Major studios with big budgets have the luxury of blanketing the mainstream media with ads for their offerings, but for cash-strapped indies looking to break through the clutter, the trick is in how the tools of the trade — TV, print, radio, the Internet, advance screenings, promotional partners — are used.

“You can’t just buy your way into the marketplace with the types of dollars these films have,” says Jim Berk, executive VP of worldwide marketing of Participant Media.”A lack of money really teaches you to focus. Everyone has access to these types of methods, but you have to use them in a way that sparks conversation in order for these films to develop an audience.”

That often means going directly to the moviegoer.

Participant, which focuses on social-action-driven projects, has learned over the years that reaching out to potential audiences generates discussion, which can turn into positive word of mouth once the film eventually rolls into theaters.

That’s involved hosting screenings at colleges and churches or reaching out to nonprofit organizations, with filmmakers on hand to discuss the projects afterward. It’s also recently included hitting up potential fans at gatherings like Comic-Con in San Diego.

“I’m constantly thinking of ways where you don’t have to spend any money,” says Robert Burke, VP of worldwide marketing for Lakeshore Entertainment.

For Blowtorch Entertainment, it’s solely targeting 18- to 24-year-olds through college screenings, online and mobile content.

“In the specialty world, we need all the positive spin around a movie we can get,” says Peter Adee, prexy of worldwide theatrical marketing, distribution and new media at Overture Films. “That’s called word of mouth. That means people love it and tell people, and more people show up.”

Building that positive word of mouth takes time, however, with distribs often screening films as early as six months before their release.

“Getting people to talk about it means screening it early,” Adee adds.

Marketers also need to make sure that they’re not overtly selling to the crowds they’re reaching out to.

Lakeshore Entertainment has used YouTube in the past, but in a different way. It enlisted some of the producers of the most popular videos on the site to create original shorts that could promote the thriller “Pathology,” starring Milo Ventimiglia.

The skits, using the film’s stars, wound up generating 1.5 million hits.

“The whole idea for me is to embrace the celebrities within the social networks,” says Robert Burke, VP of worldwide marketing for Lakeshore Entertainment. “We want to find out who’s hot and popular and get them organically involved with the film so it doesn’t look like you’re advertising to people.”

“You have to be very smart and treat these types of audiences with respect,” Berk says. “There’s always a suspecting glance. If you establish credibility with them, they have the capability to take that piece of media and carry it on their backs.”

The strategy worked for Participant and Overture with “The Visitor,” for example.

Participant, which helps distribbers market films by launching social action campaigns around them, enlisted 25 groups like Amnesty Intl., Human Rights Watch, American Civil Liberties Union and American Bar Assnto use the film’s message about immigration policies as a promotional tool for their organizations.

“These organizations are looking for a vehicle in which they can express something important to them,” Berk says. “The film becomes the vehicle.”

Efforts like that have worked in part because the films had talent or filmmakers on hand to discuss the project.

“If you can get Gwyneth Paltrow or Al Pacino in a room to promote a film, you have the opportunity to create your own brand for that movie,” says Nigel Sinclair, CEO of Spitfire Pictures, who says that’s especially important overseas, where talent can help get distributors excited about a project for their territory.Although some indies have turned the Internet into a valuable marketing tool, marketers say specialty shops still need to perfect their use of the web.

“We need to become experts in this area,” Adee says. “For us it’s not about four quadrants but people with like interests. The Internet’s become the social network where you can find these people.”

One area of growth will also be mobile devices, such as video-capable cell phones like the iPhone.

“No one’s trying to reinvent the wheel here,” Oakes says. “We’re still going to use traditional media, but we’ll also be conscious of new media and new platforms. Mobile will be as important to marketing a film as the Internet.”

Any extra marketing muscle helps.

But, says Adee, “the best tool is the film. Sometimes in marketing you have to shut up and get out of the way.”