The Indie Film Maker Whose Movie Got Picked Up by Netflix

How a young producer marketed his art

The Indie Film Maker Whose Movie Got Picked Up by Netflix
Photo by CardMapr on Unsplash

How a young producer marketed his art

When Jonathan Augustin started out, all he had was an idea.

The idea that life is like a lift, an elevator. Sometimes it takes you up, and at others, it takes you down. It all depends on what buttons you press, as in, the choices you make.

He was sixteen when he joined the Indian movie industry. The first realisation that hit him in the face was that most of the people were well connected and a part of the ecosystem. Being an outsider, he understood early on that whatever was to be done, he had to make it happen on his own. The lack of contacts and resources meant that he had to first figure out the story he wanted to tell, and then raise the money to make the project a reality.

He believed in his idea enough to keep campaigning for it even with all the odds stacked against him. He believed in it enough for it be picked up by Netflix one day, and the rest, as they say, is history. His brainchild, the movie The Lift Boy, is a testament to that.

The movie is a beautiful coming-of-age story focussing on 24-year-old Raju, who is forced to take up the position of an elevator (lift) operator for a few days after his father is hospitalised. Initially, Raju resents everything about the job, including the bland orange uniform and the strict working hours inside a closed elevator. But, with time, he starts appreciating the intricacies of the position, as well as understanding the effort his father must have been putting into this job over the years. At its core, the movie has the message of how life becomes more bearable once we accept our circumstances and emotions, and stop trying to run away from them.

Apart from the stellar performance of the cast and a story powerful enough to tug at one’s heartstrings, what I loved the most about the movie was how honest it felt, as if the filmmakers were talking directly to the viewers and telling that no matter what they are going through, things will eventually get better.

I was fortunate to get a chance to have a one-on-one chat with the director, Jonathan Augustin. He was such a humble and down-to-earth person who taught me some invaluable gems about marketing, creativity, and the wonders relentless optimism can bring.

This article is about the lessons I learned from the maker of The Lift Boy. Since they focus on marketing and creativity, these lessons can be applied to not just movies, but any product, service, or business a person is trying to sell.

Reaching the Right Audience

Jonathan says that the team had a limited budget for promotions, and hence, they focused more on “push,” rather than “pull.” They relied on a few approaches, as mentioned below:

Aggressive sales and word of mouth

Jonathan and his team focused on selling as many tickets as possible through bulk booking. They reached out to universities, colleges, and film clubs, and scheduled a theatrical release on 18 January 2019. They sold more than 15,000 tickets through word of mouth alone.

This is a remarkable feat, one Jonathan says was possible because of the hustle and the mental agility that is inculcated in a person who has been working in the startup ecosystem and the advertising world for a while.

Title and poster

“The first marketing touchpoint of any film is the title, followed by the poster and the trailer. If these generate enough interest, any viewer is going to watch the movie.”

Since The Lift Boy had a good title, Jonathan tried to get a unique poster designed. The result was a beautiful reddish rust colour, something totally different and abstract. These elements helped, as did the overall aesthetic and packaging of the film, which endeared it to many movie watchers all over the world.

Consistent efforts

Jonathan quoted a line that holds true for all businesses:

“Content is king, but distribution is the kingmaker.”

The entire team of The Lift Boy was focused on the distribution. They tried various avenues, such as:

  • The film had a theatrical release in India on 18 June 2019. The movie was marketed as a three-day limited edition release, which generated a lot of buzz and ended up selling full house shows in big cities like Mumbai, Bangalore, and Pune.
  • The movie was picked up by BookASmile, the charity initiative of India’s leading entertainment destination, BookMyShow. This helped the movie screen in front of thousands of underprivileged children across India.
  • There were theatrical releases of the movie in several other countries like UAE, Poland, and Taiwan. It was part of six international festivals and one in India (image attached).
Image: Author (published with the consent of the interviewee)
  • The team reached out to some key influencers to watch and review the film, which generated some curiosity among the cinephiles and made the team enough money to justify the theatrical releases.
  • A big turning point came when the movie was picked up by Channel Four UK.

How you can apply these lessons to your business

Since the lessons learned from Jonathan are valuable and can be applied to any business (and not just movies), here are some ways you can apply them-

  1. Promote, promote, promote. Don’t underestimate the power of word of mouth marketing and always try to get your name, or the name of your business, on as many lips as possible. It could mean advertisements or being constantly visible on social media.
  2. Pay attention to make the first touchpoints attractive to your target audience. For example, in the case of blog posts, this could mean writing an attractive title and subtitle.
  3. Try as many avenues and think of creative ways to make your work as visible as possible. Think of out-of-the-box solutions to marketing and reach out to bloggers or influencers who might help.

Getting Picked up by Netflix

Jonathan says that his initial plan was to digitally release the movie in December 2020. But, with the pandemic and the theatres all over the world being closed down, the team decided that it was better to pitch it right then.

“We acted fast. We reacted faster. We saw the pandemic coming in and we were proactive enough to get the film out there ASAP.”

Things worked their way and magic happened. Moods were at an all-time low and people were looking for a light, feel-good movie with a strong social message that fills up the viewer with hope and optimism.

The Lift Boy was released on Netflix on April 27th 2020. The reviews started pouring in, and the movie spent a lot of time in the Top 10 Trending Movies on Netflix in India, Pakistan, Singapore, and UAE. It was also among the popular releases in UK, USA, Taiwan, and South Africa.

This was a defining moment for the movie. Netflix, with its viewership of about 180 million people in 190 countries across the world, turned the tables. The acquisition opened up a lot of new avenues for the movie. However, this happened almost fifteen months after it was released. In Jonathan’s own words:

“Give the film time to breathe and let the film find its audience. You’ve got to be patient with it.”

Until then, all you can do is build the film’s brand equity, curate it, nurture it, and be as aggressive with promotions as possible.

“The whole idea is to get the film out there as much as possible and just keep showing it to the people, asking them to watch the film.”

Piracy and its unexpected benefits

Once the movie was available on Netflix, a problem that arose was that several people pirated it and released it on YouTube for free. It was bad for sales, but, surprisingly, it gave a lot of mileage and validation to the filmmakers.

“Even today, on average, we keep reporting two to four leaks every day, especially on the weekends. While we are completely against piracy, this just shows that people are genuinely interested in watching the film. Through the leaked footages, we came to understand that the film is finding its audience.”

How you can apply these lessons to your business

Understand that just because your work has not immediately received the appreciation or audience it deserves, don’t give up. Keep pushing your work towards the right audience and more importantly, keep believing in it.

Lessons in Marketing

After its release on Netflix, The Lift Boy was watched for thousands of hours and garnered numerous positive reviews. With a smile, Jonathan recounts the story of how a young boy in Ahemdabad messaged him to say that his father was a driver, and he had always felt ashamed of him for the job. But, watching the movie gave the boy clarity and struck a chord with him.

The film has also garnered some fantastic reviews from film critics and watchers alike.

Image: Author (published with the consent of the interviewee)

I asked Jonathan what the one thing he wished he knew before releasing the movie was.

He said that no matter how good your content is, it is an uphill battle to get people to watch the film in theatres. Initially, they were under the impression that if a movie was released theatrically and a bit of marketing was done, there would be a domino effect and word would spread. Sadly, that’s not the case, and several more hurdles need to be crossed.

“If you spend a million dollars making the film, you have to spend at least a million more dollars in marketing, distributing and releasing it. For a safe bet, you can double that amount to two million dollars.”

For a film to do well, you need aggressive distribution and awareness among the masses. Both of these happened to be costly affairs. Setting aside a budget for marketing before releasing the movie helps.

How you can apply these lessons to your business

No matter how good your content is, you need to have a separate budget for marketing. After all, content is king, but distribution is the kingmaker.

Lessons in Creativity

In all 29 years of Jonathan’s life, I asked him if he had to share one creativity tip, what would it be. Here’s what he said-

“I used to always think that there’s the ultimate Eureka moment you will have in your life. But that never happened. In reality, you can never achieve that perfect creative output. Creativity is a constant pursuit. You’ve got to keep failing forward, and keep trying to top yourself up and dream big, imagine bigger, and then try and achieve that.”

Indeed, creativity is only 2% of the idea. The rest 98% is all about the execution.

How you can apply these lessons to your business

If you sit around waiting for a great idea to strike you, chances are, you will never have your moment of inspiration. You have to keep doing what you do best, work at bettering your skills, and make yourself worthy so that when the ideas spot you, they feel you are the right fit for them.

The Bottom Line

Getting to chat with Jonathan Augustin was an incredible learning experience. I learned so much from him about movie-making, marketing, and the pursuit of creativity. Summing up, here are the fundamental tenets of our chat:

  1. Aggressive marketing and reviews by established film critics help in generating initial buzz.
  2. It might take time for a movie to reach its right audience. Patience is essential, as is not giving up after not achieving immediate success.
  3. A good film with decent reviews has a high chance of getting picked up by Netflix. It all depends on the timing and opportunities in the industry in that period.
  4. Piracy is detrimental to a movie’s earnings. However, it makes people want to watch the film even more and acts as validation to the makers.
  5. No matter how good your content is, it is an uphill battle to get people to watch the film in theatres. For best results, the budget for the promotion of a movie has to be at least double the budget for making the movie.
  6. There is no Eureka moment when it comes to creative pursuits. No matter how good an idea you might have, the final product depends on how well you execute it.

Jonathan’s final words were inspiring.

“I’m a die-hard optimist. Things are simple for me: once you set a goal in life, get it done no matter what.”