A Wake: The Journey of An Indie Film

Marketing an Independent Film

I meet Penelope Buitenhuis at the 2010 Vancouver Women in Film Festival, before the screening of her film A Wake.

Despite two awards for best feature film, one nomination for editing and another for directing, and releases in Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, and Vancouver, Penelope Buitenhuis is nevertheless frustrated by the distribution struggle of Canadian Films.

A Wake and the Clint Eastwood Filmmaker’s Award

A Wake was released in 2009 and was first screened at the Cannes Film Festival where Montreal Domino Film and Television International Ltd. noticed it and distributed it in Canada. It then won the Best of Show Award at the Toronto Female Eye Festival. Then, In October 2010, Clint Eastwood presented Buitenhuis and her cast with the Clint Eastwood Filmmakers’ Award at the Carmel Art and Film Festival—Eastwood had been impressed by the difficulty and originality of the compelling ad-lib scenes.

Buitenhuis explains that improvisation requires quick decisions to stir the story without repetition. “The repartee is tight and snappy, thanks to my incredibly creative cast,” she says. “Audiences are blown away when finding out that most of the film is ad-lib.”

She is pleased that the film is a crowd-pleaser on the film festival circuit, “especially among the 30-year-old demographic who appreciates smart films with subtext and mystery,” she says. Thanks to media influence, audiences have become highly literate around storytelling “They understand things almost as if they were in shorthand.” Besides, she points out, without expensive special effects, an indie film needs good acting.

The Financial Risk of Distribution Without Hollywood

Buitenhuis deplores the celebrity-fixated audience that ignores a film if the lead actor is not famous. Unlike the North American audience that remembers a film by the name of its lead actor, in Europe artistry is appreciated first.

As a result, numerous good films are not seen. “In Canada, we have to create contemporary, original stories that provoke and engage to compete with our richer American counterparts,” Buitenhuis explains. Without Hollywood support, the journey of Canadian independent films is a financial risk.

To be overlooked by film distributors is the curse to indie films, so is to be cut short at movie theatres because of a higher profile film, regardless of artistic merit. The box office return is always key to visibility.

However, Buitenhuis credits digital filmmaking with taking some of the financial burdens off production. “Fortunately, I can create a quality film or series with high production value and strong acting for very little money,” she says of her extensive filmography.

Still, Domino Film and Television Ltd.—the distributors—face a challenge since even Canadian theatres are reluctant to book a Canadian film with Canadian stars. And the same goes for coverage by Canadian newspapers and magazines. A Wake has Canadian stars like Nicolas Campbell and Martha Burns, but they are unknown in the US, a must for international buyers.

Social Media as the New Marketing Strategy

The filmmaker points out that due to survival uncertainty at movie theatres, no advertising funds, and little time to publicize, only social media can keep the film alive.

Buitenhuis only had three weeks to publicize her film after the release date. Like her peers, she resorts to the power of the Internet to promote her website and send out trailers. “Indie filmmakers must build their own marketing campaign.”

The first weekend is crucial. “If we get a good turnout on the first weekend, the theatre will keep the film for another week, allowing social media to build up. It’s the best we can hope for, this and some good reviews.”

She hopes that “the word of mouth will result in a valuable critique and help her film remain on a movie theatre billboard because a good film keeps us on our toes and engages our hearts and our minds.”

In A Wake, Penelope Buitenhuis wanted to keep the audience guessing, with the film ending as a new beginning. So is the journey of independent films in Canada.

First published 2010 Suite101.com