Find Your Niche: Lessons From A Widescreen Film Festival

Years ago, I represented something called “The Widescreen Film Festival” at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center in Long Beach, Calif. When the organizers approached me about handling the publicity, my first thought was, “Isn’t this a little niche-oriented?” How many people could there possibly be who were eager to see films in 70mm? Could we really get celebrities and industry-ites to come speak on panels? Would the media have any interest in covering it? I was skeptical to say the least. And I was wrong. 

While it took a few years to build momentum, the festival became a hit in its own right and went on for many successful years. And I learned two things in the process: 1) You can successfully market a niche event if you use the right tools. 2) Marketing a mainstream event sometimes benefits from finding a niche approach.

Today there are literally thousands of film festivals in this country alone (and let’s not even start on Cannes, Toronto, Venice, Berlin, Dubai…). These range from mega-festivals like Sundance, Tribeca, Telluride, and SXSW, to off-the-charts quirky festivals like those featured in a recent New York Times article—including the Los Angeles Feline Film Festival and Blobfest in Phoenixville, Pa., specializing in monster movies.



Many of the festivals have a lot in common, screening “mainstream” films, running Q&As with the filmmakers, giving awards. So how do you tell the difference between, say, the Palm Springs International Film Festival, the Nashville Film Festival, and the Nantucket Film Festival? One way festival organizers and marketers differentiate themselves is to find the niche angle. 

If you’re the Napa Valley Film Festival (Nov. 12-16 in Napa, Yountville, St. Helena, and Calistoga), you are “the ultimate celebration of new film, food and wine, offering film panels, culinary demonstrations, wine-tasting pavilions, celebrity tributes, awards, and winemaker dinners.

If you’re the Heartland Film Festival (Oct. 16-25 in Indianapolis), you offer a deeper experience: “The films we select and exhibit—whether they inspire and uplift, educate and inform, or have the ability to shift audiences’ perspectives on the world—all have one thing in common: they are entertaining films that do more than just entertain.”

And if you’re the Sarasota (Fla.) Film Festival (April 10-19, 2015), you combine “the best in cinema” with “local and kid-friendly programs that showcase our idyllic Gulf Coast community”— earning praise from Variety for its “intensely loyal, slightly older-skewing audience who turn out in numbers…” 

When you already have a niche festival (or niche product of any kind), the challenge is almost the opposite: How do you attract attention outside the limited scope of your niche audience? Here are some tips I learned while handling the Widescreen Film Festival (WSFF):

  • First, go local: Invite city leaders to moderate panels. Ask community groups to host specific special events. Get a neighborhood volunteer corps to lend a hand with the direct mail campaign. By involving various local entities, you immediately broaden your audience base while endearing yourself to the community. We were also fortunate that the WSFF was based on a college campus, giving us a built-in audience of students and faculty—as well as complementary marketing via the university.
  • Then, find that common denominator: We might have been projecting everything in 70mm at the Widescreen Film Festival, but we were still showing classic movies with appeal to everyone. We had great love stories, scary horror flicks, exciting adventures—classics in every genre for every taste, and we made sure to market the Festival in that way. Look for the common denominator in your event and be sure to highlight it in your message points, too.
  • Demonstrate the relevance of your niche: The media in particular will be looking for reasons to cover your event over the dozens of others they are being pitched. For the WSFF, we always provided reporters with a fact sheet containing important figures on how many people had attended the festival in previous years; how much money the festival raised; how many 70mm films existed; and the significance of 70mm in the overall history of film to show the importance of the event in the big scheme of things.
  • Embrace your niche-ness: Your passion for your niche product can rub off on a mainstream audience. In the case of the Widescreen Film Festival, we emphasized the spectacular viewing experience audiences get with a 70mm film. This made many regular movie-goers curious and as a result they bought tickets and became fans of 70mm! 

You know that saying, the personal is universal? That’s the key to making a niche event a big-picture success. But sometimes it’s just as important to make the universal personal.

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