Before you pour your heart and soul into your next film, make sure that you will be able to convince people to watch it when it’s finished!
Filmmakers tend to be very bitter about the concept of film marketability – the result of repeated rejections from sleazy distributors and similar characters.
That is a shame, because your film’s marketability is the gateway to your audience. Instead of treating it as the enemy, let’s make it our friend!
In my Commercially Successful Screenplay Blueprint I shared my views on the elements that tend to be shared by films that garnered repeated viewings by a large number of fans.
In this post I will tackle the critical issue of how to convince people to watch your film in the first place.
This is in fact a non-trivial challenge, as countless unsold, unwatched and forgotten movies will attest.
Self-distribution is no escape from the realities of the free market, and the considerations made in this post are if anything even more important for those who choose to self-distribute.
1.0 Defining film marketability
My personal definition of film marketability is as follows:
A film is highly marketable if a random stranger can be convinced to pay to watch the film in less than a minute.
The corollary of this definition is that any high-value element in your film that cannot be somehow showcased on the cover of a DVD or in a two-minute trailer will not enhance the film’s marketability (other than by word of mouth, which is very difficult to get going for low-budget independent films).
My 60-second time window is arbitrary, of course. If your prospective viewers are watching a trailer, you might have as much as 120 seconds; if they are browsing DVDs online or at a store, you might only get 20 seconds — the time it takes to check the faces on the cover and perhaps the blurb on the back.
2.0 Film quality and film marketability are two distinct issues
There is an important distinction between a film that will be enjoyed and a film that will be marketable. A film can be either of those things without being the other – but of course we want to do both!
It is perfectly possible for a film to be potentially enjoyable by a mainstream audience and yet at the same time not be marketable; and conversely there are plenty of easily marketed films that end up disappointing, but by then it’s too late: they have your money.
3.0 Give the audience a chance to give you a chance
Wouldn’t you agree that it would be a real pity to make an awesome film that nobody gets to watch because it’s impossible to convince them to watch it, even though they would love it if they did watch it?
I am not encouraging you to compromise on your art. I’m encouraging you to take a few extra steps to ensure that your art will be enjoyed by more than just your close friends and family. I would encourage you to give this issue your careful consideration.
4.0 Recognizable actors
There can be no doubt that recognizable actors make films more marketable.
It is not their names, however, that need to be recognizable: only their faces. There are plenty of middle-class actors whom I recognize on DVD covers without knowing their name. Recognizing a familiar face in a film’s trailer or DVD cover gives a film instant credibility and vastly improves the chances that someone will pay to watch it. Recognizable actors are of critical importance to a film’s marketability.
This is really a very simple issue and nothing more needs to be said, other than addressing the issue of how you can convince recognizable actors to appear in your film.
First of all, we are not aiming for bona fide A-list actors: they are completely inaccessible without the sort of budget that would take the average indie filmmaker ten lifetimes to raise.
I am instead referring to actors who are recognizable but not in the A list. These actors are usually known by their faces rather than by their names. These are the sort of actors who can be convinced to appear in independent feature films, provided the script is good and that the director has a modicum of charisma and talent. You do need to pay them nominal wages and provide top-notch catering – have no illusions about that! That makes five-figure budgets completely unavoidable for even the cheapest shoots, but that’s a topic for another post.
If a film has Scarlett Johansson or Leonardo DiCaprio in it, everyone will give it a chance. I know I would! These actors exude so much humanity and charisma that it doesn’t really matter what they are doing on screen. It might be hard for some actors to swallow, but it is not a coincidence that actors like DiCaprio, Johansson and Anthony Hopkins have made it so big. Not a coincidence at all.
For more details on this topic, check out my post on casting independent feature films, based on valuable tips from veteran casting directors.
5.0 High stakes
High stakes are the other major element of film marketability.
The stakes are high if a very charismatic main character has a lot to lose, and we care about it.
5.1 Box office poison
There are certain sub-genres that are simply not marketable as a result of their intrinsically low stakes. In fact, they are so toxic that in most cases not even huge movie stars can improve their chances.
Sport-related movies are the best example I can think of. If the mission of the film’s central character is related to a sport, that is very bad news. It’s box office poison.
The problem with sport-related films is that the stakes are simply not high enough. Joe Blow really wants to win a golf championship, with the secondary complication of wanting to please his long-gone father, who himself was a frustrated golfer. What’s the worst thing that can happen to this character? Losing the tournament and failing to impress his sweetheart? Not good enough.
In a film like Michael Bay’s Armageddon, if the main character screws up, a rock the size of Texas will hit the Earth and destroy it. And the man in charge is Bruce Willis. How’s that for high stakes?
Sport-related films are too parochial, too lightweight, simply not compelling enough. For that reason they are next to impossible to market, even with huge movie stars attached, and the folks who do watch them are generally nonplussed. They are just too underwhelming.
With their lack of A-list stars, dodgy production values and dubious screenplays, indie films are on shaky foundations to begin with; if on top of that they also have a sport-related theme, they are Dead On Arrival. Your sport-related film might be the special snowflake that gets away with it, but my money says otherwise.
5.2 Boxing / fighting is the exception
One notable exception to this trend is boxing and fighting.
Boxing movies are easily marketed and do quite well at the box office. The reason for this in my opinion is that there is something genuinely compelling and universal about boxing. Boxing characters are charismatic and have strong existentialist appeal.
It is not a coincidence that Stanley Kubrick’s very first film, Day of the Fight, was about boxing; nor is it a coincidence that the Rocky series has done so well. Regardless of background and interests, we can all relate to fighters on some level. It just works.
5.3 Other examples of genres that are difficult to market (even if the movie is awesome)
– Psychological thrillers
– Any kind of drama
5.4 Film genres that are easier to market
– Romantic/teen comedy
5.5 Tried-and-tested plots
There are many to choose from: the Quest, the Escape, the Rescue, star-crossed lovers, whodunit, and so on. Everyone can relate to these tropes, but a tried-and-tested narrative structure is not enough: you also need high stakes (see above).
For example, a golf tournament movie matches the “Quest” trope, but the stakes are simply not high enough to make it marketable, unless you have George Clooney in the lead, and even then it is very far from a surefire hit.
6.0 Is the story simple to explain?
Having won the potential viewers’ attention for a few seconds by having some familiar faces and an appealing genre, the next big question is: can you make the story sound compelling in two minutes or less, or in a few lines of text?
If the film has a genuinely compelling concept but that concept cannot be sold in a two-minute trailer or a few lines of text, the sad truth is that no one other than your friends and family — and perhaps some flimsy festival audiences — will ever get to enjoy all the quality that you worked hard to pack into that film.
The classic example of films that do not do themselves justice in the marketing phase are films that are slow, amorphous and texture-driven. These films can actually be very enjoyable once one gets to watch them, but there is no trailer or blurb that can successfully sell them. It’s very sad, but that’s life.
I have personally watched many films that matched the above description, and I greatly enjoyed them, but this was only years after they were released, when I ended up watching them by chance. I turned them down when they were first released, but when circumstances led me to them eventually, I enjoyed them.
I remember one feature film I watched at a film festival in the United States. My first film was being screened at that festival and I had a pass to watch every film, so it cost me nothing to give it a chance. I also befriended the director at a party, so I was curious.
It was a slow, texture-driven, mostly uneventful psychological thriller. It doesn’t sound too appealing, does it? Well, I watched it three times that week and I enjoyed it more with every screening. It really grew on me. An awesome film!
There is absolutely no way I would have watched that film if the trailer or blurb had been shown to me in advance. I would never have given it a chance — and I would have missed out.
Am I telling you to avoid making such films even if that is truly your vision and passion? No. I’m simply warning you that will you will have to do extra work to make it marketable without compromising your vision. It is possible to do that, but only if you understand the fundamental dynamics of film marketability and tweak the film to enhance its marketability without compromising the style or substance. Easier said than done.
7.0 There is no magic bullet (again)
I gave this warning in another post and it is worth repeating: there is no magic bullet.
There are plenty of films that meet all the marketability criteria outlined in this post and still fail at the box office. Despite their famous actors, a slick screenplay penned by two or more talented screenwriters, and the vision of a heavyweight director at the helm, they still fail because a certain intangible “something” was off.
It’s like closely following a complicated recipe, and when the dish is ready, it’s perfectly edible but not quite right. I find this elusive aspect of filmmaking success particularly fascinating.
8.0 Am I encouraging filmmakers to sell out?
It is worth repeating: film quality and film marketability are two distinct issues, each of which is necessary but neither of which is sufficient to achieve commercial success.
The film’s intrinsic quality determines whether an audience will enjoy it and perhaps watch it multiple times and recommend it to their friends.
Marketability determines whether the audience will give the film a chance in the first place.
By understanding this distinction and exerting control over your film’s marketability without compromising your vision, you have empowered yourself to make your art and give it the best possible chance of reaching a wider audience.
1. Marketability is the bottleneck through which your film must go in order to win an audience, long before the audience can assess its merit. Successfully satisfying marketability standards is a completely separate challenge from making a quality film, and it must be treated as such.
2. Recognizable talent is critical to film marketability. The good news is that there are plenty of marketable faces that are perfectly accessible if you have your ducks in a row.
3. High stakes are another big element of film marketability. This is the marketability element most lacking in independent films, even when they have recognizable talent in it.
4. Film marketing in practice has a time window of between 10 seconds and two minutes in which to do its job. If a film’s selling points cannot be clearly communicated in a two-minute trailer or with 10 seconds of handling a DVD box, it has failed to meet the marketability standard.
5. We would all do well to stop thinking of marketability as a dirty word and look at it instead as the gateway to our audience. Let’s make it our friend instead of fighting it!
6. If that is not enough to convince you, consider this: the more marketable your film is, the more power you will have over all the parasites we love to hate: agents, distributors and film buyers. Isn’t that totally peachy?
Film marketability: give your audience a chance to give you a chance!