On this website and elsewhere, there has been a lot of talk, writing, blogging, and general carrying-on lately about self-distribution. It's undoubtedly an exciting time for self-distro. Since promotion is part of distribution, it follows that self-promotion is an often necessary facet, at least at first, of self-distribution. And that is tricky stuff. Here's a true story:
One day, while at a film festival, I was walking to the festival's main cinema. When I arrived, conspicuously parked outside the cinema was an ostentatious new car. The entire car had been custom-painted and tricked out to promote... a short film. (The car alone, not even counting the paint job, probably cost more than my own short.) The film might have been interesting, but I'll never know. I chose not to see it because I was immediately suspicious of a film whose promotion was disproportionate to its (under 10-minute) running time. This desperate attempt at self-promotion did the exact opposite of what it was supposed to do. Instead of enticing me to see the film, it told me avoid it.
When any kind promotion backfires it can be pretty ugly, but for some reason it just seems all the uglier when it's self-promotion that backfires. (For me it's probably because I'm more apt to laugh at corporations, but feel pity for individuals. But I digress.) The point is, I think a lot of filmmakers hurt their self-distribution efforts by not seeing the moral of my story above, which (in case you didn't get it) is: Be modest in your self-promotion.
I know this sounds paradoxical, but like most paradoxes, it's true. If the work speaks for itself, you'll be surprised at how quickly other people will speak for you.
Perhaps you've seen it too -- a filmmaker's attempt at self-promotion becomes an expression of self-deception, arrogance, or willful hucksterism (calling one's own work "groundbreaking!" or "a masterpiece!"). Sometimes -- and just as bad -- it's an exercise in bad faith. By "bad faith" I mean that filmmakers that are scared to admit that they're just one person trying to tell a simple story with modest means. Instead they dress their work up with pretentious lingo they've heard used (more appropriately) by multinational corporations: They refer to their projects as being by, say, "XYZ Studios in association with FGH Productions" instead of just "John and Jane Doe." They talk about their "brand" before they have made 30 minutes of material. They credit themselves not only as Writer, Director, and Producer, but also as Executive Producer.
Why? These tactics don't make the film better, nor do they make me take the film more seriously. Quite the opposite. And, perhaps more to the point, What's wrong with being an individual filmmaker working with modest means? There's no shame in it and, in fact, there is something beautiful about it. If you own up to it, that is.
With this in mind, here are some hopefully helpful do's and don'ts, which spring from my experiences distributing my own shorts, as well as from working at film festivals, being a festival judge, being a teacher of filmmaking, and being a moviegoer and DVD renter/purchaser:
DO: Start by making the best film you can. That means unique, non-derivative, and crafted to the best of your abilities and resources. DON'T: Bill yourself or your film as something you or it is not.
DO: Credit yourself. Once or twice in your opening titles, closing credits, and video materials is enough. If your film is good, we'll remember your name or seek it out. DON'T: Credit yourself repeatedly with separate cards for Writer, Director, Art Diector, Cinematographer, Editor and (especially) Executive Producer. Remember, Orson Welles saved his name for last in Citizen Kane's credits, and even then he humbly shared the card with Gregg Toland, his cinematographer.
DO: Use others' (i.e., critics, festival organizers, interesting bloggers, etc.) words to promote your film. We'll take it seriously. DON'T: Use self-congratulatory and outrageous adjectives of praise without attribution in your press releases. We know you wrote it.
DO: Have a modest (but well-written) information kit, which includes a synopsis, unpretentious bios of cast and crew, any press clippings, and maybe a well-designed postcard. Stills are essential, too, but prints aren't necessary. Digital files are usually fine. DON'T: Promote your film with gimmicks, pandering, or anything else that takes the focus away from your film. People in animal costumes. Tricked out cars. Posters that measure over 150 square feet. I wish I was making this stuff up, but I'm not. I've seen it.
DO: Have a website with essential information about the film and, for features, a clip or trailer. A blog, if well-written, can be interesting. DON'T: Have six blogs, all written by you, and all devoted to your film. It looks sad or, worse, desperate. When you alone and no one else promotes your film so hard you make me think it's not worth seeing.
DO: Email people that might be especially interested in your work -- bloggers, critics, whoever -- with personal notes to let them know about your film. If you don't know the person, it's better if it goes through a mutual friend, but if you have to do it yourself, make it personal. DON'T: Email self-congratulatory press releases randomly or repeatedly, especially when the quotes are your own.
DO: Ask people who like your film -- festival organizers, microcinema programmers, etc -- if they know of others that might also like it. DON'T: Give the "hard sell" to anyone, especially industry people. It's a turn-off.
DO: Consider having a "email newsletter" for anyone that is interested. Keep it short and send it no more than once every few months. DON'T: Send long, unsolicited emails in bulk. We have a name for that. It's "spam."
This stuff should be self-evident for a lot of people, but if it was evident to everyone I wouldn't be posting. I'm basically just saying: Be smart, be honest, keep a sense of humor about this stuff, and remember people sometimes listen more closely when you whisper. Let others form their own, hopefully positive, opinions about your work. And when they do your task of self-distribution becomes easier because the burden of expressing praise is shared by others.
And remember: While I may have some experience with this stuff, I'm certainly not the Pope of Self-Distribution. These are just one person's opinions, and I definitely invite your comments, dissenting and otherwise.