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Weekly musings on indie film, media, branded content and related items from Brian Newman.

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What you do around a film
is as important as the film itself

September 28, 2022

A couple of months ago, I wrote a post where I mentioned that in many ways, making a film is just an excuse for all the things you can do around the release of the film (or in addition to the film).  This will sound crazy to those who love movies, but perhaps I should clarify that what I mean is that for a brand making films, or for anyone making films for an impact agenda, this should be the case. The film still matters, and yes, we all love to see it on the big screen and later in our queues, but too often, people think that just making the film is enough, when that’s just one part of the hard work. To some extent, this is true even for an arthouse film too, because what you do around the film can get people to see the film, or help spread the word about it.
So, what do I mean by the things around the film? Thousands of things. But for brands, this means the marketing activations you can do around the film (again, at minimum), and for social impact films, it’s the impact campaign. Both are made up of subsets of tons of little items, and each of these items should be strategized and customized to your ultimate goals. In fact, you need to spend as much time thinking about these things as you do the film itself, and not doing so is one of the biggest mistakes I see from my brand clients and indie producer friends alike. Making the film and seeing it with an audience is the fun part, but doing this also gives us an excuse to do and talk about a lot of other things, that can be equally important. In fact, some of the best brand funded films don’t really feature the brand or its product very prominently. So why make them at all? Because when the film comes out, you get a chance to talk about all the things your brand is doing to have an impact on the issues in the film, or how your values align with the film, and these will come across as much more genuine because they overlap with the film but don’t overwhelm it. 
There are myriad ways to do this, but for today’s post, I’m going to focus on three things – your social media campaigns, your activations and your impact campaign.
Social Media Campaigns – The biggest of these is probably your social media campaign. But these are often surprisingly neglected and uninspiring.  If you look at the social media presence of almost any filmmaker, or accounts set up specifically for a movie, you often see an endless stream of tweets and Facebook posts pointing to a premiere or a screening, and not much else. A brand’s account might promote one or two posts about how their new short is now on their YouTube channel. And that’s it. What’s always surprising to me is that the people running these accounts presumably use social media daily, and none of them would interact with these posts, comment on them, or share them because, well, they’re boring. Your social media campaign needs to be ongoing, have a voice and a purpose for existing beyond just linking to your screenings, be original & creative, and kinda like a film, be engaging. Just a few quick examples. When I helped the team on Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, we turned their social media feed into an ongoing conversation about art and politics broadly, but especially in China. People started following the campaign to stay informed on those subjects, not just to hear about our premieres. When we worked on DamNation, we ran a contest on the brand’s Instagram called #thatdamcontest, where people posted pictures of themselves doing something on their favorite river, and they could win a kayak trip to one of our premieres. The campaign was popular, with one of these posts being more popular than any other Instagram post from the company at that time. And if you want a master-class on this subject that is more up to date than those examples, just spend some time with A24’s recent TikTok posts, overall, but especially #pearl for the movie Pearl.
Activations – When I meet a brand rep at a film festival and they tell me about their film premiering there, I often ask what they’re doing to activate around the release of the film, and usually I get a blank stare. Or maybe they say they plan to run some ads, social posts and the like, but they think the distributor will do all of the work for them. But smart ones know that's not true, and go a step further. That could be as small, but smart, as hosting a screening with live music and free beer at each of their retail stores as a premiere for a new short, or as big as the filmmakers from Racing Extinction projecting images of endangered species on the Empire State building to promote the message of their movie (that's an example at the header of this post). That’s a pretty wide range, but at minimum you should be thinking about how you are going to market the film on your homepage, in your retail stores or those of your partners, on all of your owned & operated channels, in merchandise or swag, with events, at each festival, at each premiere, with partners, through smart earned media campaigns and paid ones too. Need some inspiration? Look no further than these case studies of the activations Campfire has done for Hollywood. Sure, these took a lot of money, but it’s a good place to start for any brand or filmmaker launching a movie – what would a Campfire activation look like for your movie, given your budget and resources?
Impact campaigns – The traditional doc world knows all about these, but often when I speak with a brand and they say impact, they just hope that someone will watch their film and think a little harder, I guess. Because they don’t do any actual impact work around the film. You need to be thinking – “after someone watches this film, what do we want them to do?” How can they make a difference on the issues presented in the film? Can they sign a petition in the back of the theater? Can they hear from a local nonprofit working on the issue, and maybe donate, or sign up to volunteer after the movie? Can you arrange a screening of the film for your congressperson, the local school board or some other political entity? Perhaps you can carve out rights to hire an impact firm to do thousands of screenings around the world with activist groups, inspiring them to do more, while highlighting their local work. Maybe your film can be used to recruit more nurses to the field, as has been done by J&J with private screenings of 5B. Need inspiration? The gold standard here is the work of Picture Motion. As with Campfire above, they don’t run a cheap version of an impact campaign, but you can duplicate this kind of work with numerous other firms, or with your own staff or (paid, I hope) interns. The point is, once again, making the movie is not enough. It’s what the movie gives you permission to do, out in the “real world.”
These three sets of things are just scratching the surface of all that one can do around the release of their film. There’s so much more: educational outreach, and discussion guides for screenings; special event screenings, both online and off; doing things like writing Op-Eds on the issues of the film, tied to its release; and releasing shoulder content, such as excerpts that can be used to engage audiences beyond the film itself. There’s merch and swag that can be given out, or even sold, which can actually help spread the word about the film and your involvement for years (old DamNation trucker hats still sell on EBay for hundreds of dollars, and when I wear mine, I get stopped by people who saw the film and want to discuss it all the time).

The things you can do are virtually limitless if you use your imagination. But you can’t do this unless you plan for it, usually early in the life of a film, so you’re ready to activate around the film when it comes out. So if you’re making a film now, get creative and get to planning for all the things you’ll do around the film when it comes out. 

Stuff Worth Reading

Inside the Documentary Cash Grab: How has the art of the documentary and the business of making nonfiction films been affected since the rise and dominance of big streaming platforms? This is the central question asked by Mia Galuppo and Katie Kilkenny in their piece for The Hollywood Reporter. While streaming services have “created a new golden age for nonfiction filmmaking, it’s come with transformations that many find worrying”, they write. So what are​​ the red flags? (1) Streamers have been known to push filmmakers to follow a specific formula or algorithm that is safe and believed to guarantee the most plays. (2) Studios and filmmakers industrialize the production process to try to meet these platform’s demands: Timelines are scrunched and often the top creatives can’t or don’t critically shoot or comb through all their footage to make the most compelling film possible. It’s increasingly common for top doc filmmakers to spread themselves thin over a handful of doc films/series rather than invest years and months into a single project like they may have in the past. (3) We’re seeing an increase in ethical gray areas. For instance, it’s more common now to see subjects getting involved as producers and sources getting paid for their piece of the story (are these practices avoiding exploitation or do they create a conflict of interests?). (4) Despite a booming industry [of 1,200 documentaries distributed between 2014-2020] 78 percent were directed by white directors, and 66 percent by individuals who identify as male (from an American Uni. Center for Media & Social Impact Study). The result of the four issues summarized above is a homogenized, less creative, less compelling, and less inspired form of nonfiction storytelling that resembles less and less the documentaries that made their mark before big streaming came to be. Read the article for a more nuanced write-up on the state of docs today and learn an abridged history of documentary filmmaking, funding, and distribution while you do. (GSH)
Branded Content
Walmart enters the metaverse with Roblox experience aimed at younger shoppers: Walmart’s first projects in the metaverse are hosted by online gaming platform Roblox. Designed to reach younger shoppers, Walmart Land and Walmart’s Universe of Play will feature a blimp that drops toys, a music festival, games, and verch (virtual merchandise). According to their CEO, the retail giant is using Roblox as a testing ground before they explore other parts of the metaverse. The takeaway: Regardless of where Walmart and its various virtual extensions can be experienced, they’ll be looking to drive relevance in cultural conversation, develop community and engagement, and develop brand favorability with younger audiences. Melissa Repko for CNBC has the news. (GSH)

Consumers Care When Dining Brands Participate In the Cultural Conversation: Adage studies “show a 94% correlation between a brand’s cultural relevance and a customer's purchase intent.” So how can brands go about creating and participating in culture? It turns out, at least when it comes to fast food chains, that “not everything has to be a large-scale activation, according to Adage’s Adam Carpenter.” For instance, McDonald’s hopped on a Twitter trend where accounts reduced their brand down to a one-word tweet (theirs was “Clown”) and Wendy’s hosts an annual Twitter roast session of other brands which is apparently a moment both brands and consumers look forward to. Head to his piece to learn more about studies examining brands, cultural relevance and ROI. (GSH)

Social Media Giants and Invasion of Privacy: September is a rough month for big tech companies screwing with privacy rules. First off, Meta is faced with a class action lawsuit for allegedly coding Facebook to open web links in an in-app browser (as opposed to Safari or Chrome), a clear violation of Apple’s privacy rules. What are the implications? Meta can “intercept, monitor and record its users’ interactions and communications with third parties, providing data to Meta that it… uses to boost its advertising revenue (complaint, filed Sep 21).” [Trisha Ostwal for Adweek has the story]. Secondly, TikTok, is facing a $29million fine in the U.K for breaching child data protection laws between 2018-2020. The social media giant is accused of processing children’s data without parental consent and processing special category data without the legal grounds to do so (special category data is personal data about a user’s sexual orientation, religious beliefs, racial/ethnic background, political opions, genetic info, and more). [Read Paul Sawyer’s piece for TechCrunch for the story]. Lastly, the lawsuit brought against TikTok comes just after Instagram was fined $405 million for its unlawful handling of children’s data [Natasha Lomas for TechCrunch has the story]. (GSH)
GSH = Articles written by Sub-Genre's Gabriel Schillinger-Hyman, not Brian Newman (BN)
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