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Your Film's Marketing Materials Suck at Helping Audiences Find You. Use a Language List to Change That

Filmmaker Toolkit
by Charles Judson
May 29, 2014 12:07 PM
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Yep, that title is a  little bit of click bait. It's not click bait for the sake of clicks. For thousands of filmmakers, it's a truism.

Over the seven years I was at the Atlanta Film Festival, about 17,000 films were submitted to the festival. We programmed around 1200 films. I've had to comb through a lot of websites and social media pages. The dearth of keywords and content was stark. Filmmakers have been stepping up their game, but there's still a tendency to create generic sites that are little more than landing pages. As a result, I could spend hours using different word combinations, hunting down the websites, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts and images of the films that we hadn't received.

Since 2006, I've been using multiple Google Alerts to scan for news, blog posts and web pages that were relevant to me. As a writer for CinemATL, as Atlanta Film Festival communications director, and as ATLFF's artistic director, that constant search for information assisted greatly. It allowed me to find stories, monitor the effectiveness of ATLFF's messaging and find potential films for the festival.

As an example, as the 2014 Atlanta Film Festival drew closer, more selection announcements and news about the event itself were appearing online every day. The search for "atlanta film" scooped up a press release on PR Web announcing that the feature "Speak Now" is screening at the fest.

Google Alert for "Atlanta Film"

A film no one has heard of may not exactly be burning news for the average person searching the web. No matter what hat I wear, however, this is information relevant to me. If it's relevant to me, it's likely going to be the same for the Georgia film critics and bloggers covering film. Festival directors who track news on festivals they love – and often share programming philosophy – would be interested.

Filmmakers who have their trailer, website, Facebook page and Twitter account ready to go before they begin submitting their film to festivals are light-years ahead of their peers. Search a few of the films that played this year's Sundance, and you'll still find selections that don't have a trailer.

Having those materials is not enough. The vast majority of filmmakers overlook the crucial step of crafting language that can improve their chances to be discovered, as well as differentiate them from other films.

People from 181 countries use Google to find answers to over one billion questions every day. Facebook drives more traffic to publishers on the web than anyone else. Zuckerberg's creation outpaces second-place social media site Pinterest 3 to 1, and third place Twitter 9 to 1. These billions of searches and shares are shaped by what people care about most. There is no randomness.

Increasing the specificity and variation of the words chosen should be a priority for every bit of marketing material you create. Carefully thinking about how  your potential audience interacts, talks and searches shouldn't be skipped, or undervalued. A billion searches is not a haystack you want to get lost in.

First, scrutinize your film's story, theme and genre. Who are the core fans of your film? What is your film's niche? Then move out from there. Sheri Candler's series on marketing the film "Joffery" is a place to start if you need a down and dirty introduction to identifying your audience. "Finding Your Audience Even When You Have a Niche" is the first post. The fourth and last post, "Moving Beyond the Super Core Fans Of Your Film," includes links to the previous three.

Once you've done that, begin generating a “Language List” for your film. The words and phrases you're adding are the ones that would catch the attention of the audience you're going after. Don't worry about grandma. Not unless she's a hardcore, know all the words, follow the band on tour, type fan. You won't use, nor should you plan to use, everything generated. Don't limit yourself though. Start large, then narrow down. Your “Language List” can include:

Specific to the film:

    • Emotions and Emotional Words
    • Movies similar to your film
    • Genre and Genre related words/phrases
    • Character traits
    • Character actions
    • Character motivations
    • Character types
    • Character relationships
    • Character names
    • Themes
    • Setting
    • Influences (directors, films, etc.)
    • Films Title(s):

Connected to the film:

    • Cast
    • Crew
    • Shooting locations
    • Cast and Crew's past film credits
    • Film connections
    • Production companies

I'll pause here. 

I'm using the term “Language List” as opposed to keywords to reinforce that this is about creating a conversation. This should be an extension of how you will share and talk about your work offline, as well as online. With that goal in mind, the places to use this “Language List” will go beyond your website’s metadata. Nor, will you use this list to create a Frankenstein plot synopsis to generate clicks. The ultimate goal is to get someone to see your film. A click is a meaningless action, if your content is not relevant.

As you build your list, Google is the one-click away buddy you should rely on when you're stumped. Searching "emotions", I found a page on with 265 words. Wikipedia's List of Genres includes descriptions and their subgenres. Don't use I couldn't think of anything as an excuse. Research films, novels and TV shows similar to your movie. Go to the sites your audience frequents and look for words that stand out, that show up repeatedly. Note how your audience identifies itself.

These questions should be in your mind as your list grows:

  • Who is my primary target audience?
  • Who are the different audiences that would be interested in my film?
  • What makes your movie different?
  • Who would spend money to see your movie?
  • Who would come see your movie opening weekend (pretend you scored that distribution deal)?
  • Where does my audience get my information?

As you build your list it may begin to look like this:

  • Emotions: devastated, insecure, distracted, temperamental
  • Movies similar to your film:* Fargo, In Bruges, Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang
  • Character motivations: greed, fame, love
  • Character archetypes: tortured artist, comic mentor, shapeshifter, the judge
  • Settings:  Minneapolis, car dealership, Fargo, North Dakota
  • Influences (directors, films, etc.): Preston Sturges, Howard Hawks, screwball comedy, film noir
  • Cast: William H. Macy, Frances McDormand, Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare. Jerry Lundegaard
  • Crew: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Roger Deakins
  • Shooting locations: Chanhassen Dinner Theatre, Chanhassen, Minnesota, USA
  • Past Film Credits: Blood Simple, Miller's Crossing

* Use your list of Similar Movies judiciously. Comparing your film to a well known film can turn off people. It can raise expectations to a level you will never meet. So, inside metadata, in the about section of a website, and after the plot synopsis, are good places to use those titles. Placed up front, before you've allowed your audience to make up their own mind about your film, is dangerous. The general advice is not do it all. Until an audience has seen your film, they may not always peg what kind of movie their reading up on. Compared to a well-known film or two, your audience may get a bead on the tone and feel of your movie. That's okay.

Now that you've done that, read "7 Things You Absolutely Must Have On Your Film's Web Site" on ATLFF's site. Then read "7 Essentials For A Press Kit" on Raindance Film Festival's site.

A marketing and promotional campaign for your film will likely include:

  • Plot Synopsis
  • Trailers
  • Tag Lines
  • Call to Action
  • Filmmaker Personal Statement
  • Press Releases
  • Publicity Stills
  • Bios
  • Email Campaigns
  • Direct Emails (personal, press inquiries, fan questions)
  • FAQs
  • Web site
  • Facebook Page
  • Twitter
  • Posters

As you market and promote your film, use your “Language List” to craft your materials. Add elements that speak to your core audience. If you are worried that your marketing  will be too narrow, don’t. Your core audience should have many niches, and in those niches within niches. Hardcore fans of your lead actress because of her cult status, could be one part of your audience. You were lucky enough to shoot in an infamous haunted house, the thousands that visit it every year may be your audience. Avoid the mistake of trying to reach everyone, or making your target audience too large. Just because you "think" those folks will come out, doesn't mean they will.  Interest is, "oh, that's cool." Motivated interest is sharing a link with a friend and asking if they’re free Friday to see this cool cool thing. That's who you're going after.

  • Do not write a generic Synopsis, write one that makes your film stand out
  • Write Press Releases that focuses on0 the interest of journalists who cover your type of film; less hype, show them why their audience would be interested enough to read a full article about your film
  • Use your language list to populate metadata inside your Publicity Stills
  • Craft your Bios so they'll connect with readers on a personal level and with the cultures they identify with; less career vomit, make each bio read like a short story
  • Vimeo and Youtube ask--and encourage-- you to add keywords to the Trailer you post, leverage that
  • Use your “Language List” to vary the titles of your Email Campaigns, and to craft emails for different audiences and to achieve different goals; communicate and share with your email list, don't spam them, make them want to read and forward
  • Use your “Language List” to guide what you name your URLs, pages, navigation, and pages, and how you write content for your Website, don't skip using the title, alt and captions as you add photos and video to your site, those photos will show up in search as well
  • When creating your Facebook Page, use the list to choose a page name, select cover images that will excite your audience; use the list as a guide to craft they'd be interested in; very important, use the list to generate ideas for posts that won't be promoting your film, but will make your audience feel part of a community
  • On Twitter, create hashtags you can track engagement, use hashtags your audience is looking for, and use the list to search for conversations you can participate in
  • Write Call to Actions that are fun, engaging and speak to your audience, create and use a variety, tailor them for each stage of your film's journey

Quick pause again to speak to two things: Call to Actions and Searching for your Audience.

As to using a Call to Action, "Please see my film" or even "Support my film" rarely works. It's bland. Filmmakers overuse it. It says nothing about your film. What is a great call to action? It's hard to say. Trying to find someone that describes this in non-marketing jargon is tough. The best way I can describe it is, you're asking someone to do something and by doing that, they'll get something they would value. "See my film" is about you. "Be the first to see my new film and party with the cast after the screening," is a little generic, but it's focused on what you’re giving the audience, not about what you want to get from them.

Finding your audience with a strong “Language List” will be invaluable in finding the true fans you’re looking. Google is the most obvious place to start. Facebook and Twitter feature tools that allow you to find your audience. You can search by location. You can segment your audience to drill down. Horror fans is a wide target to hit. Utilizing's Facebook's search to segment out horror comedy fans that live in Tampa will increase your chances of success. If audiences repeatedly say they love your film because it's like Joe's Cult Film, searching for fans of Joe's Cult Film to target is listening to your audience to refine your marketing. Twitter tools like Hootsuite have the same capabilities. You can even filter out tweets that wouldn't be useful. There are dozens of tools out there, most of them free. Use them.



On Google you can find websites and related Facebook pages. A search on Facebook can return external links as well. As users search, they stumble across thousands of images, videos and shopping sites every month. Take advantage of search, make your film easier to discover. When a user finds content that they didn't know existed and they're happy they did, it's a match made in heaven. When they don't... Search engines are built to push content searchers are engaging with to the front of the line, and to push content users find irrelevant to the back.


The elements that comprise your marketing campaign will not be static. Their existence won't be finite. Bots routinely, crawl the web mining content that pops back up. Journalists, bloggers and distributors rely on dormant sites and archives for information. The synopses you write will live on film festival websites, blogs, film sites and in online archives for a very long time. Boring, vague text left behind for audiences to discover might as well be a dead language. Generic marketing language makes it difficult for fans to share this film they saw years ago. They'll use a handful of keywords, give up, and tell their friends why the film is awesome, instead of showing them.

Unify Your Online and Offline Messaging

Filmmakers take for granted that audiences will reuse a filmmaker's language and phrasing to describe a film. Some filmmakers have this down to a science. At film festival Q&As, they'll seed phrases they've used in their synopsis, in other Q&As, on their website, etc, in their answers. They'll repeat key ones. It's easier to find a film using the filmmakers own words. Back to searches. Filmmakers equally take it for granted that online audiences sharing a core language built around a film has a host of potential benefits. Fans recognize they have found the conversation they were looking for, and jump in. Bloggers and fans using the same language can influence how often and where your film shows up across the web. Separate conversations anywhere in the world can merge into larger ones as fans find each other.

Simple vs. Detailed

While the words and phrases in the “Language List” may be highly specific and targeted, the elements created using them should not be overly complex. Pages of content with no intention of engaging your audience will always turn them off. Anyone who is outside the niches you’re targeting shouldn’t struggle to understand your marketing materials. Use the “Language List” to enrich and strengthen what you write. Replacing "romantic comedy" with "erotic comedy" is one change that has a powerful impact on how someone will perceive a film. Use the “Language List” judiciously.

Recruit Others to Help You Market

Lastly, when you can get bloggers and fans to replicate your phrasing, it's less pushing you have to do. It's recognizing that there are hundreds of films out there. When others uniquely describe your film, when they are invested, every post, writeup, tweet and mention can help you stand out from the pack.

Originally published at CinemaATL Magazine

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  • johnq | May 29, 2014 3:53 PMReply

    I'm torn on this. I agree but at the same time, the fact that major festivals are skulking around the web instead of basing their decisions on the quality of the material is insulting to filmmakers and contrary to the entire point of a film festival.

  • Kisha Dingle | June 21, 2014 5:42 AM

    I love this article. Thanks Charles for writing it and providing all of the detailed and useful information. We can not get caught up on some idea of festival purity. The assumption is that every filmmaker is creating work that they want to be SEEN. It's absolutely critical, that filmmakers take full ownership and responsibility for how the work that they've lovingly created is being presented to the market. Why not help a festival, who's invested in getting your work out to the public and getting you media coverage with the tools and necessities needed to complete the job? Do we absolutely need quality material? Yes. That's a given. Once you have that, you need a plan for how people will see it. Period.

  • Charles Judson | June 2, 2014 8:19 PM

    As I told folks, I no longer have patience for this. I've attempted to pull folks together before. Folks like you spend more time in meetings whining about the system, then taking action.

    If this pisses you off, good. The community needs that. Use it. Build on it. Thirty years after She's Gotta Have It, and now almost 50 years after the Black Arts Movement, we still have an anemic, underfunded, diffuse independent film scene when it comes to filmmakers of color. We could have built our own system three times over since then. We somehow praise Black Wall Street and Auburn Avenue, and then we say we can't do anything because folks won't let us. BWS and AA were built when our asses could get lynched and state official could openly say they think we don't deserve to be here. When did we lose not only our spine, but our sense of action?

    As a film community, it is time to start building. It's time to start offering IDEAS, not damn opinions. I want more films and see people working. I don't want to see ill informed knee jerk comments on websites anymore. Show me the person who has made more than three films because he was a master internet commentor, and I'll eat crow.

  • Charles Judson | June 2, 2014 8:18 PM

    Before you read one of my infamously long posts--this one I believe you'll find nice and incendiary--read this line:

    "Carefully thinking about how your potential audience interacts, talks and searches shouldn't be skipped, or undervalued. A billion searches is not a haystack you want to get lost in."

    It disappoints me that knowing your film is going into a world in which billions of searches are happening everyday, isn't where your focus went. It went to film festivals. 697 film festivals (see below). 7 billion people. One of these two groups has the most potential to support all of the independent filmmaking community, and all the filmmakers in it.

    This is about how to reach audiences, not film festivals. Film festivals are a tiny part of that audience.

    @Tell It Like It Is Film Festivals don't have the power to damage the integrity of indie filmmaking. Filmmakers do. If there are festivals that are not about quality, if they aren't supporting filmmakers, don't submit to them. Filmmakers can blame festivals all they want, they create the content, they control the pipeline. Wield that power.

    @JohnQ Putting the onus on filmmakers to get their films out widely is insulting to filmmakers. In Withoutabox, there are 697 film festivals you can submit to right now that have been around for at least three years. The average age of those festivals is 11 years. Which ones are the legit ones? Which ones are the festivals that would be the best fit.

    It's stupid, and I'm using that word blantly, it is stupid to think that 100% of filmmakers with quality films are going to submit their films to the right festival. I'm saying it is stupid because right now, that's what filmmakers AND film festivals either assume, or don't even think about.

    If you want film festivals to program quality films, then going to find them is what they should be doing. Are they doing that? As someone who has been on the inside, I can tell you they're not doing it enough. I can also tell you that most festivals want to do it more. A programmer's source of pride is about the films, not the tickets or the box office receipts. Majority of festival programmers want to brag about the filmmakers who have had stellar careers they've supported. I can boast that while at the festival I've programmed 5 films that went on to be Oscar nominated, another 30 that won Student Academy awards. In 2013, eight films programmed under me were nominated for Independent Spirt Awards. Jonas Carpignano won Sony CineAlta Discovery Prize's this year at Cannes. I happily programmed two of his shorts in 2011 before he was winning major awards and going to Cannes.

    Replace filmmaker with football player. Would it make sense for a pro-team to wait for the best to come to them? If you're a team that's just okay, and another team is slightly better, why would a player choose you over the other team? If a player can come to your team and not only make it better, they can become a star, while the other team may or may not start them, who is or isn't going to benefit in the long run?

    Eighty percent of filmmakers who have films on the festival circuit, are on the circuit for the first time. The filmmakers you see at festivals follow three tracks most of all: they never make a quality film again, they struggle to make a followup film, they get into the film business as crew and are too busy to make another film again.

    Recruiting is a festival's job. There's not much a festival can do for a filmmaker who only had one film in them. Festivals can help filmmakers make their next project, and they can help filmmakers start careers. It all starts with looking for the quality films.

    Festivals can only program what is submitted. There are festivals that are awful at programming. That's rare. If a festival has a weak lineup, they have weak submissions. Sit on any screening committee for several years, and you'll quickly learn that most films are just okay. Filmmakers progressed past making bad films in the last few years. Experience and technology have made it possibile for filmmakers to make competent films.

    If you know filmmakers with films that should be playing festivals and they aren't, contact the festivals. If they are programming terrible films, hold their feet to the fire. Festivals do not hold your fate in your hand, and if they do, snatch it back. Do not give up your power. Do not also ignore the wide range of services and roles festivals play.

    Time and time again, I've read as filmmakers bitch, moan and whine that Shadow & Act promotes the same filmmakers. I don't even know if I can count past one hand the times commenters have held festivals to the same standards.

    This is the year this shit stops. Filmmakers will hold film festivals to a higher standard, film festivals will do a better job helping filmmakers, filmmakers will understand what festivals can and can't do, the film community will hold filmmakers to higher standards, and we will talk about how to build careers and tell more stories. We will create new institutions and new programs. We will stop posting bullshit we know nothing about, because we have neither the experience, or the perspective to comment.

  • Marie | May 30, 2014 11:50 AM

    I agree that these practices don't adhere to the spirit of a film festival but since they do exist, I thinks it's incredibly helpful to be made aware of them. Usually we black folks are not privy to inside information. Judson is freely giving us insight into how this game is played and I, as a filmmaker preparing to enter festivals, deeply appreciate whatever information he shares.

  • Tell It Like It Is | May 29, 2014 7:53 PM

    I agree! Film festivals need focus on the art. This will eventually jeopardize the integrity of Indie filmmaking.

    A good compromise would be for festivals would be to require films to have a Facebook page, once selected.

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