Why You Need To Brand Your Film

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As a new filmmaker, here is what you’re up against. Over the last ten years, the way we consume entertainment has completely transformed. Many new filmmakers are finding that the models of getting their film out to the public have drastically changed. It has become a buyer’s market so to speak. There are literally more things to entertain us than there is time to enjoy it all. So how can you attract attention to your film, and ever more tricky…how can you make your audience pay for your film when so much amazing content is virtually free.

The first step to selling a product (yes your film is a product) in the marketplace is to understand the importance of branding and the way we use it to make sense of the world. It is a concept that many indie filmmakers choose to ignore. But for better or worse, especially in the U.S., our understanding of the world around us is so interwoven with brand identity we don’t even notice it anymore. Branding has become such an important part of the culture that we seek it out as a shortcut to a large understanding of a person, product, service, etc.. We define ourselves by the brands we use. Are you a BMW or Harley Davidson? Are you Burger King or P.F. Changes? Are you Batman or Darth Vader? We have become so conditioned to expect branding, that when something is not connected to an established brand, it becomes virtually invisible to us.

Films connect with brands in a variety of ways. One of the most obvious and most pervasive is the brand of a film’s attached talent. The Liam Neeson brand, for example, used to connect with us as simply a good leading dramatic actor. Then Taken came along and suddenly the Neeson brand is more commonly linked to a specific type of action film. Other ways to connect a film through branding are popular books (Harry Potter), famous directors (Quentin Tarantino), popular games (Warcraft), famous studios (Pixar), popular characters (Frankenstein) or popular genres (Horror, Comedy, etc).

Now, when we talk about branding your film, we are really talking about two different things. First is to use the already established brands as mentioned above. Second is to create new brands with your film. It’s important to be creative about the way you want to brand your film and find ways to do both. There are some simple tricks you can use. For example, I recently spoke with filmmaker Ryan Bellgardt who had a very low budget, so they made a horror called Army of Frankensteins. How were they able to leverage such a well known property as Frankenstein? Well, like many beloved characters, the copyright for Frankenstein has expired, so as long as you follow certain guidelines, anyone can have Frankenstein in their movie. Roger Corman did the same thing with his Edgar Allen Poe movies. Disney does the same thing with movies like Snow White and Alice In Wonderland. These are classic books and characters that anyone can use.

One thing we always try to stress is the need to make sure your film is in a clear genre. Why is this so important? Once again, the genre of your film is part of it’s brand. We need that connection to connect your film to a larger idea. Horror is the most popular genre for indie filmmakers for many reasons. It’s easier. It doesn’t need stars. It can be shot cheaper. It sells better. But another key aspect of horror is that connection to brand. Horror fans aren’t like other fans. They are loyal to the brands they love. It’s almost identical to the way Heavy Metal fans identify themselves by the bands they love by wearing their t-shirt.

Let’s talk for a moment about the goal of film branding.  It’s not just coincidence that an Apple logo signifies for many the idea of quality and innovation. Why does a Lacoste Alligator or a little Polo player on a shirt instantly make it higher quality? Why are people willing to pay $20 extra for shoes with a swoosh on it?

Aside from all of the ways you can use brands within your film, the film in itself is also it’s own brand. Therefore it’s important to follow the rules of branding with your film to make sure that it’s message is consistent. Here are a few rules to branding your film that you should adopt the moment you start preproduction.

  1. A Well Designed Title. You need to choose an appropriate font for your film and make sure to create files that can be shared over a variety of different mediums. For example, versions of your title that will fit on facebook, black and white versions for newspapers, and hi resolution versions for print ads. You always want to make sure you have a vector copy of the logo as well as jpg, png, ai, eps, and pdf versions of the logo to give media outlets.
  2. Color Scheme: Often overlooked, you need to choose at least 2 colors that will represent your film’s title. These colors will be included in the advertising packet you send out to ensure that your logo and print material looks consistent.
  3. Character Photos: Take professional pictures on a seamless background of each of your actors in their wardrobe and makeup. You will use these over and over during the marketing process. The seamless background will also allow designers to cut out the actors and place them into different environments.
  4. Poster Art: You need to create at least one poster for your project as soon as possible. This artwork will be used for all social media, the website, media outlets, blog posts and all of the things you need to do to start getting the word out about your film. You should start building buzz the moment you start preproduction.
  5. Social Media Accounts: Having a social media presence an absolutely essential part of your branding process. Most people rely completely on social media to keep them up on what’s going on in the world. For a large part of the population, if you’re not on Facebook, you don’t exist.
  6. Central Website: Your website is your central control. All of your social media needs to have one main goal. Get people to your website and get them on your mailing list. Since you cannot control social media rules and changes, your website is going to be where you are in charge.
  7. Mailing List: One of the biggest mistakes I see filmmakers make is not creating an option to join a mailing list. Most marketers I know consider the mailing list to be the heart of their marketing plan. You can even get a free account and up to 2,000 people over at Mailchimp, so there’s no excuse.
  8. YouTube Channel: Having a youtube channel is another extremely important aspect of your film’s branding process. There you will put updates about the film. Behind the scenes videos. Trailers. And messages to the audience you’re building. Youtube videos aren’t only easy to share on your social media accounts and blog posts, but since youtube is owned by google, you will also get some great SEO.

What does the Ghostbusers brand represent? 

Think of any major blockbuster in the last 20 years. Does the title have a very specific design? Just look at Batman vs Superman. What do you think the Bat and the S are there for. Those are logos. There are people all over the world wearing Superman or Batman shirts. They define part of their personalities as being Batman or Superman fans.

The same kind of branding is going on in the Indie Film world. Let’s look at a movie like Juno. The font alone for the title tells us a lot. The letters are written out like someone who is bored writing in a high school notebook. There you go, that’s our lead character. Imagine you had written JUNO with the Lord of the Rings font.

The use of handwritten fonts used to be kind of a big thing in Indie Films. You don’t see it so much anymore. But there is a marketing company behind this telling us exactly the way they want you to think about the film.

Now take this example from Prince Avalanche. Here are a variety of different representations of their poster, social media and disc covers. One thing you will notice is the name of the film is always in the same font and presentation. Also, the film is about street painters, so they use the color yellow as their primary color combined with a light blue. Your film will most likely be in the hands of many designers over it’s lifetime from initial online campaign through to festivals, theatrical and eventually to VOD. So having that consistent image will help your audience identify you quickly.

Prince Avalanche


The Rule of Seven

There is an old adage in the world of marketing. A prospective client needs to see your marketing message at least seven times before they will buy anything from you. Studios spend millions trying to make this happen. For those of us with slightly lower budgets, we have to be more creative. As we have mentioned, there is no way for your audience to recall your film if you’re not using consistent visual cues. Over the months that your film is being made, you need to do your best to see that you have made every effort to make sure those who fit into your niche audience have seen your film on multiple occasions. This can mean things like seeing it mentioned on social media. Articles about it on blogs. The trailer. Emails. Whatever it takes, just find some way to start making your brand recognizable so that people will instantly recognize it on other platforms.

Case Study: Turbo Kid

When it comes to understanding branding in a low budget indie film, I can think of no better example than last year’s Turbo Kid. Not only is Turbo Kid an excellent movie, it demonstrates black belt level branding. The films marketing gets everything right. From a beautifully retro logo to a throwback poster featuring all of the main characters. It’s really in many ways taking a lot of notes out of the 80’s sci fi playbook. Each of the characters is wonderfully distinct with their own outfits, accessories and color schemes. The villain’s right hand man, the menacing looking Skeletron, wears a cool skull mask and pretty bad ass saw blade armor. It wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine fans dressing up like him for comic con. Take a moment to think, are there way to make your characters more distinct? Does it fall in the realm of possibility that someone might want to dress up like one of your characters? Do they have a distinct wardrobe that is easily recognizable?

But Turbo Kid has gone beyond simple fandom. The film has created a sense of community. This is all the more powerful since, despite it’s huge success, Turbo Kid isn’t designed to be a mainstream movie. It gets the added benefits of still being kind of a cult hit. But if you look closer, Turbo Kid isn’t a film that stumbled into being a cult film. From it’s retro style to it’s over the top violence, Turbo Kid is a cult film by design. As with all great cult followings, fans of the film use it’s imagery to forge their own identity. Soon after the films release, pictures started coming out of Turbo Kid tattoos, fan made costumes and even cross stitched dolls.

You know that you have really connected with your audience when they start sending you pictures of their character tattoos. There have also been a number of tie in products such as official toys and comics. One thing is clear, the Turbo Kid brand is going to be around for a while and most likely spawn a number of sequels. Although the TK formula doesn’t work for everyone, their story should be inspiring to all indie filmmakers and demonstrate the true power of branding.

Branding Characters and Objects

Now, if you want to take your marketing kung fu up a notch, let’s think about branding an objects and characters within your film. There are some obvious examples. For example a lightsaber or Darth Vader are brands. One of the misconceptions about Star Wars and George Lucas was that the merchandising was successful because the movie was so good. That’s only partially true. The merchandising was successful because each character, weapon and ship had it’s own distinct brand. The film was basically a way of attaching meaning to all of them. And so if you look at it that way, Star Wars really is just a big commercial for selling toys, costumes, clothes, etc.

There are less obvious versions of this. Look at Annabelle from The Conjuring. In this situation they were able to take an object from a movie and build an entire brand around it. Or, take a backwards example. The leg lamp from A Christmas Story. In this case we’re breaking the forth wall of the film and saying you can own part of a brand you love. The lamp connects us to the film’s brand. What does the brand represent? Warm feelings of old Christmas.

Now think to yourself, what are the brands that you hold dear? Do the brands you love connect you with other people? Does a small part of your identity stem from your identification with that brand?

Horror Branding

There are so many missed opportunities with Horror films these days. Mostly because filmmakers don’t understand branding. At some point it appears every horror film decided that it needed to look exactly the same so that people would mentally categorize it as a horror film. Let’s be fair, there really are only about 10 varieties of horror film poster. For example, there’s the creepy eye, the creature, the strange house, the famous actor looking creepy, the skull, the clown, the dark figure and so on. Mentally all of these films start to blend together and loose their ability to form a clear brand in the mind of their fans.

You may be tempted to take the easy road. Design something that looks like a film with the same audience as yours. This may work short term, but rather than do that I would suggest doing something that not only stands out in your genre, but stands out period.

Netflix Screen Grab

Now, take a film like Spring that did something a little different and see how that stands out in the crowd. We have enough elements to let us know that this is a monster movie. There are tentacles coming up from the bottom. But there is also a love story that we see at the top. In the same way the film was a mixed genre (love story, horror movie) so is the poster.

Creating the Familiar

Now, let’s look at branding from another angle. As we mentioned before, we like brands because they are familiar to us. Why do so many people go to Starbucks? Because they know what to expect. The Starbucks brand represents quality service and coffee in a relaxed atmosphere. You can walk into a Starbucks anywhere in the world and feel secure that the experience will be fairly pleasant. It’s the same thing with restaurants, or stores. Almost anywhere in the U.S. you can find a Target that will be pretty much the same anywhere you go.

Films work in a very similar way. For many of us, we love watching the same movies over and over again. But it’s never quite the same as that first time. We go back hoping to get that same feeling we got the first time. But for most people in your audience, your film is a one shot deal. It’s not like Starbucks where you can sell the same product over and over. So people are always in search of a product that will give them a similar experience. Why else do you think there are so many sequels?

So it falls on us not only to present our potential audience with a film that is in the same genre they will like, but that it will also give them the same experience as the movies that they have loved in the past, while being different enough that they will have the same surprises as before.

People As Brands

It’s hard to be a working actor or singer or anyone famous without being a brand. Elvis is a brand. Bob Marley is a brand. You could even say Jesus is a brand. Why are they brands? Because they represent to us some bigger concept. Much like a logo, we create a mental stamp for the way these people look. When you imagine Elvis, you probably have a very clear image in your head. Or think of Michael Jackson. There is a reason that famous personalities develop a signature look. It allows us to create a quick mental image of who they are. Their faces become familiar to us and on some level we feel a relationship with them. That’s why there are so many instances of stalking from people who aren’t able to separate the fantasy from reality.

Now think of Captain Jack Sparrow or The Terminator or Rocky Balboa. On some level, audiences have developed a relationship with characters and the subconscious desires they represent. With Jack Sparrow, there is the internal desire to be completely free without any need to fit into civilized society. The Terminator feeds our desire to be unstoppable and immortal. With Rocky there is the fantasy of realizing impossible goals.

Harrison Ford reportedly made about 20 million dollars from the new Star Wars film. Some people might think that’s a lot, but I honestly think it was cheap. Why? Because of what Han Solo represents. Han Solo is one of the most beloved brands in history. 30 years after the last time we saw Han Solo, and he’s still all over the place. Han Solo connects with men’s subconscious desires like no other character. Is there any male under 50 who doesn’t secretly want to be Han Solo? This is another reason that audiences didn’t really connect the same to the prequels. None of the characters were strong brands. We were never able to internalize the struggle of the characters. Now, take Rey from the new film. She is a brand that will be around for a long time. Why? Because she is a real character and her struggle represents a very real internal struggle that we can identify with and in turn internalize.

But back to Han solo. J.J. Abrams, who has proven himself to be the master of branding and marketing, knew that if he could successfully connect the new film with the familiarity and pure love of that character, he would have a hit on his hands. I think it’s safe to say that both Abrams and the amazing Kathleen Kennedy understood the Star Wars brand much better than Lucas.

Filmmaker as Brand

As we talk about brands, there is one thing that we’re forgetting about that is a huge part of the film brand world. What comes to mind when I say names like Hitchcock, Kubrick, Cameron, Spielberg, Scorsese, Coppola?

We can go back to the very beginning of the film industry. Eisenstien, Griffith, Chaplin, etc. Films have almost always been branded by the filmmakers behind them. Have you ever noticed how prominent Steven Spielberg’s name is on films he produces. Even above the title. Why? Because Steven Spielberg is one of the larges brands in Hollywood.

Most filmmakers want to remain behind the scenes and stay away from the public. As a word of caution, let me say that many directors have come and gone, but the directors who have successfully branded themselves and built a loyal following usually stick around. Kevin Smith has made a string of pretty bad films, but since he is the brand, his career doesn’t rise or fall on one or two or five bad movies. The Smith abides. In fact, in recent years Smith has further branded himself by wearing an orange and blue hockey shirt with different logos on the front. So there you go, consistent color scheme, outfit, and personality.

Wes Anderson is another great example of a consistent brand. We always kind of know what we’re getting with a Wes Anderson film. Just like a new pair of penny loafers and coruroy pants, Wes Anderson represents a certain style of quality filmmaking. He has created a unique brand that doesn’t stop with his films. Anderson himself looks like he just walked out of one of his own films.

Understanding Your Relationship To Brands

Regardless of how you feel about the notion of branding, you can’t escape the fact that is is a huge part of not only the film industry but the modern world. There are hardcore purists who will likely scoff at the notion of branding with their work. But you may want to spend a moment to rethink your relationship with some of the work and people you look to for inspiration.

One of my favorite examples is Harley Davidson. Never have I seen such brand loyalty in my life. Harley Davidson isn’t just a type of motorcycle, it’s a lifestyle. It’s a way of thinking about the world. But all of that is branding. Because at the end of the day, Harley Davidson is a corporation that makes billions from people believing it is something that it pretends to be. Buying a motorcycle is not buying freedom anymore than wearing workout clothes makes you in shape. You’re simply buying a product that has been marketed to you.

When you buy a movie ticket a few things are going on. You are taking a risk. You are paying money for something that may or may not give you what you need. But you need to believe that the product that you are purchasing represents much more than just a movie.

Listen to my interview with Army of Frankenstein’s director Ryan Bellgardt.

Army of Frankensteins

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  • nzube@shortfilmsafrica.com'/
    Nzube Okoye

    thanks a lot for this article. Those of us in Africa have a lot to learn. I hope to share it with my audience.

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