The WorkBook Project is for those who want to be creative in the digital age. An open creative network that provides insight into the process of funding, creating, distributing and sustaining from one's creative efforts.
We caught up with Tiffany Shlain as she prepares to release her newest feature, CONNECTED “An Autoblogography about Love, Death and Technology.” A DIY pioneer, Tiffany is always at the forefront of utilizing interesting and innovative ways to reach and engage audiences. Starting next week CONNECTED makes its way to screens nation wide after a successful festival run.
What made you decide to make the film CONNECTED?
Fifteen years ago, I founded TheWebby Awards because I was fascinated by how the Internet was connecting people all over the world in new and unexpected ways. And being so interested in the ways things are connected, I it always struck me how so many of the conversations about the problems of our day were discussed as separate challenges. Whether the environment, women’s rights, poverty or social justice, it became more apparent to me that that when you perceive everything as connected, it radically shapes your perspective. The concept of interdependence has been around since the dawn of humanity, but the relatively recent component of the internet has added this new layer that connects us in a fresh way, almost giving the world a new type of central nervous system.
I am a filmmaker and so decided to craft a film that would tell the story of being connected in the 21st century. I asked my father, Leonard Shlain, to be a co-writer on the project. My dad was a surgeon, but also a pioneer in writing about connections between science, consciousness, the human brain, art and civilization. His best-selling books included The Alphabet Versus the Goddess; Sex, Time, and Power; and Art & Physics. He was an incredible visionary, had a wonderful knowledge of history and I felt he would make an enormous contribution to the film. Just as we began production on CONNECTED, he was diagnosed with brain cancer. I quickly discovered that here I was writing about all these interrelationships and the one great connection I had overlooked was the emotional connection. That’s when I began the difficult process of rewriting the film to include my personal story of connection interwoven into the the bigger story of connection throughout history and where I think we are heading.
The subtitle of CONNECTED is “An Autoblogography about Love, Death and Technology.” What does the word “autoblogography” mean?
“Autoblogography” is a word we made up in order to convey that the film is autobiographical, but also has to do with technology. It also conveys the humor which is a major thread in the movie.
Is there a connection between CONNECTED and your last film THE TRIBE?
In my earlier film, THE TRIBE, Iexplored American Jewish identity through the history of the Barbie Doll. I know, it sounds absurd. After all, what can the most successful doll on the planet show about being Jewish in American today? It turns out that Barbie was invented in 1959 by an American Jewish businesswoman named Ruth Handler. A Jewish woman created the ultimate shiksa. With THE TRIBE, I wove together archival footage, graphics, animation, humor, and even slam poetry that took audiences on a ride through the complex history of both Barbie and the Jewish people. By revealing all these unique connections, THE TRIBE explored the question of what it means to be an American Jew in the 21st century. CONNECTED employs much of the same collage visual style butexplores what it means to be a human in 21st century.
Do you believe there are positives and negatives to technology?
My father loved quoting Sophocles, “Nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse.” So, from the beginning of time, every new technology and advancement brought with them a complex mix of positive and negative repercussions as well as unintended consequences. CONNECTED addresses the potential of these new 21st century technologies, the importance of harnessing their powers, but also covers the ramifications when these new technologies take over and even overwhelm our personal lives.
I’ve started practicing what I call “technology Shabbats” with my family. Every Friday at sundown, our whole family disconnects until Saturday night. No cell phones, no internet, no television, no Ipads. No multi-tasking. We disconnect completely. Or maybe I should say we connect completely – with ourselves and each other.
I am learning that turning off technology is just as powerful as turning it on and that our society needs both. Technology can be so enticing and overwhelming, but we also need to remember how important it is to be fully present with the people you love and also be alone and quiet. The potential of technology globally and personally is exponential, but we need to know where the off switch is and when to shut it down.
So what is the ultimate goal of your film?
The goal of CONNECTED is to launch a global conversation about what it means to be connected in the 21st century. I hope that the film will be the catalyst for this global conversation. In an effort to expand the power of the film, we’ve created a robust website, facebook page where we constantly add new articles about this topic and have created an educator’s kit including conversation cards, a film guide a curriculum for educators.
In the film you say, “For centuries we have declared our independence, perhaps it’s time we finally declare our interdependence.” What does it mean to declare our interdependence?
It’s time to shift perspective. In many ways we as a species are mirroring the way we each develop as a human on this earth. We come into the world completely dependent on our mother’s and parents. As we grow up, we evolve into independent adults, live on our own and get our own jobs and provide for our own families. But this independence then brings us to a new realization of how we are connected with family, friends and community. I think we, as a species are evolving to the point where we are entering this understanding of our interdependence. Who knows if all these tools we are creating for collaborating in new ways through the internet are leading us to this understanding, or the understanding is driving us to create these tools. Technology is just an extension of ourselves. It is not separate. Regardless of what’s propelling it, these living and thinking interdependently will actually change our consciousness and help make real transformation in the world around us.
So you are optimistic about our future?
When I do Q&A’s after screening CONNECTED, I am frequently asked, “What makes you so optimistic?” I respond by saying that I believe in humans and humanity and in our innate ability to change for the better. Look at the end of slavery and apartheid, the women’s rights and civil rights movements, and other political and social transformative movements in the last few hundred years, and you can see how we are indeed evolving. There are two things that make me optimistic. We as humans are curious and we have a deep desire to connect. These two things will make us move us forward to a better place.
You are also spearheading a new project called “Let it Ripple.” What is this and how does this connect to CONNECTED?
The ‘Let it Ripple’ project will pick up where CONNECTED leaves off. We are creating a series of six short films, all tied together by the general theme of connectedness. The first film is A Declaration of Interdependence. My husband, Ken Goldberg, co-writer Sawyer Steele, and I wrote ADeclaration of Interdependence, which is based on the American Declaration of Independence. Our new declaration was then posted online on July 4th and tweeted out via YouTube and we invited people from all over the world to submit video of themselves reading the declaration in their native language from their cell phone, laptop, whatever was handy. We also asked graphic designers and artists to interpret the words creatively and submit artwork. The submissions are blowing me away. It’s interdependence in action. The film will be made up entirely of these submissions, tied together by our animator, Stefan Nadelman, with music by one of my favorite sound artists Moby.
A Declaration of Interdependencewill premiere on Interdependence Day which is September 12th at a special event near Ground Zero in New York. Every time we get an entry, I get chills watching the videos. It is thrilling to see people from all over the world declare their interdependence. We are going to edit it all down into an inspiring 3 minute movie that will be posted on the web and we are going to provide this film for free and allow different organizations and non-profits to use the film by putting their own call to action at the end. We are open-sourcing the creation of the film and hope to open source how it is used.
By sharing these messages of connectedness and interdependence, I believe there will be a positive ripple effect; sparks that help turn what we’re talking about into action. It’s all about connection.
CONNECTED opens in theaters in major cities beginning in mid-September.
*All dates below start one week runs
SF: Sept 16th SF Landmark Embarcadero
Berkeley Sept 16 Shattuck 10
Marin: Sept 16 Sequoia Theater
Santa Cruz: Sept 23 Nickelodeon
Portland: Sept 23rd Regal Fox Tower 10
LA: Sept 30 premieres at The Pacific Arclight Theater Hollywood
Seattle: Oct 7th Landmark Varsity 3
NYC: Oct 14th Angelika Theater
Denver: Oct 28th Landmark Chez Artiste
Honored by Newsweek as one of the “Women Shaping the 21st Century,” Tiffany Shlain is a filmmaker, artist, founder of The Webby Awards and co-founder of the International Academy of Digital Arts & Sciences. Tiffany’s films and work have received over 40 awards and distinctions. A celebrated thinker, she delivered the commencement address at University of California at Berkeley and is a Henry Crown Fellow of The Aspen Institute. www.tiffanyshlain.com
Zak Forsman is an artist-entrepreneur whose emotionally-charged motion pictures are known for highly authentic performances and beautiful compositions. They have been praised by Ain’t It Cool News as “Brilliant” and “Absolutely Gorgeous” and by Filmmaker Magazine as “Very Accomplished, Amazing.”
Today’s guest contributor is KYLE PROHASKA — CEO of Praise Pictures, a film production company primarily involved in the Christian market. His first feature film Standing Firm recently released on DVD in the USA and over a dozen foreign countries. Kyle’s skill set spans a wide range from graphic and web design to editing, coloring, compression, dvd authoring, and online marketing.
Facebook Marketing: The Key to Independent Film Marketing?
In a world bombarded by media and lower and lower budgeted products flooding the marketplace, it’s no wonder filmmakers are searching for new ways of distribution and marketing. The last ten years especially has opened up various doors for the little guy working in his moms basement. Technology has pushed the ball forward more for the indie filmmaker in the last number of years (even the last 5) than any other time in cinematic history. With movies showing up in cinemas shot on $2500 DSLR’s, it’s no wonder every deadbeat who ever wanted to make a film is now giving it a shot and throwing things up on Youtube or Vimeo. But, the same problem remains that has plagued the unknown filmmaker from the beginning of the cosmos…how to get your movie in front of people who care?
With the birth of social media, almost anybody can find an audience. That is, if there’s an audience to find. Facebook fan pages have become increasingly popular over a short span of time as everybody and their brother is making pages for their favorite things, and for filmmakers it’s the perfect opportunity to gather supporters. Email lists and things of that sort work well as well, but it’s a cold message dropped into an email box, it’s not the same. With a fan page you can regularly keep people updated about whatever it is you’re working on, comment and answer their questions, add polls to ask them questions back and get feedback, and invite them to share your films page with others. Unfortunately due to spamming and massive amounts of page invites, Facebook removed the “Suggest to Friends” feature from the site, crushing the ability to build your fan page for free. There are ways to still build it a little bit (they kept the Suggest to Friends feature for administrators), but it’s limited at best. Asking people to “Share” your status posts or the page itself is one of the few ways to spread the word, that is unless you care to spend a little money.
Lets be honest, not many filmmakers or indie-producers out there have a spare dime to spend on promotion. It all went into the spit and popsicle sticks they used to finish their film or whatever it is they’re working on. But, Facebook Ads can be a fantastic way to spread the word if you can get the costs down low enough. I don’t really suggest this for anyone who doesn’t have a product to actually sell, because your money can go down the tubs very quickly if you don’t know what you’re doing. The key is to get your sales to balance out with your ad costs, and with enough elbow grease actually get into the profit arena. I can’t spill every secret but I will give you a few tips and tricks to show you how to create an effective Facebook marketing campaign for your film.
Creating The Proper Page
Something to consider when creating your fan page that affects your ads….your page title. When you create a title for your page, it’s permanent. They won’t let you change it after a while so putting something clear in there is smart. You do need to consider SEO (Search Engine Optimization) when creating your fan pages. Is the title of your movie or product something unique? I know I’m stepping outside the bounds of Facebook here but that’s an important thing to consider. If your title is very unique you may have no need to put anything but the title in the page. If there’s something non-movie related that might clash with your title then putting “Movie” at the end of your title may be beneficial. Here’s why this actually matters. When you run Facebook ads for a fan page specifically, they don’t just track your clicks but your “actions.” This is how many people have become a fan as a result of your ad. This is great because then you know you’re not just paying for people that leave. This is something to keep an eye on as you run your ads and do tests because you might have a very cheap ad running and you’re getting the clicks but for whatever reason only 10% of those who click become a fan. That’s a problem so watch out! Ok, back to the title problem. The reason why the title matters is because when you run ads for a fan page on Facebook they FORCE you (yes) to use the title of the page as the title of the ad. When you do a normal ad linking to a site somewhere you can put in any title you want but with fan pages it’s different. So if your title is “The Blog_movie” it’s going to look very weird above an ad and possibly even look spammy. Be sure when you create your fan page’s name that it’s something that’ll look good above an ad if you ever plan to run them because once you choose it and build that fan page it’s PERMANENT.
You’ll notice right away that we have quite a few fans, over 200,000 as of the day I’m writing this. Quite a few right? Well, that came at a cost and I’m pleased to report the cost has been made back and continues to be, but it took a number of months to get things that high even spending the money. You’ll also notice that before you become a fan you’re taken to a landing page with the trailer on it, links to buy the DVD, etc. These are very important if you have a film to market. I see many films out there with terrible trailers as well, and even if you run ads and have them point to a page like this, you could easily lose a potential customer if your trailer is awful. Not only is it rare for them to click an ad at all, but when they do they better love what they see when they get there or else they’re GONE. If you don’t have an absolutely fantastic trailer that at least grabs them in the first 10-15 seconds, do yourself a favor and either scratch the landing page altogether, or put something on it they WILL care about. FBML was an application you used to use to do these landing pages but Facebook only a number of weeks ago has swapped it out with something called iFrames. You can Google that to find more information on building landing pages. Basic HTML/CSS and graphics knowledge can be VERY useful here and you’d be surprised just how complicated these pages can get. If you want my advise, the simpler the better. People are just plain ol’ dumb sometimes when it comes to finding things and clicking on what you want them to. Just assume you’re making the landing page for your grandma and make things clearcut and easy to understand. Remember with advertising with ads you’re paying for the clicks, so what good is a click if they land on your page and go away after a number of seconds because they’re either disinterested or confused by what they’re looking at. KISS…keep it simple stupid, because that’s how most of the goofballs on the internet are. Some of you know what I’m talking about. “Click there.” “Where?” “Right there…” “Where, I don’t see anything!?” “Ugh! THERE!” ….(pause) “Oh, now I see it.”
You get the picture.
Before I began running actual advertising for my page I did get the page up to 16,000 fans. This is done various ways and now with the removal of the “Suggest to Friends” feature it can get even tougher. Also, you need to target those who will actually care about your film. What good is having your best buddy as a fan of your film if he doesn’t plan to pick up a copy? 200,000 fans means nothing if nobody goes and purchases a DVD. Also, you can have all the fans in the world on your page and even pay thousands of dollars for them but have absolutely no activity on your page. There are pages on Facebook with hundreds of thousands of fans that barely get any “Likes” or comments on their status posts because the active users who are fans is zilch. You need to keep the page moving and keep those who are fans interested.
It won’t take any of you very long to notice that my film is a Christian film so therefore I’m going to be looking for people who have purchased other Christian products in the past. If you’re doing advertising that means targeting other Christian movies (of if you’re doing a normal movie that’s about something like Surfing, you’d target surfing movies). A very simple concept really, but it’ll all depend on the product you have for sale. Lots of people overconfident in their film will target people they think are the buyers and get frustrated when they don’t get results. This is something you should be thinking about before you even make a film but I’ll say it anyways…KNOW YOUR MARKET. Who’s the film for? Who’s the buyer? If you don’t know then find out first then come back to this article, otherwise none of this will do you much good.
OK, back to what I was saying about keeping people interested. This can be done in a few different ways. I’m using my film as an example because in the Christian market I have a lot of things that I can use to keep people interested and interacting with my posts. Bible verses, quotes from theologians, quotes from people in the film, testimonies from views effected by the movie, requests for prayers for those on the page who might ask for them, etc. I’ll admit it’s a lot easier in the market I’m in to keep the page active. But, I understand almost everyone likely reading this isn’t in that arena so I’ll try and offer some alternatives and a few warnings. Warnings first.
One thing you want to avoid is making every single post you put up about where to buy your DVD and how important that it is they go out and get a copy. Is that the whole reason you’re marketing things yes, but after a while you’ll just be a salesman alone to people and not someone they want to interact with. Have you ever hidden anyone off your News Feed because they drive you crazy? If so then you can see how pitching “ZOMG BUY MY MOVIE ITSZA BEST!” can get a little annoying. I like to post every 24 hours but if you can’t every few days can be ideal for a page.
Another thing to avoid is attaching links to posts. Now I don’t mean posting links in general but actually attaching them. When you post a link into a status you’ll notice that special box appears that puts the title of the page in there, normally chooses a picture from the page and the description is embedded. These can be good for very rare circumstances but take it from me, the performance and number of impressions your status post will get goes down significantly, especially when your page grows to a significant amount. Most viruses on Facebook show up in the form of those embedded picture links, so be aware of that. That reason alone is enough for me to stay away from them overall since I know people are becoming less and less likely to click on things out of fear. To avoid the attaching of a link when you put it into a post, click the “Status” link again after pasting the link into the status and the attach box will disappear. It can also help to put in short links so you don’t scare off your customers. Long links (particularly from sites that sell DVDs like long Amazon.com links) can just look spammy by appearance.
Posts that are short, sweet, and to the point get the greatest response rates. Anything long-winded and tedious goes in one ear and out the other. If anyone ever has to hit “See More” on one of your posts, don’t expect a very big response. The more things they have to do to see your message, the less people you’ll impact. People are way too lazy most of the time to click “See More” when they’re quickly browsing their News Feed.
I suggest a site like Bit.ly to shorten your links. Listen to me though, assign custom links to each of them. If you think an Amazon.com or other kind of link like that is spammy looking try some of those short links that look like an expletive spelled out like in Looney Toons. Give them logical customized links that people can understand. The one I put at the end of a lot of my posts or when I share where to buy my DVD at is http://bit.ly/sfbuydvd. It’s easy for people to read, and it has “buydvd” in it which tells them what it’s for. The benefit of using these programs is also so you can track how many clicks they get and where they come from. My suggestion for you is to pick one single link to give people, shorten it and customize it, and then use that link ALONE for everything. Facebook, Twitter, emails you send to your mom, etc. This way you start to build a network with the link and whoever wants to share the film with others will be using that link as well so you can continue to track the clicks and where they’re coming from. You don’t have to do that but I suggest it because it’s been helpful to me.
By the way, I know I said not to pitch your DVD in every post but I meant more specifically. I tag the link on the end of my posts because most of the time I have people on the page who haven’t even seen that link yet, and every single time there’s a handful that click it, and always a handful that buy it.
HOT TIP: If you’ve made a film and have exhausted the “Suggest To Friends” link with your own friends, contact anyone who worked on the film that you trust (make sure of that) and explain to them that you want to make them an administrator temporarily on the page. Once they’re added they can use the “Suggest To Friends” link themselves and invite their friends. This is a quick backdoor way to get a couple thousand or more invites to the page by those who were involved with the film. As far as I know Facebook doesn’t have a limit on how many admins you can have or how much you can add/subtract them and put new people in so you could do this with quite a few people. It’s a good way for free to advertise the page initially and get a kickstart.
Running Facebook Ads
How about the ads I keep talking about? I’ll only talk about those briefly because this article is already running long. Facebook ads can cost you a ton of money if you get things wrong, so be prepared to monitor them at first almost all day to make sure you aren’t blowing your money. Before you even think about running an ad you need to consider your market and who you should be targeting. Do you want to target just those who will be interested or those who will be interested but are also the more likely buyers? You need to decide that depending on the needs of your project. In my case I started primarily targeting women 45+ as they are the majority buyer in the Christian market. Even with movies made for teens or men, the women are typically the ones going out and picking up the movies while they grocery shop, or if they buy it online they’re the initiator most of the time. Women are the pathway in the Christian market to reach the other demographics (at least that’s my opinion). So you need to know who you need to target and why.
Then you need to determine if you want to run CPC (cost per click) ads or CPM (cost per impression) ads. The difference between them you can go look up on Google but I’ll just tell you they both have their strengths and weaknesses. If you expect an amazing click through rate (I would say anything above 0.3% is doing pretty good) then CPM might actually keep your costs low. However on ads where your CTR is very poor CPM will just eat your money away. CPC can eat your money as well if your bid is too high and you’re paying 50 cents or even a dollar a click. That’s no way to market on Facebook especially when you’re probably keeping a couple bucks from your DVDs and that’s it. I would say you should get your costs down to $0.10 per click at a minimum if you want a really great ROI (return on investment) but that’s just my suggestion. You can be higher and still make a profit if those you are targeting are buying your product.
The ad itself is important and you would be surprised what affects the CTR’s most. The picture is the biggest eye catcher you can have. The text and even the title of the ad are secondary. Why do you think they put pictures of attractive women on there even if the ad is about something more general? They know men will click it. Honestly even if you’re targeting women, they respond to a woman’s picture more than a mans (in my experience) because they relate. Men click on ads with women on them because they’re attractive, women aren’t the best to grab that way. Choose pictures that your target market whom your shooting the ads at will respond to. Also don’t get too stuck on making the ad particularly fit the film or project. Sometimes it should but it doesn’t always have to. As long as what they see when they click on the ad isn’t TOO different from what they saw a picture of you should be fine, but your only goal is to get them to click, not to give them a rundown of your whole movie or product. JUST GET THE CLICK.
The title of the page as I stated at the top of this article is very important so make sure you choose wisely. The next would be the text which can be very annoying and coming up with something good can be hard. A call to action is always good because it initiates the buyer to click but all of this can fluctuate depending on your film. If it’s a chick flick then put something mushy in there and if it’s a horror movie put something about how great a horror movie it is. The options are endless and honestly I can’t give much advise here. You’ll need to experiment because none of this is cookie cutter. You need to do tests and see what performs the greatest, but make sure you don’t burn through your money doing it! The closer the text, title, and image relates to those you’re targeting the better.
As somebody who has spent a hefty sum on Facebook ads for myself and other people, I will tell you that the lower you spend per day the less performance you’ll get. That doesn’t mean that things won’t go great, but you’ll be limiting thing significantly. The ad system on Facebook is very organic and gives favor to those who spend more. If you just start doing ads you might notice it can take forever to get an ad approved but when you’re a big spender it can be in a matter of a minute or less. Also when you run ads and put up bids you’re waiting for impressions which puts the ad on the sidebar of those you’re targeting. The lower your daily budget per day along with the bid you put in for each specific ad will have a big effect on how much exposure your ad gets. It can be tough to even get an ad jumpstarted with a budget that’s very low since you can’t get enough system favor due to the low amount. I’ve had ads where I set my daily budget too low, kept my bid the same, increased my daily budget and the ad shot off like a rocket. The goal here to get an ad moving and then milk it for all its worth as you slowly lower the bid and move it into what I call the “sweet spot.” I’ve had ads get down to very low CPC amounts after weening them down over a small period of time, and then they coast for a long time and the costs sometimes stay consistent and even go down in a lot of cases. This is why if you only have $100 to spend you won’t get very far, because you’ll never be able to spend enough in the long run to get your ads performing like that. Or your daily budget is set so low that your ads never are given the time to mature.
To sum up what I mean, the less you spend the more expensive your ads are likely to be. Sounds stupid? You bet it is! But that’s the way it works. Because you aren’t spending enough to allow mature ads to bubble to the surface out of all your tests, they’ll cost much more per click unless you “strike oil” which many ads I’ve done have and they become a mature ad almost immediately. Granted, I’m targeting enough people with the ad in my market that it can continue to give the ad impressions without the ad showing up too many times to the same person so that does affect things as well.
If you’re budget is extremely low (in the hundreds) then I’m not so sure spending it here is your best option. Lower budgeted projects would benefit more from the CPM type ads because you get impressions no matter what because of your bid while CPC ads don’t give you impressions at all unless your bid is high enough. If you have a really awesome CTR and you’re running CPM ads you could actually stretch $100 or a little more pretty far, but those times are likely and it always takes some time and money to learn how to do that. Plan on blowing some dollars to learn this stuff because every ad is different and every product/film is different.
I hope this article has been helpful. I couldn’t spill all the beans here or else I would’ve written a book (perhaps I should?) and although things might be a tad confusing for some, I tried to pack as much helpful information into this as I could. If there are any questions you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org but just beware I get a ton of emails and yours can get lost in the cracks. Some emails I just have to ignore as well because either I could sit there forever just answering emails, or I can go make a movie and make a living. I’m also available for hire in this arena so any companies or people with films they want to try and spend some dollars on, hit me up!
Zak Forsman is an artist-entrepreneur whose emotionally-charged motion pictures are known for highly authentic performances and beautiful compositions. They have been praised by Ain’t It Cool News as “Brilliant” and “Absolutely Gorgeous” and by Filmmaker Magazine as “Very Accomplished, Amazing.”
Moving Filmmakers to a Transmedia Business Model I’ve been working with two entertainment properties and a media start-up the past couple of months and I wanted to share the business models I developed to explain where we’re heading.
Here’s what we already know: pulling in an audience is tough but pulling in finance is tougher.
The Old Days
In the “old days” – as shown in Figure… read more
The Curator’s Dilemma We live in a world with immediate access to any content we want, whenever we want it–and a lot of it. With cheap production tools and omnipresent distribution outlets, anyone with a laptop can make films, and a lot of people seem to want to.
Hot on the heels of this expansion in our content supply comes the debate surrounding… read more
DIY list #6 * PROJECTS
What can the most successful doll on the planet show us about being Jewish today? Narrated by Peter Coyote, the film mixes old school narration with a new school visual style. THE TRIBE weaves together archival footage, graphics, animation, Barbie dioramas, and slam poetry to take audiences on an electric ride through the complex history of both the… read more
In 2009, as a reaction against an increasingly corporate-ized and fractured media landscape, I decided to start an independent film screening series. My friend and colleague Georgi Goldman was also enthusiastic about the idea, and together we began running a monthly film series in Los Angeles: Cinema Speakeasy.
The purpose of Cinema Speakeasy was to be the filmic equivalent of the slow food movement (but a heck of a lot less boring). We aimed to process films rather than quickly consume them. Positioning CS a not-for-profit organization, I was quite set on divorcing ourselves from the intervention of brands and sponsorship in the belief that – in this particular case – other people’s marketing strategies would corrupt our intention. Thus, we were to serve as advocates for the arts in a space that was separate from corporate commerce, all while showing people a good time.
With that said, we also hoped to create an alternative and non-inflated marketplace for independent film cause let’s get real for a second: We all have rent to pay. Willingly forgoing corporate support, and not keen on the virtual trumpeting that is crucial for successful IndieGoGo or Kickstarter campaigns, we needed to find alternate ways of creating this self-sufficient revenue stream for ourselves and our filmmakers. We hoped, simply, to survive – and to help filmmakers survive – without selling out. To do this, I believed that we needed a few things: A consistent audience, good programming, and a low overhead. Attaining those things, then, became the organization’s main goals.
We are now approaching Cinema Speakeasy’s second anniversary, with a recent expansion into San Francisco with the wildly popular CS:SF events. I wanted to share some of what we have learned in running this film series over the course of the last two years: The things that have allowed us to survive (and perhaps even modestly thrive?) in a very bad economic climate for the arts. Here, then, are my golden rules for running an independent film screening series.
Golden rule number one:Maintain a not-for-profit attitude, but make sure the organization can pay for its expenses.
When we started CS I plastered ‘we give all our revenue to the filmmakers and the venues’ all over the place. In retrospect, this was a mistake. Although we have maintained that policy thus far, we are going to change it for the simple reason that we need to pay for things like web hosting, promotional materials, advertising. If we don’t pay for those things, we limit our reach, which does a disservice to the filmmakers when no one shows up to their screening.
Having said that, it’s no secret that it’s devilishly hard to make a living while staying independent. So forget about making money, at least for the first 3 years, but don’t forget to apportion a part of whatever comes in to your organization’s survival, and to share the rest!
In practice: Don’t quit your day job, and NEVER get into personal debt for the sake of the organization. If you can’t afford to do the event, consider a different approach where it doesn’t cost so much. Keep overhead low, and be sure to split the revenue at the door between yourself, the venue, and the filmmaker – but always split the money that has come in AFTER deducting the expenses incurred in promoting the screening.
Golden rule number two:Plan for low audiences, and set realistic expansion goals.
Something I learned from my days at the Silver Lake Film Festival is that a too rapid expansion = a guaranteed disaster. It always pays to underestimate the amount of people who will show up. Slow but steady wins the race, when it comes to non-profits, and small is often more fun anyways: It’s better to have a packed-feeling small room than an empty-feeling big room.
In practice: For the first year of Cinema Speakeasy we stayed at a small venue (the amazing Echo Park Film Center) that seated about 60 people. Once we had created a consistent series of events, we dabbled with larger venues through special one-off high-profile screenings. Now, almost two years in, the organization has expanded to San Francisco (with monthly events run there by a trio of uber-dames: Fhay Arceo, Allison Davis and Kate Sullivan Green), and we are starting to regularly expand to new larger venues in LA. Our larger events, which we typically do at a rate of one per quarter, are working because we have slowly built the audience to support this expansion, and because we are cautious and conservative about numbers and expenses.
Golden rule number three: Keep your eye on quality
It’s one thing to have a democratic approach, it’s quite another to show any old thing. That’s what YouTube is for.
Do not forget to maintain a level of quality. If you show ‘bad’ films, even your best friends will stop showing up, not to mention strangers. You won’t be able to grow an audience, and you will ultimately do a disservice to the filmmakers whose work you show.
However, if you gain a reputation for showing good content- as independent as you please but always to a certain standard (those standards are yours to decide) – you will gain a following and people will be honored to be included. It’s curation, and you can interpret it as you will, but do not forget to set standards – whatever they may be for you – and stick to them.
In practice: This is a golden rule I have had a hard time with, myself, and it’s only through my colleague Georgi’s prodding that I’ve begun to see the light on the value of saying no no no. It’s very hard to balance open access with good content, but it must be done.
In practice, also, if you have a lot of filmmaker friends who you want to support through your organization, consider implementing a ‘friends and family’ sub-series- an open call facet to your screening event, where you provide an audience to people just starting out, or whose work is challenging. Keep it separate from the main curated event, and do these at small venues.
Golden rule number four: Be open to oblique approaches
Be open to other mediums as a way of bringing attention to film, and this sometimes may include non-indie film. We’ve found this to be an excellent way to bring new audiences to our programming. Although every effort should be made to engage fellow filmy types, do not focus entirely on the indie film community. It’s small, it’s self-referential, and it’ll limit you.
In practice: Cinema Speakeasy has partnered with art galleries, music venues and other such entities to create two-part programs around a film. For instance, we did a potato-type ransom note workshop at a local gallery in Los Angeles (Machine Project), and partnered with a local design community (Kernspiracy) to get people interested and thinking about typography. This was all in support of our screening of Kartemquin Film’s ‘Typeface’.
This, and other oddball events such as the Tranimal Makeup Workshop (that we produced, and was curated by artist Austin Young, as a part of our ‘Ultra Fabulous Beyond Drag’ screening event), have been incredibly successful at bringing new types of people to our events, and many of them have come back and proposed some awesome ideas of their own.
Golden rule number five: Get the F off the internet, already.
Marketing. The evil reality of doing anything that requires other people in this age of brands and buzz.
One thing’s for certain, and all the talk about ‘the power of social media’ notwithstanding, I’ve found there to be a fairly low correlation between Facebook or Twitter followers and butts in seats. It’s easy to hit ‘like’, but it’s a very different experience to get in the car, look for parking, feed the meter, walk a few blocks, and watch an unknown movie. Put simply: A lot of online participation is not a guarantee that people will show up.
What makes people do THAT is good programming, the potential to meet sexy new people, and (with some exceptions) traditional media support. Not sure why, but in our experience a write-up in the local weekly means a full house, 152 retweets does not. Maybe it has something to do with reaching new people rather than the same people you already communicate with online all the time. Or maybe it’s because people trust traditional media cause they’re better curators.
In practice: Instead of focusing all your efforts on creating buzz online, just BE awesome, focus on showing your audience a good time and on actual word of mouth, and consider traditional publicity for the larger events. Use social media as a complementary strategy, but not THE strategy.
We at CS also tend to engage in teenage-like ‘marketing’ such as sticking handwritten flyers in menus at hip diners, posting stickers everywhere we can get away with it, and generally trying to get attention in the real world. It seems to be working so far, is viral in a way more tangible way, and – mainly – it feels authentic to who we are.
Golden rule number six:Allow the organization to have a life beyond you, but set the rules early
If you succeed with your organization, people will come and want to be involved. You need these people for the organization to succeed. But never forget to make sure you maintain control of your organization’s overall trajectory and vision.
What this means is that you need to set the grand vision early (a mission statement and an organizational bible will help with this exponentially). But you also need to allow for expansion, changes of ownership, in short, whatever it takes for people to want to be involved, and are able to create and implement ideas. It’s basic good management skills, and it’s probably the one thing that will keep you up at night as you grapple with your own ego, sense of insecurity, etc.
One thing’s for sure: If you impose your vision in too draconian a manner, you will lose the very people who can help propel the organization to the next level. BUT, if you do not retain some leadership, you can lose control of the organization’s vision. Not an easy thing to balance.
In practice: When I had the idea to start a film series and call it Cinema Speakeasy, I had a certain vision in mind. When the organization’s current Executive Director Georgi Goldman officially came on board – right before the first screening event – she also had a vision. We were colleagues at work and used to confrontation and adaptation, so we simply confronted and adapted our ideas to one another. Together, we set a certain tone for the organization- and we set it early.
This is, and will, serve the organization well as it enters our current expansion phase. For instance, Cinema Speakeasy’s San Francisco edition was started and is run largely autonomously by its co-directors Fhay Arceo, Allison Davis and Kate Sullivan Green (FAK!) – who have final say in their programming, venues, marketing language, etc.
But, they still also use the visual ‘brand’, as it were (set by our brilliant creative-director-of-sorts Micah Hahn), and stick to the tone of the organization, as well as certain programming guidelines. Thus they maintain an approach that is in line with the larger CS organization- and in fact, take it to the next level of cool – but still act independently of the larger organization in many arenas. It’s a balancing act, and it works out very well if you pick your partners well. Which brings me to…
Golden rule number seven: Partner judiciously
Be picky. That’s all there is to this. There are a bazillion horror stories of what can go wrong if you pick the wrong partners- and I can categorically say that I’ve lived through just about all of the bad scenarios.
As a general rule, when approaching partnerships, it helps to think of what this person/organization can bring you right now, rather than what they could potentially bring you down the road. Keep it real, and keep a focus on your current needs.
In practice: Cinema Speakeasy partners creatively with like-minded folk – not too corporate, arts-centric, and who also have their shit together. We try to find oblique approaches, as well, by teaming up with oddball venues, creating cross-promotional partnerships with groups that wouldn’t usually be so excited about indie film, etc etc etc.
I could write five pages on this, so will leave it at this: Be judicious, work with people who are like-minded, and always write out (and agree to) the terms of the partnership earlyon.
Golden rule number eight: Expect defeat, and then expect success
If your role is to advocate for film by finding new audiences for the indies, then your goal is quite simple: Get people in seats. Simple, right?
The truth is, there’s no science or method to what will bring people in, all these golden rules notwithstanding. A front page write-up in the local paper will definitely help, but chances are that won’t happen for awhile, especially if you’re in a big city with tons of other competing things going on. A celebrity helps too, but that also gets really cheesy really fast, and can turn into a sort of Faustian deal with the devil, right quick.
In practice: If you want to maintain and grow your audience but don’t have access to tons of press, pay really strict attention to how you present your organization both online and offline, program with an eye towards quality (see rule #3), partner with awesome people and organizations (see rule #7), make every event fun, sociable (and a little raucous), and KNOW that you will occasionally have a occasionally super empty theatre. It’s no biggie. We’ve all been there. Just smile and take amazing photos of the three people who showed up.
Golden rule number nine: Just keep going
When I was in graduate school for fine art, one of the tutors told me that in a class of 20, at graduation all 20 are practicing artists. In five years, about 10 are still practicing artists. In 10 years, 5 are still making their work. But in 20 years only one will be making his work, and that one person will probably be well-known.
Consistency pays off, especially in a field where so many people give up early. Make sure you are in a position where you can maintain your organization in the lean years (see rules 1 and 2), and keep the faith.
As they say in Havana: SUERTE, chicos!
More info about Cinema Speakeasy can be found at cinemaspeakeasy.com. A list of other amazing film programs that are thriving and surviving here in the US and abroad can be found here.
Saskia Wilson-Brown has a background in fine art, curation, film festivals, TV and production design. She works as a producer, strategist and advocate; supporting initiatives such as DIY Days and Slamdance Film Festival (among others) while running a guerilla screening series called Cinema Speakeasy. She is currently in production on her first feature doc.
Off the top of my skull, even reading the title immediately makes me think “Yeah right.” I think it’s a fitting (if controversial) title for the topic that’s to be talked about here. Before I begin, please, allow me to post a disclaimer:
None of this is fact, nor is it gospel. This is what my experience is at the current time of writing.
I want to share a few thoughts about what I’m trying to do with my first feature film and the reasons why I lightly heeded the warnings of a wall of Caution Tape and ducked under it to attempt to walk right into the front door. It’s a very ambitious project, the aspirations of which can be summed up with the pitch.
It’s superbad with super powers, or Harold and Kumar go High(er) concept.
To go a slight bit further, Avery and Pete: Superseeds is a gamer-generation adventure soaked in the batter that 90’s Saturday Morning cartoons were poured from. Set in Los Angeles, following slacker best-friends on a mission to stop their buddies–and enemies–from using their newfound superpowers for bad.
Right away, we’re talking about some very key elements here but, primarily, visual effects. So, not only did I have to juggle fifteen or so key cast members, ten locations that I can count off of the top of my head, and everything else that comes with the territory of a nano budget production I now have to deal with getting believable post visual effects done, something that’s worth seeing on a big screen at the very least.
I’ve failed to mention the budget, but the Kickstarter for Superseeds (which can be easily found by a google search–it was successful) reflects more than half of it, so now we’re talking sheer lunacy.
I’m literally moving away from the traditional nano budget motto, where it’s mostly one location, two to three people, a dramatic situation, etc.
I’ll spare everyone the details on production itself until a later episode, and go into the mentality behind it in bullet points:
A. There are too many nano budgets that take place in one location, with a few actors (some are good, some are not), relying on horror gimmicks or other very similar (even though well done) storylines. And, I swore I would never make a feature that opens with someone tied to a chair and bloody, no matter how easy it was.
B. I wanted to make my first one count for something serious. It needed to at least smell like I tried to play a big boys game, and competently. Aside from getting lost in the sea, it was a test for myself to see if I was worth the criticism I dished out to big Hollywood features. I’ve walked away with a newfound respect for a lot of directors and movies I hammered, regardless of if they are bad or not.
C. Even at this nano-budget, with the five years of experience here in Los Angeles, I knew I could pull it off. And, by knew, it was a gut feeling that I could make this happen one way or another. Thankfully, a lot of the key elements began to fall into place the second I made the decision to not wait for hundreds of thousands of dollars and just do it.
D. I wanted to make sure that it was worthwhile for everyone involved, from cast to crew. Form the onset, it was destined to be a small crew, a skeleton crew. The skeleton of a badger. I was going to shoot in tight spaces with a big camera(s), there was enough money to either feed a lot of people bad food or a few people decent food, and with the crew being so small I wanted each person to get a very prominent credit.
The actors needed to benefit too, and they will regardless of if I move forward. They’ll have footage on their reel of themselves as tasteful superheroes (no spandex suits here), and the production quality was going to look several hundreds of thousands times more than what the budget really was.
People needed to benefit as much as I wanted to myself, take care of everyone. This is why, after this first article, the I becomes we
E. And, most importantly, I wanted to at least break even. I didn’t hear enough stories of nano budgets getting advances,didn’t see enough of them getting into the trades like Gareth’s did or Lena’s Tiny Furniture. When I began to look at them, I noticed what the trend was.
It wasn’t necessarily that they had no star power, they just lacked a certain entertainment cog that a mass audience is looking for. Or, better yet, pays for. Production quality AND value ride along with this as well. Not a lot of people were attempting to compete with Hollywood on their own ground, with a fraction of the money. Probably for very good reason, as well. So, there is no fault or blame, I know why and I respect why.
But, I’m going to go where fewer fish school.
Rest assured, though, it doesn’t mean that it was any easier or harder for me. I am sure I experienced a lot of the blood bath that other filmmakers have, do, will. It’s just another path I wanted to take.
With the investment that’s been made (Kickstarter, My own pocket–I’m so broke right now it’s a crime, and through the gracious dollars of private investors), I knew that if it didn’t happen with a distribution deal, there was a world of self distro opening up that I could recoup the small dividends with and then open up a profit as well. Again, this goes back to having content that’s at least competently “mimicking” what Hollywood tends to churn out.
This post isn’t to tell you that I’ve been successful by doing it, it’s to bring some awareness to the project. A Case Study of something that’s not exactly mumblecore (I respect it, trust me), definitely not a star vehicle, absolutely not well-budgeted enough for what’s going on, hopefully something that inspires the other Little Macs who are afraid to jump in the ring with the Bald Bulls and Sodapopinski’s of the Film World. Ten points if you get the classic 8-bit video game reference.
Stay tuned to the New Breed for updates on progress of Avery and Pete: Superseeds. I’ll spoon-feed you info from my experience at simply trying to entertain the way the Big H-Wood does, successful or not, and what I plan to do with the property beyond simply creating a single feature film.
Kholi Hicks LA tutored dawner of many hats, currently residing on the West Side, mildly relevant depending on who you ask. Surviving mostly on Wendy's ninety-nine cent value menu while attempting to construct a career, more than likely to be survived by a savvy more-feminine, prettier other half-slash-teammate thanks to the Wendy's ninety-nine cent value menu.
Don't laugh, Ghostbusters is a really good movie! With only one-half of a short film to speak of, currently in Post-Production on a first feature length film. Avery and Pete: Superseeds - http://www.facebook.com/home.php#!/Superseeds)
POV The Value of Cross-Media Storytelling I’ve just return from Hot Docs where I participated in a panel of judges for the newly formed Convergence Lab. Created by DocAgora, the lab focuses on a number of projects. The lab brings together producers, filmmakers and interactive designers in an effort to develop cross-media strategies for their projects.
Cross-media (the telling of stories across multiple mediums, devices and… read more
BTS – Cinematic Games when the audience become collaborators This past week, we concluded our latest cinema ARG experiment entitled HOPE IS MISSING. The design of HIM is covered in an article that I wrote for the current issue of filmmaker magazine. This post will focus on the results of the experiment. A more detailed case study surrounding the cinema ARG will be released later in Nov.
Layers… read more
Support the monster In an interesting experiment FOUR EYED MONSTERS has joined forces with film community site Spout.com Together they are running a 1 week promotion which started yesterday. The promotion has the full movie running on youTube and for each person who signs up for a FREE Spout.com account FEM will receive a dollar.
In traditional models of distribution this type of… read more
This is a series of posts delving into the gory details of what it takes to produce an independent film. Covering the entire process — from development to fundraising, production, distribution, online strategies and beyond — they will be written in real time, from first hand experience, as I go through the process of producing a feature-length documentary.
UNDERSTANDING THE INTERNATIONAL MARKET: INTERNATIONAL SALES AGENTS & THE EFM.
A few weeks ago I took my first trip to the European Film Market (EFM), which is hosted annually as a parallel event to the Berlin Film Festival.
My stated goal was try to gain support for a few film projects. But the moment I walked into the massive building that hosts the EFM and saw the teeming hive of people – all seemingly engaged in animated conversations with one another – I realized that this was no cozy, friendly, intellectual space. Indeed: The opposite. This was a place of Big Business.
Mulling over my approach & networking tactics, it hit me like a ton of bricks: I knew nothing of the ins and outs of the international film market, not to mention how to break into this group of long-established friends and colleagues without making an ass of myself. I had to learn, and quick. I immediately set about the task of understanding what I was dealing with – and getting a measure of my ignorance of the ins and outs of the international film business.
As far as I could gather, the EFM was composed primarily of the usual types of people we see (or hope to see) at most film festivals: Filmmakers, distributors & acquisitions execs, financiers. Rarer at the indie fests and of great interest to filmmakers hoping to go big, the EFM is also the hub par excellence of that shadowy group of people who negotiate rights and broker territory sales: International Sales Agents.
Sitting at their booths or at the market’s numerous screenings, meeting with filmmakers, exchanging notes in the café, it became very clear to me that the ISAs rule the roost at EFM. In truth, they are most often the first point of contact for big distributors looking to pick up new titles. These are people, in short, that every aspiring filmmaker who hopes to launch into the business in a bigger way should at least think about, new strategies for distribution and fundraising notwithstanding.
I broadsided one of these ISAs – shivering outside on a subarctic German afternoon. What follows, then, is a short interview with the very savvy Miriam Elchanan, the Senior Vice President of Sales and Acquisitions of Los Angeles-based Fabrication Films, explaining the world of the International Sales Agent in nine questions.
What do international sales agents do?
International sales agents represent feature films in the international marketplace. We are responsible for licensing specific rights to specific territories or countries. So for example, if you have produced a film and you have a North American distributor for the United States and Canada you would license the remaining worldwide rights to us. We would then license these rights to our buyers around the world. Our company offers established relationships with distributors and broadcasters and strategic marketing and promotional strategies.
What are the territories that you cover? What are the other territories?
Fabrication Films has buyer relationships in every country in the world. Major territories include Europe (UK , France , Germany , Benelux , Italy , Spain , Greece , etc), Asia (including Japan , China , Thailand , Indonesia , India , Malaysia / Singapore ), Latin America including Brazil, Eastern Europe including Russia, Australia , the Middle East, Turkey and Israel.
At what phase of the filmmaking process would you come in?
We prefer to get involved as early as possible in the production phase so that we can assist the Producer with creative and financial suggestions that will help bolster the value of their film in the global market. In many cases we become involved while a producer is in post-production or has just recently completed their film.
Do you deal with international presales for projects in development, ever?
Yes, however our decision to become involved in presales is usually strongly based on the cast and genre.
What do you, in particular, look for in the films you represent?
There are three things that I look for in an acquisition, the first is cast, the second is genre and the third is story/production quality. In the foreign market a film can be great but if it is a drama with no cast it will be extremely difficult for me to sell it. Action films traditionally are the easiest genre to sell and an action film with cast, great production values and a good story is a slam-dunk. However, I do keep my eye out for those special festival or art house films that have cache and documentaries that will speak to everyone.
What are some major no-nos, for you, from a creative point of view?
Films with a film industry story line can be particularly difficult. I am not a big fan of filmmakers who have their characters pull out a video camera in the middle of a scene and then go to a grainy gritty hand held shot.
I think there is a major difference between making a film for creative reasons and making a film that sells. There is a way to do both but you must consider who is going to buy your film when it is finished. A painter can paint an amazing piece of art but that doesn’t mean you would want to hang it in your living room and look at it every day.
It is the producer’s choice to make a film that is less mainstream and more for a specific group of viewers, but keep in mind the more you limit that scope the less return you will make on your investment.
How do you feel about the DIY strategies that many filmmakers are engaging in, in order to promote, distribute or sometimes even fundraise for their film?
I like the idea of DIY distribution. If you make a film for less than 100K you can get your film seen and build an audience for yourself.
This is much harder to do in the foreign market. Most foreign distributors do not want to work directly with a one-time producer. [Rather] they want to work with a company they already have an established relationship with. They know that I can competently negotiate an agreement with them, we will follow through and deliver the picture and provide the necessary legal and financial paperwork they need to fulfill their obligations.
Recently I was representing a film where the producer had sent a trailer and artwork of their film to a number of foreign buyers about 6 months prior to us taking the film to market. When we began meeting with buyers they would immediately retort that they had seen the film and passed. This was due to the fact that the producers promotional materials were subpar and were not up to the standards these buyers were looking for. When we presented our campaign [for the very same film], it was much harder to engage the buyer in a dialogue.
Bringing in professionals in most cases is the best strategy to getting the best return and the most successful release. I would recommend that a filmmaker make a decision from the beginning how they want to release their film and stick by it. If a DIY strategy does not go well, don’t be surprised when a more traditional sales agent or distributor [has no] interest in stepping in after the market has been saturated.
Just ask yourself this question, if I told you that I watched ER everyday would you let me perform open heart surgery? Just because you read Variety doesn’t mean that you can do what someone with 10-20 years of experience can do.
How do you find the titles that you represent?
We monitor the internet, festivals, social networking, attend industry events.
The best way to get your film noticed by a good sales agent or distributor is to have a well maintained website with good up to date contact information. If your film is listed on IMDB or other industry sites make sure the information is correct and that you provide as much information as possible.
Do you have any advice for filmmakers looking to work with an international sales agent? Anything they should watch out for?
I would look for a well-established company that has been around for at least 5 years and has a catalogue of films that are good quality. Many sales agents have a certain genre focus some focus more on family films some on horror. You might want to see what they have sold before to get an idea if your film is a good fit. Look for someone that you feel comfortable with and try to negotiate a deal that works for you.
I think there is plenty of paranoia out there when it comes to distributors and sales agents. Look at your film in the most realistic way. If someone tells you that they have a studio relationship and they can get you a deal but they will not put that in writing that means they will do their best but cannot guarantee anything.
If a sales agent is representing a huge film and it doesn’t make sense [in the context of] the rest of their line up, make sure that they are representing the major territories on that film — and not just Indonesia.
If a sales agent tells you that their estimates are realistic and those estimates are twenty times bigger than your entire production budget I would be concerned. However, if a sales agent’s estimates are smaller than what you hoped but are more like what you expected I would say – in most cases – they are the real deal.
Check out Fabrication Films hereand if you are curious about the international scene, may I recommend the very excellent blog ‘Sydney’s Buzz’ on Indiewire.
Saskia Wilson-Brown has a background in fine art, curation, film festivals, TV and production design. She works as a producer, strategist and advocate; supporting initiatives such as DIY Days and Slamdance Film Festival (among others) while running a guerilla screening series called Cinema Speakeasy. She is currently in production on her first feature doc.
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