A PMD battle cry: 10,000 fans or bust!

There’s a new crew title going around the independent film sphere– “Producer of Marketing and Distribution,” or PMD— first coined by Jon Reiss in his book “Think Outside the Box Office.”  And that’s my title for “Revenge of the Electric Car,” the new feature documentary film by Chris Paine (“Who Killed the Electric Car?” 2006).  But it wasn’t until I was doing the job for almost 6 months that I got the title- when someone else in the crew read an article about this new PMD position with a list of the PMD’s duties and emailed everyone else: “Hey- this is what Michelle’s doing…”

“Who Killed the Electric Car?” was sold to Sony Pictures Classics in 2006, distributed exclusively by them, and initially grossed $1.8 million in the box office.  But in just those 4 years so much has changed in film distribution that many new outlets for independent films and ways to connect with audiences have emerged.  The filmmakers decided they wanted to retain more control over this film and handle as much of its distribution as possible in house, especially the Executive Producer, Stefano Durdic.  He wasn’t involved in “Who Killed the Electric Car?” and wanted this film to find new markets and take advantage of more “outside the box” ideas for getting it in front of peoples’ eyes.

When I was brought on board, the film was in its early rough cut stages with only a few pick-up shoots remaining.  The marketing mostly consisted of an online blog which was getting sporadic press inquiries- mostly from environmental and electric car magazines, blogs, and radio stations.  There wasn’t much news to report since the film was not yet complete.  My first order of business was to sort everything out and try to funnel both our outgoing information on the film and the incoming requests from media, vendors, and the fans.

For the outgoing, I created a new website for the film that would serve as the one place everyone can go to for the film’s information- the blog, photos, filmmaker bios, screening dates and locations, upcoming trailers and videos, electric car news feeds, user interactivity, and even the backend of a store page when we’re ready to add merchandise.  As for the incoming, I was really surprised by how many long-term fans there were for “Who Killed the Electric Car?,” how they became active in electric vehicle communities across the country, and how many of them were following the film’s blog and contacting us for anything we could tell them about this new film- constantly asking when it will be finished and in a theatre near them.

Handling all of the theatre, festival, and event booking in house is a daunting task, and we’ve got fans and potential audiences spread not just across the United States, but all over the world.  We’ll need to bring the film to the areas with the highest concentration of people who will actually pay their hard-earned money to see it if we’re ever going to be successful with its distribution and in recouping the film’s investment.  Every empty seat in a theatre can cost us money. 

So I decided to use the new website and social media to see if I can find out exactly where these fans are.  I created a Facebook Fan page and started funneling fans to that location- because a Fan Page can provide us insights on the geographic locations of those who “like” us on Facebook.  I also added a form on our own website where people can “request the film come to your city,” where a visitor can input their geographic location.  This will turn into a list of people basically stating they intend to go see the film if it’s in their city- a very useful tool for someone looking for the highest concentrations of viewers to choose where to bring the film!

And here comes the fun part… With so much sporadic news on the film over the last 2 years of production, I wanted to have one absolute piece of information that was iron-clad, exciting, and could really get the attention of anyone who wants to know about the film.  Then I can use that information to funnel them to the website and the Facebook page and start to really get an idea of how many supporters we have and where they are.  A trailer.  A trailer hadn’t been released, and hadn’t even been made.  I pushed the director and editor to cut together a trailer now, and announced that we would premiere the trailer on our Facebook Fan page (www.facebook.com/revengeoftheelectriccar) when we reached our 10,000th fan.

Now we had a clear message to send that could act like a “call to arms” battle cry- easy to understand and to tell others, and giving people an incentive to contribute and become part of a community of fans of the film.  We reached 5,000 fans within about a week of making the announcement and the number is steadily increasing toward our 10,000 goal.  It’s been incredibly rewarding and fascinating to watch people leave positive comments on the Facebook page, rallying everyone to tell their friends and spread the word so we can all see the trailer soon!

Naturally, it would take too long to get to 10,000 if we relied on Facebook alone, so we’ve been sending press releases to online news outlets (especially within the electric car circuit), bloggers, and reaching out to electric vehicle associations, related groups, and our most active supporters to spread the word as well.  I’m a firm believer of “if you build it, they will NOT come,” when it comes to websites and social media pages that promote anything.  People are wary of any marketing techniques online.  It’s easy to be a “passive” internet user and just read and absorb the information you want- it’s more difficult to push people to become “active” and to engage in the conversation in some way.

I’m looking forward to our 10,000th fan- whether that fan appears in the next hour or the next couple weeks.  Meanwhile, after watching only a few weeks of sign-ups for our “request the film come to your city” form on our site, I noticed that many more requests than I anticipated are coming from outside the USA- I even had to change the form to include new fields for identifying different countries.  This has given me an idea for my next project… after the trailer is released, I might post more versions of the trailer subtitled in different languages to see how many views we get in those languages.  Perhaps this will help give us a better idea of our global markets much earlier in the distribution process.

I hope other independent filmmakers who are handling their own distribution can get some ideas from this experience- but of course I understand that not everyone has the benefit of a successful film such as “Who Killed the Electric Car?” to help garner interest and start the momentum.  (For the record, I’ve been involved in such low-to-the-ground, low-budget indie films that we had to borrow the camera to get them made, so I totally get it.)  But we’re still waiting for our 10,000th fan nearly 2 weeks after announcing our trailer premiere on Facebook, so nothing is guaranteed in the realm of film promotion and distribution.  Will we get there soon or even at all?  Will enough people request the film on our site to have ANY theatrical screenings at all?  We’ll find out soon…

by Michelle Kaffko