With Sundance getting a mind-blowing 14,000 film applicants this year, it is more difficult than ever for small Indie films and filmmakers to stand out from the crowd. Daniel Harlow, a tech entrepreneur and founder of Bunker 15 Films, has a strategy that offers a glimmer of hope – even for small indie films with limited budgets. Bunker 15 has catalogued over 10,000 film writers and bloggers around the world and identified the subset that appreciate and (most importantly) will write about a tiny Indie film.
Can you believe that in 1993, Sundance had only 250 applicants! A decade later, in 2003, Sundance had 2000 applicants. During this stretch, the festival became so popular and so ubiquitous that the number of applicants to the festival became a de facto estimate of the number of Independent films made in America in that year. Filmmaking was on the rise. Costs were making a precipitous drop and people like Ed Burns, Robert Rodriquez and, most recently, Mark Duplass were telling filmmakers that you didn’t need any money at all to make a film. Increasingly, they were right. Sundance applications hit 4000 by 2012. Meanwhile, more and more filmmakers were stopped submitting to Sundance, opting for the exploding number of second-tier, local festival around the country and around the world. Even still, 14000 films applied in 2019.
1.1 # of films in Sundance each year
But while filmmakers become more prolific each year, each filmmaker is having a harder time getting people to pay attention to their films. With the advent of social media, Facebook targeted ads became the default way of bringing your film to potential viewers. But now that a substantial number of filmmakers have tested the social-media “targeted ad” waters, the results are a dismal disappointment. Costs inevitably far exceed any audience-building they do.
1.2 Average Cost Per Click for Facebook ad = $1.86, Source
The only reliable way to get people to pay attention? Just open in 100+ theaters. That’s the best solution because it all but guarantees a big splash for your film, a NY Times review, attention from the Hollywood reporter, and dozens of other publications. Everyone will report on your film and it will only cost you in the mid-six-figures.
Daniel Harlow, a tech entrepreneur, turned film producer, turned film publicist – found that to get people to watch a film, he had to get journalists to write about it. But accepted thinking was that no journalist would write about some tiny indie film that was playing in less than 20 theaters around the country – or (gasp) going straight to Streaming VOD. For the most part? Accepted thinking is right, Harlow found out.
In fact, entertainment journalism is on a downward trend with budget cuts everywhere. Film reviewers and journalists are being laid off and hired back on a temporary basis as “freelancers” that are given a small number of assignments per month – normally forcing the writers to write as a side gig and take a different job 9-to-5. Non-profits that study Indie film trends like Project Lodestar (www.projectlodestar.com) actually found that while film journalism is on the decline, the number of films opening in each city per month are actually going up – thanks to the tendency for Independent films to now do very short stints on small screens.
So how can Independent filmmakers draw attention and/or Press to their projects? Daniel Harlow put his film production aspirations on hold while he first addressed this glaring need.
Harlow sold his IT Consulting company founded in 2015. After 23 years of work, 6 offices, and 300 employees, he suddenly had very little to do. He ended up going back , this time for their post-graduate Film Studies Program for Independent Producers. Harlow became fascinated with the technology changes in the entertainment industry but was floored by the striking drop in the financial returns on filmmaking. DVD sales had all but disappeared and theaters were primarily for large Special Effects driven studio blockbusters. Indies were seen at home through streaming services where piracy cut into revenues even further. He thought Film studies would provide insight into the business side of successful film production but was disappointed. “There were no answers at Film Studies for how to draw audiences to a particular film,” said Harlow. All new technology players in the film space were making their money from the Long Tail theory. Less revenue per film but a massive number of additional films will lead to more revenues overall. The game is volume. Players like Apple, Amazon, Netflix and every other film-related start-up had a business model built on volume – while the individual film was getting a smaller and smaller share of a larger overall pie.
1.3 Long Tail Economic Model
While he ran a large IT Consultancy, Harlow managed several marketing campaigns for clients like Walmart, Nike, Macy’s, Sephora, The Gap and others. “In many situations, we had exactly this Long Tail issue: an infinitely large storefront of the internet. How do you make a product stand out? … I went to SXSW [the Film, Music and Tech Conference held each year in Austin, TX] thinking that I could then find the thought leadership on this and work on real solutions but there was no leadership on the subject. The only solution anyone proposed was the Do-It-Yourself model which I thought was only applicable to a small number of filmmakers.”
The DIY movement in film certainly has a lot of buzz and momentum. The Sundance Institute and other prominent institutions advocate filmmakers marketing their own films. “I had interviewed dozens of filmmakers and they not only aren’t good at publicizing their own films, they also don’t want to do it,” said Harlow.
If you wanted to DIY your own PR? It’s easy. Go online and hunt down journalists yourself. Find them or their editors and email them about your film. You will find some friendly faces out there. Journalists do like to talk about Indie film and then, boom, you now have more PR than you had before. And you Did It Yourself. Voila.
For a small number of filmmakers, it works. Some producers are really into that DIY process. “These filmmakers would probably have been involved in the business side of the film no matter what happened,” said Harlow. But it is a small group. The majority, once the film is finished, want to do a little press then start working on the next project.
Plus, there are real obstacles of trying to publicize your own film. Many publications have rules forbidding communicating directly with a film producer. The publication needs to be communicating with a third party to keep the article unbiased. And the sheer difficulty of chasing down critics one by one and asking them to review a film is a daunting task, particularly when coupled with the time critical nature of the job. Film critics usually want to publish an article within a week of a film’s release. If it’s already been released, it’s ‘old news’ and if it’s not going to be released for 3 months, then don’t bother me yet, they think. That’s a narrow time window to communicate with a lot of journalists.
Despite the fact that it would be difficult for an individual filmmaker, Harlow thought that if Influencer Marketing could work in other industries, why not film? After all, film journalism already has a rich and storied history. “There must be a way to leverage the hundreds of entertainment writers out there, at least I hoped so,” said Harlow.
“SXSW, Project Lodestar gave off this grim picture for individual filmmakers, but I thought that what they were missing was this burgeoning space of film writers that were taking to the internet to blog on their own. More entertainment publications (especially websites) were decoupling from any given geography. And it was the geographical boundary that tied a publication to theaters in their area. The hard copy nature of old-world, established, journals limited physical space available for Indie articles but these limitations also didn’t apply to website and blogs. For example, Roger Moore’s Movie Nation covers a large number of Indie films every month. So why not work with publications like that?” he thought.
Yearly rise in RottenTomatoes Unique Visitors: 32%
After several initial Beta-tests with tiny films that gave Bunker 15 Films encouraging results, it took on a big festival winner: Light of the Moon by Jessica M. Thompson. Light of the Moon was one of their first major efforts to see if the system would work. And did it! 75 Rotten-Tomatoes journalists requested to see a preview screener of the film! As expected, many of them couldn’t get their publications to publish a review about an Amazon Prime release but even some of the larger outfits did cover the film in other ways. The LA Times, for example, made Light of the Moon their VOD Pick of the Week based on Bunker 15’s outreach. The Chicago Tribune interviewed one of the actors for a piece in the paper and several of the writers wrote reviews for their blogs many of which had huge followings. All total, Bunker 15 Films secured 17 additional Rotten Tomatoes certified reviews for the film and a number of other pieces like the LA Times, Chicago Tribune, FilmINK in Australia, etc. Many of which had huge followings. All total, Bunker 15 Films secured 17 additional Rotten Tomatoes certified reviews for the film and a number of other pieces like the LA Times, Chicago Tribune, FilmINK in Australia, etc.
What Bunker 15 Does and How it works
Bunker 15 doesn’t just have a large database of film and entertainment journalists but also it catalogs the films they have written about. There is information on what they have liked and disliked over time. Therefore, they can target the journalists that cover and like small Indie films. Mike Bravo, the company’s CTO, says, “There’s quite a bit of technology in place now to find entertainment bloggers and reach out to them when certain films fit their profile. We are building profiles of both critics and the publications they write for, which is complicated, because one writer might write freelance for one publication doing VOD Streaming movies but might only cover theatrical films for another publication. Plus writers move around and change publications all the time. We are also trying to build resources for the critics themselves so the critics have an interest in being in contact with Bunker 15,” Bravo says.
1.4 Bunker 15 films helps indies earn press
“The key for us really is finding that subset of critics that are going to be interested in a particular film and that’s not real easy. Each journalist and publication has geographical and theatrical constraints, genre interests, timing issues… there are a lot of variables but we try to find the journalists that are really into a particular film or genre and focus there,” Harlow says.
The results have been amazing. Turns out that critics really want to watch Indies and like them when they watch them. It’s all about expectations. If it’s a small film, the critic is going to give it a lot of leeway usually and not pan it for low production value.
Critical reception for many of their films, like Light of the Moon, Stay Human, A Boy Called Sailboat, and others has been overwhelmingly positive. “Not every film we work with has a fantastic reception among the critics but our ability to get to journalists that do like Indies (as opposed to those whose expectations are met only by large Studio efforts) can make a big difference,” says Harlow.
Indie film and Influencer Marketing
“As we move forward, the ground will shift in our favor,” say Harlow. The MN Star Tribune now has a Rotten Tomatoes certified movie critic reviewing VOD releases for the week. The LA Times is expanding their coverage of Streaming films and so is the New York Times. In addition, many publications are treating Netflix Originals in the same category as Theatrical releases. Harlow continues, “The trend to cover more and more VOD Streaming releases will increase which will put more journalists within our reach for our Indie films.” If it’s working now then safe to say, it will work better as time goes on.
About Bunker 15 Films
Bunker15’s smart-tech Publicity Engine helps find the right journalists to promote your film (VOD or Theatrical). Even VOD releases can earn Press. Every film deserves to find its audience. Whether you have a small film with a limited theatrical release or you have a Straight-to-VOD feature, they can reach out to the journalists that are interested in your story.