It’s finally done. Your blood, sweat and virtually all of the hours you could have spent watching Netflix or playing with your newborn child have gone into creating a short film. It is, in fact, the best film you’ve ever made. It might even be the best film anyone’s ever made.
There’s only one problem. No-one knows it exists.
Viral hits don’t just happen. We can’t throw our work to the far corners of the internet and expect to magically gain traction. If you’re working to a tight budget, self-promotion is the key, so we talked to a range of indie filmmaking groups to uncover their top tips.
1. Find your audience
Ben Franklin & Anthony Melton
Horror specialists with over 1.5 million views on their YouTube channel. Exposure via social media led to celebrity endorsement and funding.
Finding people truly interested in your project can be difficult, so it’s a whole lot easier if you can identify communities who are already passionate about your subject or genre.
The team over at It’s A Trap found exactly that, as Simon explains: “It’s all about identifying your audience. Don’t try and reach everyone simultaneously. Drill down into genre and sub-genre, find smaller communities, and then let them help you spread the word organically. Where we’ve found success in terms of reaching a wider audience, it’s always been when we’ve tapped into a niche genre. With ‘Arms Race’ back in 2010, it got picked up by steampunk genre author Stephen Hunt. You can’t tap into a niche interest in a cynical way, though. You still need to have genuine enthusiasm for it, otherwise all your viewers will bounce straight off it.”
Ben and Anthony from BCHorror took a more regimented approach, meticulously researching the communities they wanted to talk to. “We emailed every website that might be relevant, and attempted to get any coverage we could. Further to that we kept a document on who we contacted, their response, contact details and a bunch of other information so we could use it and build upon it for future film releases. We’ve been using that document again on ‘The Outer Darkness’, so it’s still an important asset four years later!”
A way to build on this in the future with each successive film is to use those subscribers and contacts to slowly attract a returning audience of your own. Carefully branded campaigns, trailers and teasers will create suspense and intrigue around your work, keeping the audience primed until the release. Pioneering web series like ‘The Guild‘ and ‘VGHS‘ succeeded not only in finding that initial niche audiences but also building into a broader fanbase.
Andrew Adams of Atomic Productions says, “We always keep the audience informed on the up-to-date on production, release materials, and show that we really care about what we’re doing, so that people will care with us.”
Which feeds nicely into…
2. Always be professional
People like to see a cohesive brand when it comes to content creation. The quality of online content is skyrocketing (take a look at this article about YouTube supporting global creators) so you need to pull off something pretty special to get noticed.
One of the first things BCHorror did with their content was make it consistent: “Immediately we set about wrapping our work up in a brand and creating a recognizable and cohesive identity to our films. ”
Atomic Productions’ best advice when thinking long term is that “whatever you do, keep it consistent. Make sure the vision and aesthetic of everything you do feels like it belongs to the same creative entity. If your logo for your short is one font, make sure it isn’t another on a banner. If your color palette in your film is super cool and blue and moody, keep your posters, logos, trailers, etc super cool and blue and moody.”
3. Take advantage of surprises
Half of the challenge with marketing your work is that it has to be reactive; as much as you can plan in advance, there are also a million things that can happen at launch which you can’t prepare for or expect.
BCHorror knows this boost first hand: “We’re always quite active on Facebook and Twitter at the time of a film’s release, and during the promotion for ‘Mother Died’ we were pushing the film out to as many celebrities and filmmakers as possible on Twitter. Brilliantly, one response we got was from Stephen Fry, who, like us, is based in Norfolk, UK. He not only replied to us, but also sent a ‘little donation’ to our Paypal account. That generous donation amounted to us being able to fund another film (which turned out to be ‘Suckablood’) and gave us a tremendous amount of exposure with the media too. It was pretty life changing in many respects, and gave us the kind of boost that you could only wish for in the early infancy of a self funded and promoted web series.”
Sometimes the reason for a video’s sudden popularity can remain a mystery, but there are always opportunities to grasp, as Atomic found out with their viral hit ‘Inebriation’ in 2010. “It surprised me,” recalls Andrew. “It generated viewership that was ten-thousand-fold what it was on previous shorts. I couldn’t have seen that coming. After that, we built a website around the tagline of the short, sold t-shirts, and further crafted the brand. But I couldn’t tell you why the intersection of those elements on that specific project hit so much deeper of a chord.”
It’s A Trap has found unexpected success with their prop-making videos, which were initially intended as behind-the-scenes bonus materials. “Following the ‘Arms Race’ short film,” says Simon, “our genius production designer, Nigel Clegg, started releasing prop videos in which he showed his techniques for creating steampunk styled weapons and devices. These have actually been massively more popular than any of our main productions, which was entirely unexpected. A steampunk mechanical arm video has had nearly 113,000 views, without any promotion on our part.”
4. Never stop learning
As with anything it’s the mistakes you learn from, and marketing is no exception. While It’s A Trap’s prop videos were really successful, they found that those views didn’t always translate to broader benefits.
“The most bizarre and surprising example is with a prop video showing how to build a steamtech machine pistol, which has a ridiculous 675,141 views – that’s more than all of our other stuff put together. That sounds great, until you look at the comments on the video. It’s full of people insanely angry that the gun doesn’t actually fire for real. A weird combination of title and tags caused it to show up in relation to some kind of real weapons video. 675k is a nice big number, but very few of those people turned into subscribers, or watched any of our other stuff. They mostly left an abusive comment, then presumably went outside and shot something.”
BCHorror tried to set up an IndieGoGo campaign early on, which they recognize as over-reaching. “Our ambition far surpassed the reality of what we were dealing with,” they admit. “We naively attempted to raise an amount on IndieGoGo that was quite unfathomable, considering it was only after we’d just made our second short film, ‘Stitches’, which did get a healthy reaction but didn’t really translate into what you’d call a fanbase as such. That said we still received enough pledges to make another single episode, ‘Prey’, so it wasn’t a total loss by any stretch. It was an important learning curve that resulted in us putting together a much more sensible crowdfunding campaign for ‘Don’t Move’ which actually ended up bringing in even more money than we’d initially set out to try and raise. When you’re an independent filmmaker it’s essential to learn as much as you can about the whole process and raising finance is of course a significant part of that, so it was ultimately a useful exercise to go through.”
5. Believe in your project
“The most important thing is to make something good,” says Simon. “You can’t sell crap, unless you have a huge marketing budget. So if you don’t have a Transformers-sized wallet, it’s crucial that the thing be actually good.”
For Ben and Anthony, the focus is on networking. “Once your film is ready, start preparing for the release, building lists of websites/contacts and putting together PR material – e.g. posters, screenshots – and then putting in as much time as possible to promote it. This doesn’t need to cost you anything aside from time, and the results can mean an almost instant audience if you land enough decent news story/reviews on websites. Assuming you want people to actually watch your film, then go ahead and shout about it – eventually you might just be heard! Also don’t be afraid to upsell your film, not in as much as lying about what you’ve made, but be proud of your product and believe in it – if you don’t there’s a high chance that no one else will.”
Big thanks to BCHorror, It’s A Trap and Atomic Productions for their time and insight. The final word has to go to Andrew Adams from Atomic:
“Know your voice. Know your vision. Know what you want your short to say to the casual observer giving it a half-second glance. Speak it confidently, present it proudly, and truly believe in what you’re selling. Because make no mistake, you’re selling something. Whether it’s an experience or an emotion – your short is a product, and your viewers are your customers. Make sure it’s a product you believe in.”