Meet the Filmmakers: Promoting Indie Films the Q&A Way

“Question me an answer, if you please. I will answer with a question, clear and bright!” This lyric by Burt Bacharach and Hal David for 1973’s Lost Horizon echoes game show host Alex Trebek’s perhaps more familiar Jeopardy! instruction, “Answer in the form of a question.” Asking questions, providing answers, and then formulating more questions based on those answers is more than basic communication—it’s an effective marketing strategy for independent films. When audiences and filmmakers can ask questions of each other and discuss a film, everyone wins. Distributors and indie filmmakers have learned this lesson well, as evidenced by a growing number of Q&A sessions held during film festivals or, ever more frequently, after screenings at neighborhood theaters.

The competition for moviegoers’ dollars is fiercer than ever in a tight global economy, and the gap between “big” and “small” films’ promotional budgets continues to widen. Studio-backed blockbusters have the money for promotion across all media and the clout to get onto multiple screens at cineplexes almost anywhere in the world. “Big” films generate lots of publicity during preproduction and filming, as well as in release. The public knows months in advance which films they likely will see; recent Super Bowl commercials for The Avengers, for example, ensured that a high percentage of the game’s television audience—not only millions in the US but worldwide via satellite or Internet—received an impressive first glimpse of the Marvel characters coming to theaters this summer.

At the other end of the cinematic spectrum has traditionally been the independent film. Although some indies become famous as Sundance, Cannes, London, Toronto, or other cities’ film festival award winners, they usually have greater difficulty finding distributors and audiences looking for something different from mainstream fare. Some “small” films gain notoriety (and more publicity) because their subject matter is too controversial for a major studio, or because of the cast’s other high-profile (and bigger budgeted) projects. The majority of indie films, however, tell stories in a uniquely creative way but never become more than a blip on film fans’ radar.

Even films with studio assistance benefit from social media campaigns and direct interaction between filmmakers and their audiences, but independent films rely on these types of promotion in order to entice audiences into theaters. “Meet the filmmaker” sessions in particular garner media attention for both the independent film and the theater hosting the session, one reason why Q&As are becoming de rigueur for the successful indie entrepreneur.

The Business of Q&As

According to Laura Kloss, special events manager for London’s Curzon theaters, “Q&As have become very important to independent filmmakers, especially as a way of raising their profile and gaining new audiences… Curzon is dedicated to the exhibition of cinema, and ‘meet the filmmaker’ events are something we can provide for our audience so that we can share this passion. We also believe in raising the profile of art house cinema… [and] like to have Q&A events to support the films we exhibit, which bring in larger audiences and create more press attention.” Many theaters work closely with distributors to their mutual benefit. Ticket buyers are attracted to the special event following a screening. The theater sells more tickets, the distributor makes money from the event but also gains that all-important word-of-mouth promotion, and, as a result, the film may be shown more times or on more screens.

Such was the case with Wreckers. Kloss recalls working with film distributor Artificial Eye to promote a Q&A session for the independent film in December. “As the company is both distributor and exhibitor, we wanted to create an event to increase publicity for the film and maximize ticket sales in the cinemas.” News quickly spread through Facebook and Twitter that two of the film’s actors, Shaun Evans and Benedict Cumberbatch, would be joining writer/director D. R. Hood on stage after the screening. Tickets to Wreckers’ Q&A session sold out, and more screenings were scheduled in subsequent weeks.

“Q&As are very good for building attention for films through word of mouth and creating more press attention. The buzz around the film Wreckers was undoubtedly greater after we had done the Q&A,” Kloss adds.

Hood agrees. “Certainly Q&As, particularly those that have actors attending, help our distributor advertise and raise interest in the film. The Q&A at the Curzon helped raise the profile of the film’s opening weekend a lot. I also think that Q&As help word of mouth. If people find the Q&A of interest, they may blog or talk about it to their friends and spread word of the film. Several blogs have mentioned the Curzon Q&A. It was also filmed and put up on the Wreckers Facebook site so that fans could link to it, further publicizing the film and creating an audience who want to see it for themselves.”

Curzon theaters have participated in Q&A events for years, and they, like most theaters promoting indies, host several events annually. Their next Q&A, in February for Don’t Think, attracted a different crowd than the audience for Wreckers. Kloss describes the February audience as “younger, mainly fans of The Chemical Brothers or of music films in general.” As with Wreckers, Don’t Think’s director, Adam Smith, was on hand to talk about his film. With regular promotional programs like these, Curzon has developed a reputation for excellent Q&As that attract film lovers and filmmakers.

Thousands of miles away in Maitland, Florida, Enzian theater’s technical manager, Pete DiPietro, concurs with his London counterpart about the power and popularity of Q&As. He knows that “the idea of the Q&A draws audiences.” DiPietro admits that sometimes he thinks an event “might be hard to fill up, but as soon as there’s a Q&A and [the audience can] meet with someone involved with the movie, ticket sales always go up.”

In January, Enzian hosted a Q&A with Arbitrage actor Brit Marling as part of the Sundance Film Festival’s special program to bring together audiences around the US with filmmakers whose work was featured during the festival. DiPietro is rightfully pleased that Enzian was one of “only nine theaters selected for this program.” The event gave audiences an opportunity to meet with Marling, who introduced the film and, following the screening, discussed it.

The Q&A sold out quickly and helped the theater gain national publicity, a plus for showing off “the uniqueness of our operation.” Single-screen Enzian provides a comfortable viewing environment for its patrons. It offers a food and beverage service during a film, and the theater is specially designed. DiPietro notes that “not every movie theater has a stage in front of its screen—so this venue certainly lends itself to events prior to and after the film. It’s an attractive place, and once you come here and meet the people, and see the beautiful property, we can show off the things we’re good at. It’s nice when national interests recognize that.”

DiPietro finds that visiting celebrities are often surprised by the atmosphere at an Enzian Q&A. “We’re a very unassuming venue, and I think celebrities and filmmakers tend to interact with places and people that aren’t quite like us. They get here, and we’re so welcoming. [Local] people don’t tend to swoon over celebrities, but yet they show a genuine interest in what they do and have legitimate questions for them. As a venue and as a group of people, we make [filmmakers] feel comfortable, and by the time they leave, we forget that we’re talking to Jon Voight or Glenn Close. My experiences with celebrities have always been good.” Given that Enzian is sought as a venue for film festival and special event Q&As, celebrities also must have enjoyed meeting Florida’s film fans.

Talking with the famous, no matter where they may be in the world, is easier than ever. In summer 2011, Daytona Beach, Florida’s Cinematique screened films showcased in the From Britain with Love series, which offered opportunities for US audiences to talk with British filmmakers. Stephanie Mason-Teague, Cinematique’s president, praises the technological ease of bringing together audiences and filmmakers via the Internet. “Thanks to programs like Skype, it’s as simple as making a phone call. Each filmmaker, writer, or director sets up a Skype account, and we make a call to coincide with the end of the film. Using a computer in the theater, we can project the video call on our big screen and use a microphone for the audience to ask questions.” Mason-Teague agrees that Q&As are becoming more common “because it is so simple to facilitate. In a matter of minutes we can be connected to filmmakers across the world as clear as if they were in the next room.”

Although the annual film festival allows residents to mingle with filmmakers in person, Cinematique, like the Curzon and Enzian theaters, provides Q&As at other times of the year. They bring more people into a theater to watch a film, instead of staying home to see it. “With the growth of VOD and speed of movies released on DVD, we are searching for ways to keep audiences coming out to the theater.” Mason-Teague emphasizes that “filmmaker Q&A sessions give the audience an experience they just can’t get at home.”

A Win-Win for Audiences and Filmmakers

Not only distributors and theaters, but filmmakers and audiences also benefit from these events. Kloss notes that Wreckers’ cast members and director “enjoyed the experience. As the film was D.R. Hood’s debut feature, it was especially important for her to hear what the audience had to say about her film.”

Discussing her film with an audience who has just seen it has been eye opening for Hood. In London, the audiences for Q&As (during the London Film Festival and after the Curzon theater’s screening) were younger and primarily British. When Wreckers made its US debut at the Palm Springs Film Festival in January, the audience was older and primarily American. Hood explains that in the US Q&A “some of the questions were more plot driven. I think this is partly due to the older age of the audience as well as cultural [differences].” The Palm Springs audience was “very movie literate with US movie references, whereas in the UK, the movie references were UK/female director oriented.”

Interacting with her audiences, at home and abroad, has been an ongoing learning experience, one that Hood will continue with another Q&A at Oxford’s Phoenix Picturehouse in April. “Overall, I have appreciated the opportunity to hear back from the audience what they understand and appreciate from the film; especially with a film like Wreckers, this is a very interesting back and forth to have. It helps me to get ready to move on to the next film by passing it over to the audience directly and coalescing my thoughts about the filmmaking process by sharing it with others.”

The thrill of talking with the talent, especially if they are well known, undoubtedly is one reason why audiences love Q&As. For a brief moment, they capture the undivided attention of their favorite actors or directors, and they get to ask questions that are important to them, not necessarily to a reporter or moderator. In addition, Q&As should give them a deeper appreciation of film. Kloss hopes that “they get the chance to get deeper insight into the films first hand and the chance to ask their own questions, developing their relationship to the experience of watching the film.”

Mason-Teague also emphasizes the need for audiences to become educated about the art of filmmaking in order to understand how and why stories are told in a specific style. “One of our missions at Cinematique is to encourage the appreciation of the art of film. Nowadays everyone thinks they’re a filmmaker because they post a video to YouTube. Having a Q&A session allows us the opportunity to reinforce the real process of creating a professional film.”

These special events not only link audiences with filmmakers, but connect theaters and distributors. Equally important, they help bridge the gap between art and business. On Jeopardy!, Alex Trebek might applaud the contestant asking the insightful question “How should independent filmmakers promote their work?” To avoid filmmaking jeopardy, the correct answer is “More Q&As.”