Indie films short on publicity often die quickly. Roger Ebert attempts to explain why.

I stumbled across this fascinating dialogue between Roger Ebert and indie director Tom DiCillo, whose film Delirious screened in several major festivals, and received critical acclaim, but closed after playing a month in New York, a week in LA, and a one-theater run in Chicago and perhaps a couple other places, grossing $200,000 nationwide. Dismayed and apparentlyDELIRIOUS Screengrab somewhat disillusioned by the lack of theatrical success, DiCillo asks Ebert the questions indie filmmakers everywhere probably ask every day: Why? Why didn’t my film find legs, find an audience, find a way to earn back what it cost to make?  Tough questions to answer. 

Ebert’s responses provide important insight into the struggle for survival of small, quirky independent films amidst the titans of tentpole studio films.  Two concepts he presented especially caught my attention:

Good reviews work best for a visible opening

The key word here is “visible”.  People need to know the movie exists.  That translates to publicity, promotion and advertising.  As Ebert, points out:

“When moviegoers have never seen an ad for a movie and it isn’t playing in their city, state or region of the nation, what difference do reviews make?”

There was almost zero advertising for the film. I can only guess there wasn’t a lot of money to spend on ads.  That makes it very hard to compete for the attention of movie-goers who are bombarded with advertising and marketing campaigns of gargantuan proportions, such as the $53.5 million marketing budget for Cars. 

Film Festivals could be a revenue stream for indie films

Because the small indies don’t get the big opening box office weekends, they tend to find their audiences at film festivals.  Ebert says:

… you didn’t make “Delirious” to sell tickets for festivals. I frankly think it’s time for festivals to give their entries a cut of the box office.

I’m intrigued by the idea of indie films making money on the festival circuit. There are certainly enough festivals with large attendance to consider that a viable financial model.  I’m not sure how many festivals would enthusastically embrace that idea, however.

In light of the film’s next-to-nothing ad campaign, publicity did exist.  It did get some glowing reviews by major press.  The filmmakers did make a publicity effort on the Interweb, with the website, a podcast, the filmmaker’s blog, and a MySpace page. All of these have the potential to be powerful tools in spreading the word and generating buzz about a film. Of course, the key is how they’re executed, integrated, timed, etc.

I’m going to ask the master of movie marketing analysis, Chris Thilk to consider analyzing the effectiveness of the marketing campaign for Delirious.  It may be too late to help DiCillo’s latest film, but perhaps not for his next project, as well as that of other independent filmmakers.

I’ll let you know what Chris says.


2 Responses to Indie films short on publicity often die quickly. Roger Ebert attempts to explain why.

  1. Tom DiCillo says:

    Hey Jane,
    I caught your response to Ebert’s reply to my questions. Thanks for your interest and support. I think Roger did an amazing thing by answering the questions as openly and clearly as he did.
    You are right, very very little was spent by the distributor on advertising. If you want the blow by blow description you can read some of the last few blogs I posted at
    I’m telling you right now; the stuf that’s in there that is exaggerated is clearly satire. But the stuff that is real is absolutely real and is so infuriating it seemed satire was the only way I could deal with it. As a result the distributor has cut off ALL communication with me. Truth hurts I guess.
    I’m curious to hear what your film specialist associate has to offer. I added your link to my blog roll because I was so interested in your response.

    Tom DiCillo

  2. Jane says:

    Tom, thanks for stopping by. I agree with you, Ebert did an excellent job of answering your questions.

    We’ll see if Chris will be willing to do the marketing analysis on Delirious. He’ll probably want to kill me for publicly putting him on the spot, but honestly, I don’t know of anyone else who has a sharper sense and keener eye for what works in marketing movies.


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