Three Unconventional Tactics Justin Simien Used to Make ‘Dear White People’ a Reality

As promised last month, I went back to Justin Simien’s interview with Chase Jarvis and oh boy, this conversation is so packed with great information for filmmakers… I will come back to it again.

The very first thing I want to focus on, is the unconventional path Simien took to make ‘Dear White People’. It’s informative, and empowering, two elements we can all use.

The CJ Live’s interview was titled ‘Overcome No and Beat the System‘, and this is exactly what Simien’s did. Before we delve into the three tactics he (organically) developed to make Dear White People an actual film, here are a couple of information about Simien’s background that I think are important to share to put his story into context:

[pullquote]”It was after those things coming in quick succession that I decided to give up my social life, literally close the blinds, lock the doors, stay inside, and treat my screenplay like it was my second job.”[/pullquote]

Simien started writing what would become Dear White People in 2005  thinking it would take him 6 months to write it.  At the same time, he started interning at Focus Feature in the publicity department, that turned into a job he thought he would keep for a year. 8 years later, he was still there but at night he would come home, write scripts, make webseries, and short films and ‘try to feed the creative beast‘. At some point though, Simien started drifting away from the Dear White People script, not being very happy with it, until he stumbled upon The War of Art (that he calls ‘the cure for any creative block’) and got two back-to-back wake-up calls from friends. “It was after those things coming in quick succession that I decided to give up my social life, literally close the blinds, lock the doors, stay inside, and treat my screenplay like it was my second job.”

Simien did many things, but here are three things he did that stand out for me not only as unconventional choices, but also as key elements for the film’s social success:

#1 – Test Out Lines on Twitter

Before Simien became a first time filmmaker, he was just a guy trying to write a screenplay in his room. But instead of keeping it to himself, he opened up a twitter account for his screenplay, to test the voice of one of his character, which also helped him starting building an audience and create awareness:

There was a twitter account during the writing process, and it was just called ‘Dear White People’, and people thought it was a joke account. It was really me sort of testing Sam’s personality and voice out in the world. So that’s how the @dearwhitepeople account started, if you scroll all the way down, you’ll see all this ‘dear-white-people-ism’, and the ones that were the most popular or the most divisive are the ones that made it into the film.

#2 –  Make a Concept Trailer

[pullquote]Let me tell you who was looking for this movie: nobody. [/pullquote]

Let me tell you who was looking for this movie: nobody. I worked in the industry so I knew that very well. Whenever I would pitch the movie, nobody was interested, I just saw their eyes glaze over. But I knew I had something, I treated it like my part time-job, I had a screenplay I was really proud of, did some table read so I felt like it was working. So I thought: what is the next possible step that I can take? I see the movie in my head, but the people I talk to, they are just not gonna see it the way I see it. 

So what I did, I took my tax return that year, it wasn’t much but I took those $2,000 and  I said let’s make a concept trailer. Let’s make a trailer treating the movie as if it already existed, and not doing this sort of backward concept trailer you usually see on YouTube but ‘this feels like it was cut from a real, finished movie’. And maybe that can help me get some meetings. It was the only thing I could do, I needed to do something with it, I didn’t have the money to make it, I didn’t have the fundraiser funds for it, because if you want to fundraise for a movie you need to have a lawyer… and I didn’t have anything. I had $2,000, and I had some friends, and I had experience in making things. We took that, we took our friends, we took people who were part of the table read, we had some auditions for some of the other roles and we went on to the UCLA campus, and got kicked off, and stayed anyway and shot this concept trailer. Shot this ‘what-if-this-was-a-movie-trailer’. And it came out really good, I’m not going to lie to you, I busted my ass, it was a lot of meticulous details for something really small, and really short, we shot it in two days, and we shot all these different scenes from the movie, and really just enough that we needed in order to have this two and half minute trailer. “

Watch the concept-trailer below:

#3 – Getting Traditional Financing the Unconventional Way

Once he finished his concept trailer, Simien decided to use his skills as a publicist and go directly to find his audience:

I was part of the Paranormal Activity campaign, we were part of making this big online conversations around this, so my brain was already sort of  kind of inclined to do something like that. So instead of using this concept-trailer to take meetings, I said “Fuck the meetings, let’s put this directly on YouTube and let’s see what happens.” And in my head I thought, maybe we’ll get a couple of hundred thousand views, it will make it an easier conversation to have, a hundred/two hundred thousand views, make it feel like there is kind of an audience for this already, my brain was inclined to give people a call to action, because online for me at that time, as on online publicist, it was all about giving people a call-to-action so you know, the best action people could do to make this movie made was to give me some money because I had none.

What ended up happening is that we go to a million views and $25,000 in three days. So the trailer went wildly viral, and the Indiegogo went on to making about $46,000 and we were able to really start pre-production for this film right out of the gate. I was able to start casting, scout locating, find a line producer, while we took meetings in Hollywood to talk about this viral sensation. And that was just the beginning -unfortunately- but that was the beginning of our campaign, I never had to go into a room and pitch the movie or pitch myself.

Simien quit his job when the concept-trailer went online to be able to take meetings, and because they were about to close a deal to finance the film. But the deal fell through, and for a year and half, deals kept falling through. Simien got a lot of meetings with Hollywood Studios that always liked the movie, and the team, but ended up saying no after the project ran through the business affairs department:

A yes turned into a no in every scenario and it was devastating to go a year and half on the hills of what felt like a hit online, and be told no over and over by the Studios. But something amazing happened in the course of that year and a half. What happened is that we kept building an audience, and we just kept the conversation going and making content. A year and half later, our audience was huge and we had 25,000 dedicated fans. Dedicated fans. People who bought the T-shirt that we had, and talked about the movie online, watched everything that we did, and we had fans for something that didn’t even exist yet. And that was the only way we were able to get our financiers involved.

So, to put things in perspective: Dear White People is a story that spans over a decade, because even if the film is done now, Simien is still hard at work promoting it, talking about it, and dealing with festivals, awards, online and theatrical distribution etc. During those ten years, Simien had to deal with many obstacles, and even though he found creative ways to overcome those obstacles, for a long time, there was another obstacle waiting for him right after the one he had left behind. Getting a million hit wasn’t enough. Getting $46,000 wasn’t enough. Getting 25,000 followers wasn’t enough. But all those things, plus having a good script, plus having a good team, plus, plus, plus were enough.

It might feel overwhelming, unless you decide to see it as inspiring. We all have different ways to look at things, and if we can shift our perception and put our unique thinking into problem solving, we can take our project into the next level, and keep it alive when the system says we should burry it and shut up.

If you enjoyed Simien’s journey, I can’t recommend enough you watch the Chase Jarvis Live interview.