Whenever I post a short story, a video, or even a blog entry I feel a like a director at a red carpet premier. Not a celebrated director like Christopher Nolan or J.J. Abrams. More like a bottom tear auteur like Tommy Wiseau or Ed Wood, the kind of director who’s footing the bill for every exuberant extravagance out of his own pocket.
I couldn’t imagine feeling like a studio darling with a promotional juggernaut behind me. I always feel like the sad dad with a dream of being the next Steven Segal and enough free time to write, direct, and star in my own vanity project.
In this opening night allegory I spend almost all I have getting my movie made. I’m hoping to entice distributors, but I failed to ration for a long run. Instead I sunk my entire promotional budget into one weekend.
Now the only poster I could afford has the light on my forehead glaring in the opposite direction as the sun in the background. The only billboard I could afford was a fire-damaged frame leaning sideways atop the theater. The only news outlets I could get to cover the event are videographers working off college credit.
A few of the cast members got off work to be in attendance. They play on their phones in their tuxedo t-shirts, sweat pants, and skorts. I’m chain-smoking in the entryway to the theater waiting to cheer the first attendees on.
I rented my own searchlights in the hope that club-bound ridesharers might think they’re missing out on something, and maybe, just maybe a few of them might join us for the evening.
Still I gave away too many tickets to possibly make a profit. I’m counting on word of mouth to spread. I’m counting on these multiplex mavens to evangelize my brilliance. I’m counting on filmgoers nationwide to rise up and demand reels of my magnum opus for their local Cineplex, knocking out the slick nostalgic dredge they’re so tired of.
For a moment I feel legitimate in my sharp little suit as the wedding photographers I hired snap our pictures earn their keep. I feel like a somebody as the lone box office attendant beckons me in and directs me to my seat in the front.
Sure this isn’t the Chinese Theater, it’s been condemned since earlier this month, but it’s a real theater goddammit.
I’m nervously Hoovering popcorn into my mouth, muttering through the notes I wrote for my introduction speech, when the lights go dim.
In this setting, up on that big screen, it’s like I’m seeing my work for the very first time. I’m genuinely surprised by how well it turned out. I’m laughing so hard I can’t hear anyone else. That’s just how into it I am, gobbling Milk Duds and inhaling my large soda. I’m not going to lie I get a little teary eyed by the time the credits start rolling. This is my movie. I made this happen.
In keeping with this allegory I’ve yet to stand up and hear applause behind me. Instead I turn around to find I’m alone in theater. Even my friends and family have snuck out early.
I rip off my bowtie, crush up my cummerbund, and wedge it into the drink holder. My imposter syndrome flares up. I stagger out the exit angry, exhausted, and humiliated, a jackass who didn’t bring an umbrella because he assumed it would be nothing but blue skies from now on.
My phone rings. The limo driver wants to know if we’ve decided where the after party is going to be. I tell him there isn’t going to be one and he reminds me that I’ll still have to pay for keeping him waiting.
Why this is a Flawed Allegory
Every artist with a vanity project will experience some version of this opening night scenario, be it a folk guitarist having an album release event from the back corner of a sandwich shop, a painter in a gallery overlooking an active crime scene, or an eBook publisher shortly after hitting the PUBLISH button.
It’s a common misconception to think the opening night reception will tell you how your art will perform throughout its entire lifespan. Hollywood works that way, as does the Nielsen ratings system, and even the videogame industry, but not every medium.
Hollywood funnels a lot of money into advertisements because they expect an immediate return on their investment. Based on those early metrics sequels get green lit, pilots go to series, and video game developers start working on DLC.
As a writer I can’t help but internalize my poor opening night performances. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve published a story, an audio book, or a blog entry, thinking it was going to be a viral hit only to see that not one of my 6,000 plus Twitter followers shared it.
It’s hard to find the energy to promote something that seems to land with such a thud, but here’s the thing we writers have to keep reminding ourselves: OUR MEDIUM ISN’T FILM.
Most movies make half their profits in the first week of release and half of their budgets go to advertising on the front end. Film studios need those opening box office numbers to know if they should keep the TV ads going or if they need to speed up their home release schedule to piggyback off their current ad cycle.
Meanwhile books can take entire generations to catch on. Moby Dick got harpooned by critics (pun intended), was a total commercial failure, and was out of print when its author Herman Melville passed on. That book took a century to become a hit.
Ideally you’ll live to see your work get some recognition, but don’t stop promoting if you sell nothing on the night you hit the PUBLISH button.
Opening Night Jitters Shouldn’t Matter
When self-publishing it helps to have a prerelease strategy, followed by a post release promotion cycle, but you should temper your expectations on the day you launch something.
Why? Because if it doesn’t garner any attention whatsoever you’re still going to need the emotional energy to help it along later.
The vast majority of self-published works rarely sell more than a dozen copies, but don’t give up too soon. I’m always reading articles about books finding audiences five years after the fact because the authors thought to swap the book covers.
That said don’t let that opening night punch in the gut knock you out. Get back up. Keep contacting Podcasters to see if they need panelists, keep running promotions on Amazon, keep sharing readings on YouTube.
Odds are you’re not a filmmaker weeping into the gutter. Your launch window isn’t as narrow. Your art still has time to grow. So grow it.