CORPORATE CASE STUDY: IFC advances indie films through various channels

A ramped-up PR effort is helping the Independent Film Channel spotlight the fact that it doesn't just show indie movies, but it produces, distributes, promotes, and funds them as well.

A ramped-up PR effort is helping the Independent Film Channel spotlight the fact that it doesn't just show indie movies, but it produces, distributes, promotes, and funds them as well.

While "independent film" is a favorite Hollywood phrase, filmmaking outside of Tinseltown has endured a long, slow road to acceptance. Early art-house explorers like Andy Warhol helped spark interest in subversive celluloid, but failed to grasp enough audience attention to attract notice from profit-orientated studios. But in 1989, when Sex, Lies and Videotape became the first indie movie to enjoy widespread success, the independent-film scene began to blossom into big business. First-time director Steven Soderbergh showed that American audiences didn't need Disney-esque plot lines, and, in fact, were ready to explore more complicated themes previously found mostly in art-house theaters. When Pulp Fiction grossed more than $100 million in 1994, it proved independent film had come of age, and that bigger budgets didn't equal bigger box-office returns. The same year that Quentin Tarantino's uber-cool urban epic kidnapped pop culture, the Independent Film Channel (IFC) was founded as a 24-7 outlet dedicated to making indie films as accessible to New Haven, CT and Louisville, KY as they were to New York and Los Angeles. Still intent on its mission of exposing larger audiences to the wide variety of film to be found outside of Hollywood's stately system, the channel has grown into a multifaceted media company that not only distributes indie efforts, but also produces, bankrolls, and promotes them as well. IFC widens its capabilities In 1997, IFC created IFC Entertainment, a division dedicated to furthering the company's reach in the indie world by expanding its capabilities. IFC Entertainment has grown to include IFC Productions, a feature-film production company; IFC Films, a film distributor; Next Wave Films, which funds indie efforts for emerging directors; and IFC Originals, which creates programming for the channel. The company also launched InDigEnt, an initiative dedicated to producing digital works; IFCRant, an interactive, cross-platform film publication that can be found on the web, TV, and in print; and a video-on-demand (VOD) service. The combination of those assets gives the IFC Companies a strong reach into all realms of media, but also means it has a complicated story to tell. In order to explain those different functions and help create a cohesive brand identity, IFC brought on new communications head Matt Frankel this year, and gave his department a mandate to help the different divisions create a single public image. It aims to do so by focusing on IFC's corporate objectives, while at the same time publicizing the company's various film and television offerings. Frankel, formerly a political strategist, took over the role of VP of communications only a few months ago. But already his team has helped manage one of the company's biggest events of the year - a sponsor's party at the Independent Spirit Awards - and has extensive plans for the months to come. "We want to be synonymous with independent filmmaking," explains Frankel of IFC's plans. "Our goal is to be a multitiered media company, one that is involved in all the major aspects of media." IFC also recently underwent a change of ownership, with new executives taking the lead. The company was previously a part of The Bravo Channel, which was sold to NBC. IFC is now part of Rainbow Media Holdings, a division of Cablevision Systems. Having a new executive staff and business strategy in place is one of the challenges Frankel's team is facing. "It's very newsworthy in the sense that it just happened," explains Frankel of the change. "We're now at a point where we have a strategy, a business model, and executives in place to move this multifaceted media company forward." Keeping the media up to date Part of the immediate focus is reaching out to the business and entertainment press to explain the changes and introduce the new C-suite. "I've always felt the best way to tell a story was to make sure reporters have access to people who can best explain the story," he says. "And the people who can best tell the story are our senior executives. What we've been focused on is making sure that reporters are aware of what we're trying to do and what our goals are." While handling that task, Frankel's team of 10 (he's currently looking to hire one more film publicist) also handles publicity for television and film projects simultaneously. Each person on the team has a different area of responsibility, some concentrating on particular types of press, while others concentrate on products. Last year, the company had enormous success as the distributor of My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Monsoon Wedding, among others. Working with outside specialty film publicity shops such as Falco Ink, Magic Lantern, and New York-based Donna Daniels on a dozen films a year, the company helps its smaller-budget films find audiences with creative, targeted campaigns. "There is an old strategy to putting out an independent film that still works to this day," says Daniels of IFC's approach to publicity. "It's very labor intensive and grassroots. IFC captures those elements." Daniels is currently helping IFC with its campaign for XX/XY, due out in theaters this month. In addition, IFC's slate for this year includes John Sayles' Casa de Los Babys, Sex is Comedy, and the documentary A Decade Under the Influence, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. The Richard LaGravenese-Ted Demme-directed film will be in theaters this spring, will then air in an extended version on IFC this fall, and then be offered as an even longer VOD version later in the year. The project will be one of IFC's largest marketing efforts to date, and highlights its desire to leverage all of its distribution channels around each product. On the television side, IFC promotes cult favorites such as Dinner for Five, a discussion between filmmakers and actors hosted by Jon Favreau. That show will also tie into IFC's new strategy by hosting Casa de Los Babys' cast members as guests - and backed by PR events - to promote the film's theatrical release. "On the day that we're taping the TV show, we're also going to do a special screening of the movie. Then after everything is over, we're going to have a reception," explains Frankel. "It's a really good example of how we're trying to leverage and utilize all these different tiers of media." Internet expansion Frankel's team is also getting ready for the Cable and Telecommunications Association for Marketing (CTAM) trade show in New Orleans, where the company will announce two new websites, www.ifcfilms.com and www.ifctv.com, designed to be "one-stop shopping" for independent-film information, says Frankel. "Our focus, in terms of the launch, is twofold," he explains. "We want to make sure that people are aware and utilize the sites. In addition, it's an important symbol of what IFC Companies is about: using a number of resources to broaden the independent-film audience." Despite the extensive work with entertainment, Frankel is quick to position his team as more than media experts. "Each of our people has a small staff that they work with and outside firms they work with to make sure we're strategically getting our message out," he says. "But ultimately, what we have is not a group of publicists, but a group of strategists." ----- PR contacts Vice President, communications Matthew Frankel Communications department assistant Louise Buscaino Director for consumer PR Elektra Gray Manager for trade and business PR Hannah Sheinbaum Consumer publicist Ellen Paz Trade publicist Christy Palmberg Communications assistant Wendy Mullin Director of film publicity Michelle Panzer Administrator for PR film publicity Saudia Davis

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