CMI How to Sell a Feature Film — In Conversation with Ross Marks and Brian Espinosa of "Walking With Herb" | New Mexico State University - BE BOLD. Shape the Future.
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How to Sell a Feature Film — In Conversation with Ross Marks and Brian Espinosa of "Walking With Herb"

Have you ever wondered what it takes to sell a million dollar+ feature film? What goes into marketing a movie? How do you secure screens for a film in theatres across the nation? We spoke with director Ross Marks and executive producer Brian Espinosa of Walking with Herb, who offered insights into the inner workings of movie sales and distribution.

The process of selling a film starts long before a movie is released. “Once a piece of material comes across your desk, you start thinking ‘Who is the studio that we can go to’” Espinosa, who works primarily as a talent manager, remarked. For a faith-based film, there were only a few places to turn: PureFlix, Lion’s Gate, or raising the financing independently. Herb necessitated the latter.

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Left: Executive Producer Brian Espinosa of Optimism Entertainment

Right: Director Ross Marks

Espinosa and Marks began by preparing business metrics, creating an outline of all potential revenue streams, and thinking carefully about the film’s target demographic. “You should never, ever think about how you’re going to sell a product after you make it.” Espinosa cautioned. Even in the early stages, filmmakers should be viewing their film not only as an idea, but also as a business; it is essential for producers and directors to formulate a plan for delivering their final product to the consumer. With their business model in place, Espinosa and Marks reached out to potential investors about the project. While many investors were keen on funding the project from the start, others were more heedful, asking Marks and Espinosa to return after production was complete.

During production, Marks and Espinosa shifted most of their focus towards the day-to-day needs of running a set, but every decision was made with an acute awareness of both the business model and the film’s creative vision. Once production was completed, the sale of the film kicked into a higher gear.“When you have created the product, you have a tangible asset that you can actually show people, and they can decide if that product fits them or not.” Espinosa said. Whether it’s pitching a movie to a distributor or marketing a film to a consumer, showing even pieces of a completed film can more clearly guide potential buyers towards or away from a purchase.

Once financing and distribution are secured, marketing takes center-stage. But how does one persuade potential consumers that a film is a worthwhile investment? When millions of dollars are at stake, you are obligated to do the best job that you can. “When you get to the professional level, everything in marketing is based off of data, metrics, research, and proven models that have worked in the past.” Espinosa explained. For Herb, this meant putting together a team of the best and brightest minds to market the film.

Marks and Espinosa hand-picked three different marketing firms, dedicated both to understanding a faith-based audience, and reaching a hispanic demographic. Currently, over 75 people are devoted to marketing the film, as well as managing the film’s presence on social media, television, radio, print, and the internet.


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Different poster designs tested for Walking with Herb. 

 

Even something as simple as creating a trailer, poster, or website has hard data behind it, first by analyzing the metrics of previous films with a similar genre and demographic, and then by bringing in focus groups to assess the film and its marketing materials. Herb, for instance, had 3-4 test screenings before securing its distribution. After distribution was procured, the key art, trailer, and other marketing materials were sent out to focus groups for feedback.

While other films have chosen to release immediately to streaming services due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Marks and Espinosa opted instead for a nation-wide theatrical release a three-day event hosted by Fathom Events a joint venture between AMC, Regal, and Cinemark. After this, Herb will move into additional theatres for a month before landing on rental services, streaming platforms, and even DVD video. “We did have the option to skip theatrical and go directly to streaming, but we felt that wouldn’t have been the smartest financial choice for the picture.” Espinosa explained. Breaking up distribution into multiple tiered revenue streams, on the other hand, can create a diverse market which continues to bring in revenue long after the film’s initial release, especially when combined with tactics like perpetual licensing.

 

Trailer for Fathom Events' release of Walking with Herb

While the process of selling a feature film seems well and good for those established as executives and above-the line positions in the industry, to student filmmakers and creators at the start of their career, the entire process can seem nebulous and unattainable. And in many ways, the process can be imprecise. “It’s like learning to ride a bike.” Espinosa said. “The only way is to start pedaling and just learn how to balance. You don’t know how to do it until you do.” Despite this, many of the lessons Marks and Espinosa have accumulated can be generalized to the sale of any creative work.

When asked about advice for up-and-coming filmmakers, Espinosa and Marks emphasized the importance of building one’s skillset, seeking mentorship, trusting one’s instincts, and welcoming failure. “Expect to fail 99% of the time, and then you’ll see at one point that once you succeed it snowballs.”But there was once piece of advice that they continuously reiterated: “Whenever you’re trying to sell something, do not approach it in the sense of what the person selling can do for you.” Espinosa emphasized. “Always know your value to the buyer. What do you have that they need? Every filmmaker has the ability to help the buyer.” The foundation of successfully selling a film at any scale is developing a connection to the wants and needs of the buyer, whether that’s a distributor or a consumer. Paired with a well-thought-out business model, an engaging artistic vision, a quality product, and a little bit of luck, this method can secure a successful sale.