Roundtable: Indie film marketing specialists

Five insiders debate how to break through the clutter and get the most bang for your dwindling buck

What's the secret to marketing a film with next to no money? How do you do compete with the studios when your movie becomes a pop-culture phenomenon? And where do you spend in an online environment that has thrown traditional marketing notions into upheaval? These were some of the subjects addressed by marketing specialists Eric d'Arbeloff of Roadside Attractions, David Dinerstein of Lakeshore Entertainment, Nancy Kirkpatrick of Summit Entertainment, Christian Mercuri of Nu Image and Debbie Miller of CBS Films in a recent conversation with The Hollywood Reporter's Stephen Galloway and Matthew Belloni at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills.

The Hollywood Reporter: The Academy has decided 10 movies will now be nominated for best picture. How is that going to affect marketing for awards-oriented films?

David Dinerstein: It's a mixed blessing. It is not inexpensive to launch a campaign -- it can be as little as $2 million and it could go to $10 million or $20 million, (though) that goes hand-in-hand with promoting the movie.

Debbie Miller: But you also have to look at, what is that boxoffice return going to be? If you get best supporting actor or something like that, you can sink millions of dollars into chasing that award and it doesn't mean anything on the DVD. It used to be more justifiable from a financial standpoint, but now, unless you've got a chance at best picture, is that your best way to spend your money?

THR: Why isn't it justifiable?

Miller: It used to translate into more money at DVD sales time. The DVD market has shifted incredibly. Also, you've got a lot of movies that are quite narrow in appeal, and even though (they're of) excellent quality, (audiences are) not going to rent them on DVD.

Eric d'Arbeloff: I will say, though -- and maybe this is naive -- if a small independent (film) like the movies we work on were to get a best picture nomination, it would raise our visibility. I don't see that we're going to win -- we're not going to be able to compete with the studios -- but a best picture nomination is going to help with your Netflix visibility, your Amazon visibility. There are going to be a few quality films at the bottom of the pile that might rise up as a result.

Nancy Kirkpatrick: All of us are being more and more careful with our dollars -- and rightly so. The big studios have the opportunity of (saying), "Well, $3 million, it's not that big a deal." When you're in a smaller company, $3 million is a big deal. You have to be pretty sure you're going to be in there to risk the money.

THR: You all say you're being more careful with your money. Why?

Kirkpatrick: Because of the decline of the DVD market.

Dinerstein: Also, with the advent of the Internet, people have been finding their information in many different areas. So it's a fragmented market, your message is not as targeted as it once was, and therefore people are being really specific in respect to how they're spending. What in the old days was a conventional spend in a newspaper to reach an upscale audience isn't necessarily the same thing today.

THR: But every year, when we see a breakdown of where the studios spend their money, I'm amazed how little it changes. They might spend 3% more on the Internet than the year before, or 3% less on newspapers, but there is never a huge shift, year by year.

Kirkpatrick: We're on the precipice of waiting for some sort of quantitative proof that if you shift your dollars out of television and into the Internet, you're still reaching the consumer to the degree you need and is the message working the same? People who use the Internet, they're consuming media in different ways: They don't want to be "talked to"; they want to discover something, play with it themselves, (have) user-generated (material). It's a whole different mindset.

THR: Christian, you've often worked on films that are sold overseas. How are they marketed differently?

Christian Mercuri: I don't think it's different anymore.

THR: But territory by territory, how different is it?

Mercuri: Japan is by far the toughest market today. And as an indie, you're fighting the studios. It's very difficult.

Miller: There's different campaigns, for sure. They don't have the same MPAA restrictions. In some markets you can't do television advertising, so you may do much more in theaters. In Japan they like more emotion. And in certain markets you can let loose with a little more violence and sex than in the U.S. They're all tailored market-by-market.

THR: What about really low-budget films? How are they marketed differently from bigger-budget films?

D'Arbeloff: We have to structure our entire strategy around the reality of what a film is. For example, "Goodbye Solo," which we released this year, is not going to be in the living rooms of most of America, so we have to structure our spend around the reality that it's not likely to do more than $1 million at the boxoffice.

Kirkpatrick: Do you buy TV for a movie like that?

D'Arbeloff: No, definitely not. It's just not worth it. You're banking on the fact that when the film comes out, the critics are going to anoint it as something special and people are going to be excited about it. Anything else is a waste of money.

Kirkpatrick: But critics are disappearing.

D'Arbeloff: But at the same time you have the rise of Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, which is drawing on the regional critics and online buzz.

THR: Let's talk a bit more about "Goodbye Solo." How much do you actually spend on marketing?

D'Arbeloff: You have to measure it in tens of thousands of dollars. The goal is frankly to spend less than $200,000 putting it out there. How else are you going to survive?

THR: How far does $200,000 go?

D'Arbeloff: There are certain hard costs. You've got to create prints; you've got to finish the film; you've got to create a trailer and you've got to create a poster. You have to do some publicity and you have to buy some advertising too. What you're also doing is traveling the director, doing film classes, showing the film. And you have to have that magic synergy between the critics anointing the film and audiences saying, "Yes, this is something that I can embrace." But the costs are minuscule compared to what a studio would spend.

THR: Nancy, you were in the studio world for years. How difficult was it crossing over to an independent?

Kirkpatrick: I thought it was going to be much more difficult. It's actually really easy. It's the same set of skills and the work is very similar.

THR: But the money isn't.

Kirkpatrick: The money's not even that different. If a major studio had "Twilight," they would've spent a little more money, but we went for a big-studio release on that. And if they had "Hurt Locker," they would do (something) very similar to what we're doing.

Dinerstein: The difference is, they wouldn't have "Hurt Locker." That's a really gutsy move, to buy a movie like that. A movie like that or "Slumdog Millionaire," those are films a studio wouldn't make.

THR: But Warner Bros. did make "Slumdog" -- they just didn't release it. Would that movie have had the same success if Warners had released it? Do studios know how to market indie-style films?

Miller: They absolutely do. It's been a knock on major studios for a long time that "You guys can't market a (small) movie." Well, it isn't about having a set of personnel with a different skill set; it's about having the right pictures. Along that line, (when Miller was at Warners) we had "Mystic River," then we had "Million Dollar Baby."

THR: But "Million Dollar Baby" is a Clint Eastwood film. Clint Eastwood is not a kid running around in Mumbai.

D'Arbeloff: Movies do have a kind of destiny and sometimes you just have to stay out of their way. I was at the first screening of "Slumdog Millionaire" and it was so electric. How do you call that marketing? It's lightning in a bottle.

THR: That was at the Telluride Film Festival. How important are the festivals now? Is there a danger of over-exposure with the fests?

Dinerstein: No. If any film has fantastic word-of-mouth, there is no harm in screening it and screening it and screening it ...

Miller: Unless it's a very targeted movie. Because let's say your movie is really just (for) females: if you screen it to that degree, you run a risk.

Dinerstein: That depends on the amount of money you have to launch your film. A smaller company might not have the resources to advertise or to target as specifically, and a festival lends itself in a big way to an inspirational or a positive word-of-mouth type of movie, not to every movie.

THR: Has Twitter become important to you?

Dinerstein: It's huge -- on the negative side. Meaning, if your film is not a great film, there's an opportunity for an audience on a Friday night to immediately tell their friends, "Don't see this movie."

Miller: And it isn't just tweeting, obviously; it's texting, it's any sort of mobile.

THR: Do you use specialists in that arena?

Miller: Yes.

D'Arbeloff: Occasionally. We've tried all kinds of different experiments in that space -- things as simple as sophisticated mailing lists for e-mail blasts. We worked with a company called DEI last year doing almost face-to-face interaction on the Web to get people buzzing about things. But if I had the money, I would still (rather) spend on television.

THR: How important are your movie Web sites these days?

Miller: Expecting people to come to you is not the way to go. It just doesn't happen. You have to have a Web site, but you'll see that they're getting less and less elaborate.

Dinerstein: And budgets are being cut, specifically for building Web sites.

Miller: Instead they're going toward pushing out to where the user is; you can't expect them to come to you.

Dinerstein: We have a movie called "Gamer." And Lionsgate launched the trailer initially on the Xbox Live platform -- and it was phenomenal because the feedback we got with that targeted audience was exactly what we had hoped for. Again, it's not the pull, it's the push.

THR: "Twilight" is a movie that lives online. There's an unbelievable community out there. How do you guys at Summit interact with them?

Kirkpatrick: We interact with those key Web sites every day. We have a constant dialogue with them, and we realized before we started that they are our partners, and we treated them as such. We brought them to the set, we talked to them about casting.

THR: A lot of people said the Jacob role should have been recast for the second film.

Kirkpatrick: A lot more said it shouldn't be recast, believe me. Ultimately, you have to choose what's right for the movie.

THR: When you started with "Twilight," what were the marketing challenges?

Kirkpatrick: The big decision was: What do we want this to be? Do we really believe we can take a predominantly female book and build it into a franchise? That had never been done before.

THR: What were some of the other decisions?

Kirkpatrick: The casting was the biggest decision.

THR: But in the marketing?

Kirkpatrick: Marketing was involved in the casting. The greatest thing about working for a small company versus a major studio is you're involved every step of the way. At Summit, we can put everybody who works for the company in a room and talk about something. In a studio, it takes three months to get everybody to know the same thing.

D'Arbeloff: If you only got women, would it have still succeeded?

Kirkpatrick: Not at all. Not that degree. We had to get guys. We very consciously went after guys and focused on the action, especially in the TV spots. We bought toward them -- guys are hard to get -- we did a lot of Web activity, and wrestling.

THR: With a film like that, you obviously do testing. How much do you do it for smaller films?

D'Arbeloff: It really depends on the film. We have Chris Rock's documentary about black women and their hair, "Good Hair," coming out this fall. It's really, really funny, and there's this question about what's the sweet spot, agewise, and how do men react to this film? So testing can yield all sorts of great stuff.

THR: Is it expensive?

Kirkpatrick: Figure $8,000-$10,000.

Dinerstein: Depends on how many spots you test. One of the most important things is testing a trailer. It's the first piece of material that positions the movie.

THR: How important is print today?

Dinerstein: It's not as impactful as it once was. But it still speaks to a certain type of moviegoer, and if you have a film targeted to an older, upscale demographic, it's money well spent. At the same time, the money spent on print is really down.

Miller: And, as you were saying, next year you're going to see more than three or four points' decline.

THR: Which brings us back to how small the shift in marketing spending is in each major category each year -- network, cable, print. Why are you all so conservative?

Miller: I don't know that that necessarily means you're conservative, because those are all very broad categories you're talking about (television spending, newspaper spending, etc.), and it's what are you doing within the category that defines whether you're taking chances. If you just run 30-second spots on network, you might view that as conservative, but there's a lot of different things you can do with the network that would be more attention-grabbing, that would be unique to the movie business. So I don't know if I would agree with the assessment.