Claudia Tos
Claudia Tos speaks during a European Women's Audiovisual Network (EWA) workshop. (Photo: European Women's Audiovisual Network)

If no one will market your film for you, and your belief in it remains unshaken, you'll just have to do it yourself. And to do it successfully, you'd best be smart about it.

This was Claudia Tosi's realisation after hitting the kind of dead end that most filmmakers will be able to identify with.

She'd finally completed her labour of love, a documentary which follows the last days of two couples in a hospice for terminally ill patients in northern Italy. Called The Perfect Circle, it takes the audience on a journey from imminent grief through progressive lightness until a final catharsis that sheds new meaning on life.

Its reception at screenings in local cinemas were positive. "People kept coming again and again," Tosi recalls, "bringing other people with them, often their mums or dads, being touched, turning Q&As into marathons of shared thoughts and feelings."

'The audience doesn't want to see this stuff'

But distributors weren't interested. "The audience doesn't want to see this stuff," she remembers one telling her. "Too far from current affairs, too depressive, too silent, too slow, too tough…"

She refused to give in to this. She felt sure there was an audience out there for her film, maybe not the mass audience the distributors wanted, but a more specific one.

How was she to identify this audience, and how was she to reach out to them? Tosi did this, and did it successfully, but only once she'd managed two things. To begin with, she had to swallow her pride and overcome her aversion for marketing.

"I know, it's disgusting, I'm a filmmaker, and I'm a pure soul and I am a dreamer, I don't call my film a 'product' and my audience are not 'my target'. I'm not a sniper."

Nor, she felt, did she know the first thing about marketing. But she had in fact, long long previously, attended a three-week training course on multiple stream revenue for filmmakers, organised by the European Women's Audiovisual Network (EWA).

This had given her enough useful information and advice, now that she'd made her mind up, not just to market her film herself, but to do it in the smartest ways she could find.

Here's the story of how Tosi achieved her goal, set out in the form of advice for other filmmakers faced with the same kind of challenge.

Playing to your film's selling points

For Tosi, marketing your film starts with understanding its strengths and weaknesses, and emphasising the former. So: what were the strengths of The Perfect Circle?

A bit of research by Tosi suggested two things to begin with. Firstly, the existence of an extensive, well-organised network of hospices and organisations related to palliative care and thanatology in Italy, and secondly, a relative lack of documentary filmography on her subject.

The film also had a good selling point: as a tool for raising awareness of the need to provide tools for coping with death, and to redefine "care" as an extraordinary relationship that enriches human beings.

Its biggest turn-off? "Death", says Tosi. "My protagonists are not heroes. It's very hard to bring people to a movie theatre to watch a film about death."

So the word "death" disappeared from her synopsis, loglines and one-liners, the emphasis shifting to the film's positive take-outs, including a new sense of meaning in life, and of the overriding value of compassion.

Networking to grow your audience

If it was difficult to get people to come to The Perfect Circle, Tosi would have to work at establishing relationships with those who did come, fell in love with it and shared her urge to raise awareness around the issues.

This meant making herself available for her audience, creating dialogue, answering emails. "It requires time, but it pays back in terms of personal enrichment and 'meaning'", says Tosi.

Claudia Tosi engages with the audience
Claudia Tosi engages with the audience following a screening at Cinema Beltrade in Milan, Italy. (Photo: The Perfect Circle on Facebook)

And to make sure she was talking to people from a grounded basis, she did further reading and attended some congresses on palliative care, while at the same keeping her eyes open for theme-related events and campaigns.

Attending a further masterclass on film-centric marketing, she learnt about a US "theatres on demand" platform named TUGG where people register, choose a film, city and movie theatre, and book a screening. If a minimum amount of tickets are booked, the screening goes ahead. A quick Google search then uncovered an Italian version of TUGG, Movieday.it.

She had also learnt, at her EWA course, about following Change.org to see if there were campaigns that fit in with hers.

"I did so, and found out there was a citizens' legislative initiative to bring a law about 'end-of-life' to discussion in the Italian Parliament, finally. Many famous people were supporting that campaign. I could be part of something bigger than I thought, and I could participate in a big change."

Using social media to your advantage

Learning to use social media tools in a productive way was, according to Tosi, key to "reaching out to 'my people' and giving them 'a home' where they could share their experiences and eventually 'change the world'."

It also helped her realise who her core audience was - and was not. By forking out a bit for Facebook ads, and varying her keywords and use of iconography, tone and language, she soon found that cinephiles and art-house fans were not her audience. Those who reacted to her ads were women over 35 years who were looking to share their own experiences.

"I used to read the data section on the Facebook ad manager tool even more often than my watch, and I could collect a lot of info about the quality of my campaigns and how I could improve them," Tosi says.

Twitter helped her connect with bloggers and journalists, Bit.ly helped for checking the popularity of her tweets, while Facebook was useful for events and ongoing chat with her fan base. ("Very low number of 'likes', btw, but often behind every 'like' there was an organization or an institution.")

Creating an online home for your fans

Tosi's next step was to create an online home for her film. The Perfect Circle blog is an educational hub about end of life and palliative care, with posts about the film and Tosi's experiences while travelling with it.

"The tone had to be confidential, intimate, inspirational, secular - very personal," says Tosi.

The Perfect Circle Facebook page served as the gateway to the blog, as well as a platform for audience interaction. Blog posts were shared on the Facebook page, and ads used to smartly to spread the word. "I used my pixel number for every AD and Boost, so I could create lookalike audiences to enlarge my audience."

Last but not least, Tosi created mailing lists and starting sending out newsletters on Mailchimp (up to 2000 addresses for free). But she only sent out a newsletter when she had something to say, and never more than one every two weeks.

"I spent days on searching on Google email addresses for the mailing lists (1: Professionals; 2: Friends; 3: Press; 4: Politicians from the Chamber and Senate, members of the Social Affair Commissions).

"Mailchimp is really cool," she adds, "because you learn who reads what and how many times, so you can consider to give a call to people with a stronger interest and involve them for a screening."

Thinking big while remaining realistic

It took a while, but it finally became clear to Tosi what the focus of her ambitions for her film, and her work at creating a buzz around it, should be: on getting the attention of doctors, nurses, volunteers, psychologists, thanatologists and others in the field of "terminal illness".

How to do this? In the end, it was her personal network that came up with the answer. Approaching a friend of hers who happened to be an MP, she asked her if she thought a screening at Parliament might be possible.

"Of course, we have to!" her friend said at once. "They are discussing the end-of-life legislation. It would be perfect!"

So she set a date, booked the hall, sent her first newsletter, spread the news, called for accreditations - and it worked. She had doctors, psychologists, nurses and oncologists attending her screening.

"The worlds of politics and medicine are very close, in Italy, and to be at the Parliament was necessary, or just enough, to be respected," Tosi days.

And from there it has been snowballing. Following the screening, she managed to organise 15 more through Movieday's "theatre on demand" system.

"Twenty screenings was my final goal, but, considering the requests, I raised my goal up to 100 screenings and I will keep the film in the movie theatres until the half of next year, at least. Then it will be available for educational programmes, university masters and congresses."

What's the payback?

In terms of money, says Tosi, the film is earning 30% of the cost of the ticket, plus her expenses and a fee when she attends a screening. So far, the audience averages around 110 per screening. But money is not her only payback.

"I am learning a lot about audiences. My target audience is evolving … I have been invited by a thanatologist to organise events together, a graphic novel artist would like to do something together, and I have received some invitations to participate in congresses."

Above all, however, she learned all over again why she became a filmmaker in the first place: to change the world.

"You see, to update a blog with passion, to dialogue with people every day, to spend 8 hours a day for three/four months on distributing your film, you can do it only if you care about your film, if the film is an absolute necessary for you and your life."

Revised and edited from Claudia Tosi's original EWA newsletter article, "How to successfully distribute your film in 5 steps".