Programs Tue 3.17.2015

Indie Filmmakers Explain How to Create an Innovative Marketing Strategy

Filmmakers and husband-and-wife team Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly like to follow an unconventional path—even for independent artists. After self-distributing their first feature, documentary The Way We Get By, they set out to make a narrative feature, despite naysayers telling them it would be impossible for them to make doc-to-scripted transition. They spoke at the Film Independent Forum last fall to share their unusual marketing strategy for their coming-of-age drama Beneath the Harvest Sky.

The couple’s approach, from the very beginning, was to make their project as inexpensive—and therefore as low-risk—as possible for themselves and their investors. “Even if you can find somebody to give you more money, it’s not necessarily the best decision,” Pullapilly said. “We didn’t want to take on the risk [of investors’ money] and then fail,” Gaudet added. “But what if we took something low-risk and then tried to knock it out of the ballpark?” They determined their best- and worst-case scenarios from the start, and tried to get their budget into a very low range where, based on what they learned with The Way We Get By, they knew absolutely that their investors would be able to reach their target returns.

The filmmakers’ determination to meet their investors’ goals is part of one of their most important rules: to make every relationship beneficial to both parties. “Everybody that we worked with on [both of our films], we can go back to and feel good about going back to them,” Pullapilly said. Gaudet agreed: “We don’t want people to feel that it’s not a win-win.”

As independent artists with an extremely conservative budget, they relied heavily on their connections and in-kind contributions; Pullapilly estimated their in-kind budget to be about five times their monetary budget. Having made their first film in Maine, they had great support from the community there, and for that reason they decided to set their script in rural Maine. “The story was built from the location,” Gaudet said. “It wasn’t something where we just wrote a script and said ‘what are the places with the best tax incentives?’”

The filmmakers reached out to the Harvard Business School to consult them about entertainment marketing. “They had never been approached by independent filmmakers before,” Pullapilly said. “We said, ‘hey, you do this stuff for the studios, why don’t you help independent filmmakers?” The students agreed to help—after the filmmakers explained how the collaboration would be a win-win, of course—and what they found in their research was that distributors will often pay either too much up front or too much on P&A for an indie, and then they end up making no profit from it, which makes them reluctant to acquire independent films in the future. The team determined that the best way to put the film in the way of a mutually beneficial distribution deal would be to reduce P&A cost from the start. But how to do that?

Over the course of their research in northern Maine, Gaudet and Pullapilly developed a relationship with a family who owned a potato farm—blue potatoes, to be specific. In fact, the farm provided the potatoes for TERRA blue potato chips, which are, coincidentally, the official snack of JetBlue airlines. Gaudet and Pullapilly reached out to TERRA to see if they were interested in joining forces. TERRA’s marketing director also happened to be a Harvard Business School graduate—and an independent film fan. The filmmakers struck a marketing deal with the company, and soon JetBlue travelers were eating blue potato chips out of Beneath the Harvest Sky bags.

“They felt like when the movie came out, it would be their opportunity to tell the story behind the farm-to-table thing they were doing with this farm family in Maine,” Gaudet said. “They could approach media outlets and tell their story, and the peg that gets people interested is this movie that’s being released.”

Gaudet and Pullapilly also emphasized the importance of really knowing what your film is worth; they recalled the last time they were at the Forum, and an indie producer made the analogy of building a house: “You wouldn’t go to a neighborhood where every home was worth half a million dollars, build a $5 million home and then turn around and think you’re going to sell it in that neighborhood,” Gaudet said. “There’s not a market for it. You have to go in and build a $500,000 home.”

Gaudet and Pullapilly’s strict rules of being realistic about their film’s worth, making all relationships mutually beneficial and keeping their film as low-cost and low-risk as possible eventually resulted in a Toronto premiere (followed by a wonderful critical reception) and a distribution deal with Tribeca, the details of which they weren’t allowed to tell us. “Basically, no distributor will ever replicate this deal,” Pullapilly admitted. “It’s pretty awesome.” Sounds like a win-win to us.

Mary Sollosi / Film Independent Blogger