Marketing Documentaries Today: Two Radically Different Takes On A Reel Challenge

by , Mar 21, 2013, 5:57 AM
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Can documentary filmmakers rely on their film’s subject matter to be its main marketing machine? That’s the plan for Tamar Halpern and Christopher Quilty, co-directors and co-producers of “Llyn Foulkes: One Man Band,” a feature-length documentary about “an artist battling his own demons as well as the perceived demons of the art world.” 

Screening in conjunction with the show “Llyn Foulkes” (March–May 2013 at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, June–September 2013 at The New Museum in New York, then to the Museum Kurhaus in Kleve, Germany), this feature film is about painter and musician Llyn Foulkes’ 50-year career. 

During the seven years chronicled in the film, Foulkes creates, destroys, and recreates a pair of large-scale, three-dimensional paintings, one of which cost him his marriage, all while trying to keep a toehold in the art market. (Halpern and Quilty made a previous film about Foulkes, “Llyn Foulkes Lost Frontier,” about his three-dimensional masterpiece called “The Lost Frontier.” Museums at academic institutions sell the film and those proceeds helped fund the making of this new film, “One Man Band.”)

Commentary from Dennis Hopper and George Herms reveal that Foulkes was kicked out of the famed Ferus Gallery in 1962, setting the tone for the next 50 years of his uncompromising, up-and-down career. The film ends as he is at last rediscovered by the international art world at age 77. With music written and performed by Llyn Foulkes on his one-man-band contraption, “The Machine,” the film is an intimate portrait of a controversial, talented, maddening, and fascinating artist. 

“‘Llyn Foulkes: One Man Band’ is compelling,” says Halpern, “in that it speaks both to artists and audiences interested in a good story about a person who stays true to himself, while being his own obstacle. It embraces the human condition - our hopes to follow a calling, to someday be recognized for our efforts, and our uniquely human ability to get in our own way. We hope his rediscovery as an artist will be enough marketing to get the word out about his intriguing career, personality and passion.”
With that in mind, the filmmakers have planned special screenings of the film around Foulkes’ three art shows at the Hammer, the New Museum, and the Clave Museum. They’ve also set up a website under his name, which is cross promoted at his personal website.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are Dan Carracino and Kevin Hanlon of Page 124 Productions, the producers behind the critically acclaimed documentary, “Bill W.,” about Bill Wilson, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. Like “Llyn Foulkes,” “Bill W.” is the first and only biography about a well-known individual who already has a potential existing audience—the 5 million members of Alcoholics Anonymous worldwide. 

“Our marketing actually began with the selection of our subject matter,” says Carracino. “We deliberately chose a topic that had not been covered before.”

“We also chose one with a built-in audience,” adds Hanlon. “A.A.’s members are passionate about their co-founder, Bill Wilson, and we knew that they would be as excited to see a documentary about his life as ‘Iron Man’ fans are to catch the next ‘Iron Man movie’.”

Also like “Llyn Foulkes,” “Bill W.” took years to make – a total of eight. But that’s where the similarities end. Believing an aggressive approach was the best way to go, Carracino and Hanlon invested in a strategic theatrical run of the documentary in 150 key markets around the country – a plan made possible by sell-out audiences in many of the markets where the film played. The plan seems to have paid off as the film was one of the top 15 grossing documentaries for 2012. It also garnered nearly 20,000 Facebook “Likes” and positive reviews in major U.S. newspapers like the Village Voice, the Los Angeles Times, and Variety, among many others. More importantly, it created excitement and anticipation for the DVD and digital releases of the film where the producers hope to recoup a good portion of the production costs. 

Since the DVD, iTunes and Cable On Demand platforms became available in December, sales have been steady. To sweeten the purchase, Page 124 is offering a variety of special packages, featuring premiums like calendars and posters that range from $14.99 – $29.99. In addition to the movie sales, the company will be selling limited editions of long-lost photos they acquired while making the film. A commemorative book is also in the works to be available in time for the 80th Anniversary of AA in 2015.

“‘Bill W.’ is an evergreen project,” explains Hanlon. “A.A. continues to gain new members every day, so the movie will always have a new audience awaiting it.”

“We also hope that our marketing efforts will help us break into the mainstream as Bill Wilson’s story makes for compelling drama,” says Carracino. “Here’s a hopeless drunk near death from his alcoholism who has a sudden transforming experience that leads him to forge a path that millions will follow. He was the driving force behind A.A. – its scribe, so to speak. He would not take credit for it, but he is the primary author of the 12-step recovery program. But he was human. His role as the co-founder of A.A. placed strains on his marriage. He experimented with LSD.” 

“At times there was real conflict between his own needs and private persona and the tremendous demands and celebrity that A.A. placed upon him,” adds Hanlon. “There’s a great irony that the founder of an anonymous society could not himself be anonymous within that society. He was a really exceptional man but he had his demons like all of us. So we think it’s a very moving story that anybody will enjoy watching.”

So which is the better strategy? Should documentary filmmakers, who are often on shoestring budgets, let its subject matter find its audience and therefore keep their costs down? Or should they invest in the same kinds of marketing campaigns used to promote blockbuster movies and hope to redeem their investment on the back-end? 

Only time will tell, so we’ve decided to make a documentary on the marketing of these two documentaries … just kidding! But do stay tuned, as we will check back with both filmmaker duos in a few months to see how they and their films are doing.

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