Department of Theatre and Film
"Something More 'Universal:'" Women, Marketing, and Independent Films
by Stephen Harrick
Stephen Harrick is a doctoral student in the Department of Theatre and Film at Bowling Green State University. His work is published in Theatre History Studies and Baylor Journal of Theatre and Performance. He has served as Assistant to the Editor of Theatre Annual: A Journal of Performance Studies and is past President of The Culture Club: Cultural Studies Scholars’ Association at BGSU.
In her essay on the difficulty that women have traditionally had working in the independent film industry, Christina Lane observes that “if a woman’s film fails, executives are more likely to attribute it to her gender than if the same fate befalls a male director” (205). Lane unpacks the many ways in which women have had trouble becoming successful in independent film, from a studio’s poor distribution to lack of marketing to an inability to find a distributor at festivals. Lane effectively spells out how women have had difficulty, yet in the process she does a disservice to not only women independent filmmakers, but independent filmmakers writ large when she suggests that independent films should market themselves based primarily on their differences from mainstream films. In this paper, I will examine the ways in which Lane analyzes women in the independent film industry. I will then offer a counter example that offers a different way of marketing film to niche markets that may prove useful for some films but are not ideal for every independent film. In so doing, I hope to evaluate the ways in which Lane undercuts her own argument by suggesting that independent filmmakers should always cater to specific audiences instead of striving to reach a more universal independent film audience and, subsequently, community.
Before I begin, however, I feel it necessary to proffer my use of an oft-contested term. The “independent” in independent film has caused many critics and scholars to question what exactly makes a film “independent.” For the purposes of this study, I will borrow film historian Geoff King’s ideas on the term. King has even posited three tenets that might make a film independent. “(1) their industrial location, (2) the kinds of formal/aesthetic strategies they adopt and (3) their relationship to the broader social, cultural, political or ideological landscape” (2). King’s list is brief yet specific, and offers a thorough lens for questioning independent film. Necessarily, economic factors play an important role in whether or not a film is independent, and although this is excluded from King’s list, he does look at economics elsewhere throughout his study. Lane considers both economic and cultural/ideological elements in her examination of marketing and independent film.
Lane devotes part of her essay to filmmaker Nancy Savoca. Savoca directed such films as True Love (1989), Dogfight (1991), and Household Saints (1993). However, after garnering critical acclaim and box office success with True Love, as well as acclaim for Dogfight and Household Saints, Savoca had difficulty getting her next film made. The 24-Hour Woman (1999) focused on a Latina protagonist who has trouble managing her professional life as television producer and her family life. Savoca tried to make the film, and eventually sought help from others on what she should do. Lane quotes a writer for the Boston Globe who asserts that Savoca’s friends and financial backers suggested that she change the ethnicity of the main character from Latina to “something more ‘universal’” (Graham, qtd. in Lane, 197). Savoca refused to do so and the film, which was eventually released, did poorly at the box office–Lane observes that the $2.5 million film grossed $109,000 at the theatres (198). Lane gives Savoca credit for not bending on an issue that seems to have been important to her in the making of the film and, at the very least, Savoca’s integrity as an artist. However, by focusing on the failure of the film and emphasizing the fact that Savoca’s friends and backers suggested the changes that Savoca ignored, Lane implies, if tacitly, that The 24-Hour Woman might have done better if the marketing had catered to a more specific audience. In the long run, Savoca’s career was injured by the failure of The 24-Hour Woman–since then, Savoca has made two features, neither of which received major distribution. Later in her essay, Lane examines Rose Troche’s film Go Fish. Lane points out that “Rose Troche’s Go Fish was one of the few films to be promoted via difference–on the basis of Troche’s identities as woman and lesbian–and it proved successful” (202, emphasis in original). Though she does not state this explicitly, Lane implies that The 24-Hour Woman would have benefited from a marketing campaign specifically for Latina(o) audiences, similar to how Go Fish was marketed to another marginalized audience–lesbians. I agree with Lane here when she writes that Go Fish is different from other films about lesbian characters (especially those made in mainstream Hollywood). But, I disagree that this kind of marketing campaign will always work for other films. We can never know if it would have forThe 24-Hour Woman, but Lane seems to think that it probably would have worked if those in charge of publicity had sought out a target audience–perhaps holding special screenings for Latina/o community groups or airing advertisements on Spanish language television and radio stations. Some works have attempted to market themselves based on the difference of their content. One example that was extremely successful is Daughters of the Dust (1991).
Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust “weaves together the stories of several generations of Gullah descendents who prepare to cross from Ibo Landing to the US mainland in the 1860s” (Lane 198). Therefore, the film revolves around African-American characters who have experienced and lived through slavery. The distributor of the film, a small company called Kino International, hired the public relations firm KJM 3 to handle the marketing of Daughters of the Dust (Dash 26). As Jesse Algeron Rhines notes, many “advance word-of-mouth screenings were held for influential Black people from diverse backgrounds. In addition, KJM 3 distributed leaflets describing the film at a variety of venues…likely to attract Blacks interested” (67). Clearly, targeted audience marketing served Daughters of the Dust well. By actively seeking out audiences who would probably have interest in the film but may not go to the movie theater to see independent films focusing on white characters, Dash and KJM 3 made Daughters of the Dust a hit. Dash has even pointed out that every showing of the film sold out for the film’s opening day at the Film Forum in New York (26). The film earned back twice its budget, and Daughters of the Dust won an award at Sundance (Lane 198). Dash has gone on to earn several awards and honors for her filmmaking, which, arguably, may not have happened if Daughters of the Dust did not gain such high visibility.
Understandably, not every film will have the success that Daughters of the Dust had based on targeted marketing. Nonetheless, those in charge of publicizing The 24-Hour Woman, in employing an approach similar to KJM 3’s for Daughters of the Dust might have seen the same success. In any case, the approach that Lane suggests as an effective marketing approach will not always work out the way it did with Go Fish and Daughters of the Dust. If The 24-Hour Woman had employed this tactic, it may have received a wider audience base, even though the proposed audience might have been smaller in terms of audience members attending the movie theaters. The specific-market audience approach, no doubt, works with certain films. Ultimately, the artists and executives must decide together if the film should reach a wider audience or if it will succeed better with a more narrow audience, as the decision to strategize the marketing of a film is not an easy one to make.
Dash, Julie with Toni Cade Bambara and Bell Hooks. Daughters of the Dust: The Making of an African American Woman’s Film. New York: New Press, 1991.
Lane, Christina. “Just another girl outside the neo-indie.” Contemporary American Independent
Film: From the margins to the mainstream. Eds. Holmlund, Chris and Justin Wyatt. London: Routledge, 2005.
King, Geoff. American Independent Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2005.
Rhines, Jesse Algeron. Black Film/White Money. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1996.
“Upcoming Movies in Theaters January 1999.” 12 October 2008