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Written by Written by Mike Watt   
Jan 22, 2005 at 02:00 AM
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[Note: this article was originally contracted for a by-gone publication called SCAN, published by Draculina Publications. It has been slightly updated for today's modern audience. The details might be out-dated, but much of the advice is still valid.]

Let's dispense with the clever opening and get right down to it, shall we? You're making movies you want people to see, right? Why wait until it's finished to start promoting it? Big studios don't do that, why should you? Promote your movie from the very start and bring viewers and investors to you.

Pre-promotion generally starts with a script, but, honestly, it doesn't have to. As a screenwriter, I desperately hate to admit this, but if you have a clear - or even not so clear - idea of what your next movie is going to be about, the pre-promotion can still work for you. Pre-promotion is also a good way of getting your talent and crew excited about a project while you're still waiting for the funds to get started.

The idea behind pre-promotion is this: Making movies is about exploitation of a marketable element. I'll explain for the few of you reading this hungover. Story aside, the most important aspect of any movie is that one thing that really grabs an audience. Blood and guts, naked women, gangsters on the run, clever MTV pseudo-dialogue, whatever. These elements are audience-specific, however, and that brings us to the altruism: know your audience. You wouldn't sell your latest opus I EAT YOUR COLON to the weepers who flocked to see STEPMOM, would you? Neither would you promote STEPMOM to die-hard gore hounds.

Let's start with some examples. My partners and I produced a low-budget, independent horror/comedy entitled THE RESURRECTION GAME. The original title was NECROMANIAC, and the title alone told us who our audience would most likely be. It's a safe bet that the Merchant/Ivory crowd is going to be rather ambivalent. However, the script also contains elements of interest to other groups, such as the die-hard X-FILES fans, fans of superhero comic books, science fiction fans. But we knew and understood from the start that the bulk of the people who would pay to view our masterpiece would be gorehounds and horror fans. Viola: our target audience.

However, when we first began, we had a finished script, and a few props that we knew would figure into the plot. We had no money, no actors cast or even considered at that point. We knew that in order to attract investors, we'd better have something to show, and we'd better start right away, because it was going to take at least a year to shoot the darned thing, as we planned to shoot 16mm color film, rather than high-quality video. We had to do something to generate word-of-mouth that is so critical to a low-budget movie event.

THE RESURRECTION GAME takes place in the near future. The dead have returned to life, and, at the start of the movie, have been shambling around for about four years. People have gotten used to seeing zombies, workshops have been held to teach people how to avoid them. Hollywood has already capitalized on the phenomena, dubbed "The Infestation", by creating a nationally renowned late-night talk show starring an unctuous zombie puppet named "Necro-Phil". The plot of the story involves a former police detective who is hired to uncover the source of the zombie Infestation and try to stop it. During this investigation, he uncovers a conspiracy, and that the zombies are really the least of the problems.

There, that's the story in a nutshell. At the point we started, however, we didn't yet have an actor cast as the hero. What we did have, however, were ourselves. My partners, Amy Lynn Best and Bill Homan, had roles as a pair of larger-than-life, bickering zombie exterminators. They were the comic relief in the film; a pair of flashy, comic-book anti-heroes out to make a buck. We had a hunch the exterminators, Sister Bliss and Simon MacForman, would be the break-out characters, the ones that would stick in the minds of the viewers, the ones that the audience would root for, even over the hero at a few points, because they were truly great, fun characters.

We decided to use that.

Before we had shot a single frame of 16mm, Amy, Bill and I had gone to work on our pre-promotion. We shot several rolls of 35mm still film in our back yard, using a few phony headstones as props and just loading the pair up with weapons. Sister Bliss was outfitted with a pair of real sai and a crossbow, Simon had a mock-up .45 automatic and a samurai sword. Lighting them hard with some photoflood bulbs, we began to establish the characters as a pair of badasses, but there was an air of playfulness about them that really went along with the tone of the script.

Pictures in hand, we went to work again.

We scanned the best of the promotional pictures, retouched the best of them in a free version of PaintShop, evening out flaws in the photography. Let's hear it for the digital age! A little bit of legwork around the World Wide Web allowed us to discover free webspace, and at the time we chose GeoCities to serve as our home because they offered the biggest webspace: 11 megabytes (which should prove how long ago this was). After a few weeks, we established our own homepage: The Necro-Files. And this was our original address: http://www.geocities.com/hollywood/theater/9371/ index.html

In addition, a discovery at an office supply store yielded a small sleeve of ink-jet t-shirt transfers. Using your own printer, you can print pictures onto these transfers and iron them onto t-shirts. The results aren't startling, but for $10 you can't complain.

We printed up fliers advertising the web site, and began wearing the t-shirts around to various horror and comic book conventions. An attempt to sell the shirts yielded us no money, but giving them away helped us better. There are folks in such far away places as Michigan and Brazil who are wearing the faces of Sr. Bliss and Simon MacForman, eagerly awaiting news of their big-screen arrival.

We promoted the web site on the World Wide Web. The site was designed to bring updates of the film, for filmmakers by filmmakers, offering up our shooting log, detailing successes and failures of the production as we went along. Through the site we received a few offers to help, one being a composer who was eager to try his hand at scoring soundtracks.

Through surfing and good fortune, I was able to locate a few celebrities and ask them, very, very politely, to take a look at the sight and offer their opinions. A few very nice and wonderful people took time out of their busy lives to check out our lowly site. Cult movie legend Bruce Campbell stopped by, as did PULP FICTION producer Roger Avary, and both were quite supportive. And B-movie queen Debbie Rochon had some very helpful hints, actually becoming a very good friend of ours since our initial contact in cyberspace, introducing us around to many big players in the low-budget realm.

Pre-promotion demands an obsessive personality. You have to work with what you have. If you've already begun production, that's great, but if you want your movie to be seen, you have to start spreading the word well before you've completed - especially if you know you'll be seeking finishing funds. Hold onto your outtakes and document every aspect of your production, either in stills or behind-the-scenes video. By the time we began shooting, we had an enormous photo album filled to overflowing with production stills and promotional photos. This scrapbook became one of our greatest assets, and we leave it lying around whenever anyone comes over. (Life is weird; I just had a friend and co-worker come into about ten grand overnight. The photo album hooked him into becoming an investor.)

Pre-promotion also demands creativity. I mentioned before that, according to our script, Hollywood capitalizes on the zombie infestation by creating a late-night talk show featuring a zombie puppet, Necro-Phil. Phil serves the film as a background detail, and will be seen playing on various monitors during the course of the film. But Phil is also our spokesperson.

Before Necro-Phil was complete, the idea of the zombie talk show host sounded like a very natural thing to me, with Hollywood jumping on the undead bandwagon, and into the script he went. Then a revelation: use Phil to promote the film. Not just in photos, but to actually promote it. The Muppets do this all the time, using puppets to get people sucked into what they're trying to sell. Corporations such as IBM have commissioned the Muppets to create instructional training videos for their executives, and the Muppets have even explained the stock market for brokerage firms. People respond well to the puppets, and are drawn into what the lovable lumps of foam are teaching.

We could do that.

Phil has been at the head of every behind-the-scenes video we've put together, and will be at the head of our Investor's Video, which will be unveiled at our backer's party in July. Using Phil on video to explain what we're doing, how we're doing it, and how much money we'll actually need, will be, psychologically, more effective that the three of us standing in front of a room full of potential investors going, "Uh, gee, we need some cash." If we did that, people would bolt for the door. But Phil would draw them in naturally, and the investors would be more likely to feel that they were part of the production, rather than just forking over the dough.

My last bit of advice is to carry a packet of photographs around with you wherever you go. Just a half dozen of your best stuff, any more than that would make people feel like you were trying to sell them a copy of The Watchtower. Keeping pictures with us came in handy on more than one occasion. At a business seminar at Carnegie Mellon University, we met Steve Whitmire, who currently performs Kermit the Frog in movies and television. We showed him a few snaps of Necro-Phil and he not only loved them, but gave us a few puppeteering tips, design tips, and his office address in New York, so we could send him stuff as we finished. (I realize that our Special Thanks section of the film is going to be mucho bizarre: Thanks to Bruce Campbell, Debbie Rochon, Steve Whitmire...)

So that's really the end of my shpiel. Be creative, thorough, and prepared. Utilize what you have and get the word out that, "Hey, we're making a movie here", and people will come out of the woodwork to help you. It keeps them watching for you, often for as long as it takes, as long as you keep them updated. But don't wait until the film is in the can before you start talking about it.

Visit the new home site of THE RESURRECTION GAME at www.happycloudpictures.com
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