Breaking into the film distribution business is no mean feat, especially if the distributor is a smaller company which lacks the deep pockets of a Disney or Dreamworks. But with a lot of imagination and spirit, a distributor can strike gold – especially if the gold mining takes place on the Internet.
For its first release, Matson Pictures brought the British biopic It’s All Gone Pete Tong to the American market. The film a comic mockumentary focusing on Frankie Wilde, a faux-legendary coke-fueled DJ on the European club scene who keeps at his craft despite going deaf. World-famous DJs including Pete Tong, Carl Cox, Lol Hammond and Paul van Dyk appear in the film as well.
To connect the film with its potential American audience, start-up distributor Matson Films put a heavy emphasis on Net marketing. It seems like every film has some degree of Net presence, but few have pursued the Net with such tenacity as the U.S. release of “It’s All Gone Pete Tong.” For aspiring distributors or filmmakers seeking to self-distribute their work, the Matson experience is more than required reading.
Film Threat caught up with Albert Lai, partner and CFO at Matson Films, in his New York office to talk about taking “It’s All Gone Pete Tong” to the Net.
“It’s All Gone Pete Tong” the first film for Matson Films, and how did it come about?
We saw the film after it screened at the 2004 Toronto Film Festival, where it received the City Award. After screening it again in New York City, we realized the potential of the film (which eventually received Best Picture and Best Actor at the US Comedy Arts Festival and the Grand Jury and Audience Award at the Gen Art Film Festival) and also the challenges of marketing and distributing the film.
In a nutshell, the film is a UK production by Canadian director Michael Dowse set in Ibiza about a DJ who loses his hearing. It’s easy to try to classify the film as a mockumentary or a film about the disabled or a foreign film or a music film, but really we thought of it as a simple story of a man who rediscovers who he really is and what he truly values, with a romantic twist thrown in for good measure. The music and the deafness are used to enrich the fabric of the storytelling. With that in mind, we approached the producers with a marketing strategy that focused on expanding the story beyond the 90 minutes of the film. We wanted to shoot new content, use unused footage, and treat the marketing activities as a storytelling endeavor, whether it was traditional (e.g., TV spots, radio spots, print) or non traditional (e.g., Internet, wild posting, post cards, promotional parties).
However, this strategy required the producers, director, and key cast members to agree to participate and to support us. It was only after our discussions with these individuals that we realized all of us had the same belief in how to bring this film to audiences, especially the need to tailor the marketing for U.S. audiences. About three weeks after we had first viewed the film, the deal was signed on a menu at Pravda in SoHo.
Many filmmakers still talk about “The Blair Witch Project” as the groundbreaking Net-based marketing campaign. But that was back in 1999. How come there have not been other Net-based film marketing campaigns of equivalent imagination (let alone results) since Blair Witch?
“The Blair Witch Project” came at a very unique time. The Internet boom was occurring and many people were just beginning to use the Internet not just for email but also for social and leisure activities. The film itself would not have been as interesting without the possibility that it was rooted in some element of truth. The Internet became an effective medium for propagating misinformation about the film in order to build a groundswell of interest. The challenge since then is that the industry tends to use “tried-and-true” models and has to deal with exhibitors and producers who also have fairly standard approaches for marketing and distribution. It’s fairly rare to find a situation where all parties involved are willing to take a financial and marketing risk to use the Internet as a core mechanism for marketing.
We looked at all the Internet based sites for our favorite films over the past five years and realized that they are practically all the same design, layout, and set of features. Most of these marketing campaigns use the Internet for a very defined set of informative needs: synopsis, trailer, cast, crew, and theater locations. Independent films tend to try more unique approaches, but it remains difficult to convince people to spend dollars for extensive Internet marketing (beyond banner advertisements) when people more easily understand and accept the traditional media channels (television, radio, and print). From a logistics point of view, television, radio, and print are guaranteed channels of communication.
You can assume that a person in Kent, Ohio will view the same 30 second spot as the person in Queens, New York, though one might be watching it on a 42” plasma while the other is watching it on a 27” tube. With the Internet, there are worries about operating systems, browsers, connection speeds, monitor sizes, audio capabilities, etc. that can render an experience completely different for one viewer to the next, and that’s a major risk.
What was the specific strategy designed to spread the word on “It’s All Gone Pete Tong” across the Net? And how did you come up with this particular strategy?
From day one we realized that the context of the film, a DJ who lives and works in Ibiza, was a fairly foreign concept to people in the U.S. Even though dance music grew out of the U.S. (New York, Chicago, San Francisco) dance and rave really exploded in the UK, Europe, and elsewhere. We needed to educate the audience so that they could, at least on a base level, relate to Frankie Wilde, since he is such an unlikable character.
Given the film covers a short period of Frankie’s life, we felt it was necessary to provide context not just for Frankie, but for Max Haggar his agent, Jack Stoddart and the record label, his Austrian bandmates Ladderhause, etc. We flew in the director and a number of the key cast members and filmed new content over a period of four days in New York City. This wasn’t PR material; this was original content to help tell the story of Frankie Wilde beyond the film. No one we worked with had ever heard of doing this. We thought it would only give the viewer a better appreciation for the film before and after watching it in the theater. All this content was digitized and used in the Websites that centered on the film and characters. We closely integrated the Internet campaign with promotional events and parties we had in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. We had different posters and postcards that connected with each character. From an Internet perspective, we had people watch the film, and if they were excited, they helped us “spread the good word” on Internet sites.
We approached the Night Agency in New York (www.nightagency.com) to help ignite this push of reaching out to dozens upon dozens of Internet sites and feed the grassroots movement and build awareness and curiosity about the characters and the film. Before Matson Films, Richard and I were partners at Transmission Films, an online distributor of films. We used P2P networks as a distribution mechanism and are still proponents of using P2P as a means to legally disseminate material. Instead of fearing P2P and piracy, we encouraged people to share materials from the film and actively shared clips, Frankie Wilde’s music, and even had InternetDJ show the first seven minutes of the film online.
There are a seemingly endless number of film review sites on the Net. From a marketer’s viewpoint, which ones are the most important to hit?
From a high level perspective, it’s unwise to ignore any film review sites. It’s often seen negatively to “hold back” a film, whether it’s from online or traditional reviewers. Positive reviews provide publicity and marketing opportunities, obviously, but even negative reviews help us understand what about the film resonates with viewers and whether the marketing should be repositioned. The difficult aspect is traditional advertising. Most people still identify with the traditional media brands: the NY Times, the LA Times, Entertainment Weekly, USA Today, Chicago Sun-Times. While the indie community looks to Ain’t It Cool News and Film Threat as the top review sites, the challenge for the distributor is how to present that information to the general public that doesn’t read online reviews.
Can a filmmaker effective do Net marketing by himself? Or is it beneficial to bring in a professional marketer to create and coordinate the Net push?
It’s a challenge to do Net marketing by yourself. The most effective technique is to think about the overall marketing strategy and decide how Internet marketing can be an effective means to communicate the message. I’m sure there are instances where the Internet may not be appropriate. We worked with a number of key partners, including the Night Agency and RTMooreDesign, but the most critical factors were support from the producers, director, and talent and integrating the Internet marketing into our other marketing activities.
How has your Net marketing for “It’s All Gone Pete Tong” affected the film’s box office and industry buzz?
Our release in New York last April was very strong and we are releasing nationwide on Friday May 13. The Internet has been crucial to generating buzz about the film to both industry and viewers. The most critical factor about the Internet campaign is that it can be modified relatively quickly and near real-time statistics about usage can be obtained to help us understand awareness and what messages are working. Of course, the Internet as a repository for viewers’ reactions is the ultimate test of the film. For better or for worse, the Internet marketing results in dialogue about the film, and as they say, there is no such thing as bad press.