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Dear Aspiring Filmmakers, Here’s How to Get My Attention

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Hello. I’m Scott Beggs, the co-host of Broken Projector and the Managing Editor of Film School Rejects.

If you’re an aspiring filmmaker, I’m one of the people you want to impress. No, I can’t get you a bunch of money, get you representation or ensure your movie will premiere at a huge festival, but with an audience of around 4 million movie fans, it’s not a bad idea to grab my attention. 

Judging by the amount of emails I get, a bunch of you already know that, and a bunch of you have no idea how to do it.

With the pinch of salt that I’m only one of many in the press world whose eyes you want to light up, here are some achingly simple things you can do to help your cause (in convenient list form using real-life examples!):

1. Recognize that what you’re asking from me is to vouch for your project

There has been a lot of talk about a DIY/indie revolution that’s taking down the gatekeepers, but even if the traditional path that leads to an audience is widening, there will always be guards posted. You need a mouthpiece to shout about your work whether it’s someone like me in the press, a professional representative who believes in your talent or the public itself, spreading your movie through word of mouth to their friends. 

If you don’t believe that, go to your local street corner, start screaming, and see how many people you can get to take you seriously.

When you send me an email asking me to write about your project or post a trailer, what you’re really bottom-line asking me to do is put a stamp of approval on your project. Something that says it’s worth someone else’s time. 

That may seem simple, but there’s a profound social contract behind it, and if you don’t respect that and approach the situation with humility, you won’t get the results you want. Ever.

2. Understand your current talent level and be honest with yourself about whether you should email or not

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From December 2010 to May 2011, I got 7 emails from the same person with a new awfully-titled movie linked within. I bothered to watch the first minute or so of the first 3, but it was obvious how bad the work was from the opening salvo of each. Here’s an excerpt of one of the emails with the spelling corrected and names changed:

"I know you loved Dork Fight 5000 so here’s my next! Can’t wait to see you link it up! I shot it over two weekends at my friend Josh’s farm, and it’s definitely my best movie yet. Send me the link when it’s on the site!”

Exclamation marks aside, there are some questions you need to ask before you even decide to email me.

Are you ready to play on the national stage after your first movie, which you shot using your mother as a make-up artist, your dad as the gaffer and your best friends as the actors? Or are you maybe possibly by any chance still developing as a student of the craft?

Have you seen enough movies and read enough scripts to recognize whether or not your work can hold its own against quality films?

Following what Geoff said on the second episode of Broken Projector, there’s something noble about having the patience to strike at the right time. There’s a kind of euphoria that takes over after finishing a movie that makes you feel like you’re the first person in the world to do it, but that doesn’t mean the work is any good. Hopefully you’re surrounding yourself with enough people who will give it to you straight (and have your mom to soften the blow with impossibly kind words) to know whether or not this is the one you want to take your shot with. 

Don’t underestimate the power of people to be dismissive of future work if your first volley is garbage. There’s a reason I sent the Dork Fight 5000 director’s emails straight to the trash without clicking on his links after a while.

3. Have an exciting, stranger-tested hook

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Consider the case of Ink. Jamin and Kiowa Winans cold-emailed me with their teaser trailer, prompting me to write this (remember when a car slamming straight into the audience POV was fairly new?!). The imagery was too wild to ignore. The plot (“A dark creature kidnaps a young girl in order to trade her soul for a place with the order of beings who create nightmares”) put me in a mood to watch the trailer, and it did the rest. 

Ready for the terrible reality of all of this? You’re not fighting some ephemeral group of indie filmmakers trying to get coverage. You’re fighting everyone. Even big studio movies are fighting for coverage. Granted, Star Trek Into Darkness doesn’t have to fight all that hard, but the fourth GI Joe trailer probably will, and even a buzzy indie with distribution and representation still has to convince the press to spend time and words on their product. If it’s a battle for Ted Hope, it’s going to be even worse for you.

In order to get noticed, you have to have a hook. A real one. A big one.

This is going to sound lazy, but in a way, you have to do my job for me by providing what’s most interesting about your movie. The story either has to be there, or it has to be obvious that there’s something to write about somewhere in your pitch (like in the Ink trailer). Otherwise, why would I dig deeper? Why would a reader?

Sad to say, “First-Time Director Makes Uninteresting Movie with Unknown Actors” doesn’t work well as a headline. “Dog Bites Man at Screening of ‘Man Bites Dog’” works better. In simpler terms, if you want me to write about your movie, it had better be newsworthy.

Larger productions have the benefit of having recognizable names or the weight of a production company’s legacy or a trusted PR firm behind them, but it’s more likely that you’ll have one of these hooks:

  1. A unique plot concept (A boy runs away from home to live inside a whale!)
  2. An interesting production method (Shot entirely on disposable cameras!)
  3. An impressive trailer (Again, like Ink)
  4. A large amount of festival credits (5 small fests’ laurels equal 1 large fest)
  5. Some sort of incredible still photo that shows off stellar design

And more directly, if you haven’t even finished/started the movie yet, please, please, please don’t send something out (unless you’re specifically looking to get attention on a KickStarter or IndieGoGo campaign (and in that case, do your homework on which outlets write about those kinds of campaigns)). 

When I was 16, my father and I bought a 1958 Buick Special because I was obsessed with antique cars and was dumb enough to think I could fix one up. It needed a lot of work. Work that I didn’t know how to do. The one thing I could manage was to pay a friend of mine to restore the paint job to a shiny two-tone (English racing green on white) and admire its beauty from the outside even if it didn’t have an engine to speak of. 

Doing the paint made the car look great, but it didn’t get me anywhere. The same goes for putting the PR cart before the production horse and sending out press releases for something that doesn’t exist yet. It’s fun to echo what larger productions do, but it’s ultimately a waste of time. It’s play-acting at professionalism.  

On that front, I get close to a dozen emails a week from amateur projects trumpeting the start of production, which is the same as telling me that you plan to do something cool. Consider the people you want to impress uninterested until you actually do something.

The problem is that everyone involved in your production and the people close to you will all think that the plot concept is compelling, the trailer is jaw-dropping and that the local festival you got into will be a battering ram to knock the door down. So don’t ask them. Ask strangers and acquaintances with no concern for your success. Twitter followers, people at the mall, people in your writing roundtable, that neighbor you haven’t bothered to meet yet, your AA meeting. Have a friend take it to their friends and record responses. 

Approach total strangers for their opinion because that’s exactly what you’re doing when you send me an email, and as with the people you accost at the mall, there’s no reason for me (over the internet) to respond. 

Plus, if the uninvested’s reactions are anywhere near lukewarm, if they’re not hugely positive, it’s probably not time to send it out. You need to Wow people if you’re going to wake up a slumbering press corps.

Like some aspiring filmmakers, I never did get that Buick running.

4. Don’t Pretend to be bigger than you are

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"Indie Drama Gets All-Star Cast Including Carl S. Strathenmeyer, Debbie Curtalistan and Maury Donoluvovich"

I get that exact press release headline once a week with three different, completely unrecognizable names. 

When you announce an “All-Star Cast" in your release that’s slathered in names I’ve never heard of, it’s a turn off. In fact, I’ve never seen the phrase "All-Star Cast" in a release that actually features an all-star cast.

So be yourself. Don’t interpret the need to have a hook to mean that you need to puff yourself up beyond recognition. 

Sidenote: Speaking of indie dramas, sorry, you’re at a big disadvantage because your plot isn’t high concept (and is therefore hard to condense into a breezy logline) and interpersonal tension is nothing new, so all you can do is be professional and have some incredible acting in your trailer. 

Second sidenote: If we have editorial considerations about whether or not to post up news about a new release featuring name-talent, you can imagine how the press feels about Carl S. Strathenmeyer and friends.

5. Be Clever at your own risk

Another real email: 

"Hey there reject-y bro-man! I love the site and make sure to read it every day, so I thought you might want to take a gander (and a goose) at this trailer for a film I produced where a guy in high school tries to lose his virginity with a college chick as part of a dare that he’s doing for a rivalry between the classes (crazy!). It’s super sexy and we’ll mail you some bikini bottoms used in the shooting if you post it on the site."

The problem with being clever is that it’s annoying. 

And I know about being annoying because I once worked at a fundraising call center. You can learn a lot from a place like that, though, because they use a standard script, issued to the masses, in order to achieve a single goal. The parallel is obvious, and while you may scoff at using a standardized email (you’re too creative for that!), fundraisers and robo-calling companies use them because they work. You don’t know the person on the other end of the phone from Adam, and with no way to personally tailor the pitch, you have to go with what has been proven to work more consistently. You want a high response rate, and I don’t want used bikini bottoms.

With that in mind…

6. Be formal but relaxed, and get right to the point

You’ll get a lot further if you don’t pretend to know me. In other words, don’t be too familiar in your email. It’s presumptuous and it insinuates that it’s our (pretend) relationship that will get me to respond instead of the quality of your work.

Instead, introduce yourself briefly, like this woman did:

"I’m a UK filmmaker who bakes bread to pay the bills and just finished my 4th feature."

Then hit me with the synopsis:

"My latest film is about a young man who is sent to a boarding school where he discovers the headmaster is dealing drugs."

Then tell me what you want:

"If you have a moment, please watch our trailer, let us know what you think and whether it deserves a mention on your site."

And don’t forget to include the link.

Your email shouldn’t be a 1,000-word thesis either. I can’t tell you how many emails I get that have a giant block of text that I’m apparently supposed to read so that I know that you discovered a love of filmmaking your junior year when your friend’s cousin introduced you to Christopher Nolan’s oeuvre.

7. Send me one link

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So you’ve got a Facebook fan page, a twitter account, a tumblr, a Pinterest board, a Tamagotchi, an Instagram site, a homepage and a YouTube account?

I don’t care.

In fact, I bet your eyes glazed over a little while skimming that comma-split list too.

If you want me to see your trailer, just send me your trailer. Include whatever you consider to be your main website on that YouTube or Vimeo page, and if I like the trailer, I might go there for more information.

There are two things here:

  1. If you’re asking for someone’s time, you need to be direct about what you would like them to do, and including 7 links to similar pages spirals all of us into that Plague of Choice to the point that we shut down. It also just seems greedy — to ask me to visit 7 different websites so I can know more about your movie. 
  2. Setting up all of those websites is free, easy and it creates the illusion that you’re doing something. Instead of wasting your time ensuring that you have every single social site covered, use those precious moments to build your contact database, polish your pitch email one more time or, you know, get outside and shoot a scene.

8. Have a Movie to Show Me

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If the uphill climb of getting my attention seems depressing, imagine what it must feel like to earn it without being able to capitalize on it. 

Back in August, an email caught my attention with a cool concept and some still shots that teased some excellent cinematography. Since the director was looking for a review, I wrote back to ask about seeing the movie, and the filmmaker replied that he refused to put it up online.

That’s no problem (although I know of no quicker, easier way for me to check out your movie for a review (more on that in a minute)). I gave him my address and requested a physical screener.

He told me he wasn’t pressing discs or mailing out screeners either.

So what was the point? He wanted me to review his movie but had no way of showing it to me.

It’s unclear how he thought he was going to independently get all the interested critics from around the country into the same theater to screen the film, but his core reasoning wasn’t surprising. He was afraid of piracy.

Look, I don’t want to diminish the effect of piracy on indie filmmakers or claim that you have nothing to fear, but consider this — if you’re having trouble getting people interested in your movie, what makes you think people will want to pirate it anyway?

I once told FSR writer Robert Fure that I was wary of taking any supplements while working out because there was a limit to how I wanted my body to look, and he replied, “Dude, no one ever gets accidentally ripped.”

The same is true for piracy and popularity. You undoubtedly consider your movie to be precious cargo, and maybe you think if you put it up online that it will be instantly seen by millions of non-paying customers while you cry in a gutter somewhere, but things just don’t work that way. 

The nature of the game is this: if you want me to review your movie, send me a screener. If you want instant gratification, send me a link to it. Anything that means I don’t have to put on pants to run to the mailbox can only be a good thing. 

Plus, if you don’t trust me enough as a professional journalist to gain access to your film without giving it away to strangers for free, then don’t bother emailing me in the first place.

9 Have a Demonstrable Goal

Here’s where I sell myself out a little bit.

Imagine for a second that you’ve gotten a write up on my site as well as a dozen other major movie sites. Aint It Cool loved your trailer! So did /film! ScreenRant thought it was “potentially awesome!” 

Congratulations! Now what?

Getting a write-up of your trailer isn’t an end in and of itself. You have to have a keen understanding of what you want to do with that success. At the very least, you’ve created some friendly people who will be more likely to see your finished product, but what else is there?

Like I said in the intro, I can’t get you money for your project or help it get sold, but there are these next steps to consider:

  1. Gaining social media followers so you have a direct line to people interested in the finished film
  2. Leveraging the quotes for a KickStarter campaign or if it’s a review of the finished film, using them in sales packets
  3. Engaging the online buzz as proof of ability when pitching to potential representatives or managers
  4. Hoping the publicity will help festivals recognize your work when choosing a line-up and/or that it will help with the sale of your film to a distributor
  5. Etc.

I can’t tell you what your ultimate goal should be, but if you’re expecting fireworks after gaining traction, you’ll be waiting a while for ignition. Getting the attention of the press isn’t like being handed a piece of cake and being welcomed to the party, it’s like being handed a hammer that can help you break down the door to the party if and only if you choose to wield it.

Bonus: Some Things Not To Do

  1. Don’t email me twice a day. Or once a day. Or three times a week. Send an initial email, and if you don’t get a response in a week, send a follow-up, and if you don’t get a response after that, consider the case closed. If I got your first email but don’t respond right away, I’m either uninterested or it’s taking me a while to get to it. In either case, badgering me isn’t going to speed things up.
  2. Don’t be an asshole. Judging by a few emails, some things that should go without saying, cannot go without saying.
  3. Don’t promise something you don’t have. A director once emailed me saying he had gotten Kate Winslet into his indie, and when I expressed interest, he said, “Just kidding! But I got your attention, didn’t I?”. He instantly lost it. 
  4. Don’t forget to swap out all the names in your sample email. It’s not the end of the world, but it’s slightly cringe-worthy when I see, “Hey Scott, I’m a huge fan of Film School Rejects because Aint It Cool is one of the best resources for movie fans.”
  5. Don’t pretend you regularly read an outlet if you don’t. We can tell when you’re faking it, and failed ass-kissery is even worse than the successful kind.
  6. Don’t send threatening emails if you don’t get an answer. Consider this: you never know how many minutes away you are from getting a positive response sent to you. But seriously, don’t threaten people. See #2.

I look forward to your questions and hopefully to some different perspectives from other site writers.

And if you have screenwriting questions, please click the question mark logo at the top right of the page.

-Scott

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