Sheri Candler and Jon Reiss always have great advice for DIY filmmakers working to get their project to its audience, especially when it’s a film that will be appreciated by a focused group of viewers who might not be found through the traditional film channels. With an estimated 35,000 films a year on the festival circuit, that’s a lot of content; if you’ve done your film well, having small but enthused viewership can still be thoroughly fulfilling, and a bit profitable.
and discuss decisions that made for a successful run. Not everybody lives the Sundance/PBS/national release dream, but “Joffrey” has found its happy audience.
The advice that Jon and Sheri give is testament to the technology that has turned documentary filmmaking into something democratic, grassroots, energetic. From the ever cheaper gear to shoot with to laptop editing, the task of making a film has changed immensely.
But so has the task of distributing.
Very early in creating our distribution strategy, we identified ballet fans (and more specifically fans of the Joffrey ballet and even more specifically the alumni of the Joffrey ballet-more on audience identification in a later post) as the natural audience for Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance.
Two major elements are huge: The ability for digital projection at theaters, auditoriums, universities and libraries, to name a few. And the use of social media to get the word out.
In their piece, they say this.
Even though a festival premiere is an event in and of itself, that is not always enough to attract attention from the media or from audiences. You should always strive to create your live events to be as unique as possible, both from the perspective of media coverage and from the perspective of the audience, to create that need to attend. Many subjects in the Joffrey film are iconic dancers in the ballet world, what ballet fan would not want to interact with them? We created a post screening panel of former dancers that the audience in the theater could interact with and meet after the screening, but we also enabled audiences even across the country the ability to interact as well.
The event can be something that creates larger word of mouth, and the social media came in strongly.
Through TweetReach, we were able to quantify the exposure via Twitter for the event. According to our TweetReach report, our hashtag #joffreymovie reached 200,549 people through 270 tweets just on that day.
The work in launching one’s film cannot be overlooked, but the methods of doing so now often work around the standard benchmarks.
World Happy Day was cold and a bit snowy in Newport, RI, when we attended the screening of Happy, Roko Belic’s documentary on the science and practice of being happy.
Didn’t know Feb. 11 was World Happy Day? That’s because Belic made it up, a la Festivus of “Seinfeld” fame. But whereas Festivus included “the airing of grievances” as its holiday tradition, the day and the documentary Belic conceived was about unburdening from the same.
The screening I attended at the Jane Pickens Theater drew 80 people, and I went because I have had the fortune of seeing Belic’s previous documentary, the 1999 Academy Award nominee Genghis Blues. While Belic’s chops as a filmmaker are obvious, Happy‘s savvy way of approaching its audience was likewise notable. The film screened at 600 locations worldwide, including not only dozens of theatrical screenings, but also events in homes and other venues.
Many filmmakers would love to have their premiere become an event, but most don’t. Belic got Happy into dozens of theaters in a variety of countries by creating excitement and a sense of event around the documentary and a holiday that doesn’t exist. Filmmakers have certainly attempted to piggyback on existing events, organizations and movements, while advocacy organizations have become adept at creating “days,” “weeks” and “months” — see my previous post about Black History Month — that heighten awareness (or sales). Belic seems to have nicely combined those two routes. (More February holidays you’ve never heard of are in this list, with today among other things being National Get A Different Name Day.)
Happy is a prescriptive documentary. Not caring to simply sit back and tell its stories, it advocates. It’s an array of tales of people who have found happiness (including an impoverished Indian rickshaw driver and a former debutante scarred by a horrible accident), combined with a panel of scholars who have studied and pondered the question of happiness in human existence.
Happy played an assortment of film festivals, winning laurels at several that include Amsterdam Film Festival, the Arizona International Film Festival and the Mexico International Film Festival. Belic crowdfunded successfully last year on Kickstarter, raising more than $36,000 for shooting that took him to Denmark, India, Japan and Bhutan.
It’s a really nice film, and a Google search of Sunday’s news showed that World Happy Day may have gotten a foothold, with an amount of media coverage that surprised me, including hits with Forbes and local news. With its smart work from funding, to production, to release, Happy is a smile-inducing effort by a resourceful documentary filmmaker.
I talked with a New York-based documentary filmmaker recently who bemoans the black hole that many film-festival submissions have become. After forking out $25 to $100 a pop to enter, do you have any idea who’s actually passing judgment? Or if anyone even opened your DVD and watched it? You rarely get notified of decisions, much less get feedback. And you aren’t even sure what the festival wanted to program in the first place…
I also talked with an experienced L.A.-based documentary filmmaker who is one of the “lucky ones.” He was accepted to a festival that touts itself as “major,” but is it? He flew cross-country on his own dime to be at his screening and support the work, and when he walked through the door, the audience numbered 12. Turns out the film received virtually no publicity or marketing other than a posted schedule on the festival’s messy, intern-created website. The festival director told him it’s his job to bring in audience.
Welcome to filmmaking at the end of The Oughts! Where filmmakers can spend more money entering festivals than the entire cost of a DSLR production. Where the homogenization of the process means it’s hard to tell what a festival wants or why it wants it, or who it thinks will show up, or what you get out of it. And where piles of DVDs fill festival offices, and festival directors beg volunteers to watch a batchful, at no pay, mismatching content and judge.
I’ve judged a few festivals and have been on other such related juries (certainly never paid to do so), and it can be a rather messy sausage factory. With previous film projects, I’ve been in festivals, and I’ve entered festivals, and wondered why I bothered.
What concerns me is that a lot of festivals seem to be accruing most of their revenue by milking the ethereal aspirations of filmmakers, who relentlessly pursue meaningless palmares for their DVD jackets (“Runner-Up, Audience Award, East Nowhere International Film Festival!”), rather than the concrete paying support of a meaningful audience. The entry-fee system brings in money up front, while festival audiences, offering a revenue stream for one week out of 52, are less dependable, and fickle too, easily lost to weather, the economy or competing events.
Ironically, the drastic reduction in the cost of making films, because of digital technology, also means more people than ever are entering festivals. Festivals from Sundance (6,467 entries this year) to The Krakow Film Festival (2,700 entries this year) to The Heartland Film Festival (832 entries in 2010 compared to 647 fours years before) are touting unprecedented numbers of entries. The little Beaufort (S.C.) International Film Festival boasted a record number of entries last year, with 204.
Let’s talk about what I’m not talking about: Sundance. Toronto. Tribeca. IDFA. And a handful of others that can have definable impact on a film’s success (See A.J. Schnack’s top 25 festivals for documentary filmmakers). Those are your Powerball tickets. When you get in, it matters. If you don’t get in, you pretty much expected it. I’m not talking about the these festivals, but rather the other thousands of festivals that charge just as much for the honor of their sometimes-mysterious consideration.
I tried contacting the popular festival submission service Withoutabox, which lists 3000+ festivals worldwide. It’s owned by IMDb.com, which in turn is owned by Amazon.com. No response. But blogger Roberta Munroe, the author of How Not To Make A Short Film: Secrets From A Sundance Programmer wrote this about it:
“Listen up, my friends. Withoutabox is a business. Sure, there are some very cool tools they provide filmmakers and film festivals alike. However, it is their business to have you submit to as many festivals as possible because that creates a significant income for their business. Keep in mind that they also charge film festivals to list themselves on their site. It’s a business.”
Festivals may start as labors of love, but they become businesses. Some fail because they just can’t do good business, while some seem to not just do bad business, but abuse the festival-fee system. There was talk earlier this year on chat boards about a Southwest film festival director who received 500 (paid) entries, then programmed seven films, including his own and two of his buddies’ films. I know one festival in the Northeast whose opening night featured a documentary film on which the festival director was listed as the executive producer. Yet another festival in the Upper Midwest reportedly withheld money from prize-winning filmmakers, and then just stopped answering emails about what was going on.
Film festivals are defended as being in the filmmakers’ interests, but the minute they charge $50 to enter, it goes beyond that. It then becomes transactional. That consequently means there should be some sort of accountability. So, I wonder, why the following aren’t possible:
1. That festivals, and agents such as Withoutabox, be transparent about the selection process
Who are the juries and what are their credentials (even the Pulitzer Prizes reveal both juries and final judges)? Is there a system to follow not only whether a film was received, but whether it was actually viewed? Part of this should include an acknowledgment (and refund) when films are not accorded some minimal standard of consideration?
2. That festivals issue specific Calls For Entries
What do you want? Why do you want it? Do you have an aesthetic, a passion, a direction? Do you stand for something? Are you favoring local or regional films? As Independent film marketing specialist Sheri Candler says, many festivals “do not seem in the least unique or offer a real sense of whether the fest is a good fit for your film. … Are they trying to attract submission fees from the largest filmmaker audience possible, knowing full well that most of those films won’t be a fit and won’t be chosen? Or do they really not have an identification and seek to have something for everyone in their community?” Everybody can’t just vaguely say they simply want the “best work.”
Be about something! It may reduce your entry-fee revenue, but it’s the ethical to do.
3. That entry-fee-charging festivals provide feedback to filmmakers
If a filmmaker coughs up $50 to enter, is there some tangible benefit coming back? Or even a shred of feedback? Might a reaction, of reasonable thoughtfulness, be part of the service received for the price of entry? Over the years, I’ve judged print-media awards, grants and fiction-writing competitions, and in nearly all cases we as judges did sit and write our reaction, with specifics, with our names on it. Those comments, even if disputed, at least proved the work was viewed.
4. That festivals disclose when its viability depends on entry fees
Follow the money. If a festival accrues 90 percent of its budget from entry fees, then something’s just plain wrong. Should filmmakers assume their fees are actually for staging the festival? Initially, I presumed fees were primarily covering the cost of a legitimate assessment process. Or is the name of the game for some festivals to generate up-front money and then hold it dear? In some instances, I’ve seen what once started out as an annual labor of love getting stretched into entry-generating sub-festivals throughout the year.
5. That Withoutabox better enables filmmakers to provide systematic feedback about festivals
I’d love to see feedback from Withoutabox customers (i.e., fee-paying filmmakers), which will help other filmmakers judge the value of entering a given festival. I’m not talking about the scattershot Withoutabox chat boards that tend, like all chat boards, to capture people at their most frustrated (and there is a lot of frustration on them). I’m talking about a more systematic approach (eBay or Amazon customer ratings are something of a model). Seeing a broad response from those who have actually been to these festivals, or entered them, helps filmmakers.
6. That festivals match their entry fees with the level of service provided
I’ll take on one argument worth considering, which is that high entry fees serve as “Please Go Away!” de-incentivizers to keep filmmakers from blithely submitting everywhere. The richest university in the world, Harvard, still charges $75 to apply, in part to keep too many unlikely admissions candidates from wasting everybody’s time. But the scrutiny on those decisions are intense, and the money put into getting applicants a fair shake is significant. I’m not sure a lot of these mid-level and small festivals can make such justifications.
Indeed, festivals fees may be encouraging a lot of documentary filmmakers to “go away” — to the web. A documentary filmmaker with an idea of who the audience is for his or film may be better off avoiding the near-scams that some festival-fee setups seem to have become.
New festivals are forgoing the entry fee. The inaugural ArcLight Documentary Film Festival, taking place in at the ArcLight Theater in Los Angeles in November, did not charge a fee, listed their major jury members by names and titles, and asked the public to vote on trailers posted to YouTube and Facebook to help cull the films to the 10 to be screened. ArcLight’s may not be the model, but it’s an interesting one. There are surely others.
As audiences come to expect interaction along with media consumption, “old” media is showing documentarians the potential for video as a tent pole in cross-media storytelling.
Since its invention, film has been a permanent medium. And like a book with its threaded binding, a documentary film’s spooled polyester strip represents a series of moments set in figurative stone. We find ourselves in dark rooms absorbing its definitive message, a product of months, or years, of inquiry.
But a stand-alone film, these days, works against the nature of modern media, with its vortex of information, reaction and reassessment. New media actually invites the involvement of audience, rather than simply its attention. And this interaction has come to define the media landscape.
Could documentaries form the permanent center in a changing tableau?
An audiovisual work that evolves as its topic evolves could be the future of the form. Part of the drive to work across platforms, into a digital environment, relates to something as simple as return visits to a site, which one might translate to mean “increased engagement” in a social issue, or “increased revenue.” The dirty secret of online journalism is that those comment sections below stories, those cesspools of discourse, create return visits and, by virtue of that, ad impressions. Gawker has built its empire not on the content but on the comments, an example of morphing media that extends a story’s life by days. A documentary that can be the foundation of an ongoing discussion gives it a life beyond a single view.
Nancy Porter and Harriet Riesen’s Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women crossed platforms with a documentary and book.
We’ve seen this starting along cross-traditional-media lines. Take, for example, Nancy Porter and Harriet Riesen’s Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women. It straddled two traditional media forms — film and books — and re-told the story of the great American author of Little Women. The documentary ran on PBS’s American Masters program and the book was published by Henry Holt & Co., an example of a project that took advantage of the strengths of moving pictures and of print, and in the process worked to promote one another. Sebastian Junger and the late Tim Hetherington’s doc Restrepo was also part of a dual effort, leading to Junger’s book War.
But beyond that, with online video players and ever-more-sophisticated websites, projects can be organic, and can use the long-term commitment to a film as the so-called “tentpole” of a bigger effort.
James Colquhoun and Laurentine ten Bosch’s Food Matters, a film about overcoming illness through diet, has seemed to me a larger movement, in which the film is the anchor. The film’s website is as much about healthy choices as about the documentary, with an array of articles and products toward that end.
The Cross-Media Potential for Issue-Based Documentaries
The possibilities for a site to grow around the documentary is what I’m talking about, not just what Amanda Hirsch previously called on this blog “video plopped on a website.” The idea of bringing a viewer back to a site because of regularly posted multimedia content is different than simply creating a standing multimedia presentation.
Issue-based films could have a bigger impact (and bigger audience), potentially, with a cross-media approach. The Cove has a blog that continues to illuminate its cause, but still has the lilt of PR instead of passionate pursuit of its issue. (Note to filmmakers: Don’t make “Donate” one of the biggest links on your page. Make people want to give by the work you show them).
I liked the Oscar-nominated 2010 documentary Gasland, about the environmental impacts of natural gas drilling. While Gasland’s site has features that promote some involvement with the ongoing cause, it’s a site promoting the documentary, rather than being a larger collaborative site in which the documentary is part of the whole. I’m not promoting the idea of a film website with bells and whistles. I’m talking about a collaborative information center that brings a subject to light — The more audience members seek information, the more they get.
News Organizations Telling Documentary-Centered Stories
mixes stories, video and background material.
Documentary producers, such as Colquhoun and ten Bosch, have begun to embrace the idea of connecting on different levels with all the tools the digital environment provides, but the most notable recent cross-platform projects have come from the domain of journalism.
Newspaper websites have mostly led the charge in using multiple media platforms to tell a story. Take California Watch’s On Shaky Ground, which mixes stories, video and background material to create a big picture. Here, though, for obvious reasons, text dominates.
The New York Times‘ online project A Year At War took that concept further. Through its “Features,” “Shorts” and “Moments” sections, it created a nonlinear tableau of first-rate work that had all the gravitas and artfulness of a fine documentary. The “Moments” piece Morning Shave lasts only 15 seconds, but it picks up the force of fine photojournalism. The site’s related writing supports it nicely.
And look at Now What, Argentina?, a project created by students at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication and Pontificia Universidad Católica Argentina. It merges video, audio, text and photography to tell a broader story, though it doesn’t have a single focal film.
Questions for Docmakers to Consider
I wonder if too many documentary filmmakers are locked in to the decades-old mindset of the festival–distributor–theatrical route, when the possibilities of cross-platform projects can lead to collaboration and, by nature of that, extension. Could your documentary be the anchor for an assortment of essays on the topic you explore? Could new video or audio continue to augment what you’ve done in the film? Could original reporting or a newsfeed keep people abreast of news on the topic? Could you take cues from video games to keep your topic fresh? Could visitors contribute data or multimedia to the project?
More and more, as the Holy Grail of the Theatrical Screening fades and the web becomes the go-to place for one’s work, will documentary filmmakers see the possibilities of a bigger picture? As convergence has defined the media in the past decade, so too will filmmakers need to find ways to redefine themselves and embrace that convergence.
In the span of a few short years, distribution in the independent film world has leaped from DIY (“Do It Yourself”) to DIWO (“Do It With Others” — i.e., crowdfunding) to what Ted Hope recently christened “direct interdependent distribution.” The term highlights a new relationship between filmmakers and audiences that relies even less on middlemen — and in some cases cuts them out completely.
Dynamo Player, Distrify and Distribber are three companies enabling documentary filmmakers to self-distribute films digitally
My documentary Library of the Early Mind is at the back end of a 14-month run of screenings to very respectable audiences at universities, libraries and museums in the United States and Canada. We’ve done about 50 since our premiere at Harvard, and close to 10,000 people having seen the film. Many of those viewers told us directly they wanted to buy a copy for their libraries or classes. Others wanted to watch it again or recommend it to friends. And others, we’d heard, couldn’t make a screening but would have wanted to see the film. Digital delivery reaches all of these groups, making it a newly legitimate choice for any filmmaker with an audience (or the ability to find one). And it’s a path we’re taking in December (along with a DVD release). In the handful of years since my previous documentary, people have simply become more comfortable viewing films on digital devices (just as my newly released book appears to far to be racking up more sales in Amazon’s Kindle store than in paper-and-ink).
While video juggernaut YouTube launched a paid rental service earlier this year, there is a widening circle of companies offering direct distribution — and its catching on among documentary filmmakers like me. Dynamo Player and Distrify are two platforms for filmmakers confident they have the marketing skill to move consumers to buy their product from their own website, while tying streaming to theatrical efforts and a DVD release. Both link purchases to Paypal or Amazon, and take a 30 percent cut of each sale. Distribber, owned by the crowdfunding company IndieGoGo, takes a fee up front to place films on high-traffic entertainment hubs such as iTunes, Amazon, Netflix, Hulu and cable video-on-demand. The percentages may rival a traditional distributor, but I know too many filmmakers who’ve rued the deals they struck with distributors whose idea of marketing was little more than an addition to a catalog.
Two Case Studies
followed a theatrical run and a DVD
with self distribution online
By the time the makers brought Until the Light Takes Us, a documentary about the “black metal” music scene in Norway, to direct online distribution, it had already been seen in theaters in the United States and internationally, watched on DVD and Blu-Ray and seen on Netflix and VOD. So, co-director Ewell says, “defining the audience that’s accessing the film via the Dynamo player is an interesting task.”
“First of all, it’s generally not people who saw it in theaters or who own the DVD,” she says. “I believe the appeal is primarily for people who casually hear about the film or have it recommended by a friend or via social media sharing, forums, etc., who then pop over to our website, where they find that it’s readily available. We see a slight uptick in usage whenever we have press around the film. There’s also an international element to the film and its fanbase, and not all international territories are served by local distribution.”
The filmmakers can set their own price, and Dynamo CEO Rob Millis says the sweet spot for a streaming window is $3 to $5. At a higher price, views (and revenue) fall. At a lower price, it doesn’t seem valuable when compared to the Hollywood competition (typically $2.99 or $3.99 for an online rental).
Ewell says she sees the online viewing audience this way: “I believe that people who watch the film on our site are watching for one of two reasons: either convenience or a desire to support our work. Or both. So I keep the price reasonable, but at a level that it actually matters. And we make it easy to access.”
Amy Slotnick sees
digital distribution as a
to build momentum
in a niche market.
Wake Up, in which director Elrod chronicles a spiritual awakening, premiered at SXSW in 2009 with a modest run of festivals and community screenings, but Producer Amy Slotnick says the film lends itself to delivery via the web.
“I think this model has worked for Wake Up because it is a film that speaks to a niche mind–body–spirit audience who are very active and passionate about the topics in the film,” Slotnick says. “The Dynamo platform has helped us build momentum within that niche market, without adding to our costs.”
Because the films are online, social-media initiatives help spread the word.
“Someone can easily tell friends and family how to access it without having to coordinate a DVD shipping or theater visit,” Slotnick says. “It also works well for our grassroots outreach to non-profit, religious and scientific organizations related to spirituality, metaphysics and consciousness because those groups can easily include a link in weekly newsletters, on social networks and in their other publications.”
The viewers for Dynamo and Distrify look like Vimeo’s player, with familiar controls, and there is reasonable security to prevent downloading or ripping. Dynamo’s Millis also notes that films can be streamed in HD. Self-distributing filmmakers can create “nice clean, well-designed player pages, where the film is a bit bigger and where it’s really inviting to the viewer,” he says. “So much of what we’ve seen in sales is about presentation.”
Distrify’s Peter Gerard, a documentary filmmaker turned founder, differentiates his platform from competitors based on its ability to sell tickets and DVDs in addition to streaming films over Facebook and Apple’s iPad and iPhone devices without the need to pay for entry into the iTunes catalog.
“You just go to the film page and you can pay and watch straight on the device,” says Gerard.
A New Life for Special Features
Another interesting side benefit for this kind of delivery is the opportunity to sell bonus material. For my documentary about children’s literature, we’ve been asked if we’d be sharing longer interviews with the prominent authors in the film, such as Lemony Snicket (A Series of Unfortunate Events), Chris Van Allsburg (The Polar Express, Jumanji) and R.L. Stine (Goosebumps). With digital delivery, we could rent uncut interviews for a dollar (or two).
film is worth something,
no one else will.”
— Audrey Ewell,
Until the Light Takes Us
With Until the Light Takes Us, Ewell says, “We also have all four hours of extras up, so people who bought a single disc version of the DVD and perhaps even a few who saw it in theaters but want to see the extras, are able to.” Their website has a variety of bundled extras, from $0.99 clips to $4.99 video extras that are longer than the film.
“I know that my film is available for the rock-bottom price of free via less-than-legal torrents,” says Ewell. “At the same time, I’ve always stuck by the idea that if I don’t act as if my film is worth something, no one else will. So I checked around for prevailing prices on boutique sites — not online big box retailers like Amazon or iTunes, but indie-specific streaming sites — and priced the feature accordingly, with the extras priced per duration or in one or two cases, per demand.”
Since starting streaming online, Ewell reports that the extra features have collected more rents than the film and that she’s been happy with sales overall.
A Third Way
Distribber is a different animal, more than a technical middleman but less than a traditional distributor. Distribber charges an up-front fee of $1,595 for HD video ($1,295 for SD) to deliver to iTunes. For Hulu, add $399. For delivery to video-on-demand — and 80 percent of U.S. households with cable (according to their site) — the cost is $9,999, pending carrier approval. Distribber is something that augments Dynamo and Distrify, instead of competing with them.
The key, of course, is creating a campaign that makes people aware of the film (and how to watch it) and then converts interest into streams. I suspect innovative marketing will educate new audiences to click play, pay and view.
As Sheri Candler, indie film marketing specialist and author of the book Selling Your Film Without Selling Your Soul recently said on her blog, it’s more and more the filmmaker’s responsibility “to have a solid plan from the outset that isn’t solely dependent on a distributor coming along and making your film whole, which is to say paying a minimum guarantee that recoups your production budget with interest. Very few of those deals exist now, no matter what producer’s agents and distributors like to say.”
CNETs Greg Sandoval has an interview piece with Eric Garland, CEO of media-tracking firm Big Champagne, discussing the recent price hike at Netflix and what it means – they are making the case that it’s akin to Apple’s move in 1998, when they introduced the iMac G3 without a 3.5-inch floppy port. The view of the discussion is Netflix is forcing a move away from DVD usage to streaming: “Netflix’s library of streaming movies and TV shows are often dated or obscure titles. It’s obvious Netflix is struggling to acquire more sought-after content.”
For filmmakers looking to distribute, going to streaming without the mastering, printing and shipping of DVDs may be favorable. For consumers, though, the DVD is still regarded as current technology, one they’re not necessarily eager to shed.
As you know there are a lot of us still watching DVDs and specifically those first-run titles on our relatively big-screen TV but that’s a lagging indicator. That’s like the person who so vociferously and so vocally objected to the introduction of that first iMac that came without a 3.5 inch floppy drive. “What am I supposed to do,” that person asked? “My whole life is on 3.5 floppy. I finally migrated off the 5-inch drive and now your marketing a computer that has no 3.5inch drive.” It was outrageous, until it wasn’t.
He notes that Netflix CEO Reed Hastings isn’t killing the DVD – “it’s already dying.” Netflix may simply be furthering DVDs to the grave.
Reed is deliberately creating dissatisfaction. He’s creating dissonance precisely because that title availability, those first-run titles, needs to be available more immediately and more widely as a (video on demand) or as a streamed offering. So this is a leverage play. This is Reed saying you can’t bifurcate. You’re going to have to make all of your content available in a way that your customer has clearly indicated that he or she wants. Netflix is wagering that if all parties are dissatisfied; if Netflix is unhappy because Netflix customers are unhappy and if Hollywood is unhappy and if everyone is unhappy then we’re going to speed the clock on new solutions.
In Part 1 of our look at “Indie Game: The Movie,” we looked at how Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky had put together their look at independent video-game designers, an effort that started with a Kickstarter campaign, then went back for another one.
As James had related in the earlier post, he and Lisanne shot 300 hours of footage as they worked to find their story, something that ended up with a more focused look at three designers trying to bring out their games.
Kickstarter, which seems to have found its place largely as a venue to pre-build audience and sales, has worked well for them.
Lisanne says, “We basically started with the Kickstarter campaign in May 2010, and we just had one piece, and we put out that slice of the film, and we made our goal in 48 hours. We asked for $15,000 and we ended up with $23,000.”
The intent was more general then, what James described as doing a broader look at the game designers, in the vein of Gary Hustwit’s films “Helvetica” and “Objectified.”
As we continued making the film, we just kept building the audience. We’d put out lots of videos while we were shooting – which might be ill-advised. We put out 80 minutes of content while we were shooting, separate pieces and things like that. It was really helpful creatively to help us figure out what we were doing, and show people, and get a response. People would pass around those videos, and that would lead us to new stories, and to gaming sites, and it just kind of grew from there.
As this was happening, we just kept finding out that this doesn’t just apply to people who are interested in indie gaming or making indie games themselves, but to general gaming people, or people that just want to make something themselves.
That all led us to the second Kickstarter campaign, which has of this writing has four days to go and has already raised $60,000 from 1,353 backers. That puts to rest some concerns they had, according to Lisanne:
We were a little worried about people saying, “You already did one, why are you asking for more money?” but the film just turned into something different. It’s a film that’s dramatic, and we wanted to do something good with it. We wanted to get some really good music, and some audio mixing we’re not comfortable doing, and mastering and all that. So we asked for $35,000, which was the exact number we needed to finish it. We got that in 25 hours.
Like the first campaign, she says, “I’m pretty sure the people who have backed us are people who make games. There are a lot of people who make games, and a lot who appreciate indie games.” But James notes,
I feel that was true more for the first Kickstarter. I think the majority of that was the indie scene and the indie community. The second one seemed to cast a wider net. That core of indie-game developers and aspiring developers is still there, and makes up a huge part of our audience, but I think it’s appealing more to people who just like the creative process – and that was always our dream. Like people who frequent design blogs, even though they are not designers themselves.
The second Kickstarter includes, for people donating $15 or more, a digital copy of the film. For $35 or more, the donor gets a DVD of the film, but for $75 or more, a special-edition DVD, which James says makes use of the volume of video they shot in the process.
The neat upside is this: We have two movies, really enough footage for three movies, really. So what we’re going to do is make this special-edition version of the film, which will have that original movie and that original intent kind of deconstructed into a series of 10 or 12 three-to-five-minute pieces. The stuff we shot of everybody else that that didn’t make it into the film is really good stuff. But in order to do justice to the dramatic arcs that really excited us, it needed more time in the film. We wanted to keep the thing under 90 minutes.
The fact they may by the end of the process have raised $100,000 in funding goes, they believe, toward a transparency that tends to flout the rules of filmmaking, in which material is guarded carefully.
“We feel we were very open in the whole process,” Lisanne says, “in telling where we are and what we’re doing, and it’s just the two of us. On the day of our (second) Kickstarter we got 2,000 emails.
“In terms of the rewards, we basically wanted to do things we could fulfill ourselves. We didn’t ask designers in our film to give game codes or figurines or things like that. We felt like they had already given us their time, and that was enough.”
The next step is getting the film out. Lisanne says,
So we’ve gotten a lot of response, so it’s a matter of what we want to do now. We want to show it at a couple of festivals, and we have interest from festivals, but festivals don’t tell you when you’re in or not when you need to know that. But we’ve applied to Canadian festivals that happen in the fall, and we’ve been invited to some in the States.
We want to be in some festivals, but not because we want to try to make a deal. We just want to have that little bit of exposure in that world, but mostly we’re going to do our own screenings.
There’s a refreshing piece in the Guardian UK, in which the BBC’s documentary ediutor, Charlotte Moore, says docs have to have more substance and not just be about entertainment.
The piece’s author, Ben Dowell, writes,
Moore says it is not her job to get “massive viewing figures” and that she favours quality and craft over feelgood and populist. There is certainly not much feelgood about ‘Terry Pratchett: Choosing to Die,’ which will be broadcast on BBC2 on 13 June and feature footage of the Discworld author witnessing the assisted death of a man with advanced motor neurone disease in Switzerland’s Dignitas clinic. The BBC has faced negative press coverage over the documentary, accusing it of being “a cheerleader for assisted suicide”. Moore suggests people reserve judgment until they see the film.
Strange that anyone should have to argue that docs should not necessarily try to be ratings stars, but that’s the world we work in. The rise of reality shows, these odd pseudo-docs that are “real” but not really real, put pressures on the “real” reality of serious documentaries. We recently viewed Frederick Wiseman’s classic ‘Juvenile Court,’ and realize that it could have made a great reality show on MTV – as long as they edited out all the thoughtful discussion, judicial agonizing over decisions, and informative asides, and only left in the high emotion moments in the courtroom.
The Guardian piece also says,
One Channel 4 source suggests that BBC documentaries under Moore’s leadership tend towards clever, authored pieces – but that it is an approach which risks giving the output an old-fashioned character. The BBC, during Moore’s watch, also appears to have ignored the long-running “fixed rig” observational documentaries so beloved of C4, with its shows such as One Born Every Minute, The Hotel, The Family and Coppers.
Moore, who will be appearing at this week’s Sheffield Doc/Fest, adds that she is reluctant to invest in fixed rig shows, because “to put cameras everywhere is incredibly expensive” and some subjects “feel quite small because you haven’t a directorial voice”. “You are having to commit to something that is a hell of a lot of money on the same story being told [every episode],” she says. “Where are the layers and complexity? It is difficult for them to be inventive and risky.”
The question of what transmedia means and how it applies to documentaries is up for varied interpretations, but the notion of multi-platform storytellign is at the root of it. The question of why documentary filmmakers would broaden to transmedia is of extending storytelling in a way that enhances the film’s performance, or the economic viability of the film, or both.
Tribeca Film Institute has a piece on social documentaries using transmedia, but the first task is that of definition. Author Anjelica Das says, “Whether called transmedia, multi-platform, cross platform or just cross media, filmmakers from all genres no longer just make films.”
“Transmedia” is a term generally attributed to the MIT Media Lab’s Henry Jenkins (Now at USC), and generally used in connection with entertainment media. It involved creation of stories that might reach to film, books, video games and music, and also to such interactive places as fan fiction. Journalism has often defined itself as evolving into “multi-platform,” the notion of reporting reality using media forms such as print, video and audio.
Regardless of the term, the intention of spreading into multiple media forms is much easier now, due to digital media. To do a film/book project a decade ago would have likely created costs that would not have been matched by revenue; to do a film/web project creates scales of economy that might increase revenue.
Mixed media is not new, but it feels new. Fifty years ago, the most common transmedia experience might be seeing the movie made from the book; there were also books made from the movies, called “novelizations.” There were TV shows made from radio shows. All involved “extending” the story using multiple media forms, and perhaps enhancing the story through what each form delivered best.
In the Das post, she says,
The transmedia world as demonstrated by pioneer Lance Weiler can be daunting for the grassroots social documentarian. In the ultimate expression of an immersive storytelling experience, Weiler created an ongoing narrative beginning with film, and in its latest iteration, as a real time interactive gaming experience taking place in Park City. Through cell phones, audience members became active members of a Pandemic 1.0 population being tracked online.
Those sorts of approaches don’t seem to fit documentaries the way they do feature films, but crossing platforms can be beneficial in many ways for docs.
More recently, we’ve seen film/book releases that include such successes as “Restrepo” (co-released with co-director Sebastian Junger’s book ‘War”) and director Nancy Porter’s PBS documentary “Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind ‘Little Women,’” co-released with co-producer Harriet Riesen’s Alcott biography (a project featured at this site in 2010).
But transmedia can extend much farther, and the obvious place is a website that is more than just a promotional device for the film but rather a place to extend and engage.
Here are some ideas worthy of exploration:
1) Use a website to provide an extended text narrative that might add again to the project. Think of the old liner notes that would fill the cover of a record album, or perhaps the text of a catalog for a museum exhibit. Facts in a documentary often outpace the space to embed them, but interested viewers will seek out more. An extended essay that informs and supports the project can be useful.
2) Extend through bonus footage. The edit of a good documentary pares down to essentials what is needed, but must also fit a fairly proscribed package of being “feature length” – 70 to 120 minutes, with the latter being a “long” doc. Extra footage can tell its own story.
3) Interactvity through audience engagement. These are real stories, and people might have real stories to tell in concert with it. Stop thinking of film as a one-way transmission. A forum or discussion page in which people can share their experiences on the topic can create a center of discourse (and don’t make it one in which people talk about the film, make it one that keeps telling the story your film tells).
4) Interactivity through crowdsourcing. People who can become part of the community a documentary film builds can often have much to share. If you make a documentary about a place or event, a place for audience photos of that place or event can become fun.
5) Apps and devices put transmedia at one’s fingertips. Devices such as smartphones and tablets allow new forms of transmedia to emerge. A digital book released via iPad can be another level of your project, and not expensively.
6) Think soundtrack, not just music. Collaborating with musicians who can provide music for the film but also release that music as its own package can work to enhance the film and make the music more visible. Finding musicians who see the possibilities can lead to some great results.
In the end, it’s the definition of media that’s changing. Film, like other forms, no longer have the “hard borders” of old media. The filmmaker who can explore and exploit the possibilities can often make a unique success.
ADDENDUM: See Adam Humphreys’ comment below. Here are screenshots of what he’s mentioned:
The New York Times has in the past decade become a serious source of good documentary-style journalism, often opting toward a “film,” rather than a “broadcast news” look. This mini-genre of filmmaking-in-print-media is going to be in the theaters soon.
The Times announced Monday it will partner with Emerging Pictures to bring NYT video work to theaters. Emerging Pictures, headed by Barry Rebo and Columbia University film professor Ira Deutchman, has worked in the last number of years to bring live opera performances, via HD projectors, to independent theaters.
The Times’ announcement said this:
Times in Cinema will feature original HD videos produced by The New York Times, drawn primarily from entertainment, travel and lifestyles stories. These videos will comprise a ten- to twelve-minute preshow, which will be used as a platform for selling cinema-quality advertising. The preshow will run before the trailers at each show.
“The New York Times attracts an educated, discerning audience that overlaps strongly with the art house audience,” said Yasmin Namini, senior vice president, marketing and circulation, and general manager, reader applications, The New York Times Media Group. “Times in Cinema allows us to leverage The Times’s incredible wealth of high-quality videos and create a unique, engaging brand experience to reach theatergoers in a relevant environment.”
“As Emerging Cinemas Network has expanded its nationwide footprint, we knew a high quality preshow offering would be a valuable asset for our venues, their audiences and the advertisers who want to reach affluent, sophisticated audiences such as ours,” said Barry Rebo, a managing partner of the company.
The Times produces more than 100 original videos per month, featuring breaking news and analysis, as well as enterprise and investigative reporting by Times journalists around the world.