It would be perfect!”. We set a date and booked the hall, then I sent my first newsletter, I spread the news, made a call for accreditations, and it was a huge success. Doctors, psychologists, nurses and oncologists wanted to attend the screening. The worlds of Politics and Medicine are very close, in Italy, and to be at the Parliament was necessary, or just enough, to be respected.
That date was the beginning of the film tour through Movieday.it. I was late with raising the fan base, and this was a mistake, but after the screening at the Parliament, where politicians and professionals established a direct line of communication to work on the bill, I succeeded in organizing 15 screenings through the “theatre on demand” system. I was introduced by ambassadors or members of the two main National Associations of Palliative care (SICP and FEDCP), then we screened the film and after, there was the Q&A. 20 screenings was my final goal, but, considered the requests, I raised my goal up to 100 screenings and I will keep the film in the movie theaters until the half of next year, at least. Then it will be available for educational programs, University Masters and congresses.
CONCLUSIONS: WHAT'S THE PAYBACK?
In terms of money, the film is earning 30% of the cost of the ticket, plus the expenses and a fee for me, when I have to attend the screenings.
So far, the average audience is around 110 people per screening.
My goal is 100 runs and 11.000 admissions. Can a distributor be more successful ? Maybe, but do not forget I was told there wasn't any chance of distribution! Already I have flat offers for non-commercial rights, by many organizations and Universities.
Money is not the only payback. I am learning a lot about audiences. My target audience is evolving. Now the average age is lowering, which means that I have to change my language that was set on my first earliest audience. Men seemed to be reluctant to come see the film, but when they came, they were the most talkative and “surprised” and relieved. A woman told me it was the first time she saw her husband cry and that the night after the screening was an amazing night. She thanked me to have unveiled the man she knew he could be.
I have been invited by a thanatologist to organize events together, a graphic novel artist would like to do something together, and I have received some invitations to participate in congresses.
The biggest lesson I got from this adventure is that this kind of distribution re-lighted the reason why I became a filmmaker: to change the world. You see, to update a blog with passion, to dialogue with people every day, to spend 8 hours a day for three/four months on distributing your film, you can do it only if you care about your film, if the film is an absolute necessary for you and your life. Before the screenings, they took me to visit hospices or they offered me a dinner, sometimes after the Q&A we hang out, talking for hours. We keep in touch through Facebook, and Twitter or through emails and ambassadors keep on spreading the buzz after the screening they have organized. The feeling to be part of something is strong and fulfilling. While I had my speech at the Parliament, I realized I could make a change, for real and I will never forget it. Politicians and doctors exchanged their cards and I am following up their cooperation. Travelling from a screening to the other, meeting people, having the chance to influence the writing of Laws, creating bridges between people means to create, and take care of a community and a community can reshape society. It is amazing what we can achieve with the “m-word”!