What Happens to the Filmmakers Who Can’t Market Themselves?

Monday, May 11, 2009


As a regular reader of Techdirt, I saw the video of Mike Masnick’s lecture on Trent Reznor a few months ago.   I was so intrigued by it, I immediately started sending it out to filmmaker friends, to a major blogger and even the singer/songwriter Ron Sexsmith, a very talented acquaintance of mine who definitely could benefit from better marketing.  But when I didn’t hear the blogger, I figured this was something that had been passed around the independent film blogosphere already.   So I was happy to see Scott Macaulay and Brian Newman post it recently.  If you are a filmmaker or any kind of artist who would like to increase the audience for your work, it’s worth your time to look at this.

But this video calls to mind all the filmmakers who have been using the new tools of Web 2.0 to promote their work.  They are trotted out at every festival: Lance Weiler, Gary Hustwit, Susan Buice & Arin Crumley, etc.  As a traditional marketer, I sit in awe of these people.  When I watch a video like this one by Lance Weiler, I feel really old. 



This kind of marketing goes so far beyond what’s been done in the past to become a new art form.  It gets more people to look at the original film, but it also creates a totality that is more exciting that 99.99% of the independent films out there.   Gary Hustwit’s promotion of “Helvetica” is more traditional, but I don’t know of many people in the business who could have done a better job doing it than he did.  He is a great marketer, and it’s rare when a company has the luxury of giving the time and energy to it that he did.

So it must be a bit scary for filmmakers to go to the lectures and panels and watch these videos.  It’s so hard to make movies--they have to learn to do all this stuff too? 

And it reminds me of something that has dogged me throughout my career as a publicist.  Many of the best filmmakers are allergic to the idea of selling their films.  They feel it somehow diminishes them as artists.   They want to create; they don’t want to be hucksters.  They want their work to speak for itself.   They sometimes act like they don’t want to be successful, that there is something actually distasteful about success.  Many have told me flat out that they are proud of their film but doubt it will reach much of an audience.   

I worked on three films with a director long ago.  His movies were funny, witty, stylish, and had a dazzling visual style.  There were so many reasons why all  kinds of people could enjoy them.  But every interview he gave made them seem dry and boring; he cut off the possibilities for the way different kinds of people might perceive them.  He was effectively an anti-marketer.  It was pointless to talk to him about it.  If I had run the distribution companies, I would actually have canceled all his interviews and appearances, but distributors want to see a sheaf of articles—that’s what they pay for.  One of his movies starred a beautiful and charming actress, so I concentrated my efforts on her.  I was able to get bookings on a few talk shows.  She was so good that I would send the tapes to the next show and we kept getting better bookings.  She was having fun, and the clips from the film were very appealing.  One day she called me in tears.  He had phoned her and said he was grateful because he understood how soul-destroying doing these interviews must be for her. 

I love this director’s films, but sadly it is very difficult for him to get financing these days, and his output has slowed. Maybe that would have happened anyway, but this might have had something to do with it.

I admit that I am also ambivalent about marketing, because I am someone who loves movies first and promotes them second.   I don’t want a director to tell me what a movie means.  I don’t want to be saddled with the director’s insistence that the reason they made the film defines what the movie is.  In a lot of ways, the reason what a director thinks he or she made a film is irrelevant.  They may not fully understand themselves as human beings, let alone understand their movie.  Mysterious things come into play that they don’t understand.  That’s the miracle of it, really.  

Some filmmakers are very skilled about how to play the game of talking to the media.  They have a natural facility for giving great quotes without giving away the store. Some, like Jarmusch, have a strong image that works into the way you perceive their movies, expanding and not contracting your reactions.  Some are a hoot, like Almodovar, and draw you in with their high spirits.  Some invent their own myth out of whole cloth, like Herzog. Many of the people who last the longest in pop culture are shape-shifters, like Dylan, Madonna and Robert Redford—they are omnipresent, hiding in plain sight, and the more you think you know about them, the less you do. 

But there are many great artists who lack this gene.  With conventional distribution, if you don’t have a talent for self-promotion, you can walk away and let the distributors and the publicists do the heavy lifting.  You can have the benefit of advice, if you are willing to listen to it.

The question in my mind is whether Web 2.0 will increase the distance between the filmmakers who can sell themselves and those who can’t.   If we reach a day when the majority of artists are responsible for promoting their own work, are more of the greatest filmmakers going to be lost by the wayside?