Getting the word out

Indie venues get creative touting their fringe fare

American arthouses screening the latest studio-backed indies (“Black Swan,” “The King’s Speech”) can piggyback their marketing efforts on distributors’ deep-pocketed campaigns, but with limited ad budgets — if any at all — these same theaters must be doubly crafty in attracting audiences to their more unusual programming.

The common catch-all solution beyond direct e-mail blasts has been social media, certainly the most ubiquitous and economical outreach tool available. Though L.A.-based American Cinematheque volunteers regularly poll ticketbuyers to learn how they heard about each show, without a precise gauge to track the success of an active Twitter or Facebook account announcing special events and giveaways, focused strategies become crucial.

“As social networks multiply, so does our workload,” laments Bryn Mawr Film Institute president and CEO Juliet Goodfriend, who also finds it increasingly hard to nab print coverage in her local Pennsylvania publications. To leverage awareness, the Institute writes and posts press releases for every single one of their programs.

Hadrian Belove, who heads up L.A.’s Cinefamily, co-presents events with like-minded organizations (such as the nonprofit web radio collective Dublab) to spread the word: “I work hard to encourage other subcultures and people already gathered to join up with us, then I tap into their social network. I would rather have the chief of a little tribe with a really good personal email list than an article in a local paper.”

Thinking outside the cinema increases potential for larger, diverse crowds. “I’m interested in people who aren’t necessarily the same moviegoers,” Belove says. “Like those who go to museums, music and comedy shows.”

To cast that wider net, key programmers cite specialized fare like opera, ballet and environmental film series, particularly region-exclusive curation. Not far from Harvard and MIT, the Coolidge Corner Theater (Brookline, Mass.) taps into their academic community with a monthly “Science on Screen” series, pairing live presentations by scientists and other experts with feature films.

“We had someone who wrote a book on demonic apes and male violence introducing a screening of ‘Fight Club,’ and an animal behavioral expert introduced ‘Best in Show,’?” explains Beth Gilligan, the Coolidge Corner’s associate director of development, marketing and outreach. “Although there was a science angle, it still has a populist feel.”

In the end, the simplest approach might be in clear sight. Alamo Drafthouse Cinema CEO Tim League, whose blend of showmanship with in-theater food and drink service has helped make his Austin-based brand a world-renowned institution, says: “Our customer base is in the building. We effectively promote to the people already at the theater for shows happening maybe three to five weeks down the road, getting them excited to come back.”

More on Independent Exhibition:
Niches go nonprofit | Getting the word out | Digital screens boost alt options | When tickets don’t cut it