Uncorking the Right Market: Bottle Shock
In the fourth in this series of articles about movies and the web, Mike Jones finds that to distribute a drama about wine, you have to first friend a vino savvy audience.
This is part of a series of articles on FilmInFocus in which Mike Jones examines the role played by the internet in both film production (on Medicine for Melancholy and Taking Woodstock) and film promotion (Bottle Shock, Fast & Furious, Milk and Scott Walker: 30 Century Man.)
While marketing money may be (a little) less of an issue for bigger independent films, the object is still the same––shooting for a target audience. On the last day of Sundance 2008, while other filmmakers worried over who would buy their film, director Randall Miller decided to distribute his wine-country drama Bottle Shock himself. In truth, he had already started to market this true-life drama about the early days of California winemaking himself.
"What's really important when you decide to make your movie, right before it gets announced somewhere in the press, is to buy all the domains associated with it," says Miller, who says studios sometimes have to pay upwards of 10 grand to buy a domain from a quick-clicking entrepreneur. "So we bought eight domains. Like bottleshock.com, bottleshock.net, bottleshockthemovie.com, etc."
After putting up a simple placeholder page, Miller and his producing partner, Jody Savin (who is also the film's co-writer), decided to polish it after getting accepted into Sundance. "We spent a lot of money and made it really nice because as an indie you have to smell and look like a real movie," says Miller. Of course, with stars like Bill Pullman, Dennis Farina and Alan Rickman, Bottle Shock was a real movie, but they wanted to go the extra step. "So we probably did more than the equivalent movie would do," Miller added.
Early on, the producers realized the travel theme of their film and tapped into a relationship with American Airlines, which is prominently displayed in a particular scene. American returned the favor by giving them air tickets, which the producers used to fly talent to the Sundance Film Festival.
After Sundance, Miller altered the site to serve the film's upcoming release. They hired Freestyle Releasing to handle the logistics of distributing their film, while Miller and the film's producers worked on ways to get butts into seats. "The one thing about an indie movie, generally, is there is usually some interested, specific party. For us it was wine and the destination of Napa," he says. "So we really tried hard to hook those two together."
Miller says marketing on the internet is still like the Wild West. Unlike television advertising, there isn't a formalized process. First he knew there would be a challenge to reach the film's audience through the web. "We tried to figure out how to hit all the people that were into wine because they're not generally out there surfing the internet." Miller bought pop-up ads on various wine sites. They also linked their website to the California Tourism Board, which after a huge success with Alexander Payne’s Sideways––which takes place a during wine tasting tour––is always eager to promote California's wine country. That partnership proved useful in roping in American Airlines again, which tagged Bottle Shock in their online travel promotions. They also gave travel tickets for a sweepstakes promoted on the Bottle Shock and California Tourism Board's websites.
"We also bought American Express Platinum and Gold member email lists. The pop-ups and spam linked to a thirty-second trailer. In the end, we bought 12 million of those," says Miller. While a deluge of spam can rub many the wrong way, Miller confesses, "That was our most successful internet campaign." And while they didn’t skimp on traditional media, they realized an advantage in using the web. "We bought a lot of TV commercials, but you don't really know who's watching it,” explains Miller. “It might not be the right audience. But with web advertising you're actually targeting specific interests. For us it was high-wealth individuals that drink wine."
The work has paid off, making Bottle Shock a theatrical and now DVD success. Their experience distributing Bottle Shock gave Randall and Savin a new and different marketing toolset, which they will be able to use at their new film distribution company, Consolidated Pictures Group.
Mike Jones is a screenwriter and journalist based in Los Angeles. He’s held staff positions at Filmmaker Magazine, indieWIRE, Variety and currently blogs on the film festival beat at The Circuit. He's written scripts for Columbia, HBO, MGM/UA, among others. Recently The Gotham Group optioned his adaptation of The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break.