How to Make a Film Go Viral: Indie Filmmakers Tell All

Jim Cummings is the ultimate modern filmmaker: He conceived of his Sundance-winning short in a hot tub, wrote it by speaking his story into a voice recorder while commuting to and from his day job at College Humor, self-funded it, directed it, starred in it, and eventually edited his single-shot short from his laptop—usually from an economy airplane seat.

But the scrappy making of Thunder Road isn’t where his story ends. After a successful festival circuit in which it won Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize for Best Short Film, Jim also proved he’s a savvy self-marketer when he decided to release his short online, forgoing the industry’s traditional distribution model. Within two days, his 12-minute film earned thousands of social shares and was watched almost 250,000 times.

More and more, independent artists are forgoing the agency- and big studio-hustle in favor of releasing the films themselves, usually so they can reach audiences where they devour content most: on their phones and laptops. “There’s no barrier between the audience and the artist and that’s very new. It’s changing the way this industry works,” Cummings said about his decision to release his film on his Vimeo channel in advance of its big-screen L.A. premier.

While Jim was able to share his work with the masses by simply hitting submit while at his kitchen table in his “tighty-whiteys,” he did his fair share of prep work to make sure the first 48 hours of his film’s online life was a success. We caught up with Jim at Sundance’s NEXTFEST for Thunder Road‘s L.A. premier to talk about his incredible story of creative hustle and agency. Watch the live interview below:

The Major Take-Aways? Here are the tips we gleaned from Thunder Road‘s online release:

Prepare your content
Jim created a Spark Page, detailing the making of Thunder Road and providing a personal, behind-the-scenes look for his most engaged audience members. Because the Page looks great and was easy to create, Jim was able to pull this story together quickly and have one link to send to people who might be interested in helping him spread the word about the film.

Adobe Spark Page

Click the image above to read about Jim’s road to Sundance.

Challenge: Tell your own origin story with a visual, stunning Page like this one!

Most importantly, though, Jim was thoughtful about the kinds of stories he told about his film. People love behind-the-scenes looks and writers and editors tasked with covering your work need interesting angles to help make their own stories stand out. Don’t make them hunt for those angles themselves; serve them up so they’re more likely to bite.

Before you put your work out there—or better yet—while you’re creating it, think about what makes your journey special. Did you overcome the odds in some way? Did something terrible or terribly funny happen? Did you utilize an interesting technique or work within incredible constraints? What were your expectations? Did it live up to the reality? All of these questions could be turned into stories that then serve to highlight your main piece of content. In Jim’s case, Thunder Road was filmed in a single shot, a technique he knew would be interesting to fellow filmmakers and officinados. Sure enough, that story was told countless times on blogs across the Internet. Jim also has an irresistible American Dream story: he’s an independent artist who wrote his film during commutes to a day job. Who hasn’t had that fantasy before? That tidbit about Jim immediately makes him relatable and sympathetic.

Above all make sure your story is true and authentic to you. Then tout it, unabashedly. When you can think critically about what makes you and your work interesting, you can help other people care about it as much as you do. And that’s the key to successful self-marketing.

Reach out to publications and influencers
Jim is no stranger to reaching out to people online. He earned the digital rights to the famous Bruce Springsteen song that plays during a pivotal moment in the film by pleading with the artist in a widely circulated open letter posted on Medium. That major win proves it: It never hurts to ask. Jim took the same approach to the release of his film. He created a list of influencers, which in his case were fellow filmmakers he admired and editors and writers at both small-time blogs and big-time publications. He tweeted or emailed each person personally asking them to watch and share his work.

Don’t underestimate the power of saying “Hey I made this. Please watch it and share it if you like it.”

This step is the most important part of getting your work seen. Unfortunately, for many creators, it can be the hardest. Even when the work is equal parts hilarious and heartfelt the way Thunder Road is, even when it’s been lauded and won awards, it’s still a scary thing to put yourself out there. Making things, whether it’s a film or business, takes courage. And so does marketing it. There’s not a single person on the planet impervious to the self-doubt that can creep in when you have to stand by your work or publicly ask others to support you. But the more you do it, the easier it gets. Celebrate the bravery it takes to own your story. People will respond to that and be more likely to help you.

Don’t forget about the little guys.
Fellow short filmmaker Andrew Laurich, whose short A Reasonable Request, also screened at NEXTFEST after enjoying viral online distribution, had another hot tip for getting your work into the news cycle. And that’s to seed your story to niche publications first. Often lesser-known blogs that are lazer focused on a particular topic feed the larger news cycle by covering topics often initially ignored by broader publications. Once those pieces start circulating or gaining traction, writers at the publications with larger reach are more likely to take notice. So keep your eye on the big publications like Buzzfeed and Vulture, but don’t forget to seed your story to fellow indie writers who are hungry for a scoop.

Leverage Reddit
Often touted as the front page of the Internet, Jim and other filmmakers rely on Reddit’s democratic nature to give life to what is deemed culturally or socially relevant. Jim recommends posting the work to Reddit channels that are relevant to your work in order to target audiences most likely to take notice. He also conducted a Reddit AMA (ask me anything) to help add fuel to the fire.

While making it to the front page of the Internet is largely in the hands of the masses, there are a couple things you can do to help it succeed: ask other people to post it on your behalf, ask your supporters to up-vote your link, or spin an original story that gets people engaging with your work. Watch the interview below to find out how Andrew Laurich hacked Reddit in order to help his short reach viral fame. In his case, a little online storytelling went a long way:

Time your release
Jim recommends releasing the work in the morning. He hit submit at 5am west coast time to catch the morning crowds on both coasts so that bloggers who sat down to write about something that day would see it first thing.

Once it’s live, glue yourself to social media
Once his film was live on Vimeo, Jim launched a 48-hour promotional blitz, in which he glued himself to social media. He retweeted people who supported him, reached out to publications and individuals, and thanked his supporters personally. Don’t underestimate how powerful simply engaging can be to help your work circulate.
Pro-Tip: Because social media is more visual than ever before, considering preparing cool images ahead of time you can share throughout the day. When it looks good, people are more likely to respond it.

Did you successfully market your own project? Got a tip for us? Let us know by sending a note on Twitter or Facebook: @AdobeSpark.

The OffWhite Podcast Reviews NEXTFEST films: