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):
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.