The Film Marketability Reality Check

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.

Film marketability tipsIn 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.

Contents

1.0 Defining film marketability
2.0 Film quality vs. Film marketability
3.0 Give the audience a chance to give you a chance
4.0 Recognizable actors
5.0 High stakes
5.1 Box office poison
5.2 Boxing/fighting
5.3 Genres that are difficult to market
5.4 Genres that are easier to market
5.5 Plots
6.0 Is the story simple to explain?
7.0 There is no magic bullet
8.0 Am I encouraging filmmakers to sell out?
9.0 Summary

1.0 Defining film marketability

My personal definition of film marketability is as follows:

Film marketability tipsA 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.

Marketability only refers to how easy it is to persuade people to spend money to watch that film, independently of whether they will enjoy it or not.

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.

Let’s take a look at some nitty-gritty details.

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.

Film marketability tipsThe stakes are high if a very charismatic main character has a lot to lose, and we care about it.

This is where most independent films fall short. The distinct lack of high stakes is the biggest narrative deficiency of independent films.

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.

Most of us, myself included, have at least one interest that does not have mainstream appeal. That’s fine, but for your own sake do not make a movie about it if you want a large audience!

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.

Another possible exception is surfing: Blue Crush was alright. Point Break is outstanding, but really it’s more of a caper/crime/cop movie than a surfing movie.

5.3 Other examples of genres that are difficult to market (even if the movie is awesome)

– Psychological thrillers

– Any kind of drama

– Film noir (very sad, because I love film noir!)

5.4 Film genres that are easier to market

– Horror

– Romantic/teen comedy

– Action/Adventure

Horror is a very popular genre among indie filmmakers because (a) it is not too expensive to shoot and (b) it is one of the easiest to market, leading to a high ROI (return on investment).

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?

No.

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.

Does this amount to selling out? I contend that it is smart and strategically sound thinking at a time when, more than ever, filmmakers are on their own.

9.0 Summary

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!

19 thoughts on “The Film Marketability Reality Check

  1. Great post about a typically misunderstood topic. The only thing I’m left wondering is, what was the name of the unmarketable-but-brilliant film you saw?

    • Hi Shreen,

      Thanks, I’m glad you found this post useful!

      The title of that film was “Morlang.” I don’t think it was completely unmarketable — just a very tough sell, particularly for the U.S. market. Psychological thrillers are all very difficult to market. That was an incredibly well made film that really gets to you — if you give it a chance 🙂

      It was the Houston International Film Festival, April 2003. Good memories! 🙂

      -Ed

  2. Excellent post, Ed! Your points about “high stakes” in the plot are very helpful.

    • Hi MC,

      Thanks, glad you enjoyed it!

      High stakes definitely help with both marketability and intrinsic value.

      A film can be very entertaining without particularly high stakes, but such films are tough to sell — unless, of course, it’s a comedy, in which case the promise of entertainment is enough.

      -Ed

  3. Excellent post Ed. I always appreciate the practical advice you give. Regarding sports movies, what would you say about the success of movies such as “The Blind Side” or “Remember the Titans”?

    • Hi Joel,

      Thanks!

      I’d never heard of either of those two movies — it looks like sport-related movies simply don’t show up on my radar 🙂

      I looked up its box office performance and it did pretty well. It did have Sandra Bullock in it, however: an asset that most indies will never have.

      I stand by my opinion: indie filmmakers carry a burden of huge disadvantages, and the last thing we need is to complicate matters further by choosing genres that are hard to market.

      If someone really has their heart set on a sport-related movie, by all means follow your heart, but it’s going to be a tough sell without Sandra Bullock on the poster. Very tough. And the prospective financial backers need to be told that they will probably lose their money — that is a moral obligation. We cannot lure unsophisticated investors with wishful thinking about this one special sports movie that really will be a unique and special snowflake. It’s just not fair.

      If a filmmaker is passionate about both baseball and vampires, I cannot recommend the vampires strongly enough! 🙂 The vampire movie will be cheaper to shoot, vastly more cinematic and easier to market. Everyone will be happier. There is no comparison.

      Thanks for following my work!

      -Ed

  4. I agree with your comment that indie filmmakers carry a burden of huge disadvantages. I was at a screening down in the East Village, NYC and was thinking, as I was watching the film, I wonder where this will fit in and who will watch it beside other indie filmmakers. Still, I was inspired to come back home and work on my project.

  5. Hi Primwatee,

    That’s an awesome example of the self-indulgence of independent filmmakers!

    Some filmmakers think that a movie has intrinsic merit merely by virtue of its existence. This solipsistic madness does not get very far.

    Films are subject to the same market discipline as any other product: they need to please an audience, somewhere — unless the filmmakers spent their own money and are happy to let it circle around the drain.

    We will all be much happier and productive if we start thinking strategically. It’s the only way to give some viability to the most inaccessibly expensive art in the world! 🙂

    -Ed

  6. Yet again straight to the heart of the matter. Thanks for your insight.

  7. Yeah, what you said there about high stakes makes a lot of sense. It seems like there’s a billion of those kind of movies with just plain bad stakes. Especially the family movies that have the pet as the main role, not just ones with sports. I’ve watched a lot of boring movies about dogs and cats that are just plain boring that I’ve watched with my brothers and sister.

  8. There’s a lot of cliched nonsense going on here. “I’ve watched a lot of boring movies about dogs and cats that are just plain boring”.

    Whether someone finds movies about dogs and cats boring or not is hardly the point. The point is that he’s watched a lot of them i.e. so they must have they got made and distributed. Your assertion that the only thing people should consider is horror / teen / action etc. is both obvious and limiting.
    You’re saying ‘make a teen zombie film because that will sell’, and then you call professionals in the business sleazy, dimwitted, parasites etc. You should make a film because you believe in it, because you have something to say, because it’s a great story, sure – because it has commerciability, but not principally because it’s not considered ‘box office poison’. Contrary to your simplistic and galactically obvious advice to an earlier post – if someone is passionate about baseball and vampires, don’t drop the sport and concentrate on the horror. Instead, develop an idea that combines baseball and vampires – work with your passions.

    • Hi Steve,

      I take your points. For the benefit of other readers, it should be pointed out that the first half of your comment was in response to Jonathan’s comment above, not to my post.

      With regard to everything else, the gist of my post is that filmmakers should be cognizant of marketability issues, so that they can make informed decisions about the projects they wish to pursue. I did not straightforwardly advocate vampire movies as an easy way out of marketing challenges — I asserted that vampire movies and baseball movies are generally at opposite ends of the marketability continuum, and that the wise filmmaker who has an interest in both vampires and baseball will ditch the baseball and stick to the vampires. If the filmmaker’s interest is exclusively focused on baseball, he should by all means follow his heart, as I wrote — but it’s going to be tough, and it behooves him to know that before he embarks on the project.

      Knowing that a particular genre is a tough sell may lead a filmmaker to abandon it in favor of something else, thereby avoiding the misery of completing a film that is unsellable; alternatively, the filmmaker may decide to go ahead with it, but with the benefit of knowing about the complications that may potentially arise down the road. Knowing is better than not knowing, and the process of acquiring knowledge involves the examination of trends and the dynamics that drive them, which may come across to some as clichéd generalization. C’est la vie.

      Finally, in my post I defended genres that are difficult to market and that I nevertheless enjoy, and expressed regret that some very meritorious films fail at the distribution stage because they are a tough sell, not because they are of poor quality. I even used myself as an example of someone who wrote a film off, only to discover that it was in fact an excellent film when I finally gave it a chance, in order to highlight the danger of making a genuinely brilliant but unmarketable film.

      I want filmmakers to understand marketability so that they can do their vision justice instead of making films that languish unseen.

      Thanks for contributing!

  9. Great article, once again! I have a question, though. I have a script completed, and shot a good portion of it with friends on my phone, so that others that I know are able to have a visual version to judge. Everyone who’s seen the footage has said that they would pay to see it (not just family/friends, but neighbors and co-workers who I don’t know all that well). I was wondering if you could do an article (if you haven’t already) that goes more in depth about how to get a recognizeable face to act in the movie. Or is just making them a decent offer the only way to go?

    Keep in mind that this isn’t the first thing I’ve directed (just the first “professional film).

  10. neeraj mishra says:

    I wonder to hear about it. your good quality more than this article is to answer the each comment i like it.keep it up

  11. You might also mention that people should watch a lot of movies. I don’t mean all of this cheap cheezy crap that passes for whatnot now. But any good movie from any era that you can get your hands on. There are tons of classics that have basically been lost. In film school we watched a lot of movies, but nothing compared to the amazing amount of movies I’ve watched in the few years since then. I would guess that I’ve seen more good films than most hollywood executives even know exist.

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