Are you getting ready to give birth to your project and unleash it on the world? Whether you’re launching a product, publishing a book, premiering content, or releasing a project, the questions around what’s the best approach remain the same. Most folks, at some point or another, will have to weigh the pros and cons of going the independent route versus getting past the gatekeepers and making a go of it with a mainstream outlet.
Having directed, edited, and marketed two indie motion pictures, founded several companies, kickstarted projects, and been generally scrappy my entire life, I know how daunting the independent’s journey can be.
While completing a project is a feat, once finished, that is the start of the long and windy road into marketing and selling your project (and yourself). Worse yet, the segue between creative person to a marketer is harrowing, and many times frustrating, but it is something we all must do. Wearing both hats, especially if time and resources are scarce, can be tricky. But it’s not impossible.
For me, there are often two competing factors as I complete something:
- My desire for the current project to succeed
- My desire to start something new and interesting
Each time I’ve completed a film, the last thing I’m interested in is spending time getting it publicity and experiencing it with others. Emailing and calling folks to tell them about what an incredible thing I have on my hands always come with some hesitancy.
- What if they don’t agree?
- What if they don’t care?
Some folks enjoy being in a theater with crowds reacting to their films, that has not been the case for me. Give me some Xanax, because nothing could be more anxiety-inducing, but as creatives, we’re often asked to do things that make us uncomfortable. Having to do it over the years has been like exposure therapy: I got better about selling my wares, sitting with people watching my films, reading criticism, and even public speaking.
Whether you go the indie or mainstream route, you’ll have to do self-promotion, and you’ll likely have to be pretty hands-on selling your project. So we creators come to a crossroads as to whether we want to go the indie or mainstream route. In some cases, the choice to go with partners may never materialize. You may find out that while you are interested in an indie approach for this project, the next one could go the other way — a lot depends on the project.
Frame up the problem
Tell me if this sounds familiar? I just finished something, the project is sitting there staring at me, and I need to get it out into the world, but I also need some distance (between me and it).
You are not alone. I have had that feeling every time I finish something. The act of creation can be wondrous and painful. All those emotions are exhausting, and finally, when it’s nearing the end, the last thing you want to learn is that finishing a project is the starting line, not the finish line.
The best thing to do at a time like this is to procrastinate productively and take a step back to reflect on what you’ve recently completed. That said, giving yourself a small barrier of 1–2 weeks to do nothing (read books, catch up on shows, take long walks, etc.) before you start grilling yourself is necessary.
Get a feel for how your project will live in the real world
Imagine we were in high school health class and had to take care of a creepy rudimentary robot baby for a week in the real world. That’s what you want to do with your project: get to know what it’s like to talk about it and see what it’s like to receive feedback from others — especially strangers. For this experiment, you’ll want people to interact with you and your product. If it’s a movie, then screen the “finished” version of it with folks who don’t know you or your backstory. If it’s a book, give a few strangers (who like the kind of book you’ve written) an advanced reader copy. Whatever it is, there’s a way to get a beta out to a small group of people to see how they’ll respond.
Of course, if you haven’t done enough tests previous to this one, you might find there’s still more work to do, but usually, by this point, it’s more about seeing how people who don’t know anything about you react. And I’m always an advocate for a robust survey after someone has seen or heard what you’ve made. That kind of rapid response can help you hone the way you’ll answer questions in the future, and get a feel for the way folks might review it.
If you’re working with a partner or partners on this project, then experiencing it alone and together is necessary. During this process, you’ll learn more about how each of you communicates outwardly about the work itself and how you describe your collaboration. For me, this was one of the toughest parts of directing my first feature film, “Second Skin.” I did not recognize how my producers would express their involvement in the project, and it threw me for a loop. Had I been able to have candid conversations early with them and screen the feature in smaller groups before its release, I could have avoided this dissonance altogether. Having discussions early on will save so much time and mental resources later. Some scars from that emotional rollercoaster over ten years ago are still visible today.
With a little bit of information about how people might feel about your project, it’s time to ask yourself some soul-searching questions.
How much do I like what I’ve created?
- This is brilliant, and humanity is unprepared.
- This is crap, what was I thinking?
Think of this question as a meter where one side is “brilliant,” and the other is “crap.” While subjective, it’s helpful to know whether you like what you’ve made. Your personality is inextricably intertwined with the way you’ll answer, but don’t sweat it. If you’re especially kind to yourself, then perhaps it is brilliant, and if you’re a bit self-hating (me), then it could be closer to “crap.”
Is it something that deserves my time and attention in the months and years to come?
The hardest thing to imagine, especially if it’s your first project, is how much work there is to be done marketing in perpetuity (forever and ever and ever). For me, getting to the finish line with both my feature films felt like a marathon unto itself. Then preparing each for the film festival circuit was onerous! From their online presence to the marketing collateral, and everything in-between, it was exhausting. With “Know How,” my second feature, I had a better understanding of the process and could pace myself. So, when it came time to get a Kickstarter off the ground to finish the film, I wasn’t caught off guard.
Going the independent route means you are both in charge and responsible for the success and failure of your work. When it comes to filmmaking, creating something and distributing something takes nearly the same amount of time — in my case, roughly two years each. Maintaining something long-term is a lower daily time investment, but lasts until you decide to let it go completely.
How much control do you want over the branding?
Having power over the branding and outputs is satisfying even if it demands a lot from you. So, if you’re really into getting all the details just right, and you don’t want to yell profanities into the void, it can be a real blessing to do it yourself. Without the help of a company, you’ll end up having to be all the departments, or at least will have to outsource what you don’t want to deal with personally. After all, somebody will have to do the marketing, design, sales, distribution, fulfillment, finances, and legal.
It’ll be on you to create your websites, populate those with information and content, be active on social media, and learn how to attract attention to your work.
If you didn’t get an MBA, you’d get a real-world degree in it, as going the indie route is mostly running your own business. If that doesn’t excite you, then it’s probably best to stay away from this path altogether. All-told, the timeline for success can be four or five projects, and that only makes sense if the journey sounds exciting.
Who is going to market and make my project successful?
If you want to be published in major media publications like the New York Times, then your best bet is to go the mainstream route and hope you have reliable partners. However, another option is to have an irresistible and compelling story.
In my book a compelling story includes: Identity + crisis + project + social issue + destiny
- Identity: Your unique heritage, influences, and upbringing.
- Crisis: The problem that sets you on your path to make this masterpiece.
- Project: The creative work itself that matches up well with your identity and crisis.
- Social Issue: A pressing problem that helps to couch your project and self in society today.
- Destiny: The reason you and only you are the right person to have created this work.
As you can see, there are a reasonably large number of requirements, and it’s not necessary to check the box on each of these. That said, the more cohesive your narrative is and describes why your project is exciting, why you’re doing it, and why it must come out now, is going to make it more successful. The most impactful people I’ve met in the world have been able to communicate their place in space and time well.
So, with a great story in hand, it’s also helpful to have an insider at a major publication. Having access to nepotism is not impossible; it requires some networking to access those people who can open doors for you. Finding an in through friends of friends (of friends of friends) is more effective than submitting your press release without the backing of a publicist. Even when you’ve done the legwork, there’s no guarantee it’ll get picked up.
Whether a particular publication writes about you, it’s not going to make or break your chances of success — especially if your project has a niche audience. Most times, you’re better off catering to smaller groups and ensuring you receive word-of-mouth within a specific community. It’s also much more gratifying in the long run to garner a group of folks who are ardent supporters.
The problem with prominent publications is that there’s a fair amount of personal ego involved in receiving coverage. After all, validation that what you’ve created is important feels good. Sure, the excitement from friends and family is palpable, but a lot of times, earned media doesn’t translate into tangible eyeballs on your project. The plus side of going smaller first is that your project can naturally travel upstream to more significant publications.
Choosing to do the marketing yourself or pursuing a mainstream partner is a huge choice, and there’s always a decent chance your partner mucks up your marketing. Worse yet, they might be working on another more critical project simultaneously, or not get enough traction with yours to prioritize it for long enough. Putting your work in another’s hands is fantastic when it goes off without a hitch. But the reverse: having your work thrown on a shelf without enough care, is incredibly difficult to stomach.
Both of my films had the benefit of having a smaller distributor that cared a lot about each project, respectively. But even then, good intentions flew out the window when the company that distributed my first feature went out of business. We were barely able to get the rights back to our film after two years, and that struggle cost our particularly benevolent producer, Peter Brauer, time and money. I’ll always be thankful for his heroics, but being in that position at all is a testament to how difficult it is to find the right partner. On the other hand, I’ve never felt more surrounded by incredible people willing to work pro bono for a cause than when I directed “Know How.” The advantage a social impact film has is in accruing and growing goodwill — it’s a force multiplier. As a result of many people’s altruism through all phases of production, distribution, and marketing, it went on to help pass watershed legislation, receive a TV deal, a streaming deal on Netflix, a small bi-coastal theatrical run, and reviews in major publications.
In my experience, even if it’s more work, going the indie route at least gives you the ability to make your own mistakes.
Does crowdfunding my project seem viable?
You may be entertaining the idea of getting friends, family, and strangers to plunk down money on your project before it comes to market. If you’re strapped for cash or want to build momentum beforehand, then it could be an essential part of making the project happen at all.
Pursuing the crowdfunding option is no picnic. All the pre-work to have your websites (personal and project), social media, blog, cornerstone content, downloads, email campaigns, and events ready to go, is a tall order for anyone. Then there’s getting the crowdfunding campaign prepped, producing a compelling video, making enticing rewards, launching the campaign, hopefully succeeding, sending rewards, and continuing a relationship with your community. When we crowdfunded the finishing funds for “Know How,” it was a full-time job to get to our goal.
Was it worth it to go through all the trouble? I have heard so many different stories from folks about that. From my perspective, there are two things to keep in mind:
- The economics of your campaign has to make sense, or you’ll end up losing money.
- Crowdfunding is a great way to create a community of loyal folks who want to see you succeed.
Regarding “Know How,” the economics did make sense, and creating the community was invaluable in affecting social change.
Am I willing to create a community and support it?
Developing a community is a pillar of the most successful projects. Think of all those creators that unearth and reuse old IPs to ignite a rabid fanbase. Well, you’re starting one from scratch, with the people and connections you’ve made. Over time, you’ll build it up and grow a following.
These are folks who:
- Have similar interests
- Want to hear what you have to say
- Are excited about your project(s)
So much has been written about a good email list’s superiority over social media that I won’t get into it here. Suffice to say: an engaged list is many times the key to survival early on and exponential growth later. And if you’ve got a thriving community who likes what you’re doing, then you don’t need to go the mainstream route at all. You may find that your list is all you need to sustain your life and be creative.
What route will be more profitable?
Many folks who choose the indie route run the numbers, see better margins, and determine it’s a better financial decision. More than likely, that’s not true. In essence, your time spent is astronomical. At the same time, you hone your craft, build your business, incur expenses on everything from starting an LLC to advertising, and all that without any guarantees. To be fair, the mainstream route comes with some amount of money to you, the creative, upfront, but it’s usually paltry in comparison to the effort in, and the outcome of your project is equally uncertain.
Regardless of which you choose, the likelihood that your first project is a runaway success is unlikely, but you do start building up your audience. Launching the next three to five projects are where you’ll find more traction, and a growing set of offerings gives you that many more chances to get and keep people’s attention.
Am I willing to start my own business to support my project?
If you’re making something for profit, then you’re going to end up having to put that money somewhere for tax reasons. And of course, there are questions about liability. While there are several ways to formalize a business, the most common for indie projects are a self proprietorship or LLC. If anything should happen and you run into legal problems, the self proprietorship will not cover you — meaning that your assets are on the line. An LLC is more expensive to set up and upkeep, but it will do quite a bit to shelter you from exposure should any legal issues arise.
What should I expect the project lifecycle to look like from here?
After creating and launching projects a few times from movies to startups, here’s my cheat sheet for what you can expect regarding creating, launching, releasing, and maintaining your work.
- Creation: In this phase, you’re making the thing, revising it, and ensuring it’s perfect. You could be here from a week to many years.
- Pre-Launch: 75% of your branding and marketing collateral is created in the 3–6 months before you launch. You’ll be setting up all the interviews, publicity, marketing, or crowdfunding campaigns here. That said, you could have multiple launches, and depending on what partners join in your journey, you may end up rebranding before your project sees its most massive audience.
- The First 90: By far, the most intense period that includes both your launch and the following 89 days. It’s the time when you’re fielding requests of all kinds. It’s the time when you’re available at all hours of the day and night. It’s the time with the biggest rollercoaster rides up and down as people review and talk about your work publicly.
- Year One: The foot comes off the gas slowly, and other folks help set the table for the long game. Depending on the kind of project you have, there could be seasonal or special events that will always require you to return to it. Usually, the initial set of high-intensity needs recedes, and you’re left tending to a project’s overarching objectives, which might include a social impact campaign, distribution, evergreen ways to interact with the project, etc.
- Maintenance: At this point, you’re probably tired, and it’s nice to have the long game in place. Ensuring you’ve created evergreen web properties, appropriately shuttered or noted how social content would change, and tended to the upkeep of your project on any ancillary platforms, is what’s required to get more hands-off. Execute a solid exit strategy where people can access you and your creative work.
So, Which route should I go?
By this point, you’ve answered the critical questions that will help lead you down an indie or mainstream path.
- How much do I love what I’ve created?
- Is it something that deserves my time and attention in the years to come
- Who is going to market and make my project successful?
- Does crowdfunding my project seem viable?
- Am I willing to create a community around me and my project?
- Which route will be more profitable?
- Am I ready to start my own business to support my project?
Make sure you write down your answers to the above, let them sit somewhere for a few days, and return to your notes with fresh eyes.
Then, decide. Good luck.