Spread The Word! – “Marketing” A Mental Health Film Festival

Acceptances have been rolling in, films are being uploaded, events are being planned. Mental Filmness 2022 is starting to gel and cohere in a wonderful way. Now it’s time to get the word out and promote to viewers.

Marketing and promotion is my weakest asset, and I know it. I have a couple of helpers this year, but probably need more. The reasons for this are many-fold.

A lot of it has to do with myself. We all contain multitudes, and believe it or not, in many ways my personality type is that of the classically shy librarian. I never want it to appear that I’m bragging about anything I do—I always want to put the emphasis on the importance of the theme and the amazing lineup of films by the brave filmmakers telling their story. But then I always question myself—is this endeavor, in a way, selfish? Do I want some attention or some validation or gift from the universe for my suffering?

What makes this nagging self-doubt uncomfortable is that the answer to these questions is at least a partial yes. Like most people do, I like being recognized or praised for achievements. I like being associated with a cause. It’s selfish for me in a way because others’ stories about mental health DO validate me and my experiences in a way, and help me feel less alone–even if the hope is it will reach others, as well. And sure, I don’t mind getting kind commentary and compliments for hard work.

Another big reason is because of the sensitive nature of the topic, I want to avoid any kind of marketing techniques that seem….well, kind of tacky. I feel like our biggest and most appreciative audience is probably in the mental health field rather than in the film festival world, and it seems kind of invasive and inappropriate to try to “market” something to a suicide loss survivor or depression and bipolar support group—even when what you’re “marketing” is a free collection of films screened by a recently incorporated nonprofit, and the goal is just to get them seen and related to.

I’m still trying to define the audience in a way. Unfortunately, I feel like mental illness is one of those topics, like the notorious topics of politics and religion, that people don’t change their minds about easily until it deeply touches their life—unless they or a loved one experience it, it’s all too easy to think of as abstract or unreal. I’ve had some people say to me, “This film really helped me understand my son’s depression,” or something along those lines, but I feel like those people already *wanted* to understand. People who are resistant to the recognition of mental illness as a real illness are a more difficult audience to reach, and then does it just become preaching to the choir?

And then people who *do* live with mental illness may not necessarily want to see the films because they feel the films will be too triggering or depressing. I often try to explain we receive a diverse variety of entries, and many filmmakers have found humor in it, and many films are uplifting but I won’t lie to you—some are depressing. Some don’t have happy endings, and I think that’s both by the design of the filmmaker and jury selection. We do have a realism award, after all. I also totally understand that reaction from those who already cope with mental illness on a daily basis.

I’ve had some ask if this is the first festival of its kind, and it’s not, but it’s the first in Chicago, which is usually how I bill it. I’ve researched other mental health film festivals, and many of them partner with a mental health organization and screen at a university or somewhere similar. I do feel like our mission falls under the umbrella of “charitable or educational” rather than “entertainment” (and the former is what we registered our nonprofit under). At the same time, I feel like our visiting filmmakers deserve a real movie theater, red carpet, and audience for being so brave and making such bold, stigma-breaking art, and I feel like we need to fill seats in venues for them, just like any other more traditional entertainment-based film fest.

I guess now maybe you can see some of the issues inherent in promoting a mental-health based film festival. I feel like this is a growing topic and the openness and conversation is building every day, and so may our audience (hopefully).

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