Advice on Promoting Screening Events

Added on by Chris White.

A good friend (and frequent co-conspirator/collaborator) and I had a text exchange this week about a screening event she's planning. As I looked back over our texts, I thought that some of the information might be useful information for other creative entrepreneurs who put on film screening (and performing arts) events. What follows are my thoughts and ideas, culled from those text messages, and based on my experiences regularly screening Emily and my work all over the Southeastern US since 2011. (I've removed the other filmmaker's responses and edited a bit for clarity.)

We live and work in a "local art market" where the would-be cinema audience takes hometown and regional filmmakers literally, but not seriously. And where the filmmakers, film hobbyists, and would-be screen actors and crews take our work seriously but not literally.

90% of your audience will wait until the last minute to buy tickets for homemade art-related events. Of these audience members, I've noticed three types of ticket buyers:

  1. CONTRIBUTORS. These people either worked on the film you are screening or contributed money to it. Most expect a free ticket, though some will buy an extra one, maybe even two or three. They may also invite friends to attend the event who pay.
  2. FAMILY-FRIENDS-FANS. They didn't work on the film, but they like you...and will buy tickets to the screening because it's you. These people don't care what your film is or what it's about, really. They love/like you. So they buy a ticket. (A surprising number of these are no-shows to the event...even after they've purchased a ticket.)
  3. LOCAL CINEASTES. These people live near the screening event, love independent films, but probably have never heard of your or your films. But they still might come to your screening event...most likely because they hear about it...word-of-mouth, social media, news articles or blogs. These people are your most elusive, least likely, but ultimately most rewarding audience...if they buy a ticket. Often, if they like your film, they become FFFs for the next event.

As you might imagine, you must promote your event to each group differently. The proverbial "tip of the spear" in reaching Contributors is email and text. FFFs are collected through near-constant social media, strategic email blasts, and sometimes text messages, too. But the last group? That's straight up marketing/publicity. You have to decide how much are you are willing to spend on initiatives designed to catch their attention.

My advice is to go hard after the first two groups, but skip the last. Most screening venues will be smallish...less than 200 seats, more than 40-50, right? Some of these venues are off the beaten path...rarely at a local cinema or live theater due to the expense. You should invite local press to attend the screening in hopes of a follow up article, but don't waste time or money building a full-blown PR/marketing campaign until you've successfully hosted a few well-attended screening events that you feel proud of...and can point to (pictures!) as a track record of success.

Be relentless as you compel your Contributors to come to the event. One free ticket, plus up to three at half price. Whatever it takes. Tell your FFFs that the event is primarily for your core creatives, but that you think you'll have space for a couple of dozen full price.

Honestly, you don't want to know how desperately you'll have to work just to get your core team to come out. It may feel downright offensive how few will take the event seriously and show up. It may anger you and hurt your feelings. Likewise, your so-called FFFs.... You'll be shocked how many will skip you for some dumb thing or another.

THE WORST: "Oh man, so sorry we can't make it. Be sure to let us know the next time you make a movie and have a red carpet premier event!" (Um, okay. The next time I work for an entire year for no salary on something as rare and unique as this film, I'll be sure to let you know about it. Maybe then you'll have a couple of free hours to spare.)

It can be truly disheartening how few people...who know, love, and want us to succeed...will actually pay to see our work...will actually show up for stuff, and/or tell other people about it. And yet, the few who do, I mean, wow. It's everything. Really. It makes everything you pour into the screening event so worth it. Because you haven't really made a movie, until someone sees it...which is another topic for another text message exchange. :-)

Emily Reach White and Alex Smith attend an art festival screening of our film CINEMA PURGATORIO. 

Emily Reach White and Alex Smith attend an art festival screening of our film CINEMA PURGATORIO.