Interview: Ira Deutchman on Honeydripper and indie film marketing

Danny Glover in Honeydripper On December 18th, Ira Deutchman, CEO of Emerging Pictures, spoke with me about partnering with Writer/Director John Sayles and Producer Maggie Renzi on the marketing efforts for their latest independent film Honeydripper, opening today in New York and Los Angeles.

Film Publicity Help: Maggie spoke about Emerging Pictures as one of many marketing team partners. Is this a departure from the norm?

Ira Deutchman: Yes and no. When we get involved in distributing a movie, it’s always in partnership with the filmmakers. The only difference in this case is that because the marketing plan was more ambitious than anything Emerging has handled before, and because we had identified many different target audiences that we wanted to go after, it made sense for us to pull together a larger team of people that brought various skills to the table. Actually, I found myself one day describing this to somebody, likening it to when you put together a crew for the production of a movie. We’re all used to the idea that crews are put together on an ad hoc basis to create a movie and that the people leading the charge are essentially casting people, whether it be the cinematographer, the art director, or whomever, to do the best job possible where you need them to be, and that’s the model we used for distribution of this film, which I think is a little bit of a change from the way these things are normally done. In effect, we have different groups of people who are focusing on different parts of our target audience and being brought together as a team.

FPH: Do you see this as a new system for how indie films can be successfully marketed and distributed?

ID: I think it’s a more ambitious version of something that’s been going on for a while, because there’s been general dissatisfaction with the traditional distribution model among independent filmmakers for quite some time. I do think there are other examples of movies that have done somewhat similar things, but the difference is that the economics of these tiny little movies that manage to put together a small crew of people who go out there and basically bang their heads against the wall trying to get audiences for their films and have some sort of modest success, that model, while it gives clues to what’s possible, just doesn’t work for a film like Honeydripper, because frankly, the film is more expensive and the potential audience much larger.

So, the big difference between us and these other smaller initiatives that have been done like this has really just been one of scale. In order for Honedyripper to be a success, we really have to pull an audience in and it won’t be enough to just do a week or two in a specialty theater and hope for the best. That’s a big difference. There’s more money involved, and as a result a larger team involved getting it to its audience.

FPH: Maggie spoke about the commitment on everyone’s part to keep the film in theaters, no matter how it does on opening weekend. What are some of the strategies planned to keep building interest and attract audiences from the opening weekend to the nationwide opening, which occurs a month later?

ID: First of all, we’re saving a lot of our resource to make sure we don’t run out of money, just blowing it all on the opening weekend, and that’s a little bit contrary to common wisdom now. Most people take all their resources and throw it into the opening weekend with the feeling that if they don’t open well, it’s all over anyway so they might as well just go for it. Our sense is that because we have this philosophical commitment to keep the film alive, that we’ll have to have the resource to be able to do it, so we’re not spending every cent that we have on that opening weekend. We’re holding back a good deal of it.

The second part of it is that we’re doing this in concentric circles, where the first set of openings is about the opinion makers, the people who we know, if we get them on our side, are going to help us get to the larger audience so that everything is planned in waves like that. As an example, we’re opening in one theater initially in New York, which is geared specifically toward the traditional John Sayles audience and toward the New York opinion makers who really matter. The idea is that 2 or 3 weeks later we’ll start opening in way more theaters in the New York area and then supporting it with a different kind of media to get a more general audience interested in it. So we’re taking that approach wherever we open, it is concentric circles around the audiences that we know are going to embrace the movie and then we’re trying to deputize them to become in effect, part of the marketing team in getting the word out to a more general audience.

FPH: In terms of “deputizing the audience”, Maggie voiced a certain level of disappointment with one of the programs for doing that, specifically, the lack of response from the HBCUs to the marketing program contest.  Why do you think that didn’t work out as hoped?

ID: I think it’s premature to categorize it as a success or failure at this point because we’re in the middle of the process. I think the disappointment Maggie had was about the number of HBCUs who decided to participate. We had hoped we would get dozens, if not more, schools involved with this little competition that we’re having and as it turns out, initially, Clark Atlanta was the only one interested in doing it, but little by little we’ve been adding additional schools and now Florida A&M is involved and Lemoyne Owen College is involved and we’re talking to Alabama State about possibly jumping on and because the lectures are already taped, and therefore available, it’s still possible that schools could come aboard. 

I can sense that the students who are participating are really getting something out of it. The big question is what we’ll get out of it, because obviously what we’re hoping is that they’ll help market the film locally to their local audience. If there was punctuation point on the end of this, it would be a question mark.

FPH: You’re a professor [at Columbia University]. If you’ve talked to any of the schools, or had to guess, what do you think are the reasons for their reluctance to getting involved?

ID: That’s a good way of phrasing it, because I do have experience in the academic world and I can tell you that getting anything out of the ordinary into the curriculum is definitely a challenge. So I have to really admire the folks at Clark Atlanta for leaping into the void and setting the tone for everybody else, because it actually made it easier for us to start talking to the other schools about it. I have to say that one of the reasons Clark Atlanta had an easier time jumping into it than other schools is because it’s one of the few HBCU programs that has a business school component.

We weren’t fully cognizant, when we entered the project, that the people who would embrace something entrepreneurial like this would be the business schools. And that’s turned out to be the case. At Florida A&M we’re dealing with the business department as well. I think Maggie may have originally thought we’d be able to get the Arts Departments involved, people who would be interested in the movie just because they’re interested in the movie. But in point of fact the people who really want to get involved in marketing the movie are much more likely to be people studying business, because the sort of thing we’re asking them to do fits into their curriculum much more. So now we’re focusing our energies on bringing additional schools on that have business programs.

FPH: Is this the first time Emerging Pictures has worked with a university component when marketing a film?

ID: Not really. On a smaller scale we’ve done other things on a market by market basis. It’s actually very much a part of the traditional marketing of an art film to have universities get involved on some level, even it’s just as simple as having the filmmaker screen the movie and doing Q&A’s in order to get word of mouth going, or dealing with the university press. The entire course we’re giving at the HBCU’s is actually based on a course I give at Columbia. I was teaching this particular course for years and years and every time I taught it, I had a film that I screened for the class and asked them to write marketing plans for it. In many cases they were films that I would eventually end up working on and where I learned a lot from the students in terms of ideas for actually marketing the film but more importantly, learned a lot about the ways people approached the movie and the way our marketing was going to have to communicate with that age group in order to get them interested in seeing the film.

FPH:  But what about this particular contest you’re running?

ID: This particular variation we’ve never done before.

FPH: Do you anticipate continuing to do this with other films?

ID: It’s possible. We’re learning through the process what works and what doesn’t work. I can tell you the Clark Atlanta people are really fond of the idea and that they’re already talking as if we’re going to continue doing this with them semester after semester, which frankly, I have no idea whether that will work out or not. 

FPH: Let’s talk for a moment about alternative distribution models, like releasing films on iTunes, and MySpace.  Why do you think it’s so important that this particular film debut in theaters, and not through some other model, like day-and-date?

ID: There are two very practical reasons for that. One of them is that it’s what the filmmakers want [laughs]. That’s going to be an on-going factor in these things, until it becomes such a silly thing to do if the models change so much that theatrical just won’t be working anymore, then perhaps they’ll reconsider. But most filmmakers want to see their film theatrically released first.

And in terms of perhaps the more practical side, it still is the key to certain kinds of press that create real value for you in the ancillary markets. For whatever reason, the media continue to treat theatrical movies with a great deal more respect than anything that goes directly to video or day-and-date or any of the other models. Sometimes you can get them to treat something that’s day-and-date more like a novelty situation where you might be able to get some press coverage out of the novelty itself, but that’s not the kind of press coverage that really accrues to the benefit of the film. If you want to have that big review on the front page of the New York Times, or if you want to have an arts and leisure piece written about you or if you want NPR to cover you, you really have to premiere in theaters. And as long as that’s true, then the theatrical loss-leader will remain.

FPH: One of your main target audiences is also the main target audience for The Great Debaters, which opens just a couple days before Honeydripper. How will you compete with Oprah Winfrey and Denzel Washington?

ID: Well, we’re not going to, we’re hoping they’re going to help us eventually embrace the movie, remembering that on the 28th, we’re only opening in single theaters in New York and LA, and that the broader release that’s aimed more towards the African-American audience is actually not going to happen until three weeks later and then an even broader release will happen two weeks after that. By then, hopefully the momentum of people having a good experience at the movies with The Great Debater, assuming, of course that’s the case, will make them hungry to see more movies that are geared toward that audience and hopefully we’ll be there to reap the rewards.   

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