MIXVILLE II PRODUCTIONS: Indie Marketing in the Trenches
By Carolyn Allen
An Inverview with
“Ghosts of Edendale”
Marianne Connor, Producer
Mixville II Productions
Horror, Feature, Release date: October 2004
A sense of place whistles through Marianne Connor’s thoughtful tales from the trenches of indie production. She shares specific details about how independent filmmakers can succeed in the tough world of marketing against the industry grain.
Marketing the Horror/Ghost Story/Supernatural Thriller Movie
As producer of “The Ghosts of Edendale,” Marianne Connor slugged her way through the valley of the unknown, the rumbles of budget shortages, and the ghostly figures offered up by distributors to make the supernatural thriller one of the shining stars of Warner Home Entertainment's current releases.
Mixville II Productions combines the talents and tenacity of Writer/Producer Connor, and Writer/Director/Editor Stefan Avalos. Together, this team created an intelligent genre flick that is a suspenseful ghost story rather than the typical slasher horror movie.
“The Ghosts of Edendale” is set in the Los Angeles community of Silver Lake, where the original studio of silent movie star Tom Mix was located. In the early 1900s, all of California's first movie studios were located in "Edendale."
"Before Hollywood existed, Edendale was where America made its first movies." In fact, Tom Mix's studio was called Mixville – hence the homage to its community roots: Mixville II Productions.
Connor’s background is impressively intellectual. “My undergraduate degree is in International Relations from Georgetown University. I entered the documentary world to change the image of the Arab World I saw on television. During my MFA studies at Temple University, I produced a documentary about Jordan and Palestine that won a National Emmy Award.”
With her craft well honed, Connor became a university professor at Drexel Uniersity in Philadelphia to support herself as a documentary filmmaker. She completed a documentary about Philadelphia’s historic neighborhood while teaching full-time. She and boyfriend Stefan Avalos decided to move to Los Angeles in 2001, and her sense of place again blossomed in a three year odyssey –- production and distributrion of “The Ghosts of Edendale."
Marketing indie films is something Connor learned in the trenches – “I love Google – I couldn’t have done what I did without research available through this search engine. I found contacts, mailing lists, media…and build so many relationships with fans and video store owners…. We just couldn’t have done what we did in the timeframe without it.”
On-line research plus the graphics capabilities of PhotoShop, gave Connor and Avalos the tools to write, design, and distribute much of their marketing thrust. They designed a poster and direct mail piece, and created their website with the help of web designers Paul Bliss and Birgit Dreikandt. Connor also researched the genre-specific media needed to create buzz.
Choose Your Niche
Knowing the realistic marketability of the genre film is critical. “A friend of mine produced a really good comedy but it didn’t move because it had no name attached. People want recognizable names in comedy. Studios do them really well and that has an impact on the prospects for indies in that niche."
There are only a few genres still open to breakout success for indies that don’t have name actors attached. The nost reliably marketable genres are horror and family…with an up and coming genre called “spiritual cinema”. This new genre received a huge boost from Mel Gibson and Stephen Simon (www.spiritualcinemacircle.com) ranges from the retelling of Christian stories (i.e., "Passion of the Christ") to films addressing new age spirituallity (i.e., "What the Bleep Do We Know").
Refining Your Distribution Vision
“I recommend that indie filmmakers talk to distributors and video retailers when they are considering a project because they know what's happening in the market -- what will move and what won't. ‘This will move and that won’t.’ Distributors are very accessible. Just do your homework and have a list of questions. Go to a video store and see where your video would be shelved. Look for movies similar to yours andget the names of the distributors from the packages – there probably won’t be more than five or six. They have a vested interest in helping put good films out – they don’t want movies that won’t sell. If they feel they have some input, they might also have a stronger reason to want to distribute the film. I’ve found them very willing to talk -- just ask them for a short meeting or phone call. Most people want to share what they know and have learned. They are very generous if you respect that they are giving of their time. Do your homework and have a list of questions.”
Connor explained some of the complexities of domestic and foreign distribution pathways. They differ considerably. In domestic distribution there are a lot of middle men with “output deals” with 5 or 6 big distributors of independent horror movies. “Sometimes, it is quite feasible for producers to deal directly with the distributor they want. However, if you do need a ‘middle man,’ as we did for our deal with Warner, make sure their distribution fee is included in the overall distribution fee. Many so-called 'distributors' are middle men who take a percentage cut on top of the distributor’s cut. That adds up! I’ve seen deals where the combined distributors’ percentage is close to 60 percent!”
In foreign distribution, it is important to have an honest sales agent. “We were fortunate to have a very good foreign sales agent for "The Ghosts of Edendale": Atlas International (http://www.atlasfilm.com/). They sold to Japan immediately once we finished post-production. Then we were in the enviable position to have time to get the American distributor we wanted.” Sales agents are very helpful internationally because they have long term relationships with foreign distributors and are able to collect revenues – which can be a real problem with international commerce.
Research foreign sales agents – some are great, some are almost criminal. Again, do your homework. Most of them attend the AFM (American Film Market in Santa Monica, CA), so you can find a comprehensive list of foreign sales agent on their website. Then, go to the agent’s website and identify other producers they represent. Call them up and ask if the agent is honest and consistently pays them. Doing this due diligence is very important.
“Generally, indie producers are so excited they will jump into a deal with any foreign sales agent. But that might not be a company you want to do business with. And producers are usually very open to telling another producer what their experience has been.”
Creating Marketing Materials
Marketing materials are an essential element in the selling of independent movies, especially a striking poster and box art. Marketing approaches vary among domestic and foreign distributors because of differences in cultural factors as well as graphic and reproduction requirements. Most sales agents or foreign distributors will take a producer’s raw artwork for posters, one sheets and packaging and alter them to fit differences in taste for color, image selection, as well as different sheet sizes, fonts and themes.
While it is important to the retailer that the box art jumps off the shelf and catches attention when the title doesn’t have big names attached, Connor stressed several times that she is very motivated to market what the movie really is. It is important to the retailer that the box art jumps off the shelf and catches attention when the title doesn’t have big names attached. “But I want the promotional materials to represent the movie honestly, I believe in that very strongly. It’s a matter of treating your audience with respect and building long term fans.”
“The Ghosts of Edendale” is an intelligent ghost story. While it fits into the horror genre, we don’t sell it as a slasher movie because which it isn’t. We didn’t package it with blood and gore – but chose one striking ghost cowboy image for the American box art. The Japanese distributor didn’t use any of our artwork. They went with an enormous Victorian staircase and a scary green ghost that are not even in our movie (chuckle). Some distribution companies don’t care what they portray as long as it sells …but I’m a strong believer in representing the movie properly.”
Unit photography was provided by two friends, Rachel Fermi and Gair Fraser, who are professional photographers. They came to the set a couple times to take behind the scene and production stills. The production stills are taken right next to the camera lens and look as though they are images right from the camera lens. Those are the ones you use most in marketing. They took a few shots of the crew working or the director talking with the director of photography. “After production, I brought the photographers in for a day shoot with the two lead actors in order to get some nicely lit and composed shots in a less crazy environment.”
Finding Creative Help
I really like recommendations…but I guess that’s one of the problems of this business. It’s hard for a newcomer to break in because it is so referral based. I’ve listed production jobs on mandy.com and craigslist.com, but my most reliable help has come through recommendations.
Association of Independent film and Video Filmmakers has a list of lists:
“Relationships are so important. So much happened with the distribution of our movie through relationships – even more than our hard work.”
Marketing Strategy and Promotion Planning
“While we were wrapping the movie, we designed a web site as quickly as possible. The director, Stefan Avalos, quickly cut the market trailer to draw interest from distributors. We built the website with a synopsis, the trailer, cast and crew bios and credits list for media convenience. Then we added thumbnails of the production stills so the media could pick which ones they wanted. We sent hi-res versions of these on CD or by email.”
“We arranged for a limited theatrical release in the Philadelphia area, since that’s our home town, and a few other cities through horror film festivals. From these, we garnered some awards and great press quotes. I pulled the clippings together to create an impressive press kit and sent them to potential distributors and the media to create buzz.”
“Since the movie was shot in a historic neighborhood of Los Angeles, we attracted the local LA media by emphasizing the “homegrown” angle. The Ghosts of Edendale is a movie inspired by Silver Lake history shot by Silver Lake filmmakers, and people in the movie live on the hill, share equipment and work on each other’s projects. Like Tom Mix did a hundred years ago, but with new technology. Old made new. This became a big local media hook when we premiered at the Silver Lake Film Festival.”
National press and online press required different angles, depending on who their target audience was. Horror magazines and websites like Fangoria were sent update press releases: “finished production”; “winner of the Silver Lake Award”; “picked up by Warner Brothers,” etc. Fangoria put a lot of these updates online, so it kept horror fans aware of and excited about the movie.
There are a lot of horror and filmmaking web sites open to news:
There are great web sites with great critics who like to be fed things along the way – they value knowing about films before they come out. “So, for every new development, I would write a press release and send it out to every online site and horror magazine to keep them abreast of everything happening.
Marketing is two tiered: first, reaching and interesting distributors and second, reaching and interesting the target audience. Distributors need to be shown that the movie has an audience. The long term goal is whetting the appetite of consumers.
“I had a 'hit list' of our most-wanted-distributors and I would email an assistant to the person I was trying to reach. I would keep sending them them updates … theatrical release dates, award announcements, press reviews, notes about what the media was saying with pull quotes. We got a lot of interest from distributors after that. Before our email blitz, they weren’t interested, but after this update campaign, they wanted to screen the movie.”
To reach the target audience, Connors and Avalos attended genre horror conventions and really worked to create a buzz. They passed postcards out to everyone. At a local convention they showed the trailer and gave a talk on behind the scenes happenings. “Genre festivals are great…you can compile a lot of emails from these enthusiastic fans and send them to distributors to demonstrate that the movie is really in demand.”
Genre movies do best at genre festivals. The horror film festivals were a great boost to marketing “The Ghosts of Edendale.” If you can get in, the Toronto International Film Festival has a great venue for horror movies in the “Midnight Madness” division. This film festival draws a lot of distributors to screen entries and they make a good number of deals.
The commitment of a theatrical release is a big deal because the distributor is looking at a much bigger financial commitment to your movie. If you’re hoping for theatrical release, you need to premier at one of the top 4 or 5 festivals. These festivals are very hard to get into unless have a contact or a producer’s rep.
When an independent producer has achieved getting Warner Brothers on board as distributor, most producers are tempted to fall back on a couch and relax with the thought, “’My baby is in safe hands now!’ – but that’s not the time to quit! Warner puts out more product than any other video company but we’re a tiny film. It’s great to have their muscle behind us but we’re not going to get individual attention.”
Connor strategized about how to build on Warner Brothers’ momentum. “Warner took care of getting The Ghosts in all the chains and big companies but we were determined to reach out to smaller independent video retailers, as well as many of the targeted audience as we could.”
Video retailers were introduced to “The Ghosts of Edendale” at their national trade convention : VSDA (Video Software Dealers Association, www.homeentertainmentevents.com in Las Vegas in July. “VSDA is a great place to meet and befriend retailers. There is nothing more grounding than talking to the people selling products every day."
“They gave us so many helpful suggestions such as posters — smaller chains love to use posters. We spent our own money for 1000 posters and got them out to independent video retailers. We also discovered they have buyers groups to give them more clout in buying. We could reach out to everybody in the group through one contact and emails would be passed along to the entire group. The New England Buyers Group has 500-1,000 members! We would send a synopsis with a little about the success of Stefan’s previous film, "The Last Broadcast", a page of rave reviews, and small low-res jpeg of the box art. It’s all about the box art in a no-name horror movie! Be sure to send a small jpeg; some retailers are still on dial-up.”
Having a balanced team of technical expertise and writing and publicity skills has been part of the winning mix at Mixville II Productions. “I’ve come up with some interesting design and marketing ideas, but Stefan weeds out the good from the bad and is essential to their execution.
Connor has learned graphic design although she doesn’t think of herself as a designer. “I would gladly hand over those tasks to a professional if I found a good designer I could afford. Indies learn new skills because you can’t afford to contract everything out.”
“The Ghosts of Edendale” poster was designed by Stefan and I, and it uses the same image as the box. The posters were a hit. We signed 200 at the VSDA Convention. We rented a booth in the ‘Filmmaker Program’ (www.hadtobemade.com) that provides an inexpensive a table/booth on the convention floor. We designed our own little triptych behind the table with press quotes, pictures from The Ghosts, and synopsis. We also launched a sweepstakes to win a trip to haunted Hollywood at our website: www.ghostsofedendale.com.”
The contest is designed to keep the movie on people’s minds long past the October 19 release date. It is a “skill based” contest for our audience -- renters of the movie. To enter the contest, contestants go to the web site and answer some trivia questions related to The Ghosts of Edendale DVD. “We launched it at the VSDA and the contest ends March 1, 2005. The prize is a trip for two to enjoy a Los Angeles weekend at a historic haunted hotel and includes a tour with a ghost historian, a dinner in the beautiful Japanese gardens of Yamashiro Restaurant, and a trip to the amazing magician’s exclusive mecca, The Magic Castle. We’re doing follow-up email blasts until the closing date.”
Retail video stores promote movies with shelf talkers and banners. “We’re continuing to develop point of sales opportunities for sales impact. We’ve developed downloadable art that can be printed on a standard 8.5x11” sheet. It will make a great video counter display – especially with the contest as a draw.”
Targeting the Movie's Audience
“Once our screener DVD was ready, we sent 200 out to horror and ghost websites and magazines, as well as indie filmmaking magazines. We put a lot of thought into identifying who our audience is. The movie is horror, but it also has a cross-over audience – people who like an intelligent ghost story without gore. Older audiences that liked Tom Mix also spread the word. We’re thinking about contacting AARP’s magazine about doing a glamorous ‘Old Hollywood’ story. Think imaginatively beyond your major audience. Our demographics have skewed away from the young audience and more toward adult audiences.
"We did a college radio give away by contacting a lot of college radio stations and giving away a sweepstakes DVD when the movie was released. We received several announcements and built awareness.
"Having good in-house publicity lists is valuable – and Mixville II built their lists the hard way. Our publicist had the college radio list, but most other contacts were found online by using Google(TM). We brainstormed major and secondary audiences and how we could reach them. We spent days looking for magazines and websites that target those audiences and then sent press releases about the movie.” The creator of a Tom Mix website loved the movie and helped brainstorm the strategy for reaching Tom Mix fans.
“The main thing about marketing is to persist, persist, persist. Once you have your list of potential contacts, you have to tell your story over and over again. I’d get so tired doing the same pitch so many times that I had to keep telling myself, 'Focus on this phone call – right now – they haven’t heard the story before.'”
What are the main problems indie producers face? “Having enough money and time! Most indies barely have enough money to get through production. Many films don’t get finished because they don’t have money for post, not to mention marketing.
“Bigger movies use from a quarter to half of their budget for advertising and promotion. Their impact and success are made by sheer advertising dollars. That’s why you see long lines at the theatre even before anyone has seen the movie! Repetition of your message is powerful. Indies have to create that impact in other ways.”
Connor emphasized that indie producers really need to include – from the very beginning of their project – a significant budget for PR and advertising. “Buy yourself some time to work on a marketing plan: contact the press, build a website, design your one sheet, your poster, your box art – all the visuals and slogans that brand your movie. Take the time to figure out who the target audience will be and how to reach them repeatedly.” That takes time and even with small do-it-yourself techniques, it takes money. Mixville bought minimal advertising – two ads in Video Store and Video Business Magazines (www.homemediaretailing.com) . They sent out a self-mailer (folded one sheet) to 10,000 independent video retailers with ordering information just to make them aware. They spent $5,000 on that alone.
“It’s hard to judge how effective your advertising is, but once the pre-sales numbers were very good, the distributor kept asking us, ‘How did you create this kind of demand?’ We did it by going the extra yard over and over again. It took time and money – and most indie filmmakers are tapped out by this point in the process. If you are truly worn out, it’s important to have some money to hand over to a publicist, so that someone is carrying the movie through the marketing process. Have them work every angle they can to create awareness.”
Reaching out to indie video retailers created a strong bond for Connor. “They’re dear to my heart – very near to the heart of indie movie making. I wish indie video store owners and indie filmmakers could get together and support each other more. Some of the retailers I met have become very good friends – invaluable advisors on how to reach our audience, what they want. I’ll email them and ask, ‘What do you think about this box art, or this shelf talker?’ Their advice is so helpful. A lot of the success of our campaign was because we went to the retailers and asked them directly: ‘What do you need to make this sell?’”
Thinking into the future
“Ideally I’d love to have a professional publicist next time. I’d budget between $5,000-15,000. I’ve heard that at the lower end, publicists can’t give much individual attention to your movie, but even buying yourself time to get press and market your movie is an important budget item. You will certainly give it your undivided attention, and you tell the story better than anyone else. The people on the other end of the phone are talking to the REAL filmmaker so you can set up an interview right then.”
“We worked on this movie for 3 years. We’ve done other jobs to keep afloat, but this has never strayed far from our focus. It’s been out on home video since October 2004, and now it’s in all the main chains (Wal Mart, Borders, Tower) . It’s out wide in pay-per-view now, too. We reserved television and cable rights, so now I’m talking to cable companies about our premiere television deal.
Domestic distribution markets break down in this order:
- Theatrical release
- Home video release
- Pay-per-view channels
- Pay cable (that is cable channels that
subscribers pay extra to watch, including HBO, Showtime, Starz!, Encore, The
Movie Channel, etc.)
- Basic cable (cable channels that are generally part of
package deals and don't cost extra, including the SciFi Channel, new horror
- Then, after all these markets have been tapped (and given
their required windows of exclusivity) a movie will be available to
Broadcast Television, which viewers get for free.
“Stefan calls this time one of 'being on the dark side of the moon’. We did everything we could to get our baby ready for her debutante ball. We should see the first report at the end of February, but sometimes getting clear numbers out of distributors is like pulling teeth because of the complexity of the business.
- Mixville II retained domestic television rights (pay and basic cable and broadcast)
- Home video – Warner Home Entertainment
- Pay per view, video on demand – Time Warner Cable, Adelphia, InDemand, Comcast, and others
“It’s eerie how much luck was involved in the whole process, but I believe that you create your own luck by putting the word out, talking to everyone you know, asking questions and eventually you get to the right person who understands your movie and knows how to best distribute it.”
How would Mixville II do things differently for their next movie? They have build momentum – contact lists, procedures, templates for print materials. “Now it’s easier to go to the small video retailers, because I know people. Next time I’d push to have more money to do more advertising. We wanted to do local cable television. It’s very reasonable, but at the time we couldn’t afford any more advertising. I’d also put more banners on horror web sites. It would be wonderful to have an ongoing presence on Fangoria for the whole time we’re renting the movie -- at least for the six months after launch.”
“I was strategizing with a friend about his new movie, and we were exploring dream scenarios. If he got into the Toronto Film Festival, how would he spend $15,000? His immediate answer was to spend it on a great high def screener. My response was, ‘Hell no, spend it on promotion!’”
“This month (February 2005) is first time I’ve been able to get back to writing and development work. 'The Ghosts of Edendale' has been top of my mind for three years."
Both documentaries and features fascinate Connor, and she’s able now to take a breath and give a share of her attention to a new historical drama she is writing, and looking forward to producing a historical drama. “It’s a huge project and I’m so excited to finally get started on it.”
And Stefan is working on an action comedy…so watch for the next chapters in the Mixville II Productions' story to unfold.
Copyright 2005 - 2020 Carolyn Allen
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