Like a lot of filmmakers who got into this crazy, quixotic enterprise with art, as opposed to commerce, in mind, we've struggled with the m-word. No, not that m-word. The other m-word. Marketing.
And though one of us recently affixed his name to what some could term an anti-marketing screed, it must be said that we've never really been against marketing. It's an important tool, a means to an end, that end being, butts in the seats or, more accurately, DVDs in players.
Last year, we released two of our films on DVD. The Great Russell Self-Distribution Experiment of 2009 was, in no uncertain terms, a disaster. We weren't expecting to turn a profit, or even frankly to break even-- at a three dollar royalty per disc, we'd have to have sold a lot of discs to even come close. For us, success was designated as, getting the films out there to people instead of continuing to create in a vacuum. Creating in a vacuum is the most frustrating, most alienating thing, and we wanted to break out of that. Having sold less than a dozen discs between two films in the space of a year, I would say that we're still in that vacuum.
A big part of this, I think, was a failure of marketing. There are a lot of indie filmmakers out there, like us, toiling away in obscurity, like us, pestering critics and bloggers to watch their films, like us, having nothing to show for it, like us. And they're using Createspace, just like we are, and sending everyone the more "legitimate" Amazon link, just like we did, and hoping that they'll plop down "X" number of dollars on an unknown entity.
And, being on twitter and frequenting various indie blogs, I've been on the other side of this-- I've followed the link to that Amazon page, read the description, glanced at the cover, and said, "Maybe" instead of "Yes." And to be honest with ourselves, if we had no knowledge of our films, if we were just following a link and looking at the cover, we would have "maybe'd" ourselves.
And so, the first goal of The Great Russell Self-Distribution Experiment, 2010 Edition, is to correct that. We want to remove "maybe" from the equation. We might not get "yes"-- after all, this isn't exactly a booming economy we're living in-- but we'll settle for "I'm adding this to my list".
Part of this involves getting some reviewers to pay attention to our stuff-- something we're getting slightly (if only slightly!) better at. Part involves making sure the marketing materials are eye-catching, distinctive, attractive, and memorable-- something which, as you're about to see, I think we have gotten better at. And part of it involves creating/defining our "brand"-- and, yes, I did throw up in my mouth a little just typing that, and, yes, we feel queasy talking about ourselves as some kind of commodity someone's about to synergize through an aggressive new media paradigm. But if we're going to be successful at all this time around-- not necessarily financially successful, as even at our most optimistic I don't see us turning a profit from filmmaking in the near future, but in terms of introducing eyeballs to films-- it's going to be through promoting not individual films but a body of work by two idiosyncratic but capable artisans.
We hope/feel that our new approach will encompass all of these aspects, and, acting according to the theory that seeing all the wires makes the trick charming and true instead of irritating and false, we'd like to explain point-by-point how we're trying to address these goals through our DVD cover design for the new editions of The Man Who Loved and Son of a Seahorse, which should be releasing in May and June, respectively.
A. The Front Cover Image. Our biggest mistake the first time around was that our front cover images were not particularly compelling.
Look at the front cover for the old Man Who Loved DVD: it's just a close-up of Adrienne Patterson's face. And, don't get us wrong, it's a nice face (hi Adrienne!), even when contorted into such an awful expression, but it doesn't really catch your eye.
Generally speaking, close-ups of faces are a mistake in DVD cover and poster design. It works for studios because studios don't have faces, they have stars. Take a picture of Johnny Depp wearing a hat and you can guarantee "x" number of butts-in-seats, because people will come out to see Johnny Depp (brand loyalty). Johnny Depp is a marketable commodity. Adrienne Patterson and David Schonscheck are, at this time, not. Putting their face and only their face on a DVD isn't going to interest anyone, and we know this because last year we put their faces and only their faces on our DVDs. It makes the whole thing look cheap and kinda fly-by-night: not the sort of vibe you want a potential viewer to have. So if there's one thing we want our fellow indie filmmakers to take away from this piece, it's that.
Our new front covers, on the other hand, are dominated by a strong visual element. One that, hopefully, gives you some feeling for the film and makes you want to see it. Said visual element also doubles as a typographical element, with the hand and the seahorse each bearing the title of the film. Without the title, the image falls apart, becomes less striking, less dynamic.
B. The Name. Turtleneck Films, right in the upper right hand corner. We considered putting the full website address on the front cover, but it definitely detracted, looked too messy. And I think just "Turtleneck Films" does the trick about as well-- the first thing you're going to find if you google those two words next to each other is this website. So, if A is intended to catch the eye and stop you from dismissing us, B is intended to give you somewhere to go to learn more.
Now, if someone is browsing Amazon or Createspace or wherever, this is all they're going to see before deciding whether or not they want to buy it. All they give you is the front cover. So, if the front cover is intended to persuade would-be buyers, while the rest is intended to make you repeat customers, to keep checking out our stuff.
C. The Spine Number. Probably the smartest thing Criterion ever did, marketing-wise, was putting a number on a spine. The best boutique labels, from Benten to Dragon Dynasty, all employ the spine number to lend a certain amount of prestige-- which, being us, we're careful to undercut with our cute little cartoon turtle.
You'll notice that said turtle's neck wraps around to the front cover. This is to intended to emphasize the spine number. You've just bought the DVD, you look at the front cover, see the neck, follow it to the spine, see the number. This is also why we moved the spine number from its traditional location-- the bottom-- to the top. We want you to see that spine, to see that # 2 so that you look into # 1 and look forward to # 3. More than a mark of prestige, a spine number is a canny form of advertising.
D. The Personal Touch. In many ways, we need this to try and balance out the pretension and impersonality inherent in utilizing a spine number. We are two people, and only two people, bereft even of interns to abuse, shooting these films in our home, using the computer in our rather drafty back-room to design the cover art, create the menus, beg and plead with the software when it decides inexplicably to stop working. We do pretty much everything ourselves, and we're well aware that emphasizing this fact-- the mom-and-pop, cottage-industry, folk-art and craft-show vibe-- will endear us to some.
E. Added Value. If you ask someone to spend $15-20 on a bare-bones DVD of a low-budget self-distributed film that they haven't heard much of anything about, let's face it, they're not going to bite. But if you give them some bonus materials, they might be more willing. Commentary tracks and shorts indicate that you've taken time, and thus helps to combat that nasty "thrown-together fly-by-night" image some people get of independent filmmakers. This might be the little something extra that makes the decision for a potential viewer-- movie + commentary track + shorts is definitely worth $15-20-- which is why we're going to list all the extra features as part of the summary on that Amazon page, and why we're going to emphasize them every chance we get on our own website (which our Potential Viewer found thanks to item B). And if you have more than a few Criterions or Bentens, you're well aware of how supplements can both deepen your appreciation of the film and make you a repeat customer.
A feature you don't find in boutique label releases are trailers, as they detract rather crassly from the whole film-as-art-object vibe. We use them on our DVDs though because (1), it's the best way to get that repeat customer to repeat, and (2) it's not a DVD Company pushing its wares but Tom and Mary, Husband and Wife Filmmakers pointing you in the direction of their other work-- which means that we can get away with it. Apropos (1), I suppose the ideal solution would be Criterion's canny catalogue liner insert/list of titles in numerical order, but our current distribution model doesn't allow for inserts of any kind-- not even a chapter list.
To wrap this up: as filmmakers working outside the festival system, dependent on critics' reviews that, for the most part, haven't been forthcoming, we realized we needed to step up our game. It'd be great if we could just make these films and then send them to a distributor who falls in love with the films and gives us oodles of money so that their boy geniuses can take care of the rest. Graphic design and DVD authoring are time-consuming, not entirely satisfying forms of expression, forms that definitely lack compared to the filmmaking which they exist to support. They're not a necessary "evil"-- they're just necessary.
Hopefully, some of the above will resonate with and be of assistance to other filmmakers who find themselves better-suited to making films than promoting them.