By Sheri Candler

This post was originally published on the Sundance Artists Services blog on March 26, 2012

To start with, I’d like to say that filmmakers should focus on the word social and less on the word marketing. This type of promotion is about relationship building and it is really difficult to build a relationship that starts from the premise that you are only there to sell something. Also, I take the position that all artists should be connecting directly with an audience not on a project-by-project basis, but on a personal one. Instead of starting over again for each project that is incredibly wasteful of time and money, you strive to keep building up the audience base for all of your work, really for you as an artist with a unique vision and a unique voice. No one else can tell the story the way you can. Even behind the scenes crew have a unique vision and unique talents. They should be sharing those with the world.

We all sell every day, we sell a concept of ourselves in how we speak to people, how we present ourselves and I think we inherently understand this. But before I want to do business with someone, I want to know I can trust them, and that I am not being used. I think many corporations still don’t get that about this medium yet. People don’t join your Facebook page to be your word of mouth sales force. Building up trust with your audience is paramount and you do that by giving first. You have to give something, and often for a long time, before you can ask. In fact, if you do this right, you won’t have to ask, they will ask you, they will offer to help.

Don’t attempt this begrudgingly or because everyone says it is something you are supposed to be doing. Start from the place that you are trying to find the people who would love what you do and you want to interact with them. Unless you are anthropophobic, this should be human nature, to connect with kindreds. There are people in the world who are like you and now you have this amazing tool to find them wherever they live in the world. Leave behind the notion that this is about numbers, this is only about sales, this is about buzz and think of it as a way to meet those who will love what you love. All of that other stuff is a by product of this. It will come, but it won’t come immediately and you need plenty of time to build up to that and it will take consistent effort daily.

I realize this is not the stance that most businesses take or understand. They want numbers, they want quantifiables. Utilization of social is no longer something that needs to be justifiable for business goals. Along with advertising, it is a business tool, increasingly a major one. Internet users expect to find you on social platforms whether or not you feel like that benefits the bottom line yet. It is and it will continue to do so.

Also note that this will not be your only tool when you are ready to start selling. Publicity, advertising, and email communication still very much have a place in your overall marketing efforts, but if you build a following consistently, your reliance on those more expensive tools will be minimized.

The key platforms for social network marketing:

I believe pretty much any site on the web is a social networking site. Any place where people can post links, comment, upload information, follow others has a social aspect to it. So those could be blogs, forums, publication websites (New York Times, WSJ), photo sites like Flickr or Instagram, video sites like Youtube and Vimeo, podcast sites like BlogTalk Radio, streaming sites like Ustream. I think people hear social networking and mostly think Facebook and Twitter, but really to be effective in reaching an audience, you have to know where they particularly hang out and it may be on Facebook and Twitter, but it also may be a LinkedIn group, or on Amazon, Meetup or certain blogs.

Any priority ranking to them?

It is hard to argue not being on Facebook since they have over 800 million users worldwide and 435 million are using Facebook from a mobile device. While 155 million of those users are from the US, 43 million are from India and the same from Indonesia. Other top countries are UK, Mexico, Brazil and Turkey.

Based on Alexa rankings, the top social networking sites for the US market are:

  1. Facebook
  2. Twitter
  3. LinkedIn
  4. MySpace
  5. Google Plus

But there are surprising ones in the top 15 such as: Tagged, deviantArt, Orkut, Ning and CafeMom. Don’t underestimate the power of Pinterest too.

It really depends on who your audience is and what they respond to, where they spend their online social time. You will have a mixture of sites, not just one and you will need to test which ones are giving you the most interaction. Maybe your audience really loves watching videos or they really love deep discussions at the end of blog posts. You will need to test what posts are popular and elicit interaction, even from your own website, which I will say you also need. You should never be totally dependent on a third party site. Just ask those who had free Ning sites instead of websites. When the free option went away, they risked losing their communities and had to pay to upgrade or start from scratch again. The same with Facebook and their EdgeRank algorithm. If Facebook deems that one of your fans doesn’t interact with your page enough, they remove it from their newsfeed, often unbeknownst to that fan. Since you haven’t been able to message them directly, there really isn’t a way to bring them back into awareness of your page barring spending money to advertise.

A website you own is the only true online real estate you can control. It is the central hub of all of your activity, everything else is just a spoke on that central hub. Collecting email addresses is also extremely important, but that is for another post.

There is no magic formula for being successful at social, everything has to be tested and the results will vary with each project.

Does it depend on the nature of the film?

No. The decision to be social really isn’t up for debate anymore. Americans spend 22% of their online time each day visiting social networking sites, 65% of all adult internet users have a social network account of some sort. This is not a fad that is going away, the upcoming generation doesn’t even know a time that social networking didn’t exist. It will get bigger, not smaller. Deciding which sites to spend time on will be determined by the kind of audience with which you need to connect.

What are key tips for social network marketing?

  1. Get a personal account going on the sites where you think your audience hangs out and start using it. I am astounded at agencies that sell social networking solutions and don’t have much of a presence themselves on social sites. How can you advise how to use them when you don’t personally do it for your own business? How can you handle someone else’s account when you don’t have one of your own? Every filmmaker hoping to connect with an audience needs an account.
  2. Start by listening first. This is best accomplished when you don’t need to build an audience by tomorrow, you know what I’m saying? If you have this pressing need to start connecting, people can sense it right away and they won’t interact. It is like the insurance guy who walks around a networking event handing out cards in order to meet a sales quota, not actually speaking to anyone other than a sales pitch. No one likes it in real life and they don’t like it online either. This is not a one-way message medium like advertising. If you want to speak, but not interact, just buy an ad. Listen first, determine how best to interact and then dive in.
  3. You are now a publisher. No way around this, it is just the way it is now. A new term for this is social business. A business that can collaborate, share insights and knowledge, and provide value to their audience is going to be way more profitable and sustainable than those who remain closed off from them. This means publishing content of some sort, either generated from your production or generated by your fans, but probably a mixture of both. It needs to be entertaining, insightful, worthy of discussion and sharing, and pulls the audience back for more again and again. We just entered an era of waaaay more work than we used to do. Not one piece of creative advertising, but hundreds of pieces in different mediums and across multiple channels that are meant to lead to discussion with the brand (yes, you are a brand) and with others also connected to that brand.

What are some key mistakes? Some “Don’ts”:

Waiting too late to start and using social only to self promote. Remember, self-promotion is about helping OTHER people. It sounds counterintuitive, but when you help others, THEY promote you. If they don’t, then you weren’t really helping (the help originated through clearly selfish motives) or you just haven’t connected with the right people.

A couple of examples of filmmakers who really get it right:

I hate to give the same examples as everyone else, but the best I’ve seen as far as sustainable interaction (meaning they aren’t clearly doing it just to promote their latest project and then drop out of sight again) are Kevin Smith and Edward Burns. They are consistent, they interact, they use multiple mediums, they don’t use social as a one-way shill mechanism and I don’t think they have an outside agency cultivating their communities.

I also really admire Tiffany Shlain, she has a great grasp of the power of social networking even though she advocates unplugging (gasp!) for a day each week. Her film, Connected, is about the power (and the curse) of the Internet to connect people, but Tiffany was doing this long before she made the film.

I know there are now more and more filmmakers building up their own audiences, but they may have only started in the last few years and they didn’t come out of the old machine so their followings aren’t as large as those examples. People like Gregory Bayne (Driven), Zak Forsman (Heart of Now), Kirby Ferguson (Everything’s a Remix), Jennifer Fox (My Reincarnation), Ava DuVernay (Middle of Nowhere) are all building up their own followings, not just around their films, but around themselves as artists. Even people like Hal Hartley and Abel Ferrara are now starting to embrace social networking and crowdfunding. I really hope to be able to list tons more doing this every year.

It is completely perplexing to me that those who already do have a following from the traditional machine, do not reach out, really have no idea who watches their films and have no interest in knowing. This mentality is not going to serve them well with the consumers coming up in the world today who are used to interacting, who expect to have a dialog. The only thing I can think is, well, no one is popular forever, no one retains power forever. There will always be a new crop coming up behind and I think indie filmmakers who are embracing this concept now are well positioned to be the new crop.


Sheri Candler, social network marketing strategist can be contacted at or and found at

April 24th, 2012

Posted In: Marketing, Social Network Marketing, Uncategorized

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

This post was written by Zack Coffman, Co-founder and President of independent film company One World Studios Ltd.; a feature film production and distribution corporation in Los Angeles. It was originally published by The Film Collaborative (TFC) on the Sundance Artist Services blog.

As indie filmmakers, we often don’t have millions of marketing dollars (or any at all) to spend on turning our films’ titles into household names.  Getting “organically” ranked highly by Google and other leading search engines is the single most cost-effective way to created a sustained marketing presence for your film.

SEO, or Search Engine Optimization, is akin to a dark art that every savvy website owner undertakes in an effort to get their site(s) ranked highly by Google, and to a lesser extent Bing and Yahoo.  To be put in the top five most highly-ranked sites in a given category is the Holy Grail of SEO.  Appearing “above the fold” before a Google user needs to scroll down to see more results gives the website a nearly priceless stamp of approval by Google’s secret algorithms and is worth hundreds if not thousands of times more than any kind of paid internet marketing, hence the steady stream of spam emails we all receive from SEO “gurus” promising to get you more highly-ranked for a big time fee.  At the end of this article I’ll give you some great resources to get started on your own.  Note: While it’s not our full-time gig, my company would also consider choice projects for SEO analysis on a limited case-by-case basis.

Most of what we’ve learned here at our indie film production and distribution outfit has been through hours and hours of internet research as well as even more hours spent trying different strategies on our own bevy of sites across our One World Studios Ltd. brands.  That said, any SEO expert worth their salt will tell you that Google is constantly tweaking their ranking algorithms and introducing varied ways for sites to be tracked and ranked so what works one day may not work forever, thus making SEO truly a dark art!  The following basic tenets have worked for us however, so let’s begin.

To start with:

Your domain name is the number one thing Google looks at when it starts to judge your worthiness and appropriately index your site.  Many films use their title with “movie” or “-movie” after it so Google knows that it’s a film.  You can get more creative if you like however if you think that people may search for your film with different words than the film’s title or if you have some kind of catchy phrase associated with your film that is more memorable than the title by itself.  I’ll be using our sites as guinea pigs today so let’s start with our new Ouija movieI Am ZoZo; a feature that we shot entirely on Super 8mm.  For this film we registered the domain and for our previous motorcycle movies a couple of our highly-ranking sites are and

Now that you have a site to work with it’s important to set up Google Analytics and Google Webmaster Tools so you can be indexed properly and you can see how your traffic is reaching you, etc. allowing you to make changes and tweaks over time.  Also, make sure you have an updated sitemap.xml file in your site’s root folder, this is very important to be indexed by Google.  A sitemap essentially gives Google’s “spiders” and “bots” an instant and cursory understanding of how all the various pages of your site are interlinked with one another so that it can place you in the proper category quickly and efficiently.  Use this site to generate a sitemap now.  Here’s ours for

Now that we’ve prepped our site, let’s get our hands dirty:

When building/rebuilding your site it’s important to take stock of what you have and what you want.  Take a step back and determine what your site is for; does it sell something like a DVD or book?  Does it provide information to other people?  Is it exclusively for promotion of your film?  Once you’ve determined that, sit down and start making a list of various search terms and keywords that you’d like to be found under in Google.  (Use the Google Analytics tab “Traffic Sources” to see how people are currently actually finding you.)

Remember, it’s relatively easy to get highly ranked for the title of your film or brand if it’s original or novel, but the real key for the indie filmmaker is to get ranked highly for words more general than your film’s title.

From’s analytics showing how the site was most recently found:

Another example: I Am ZoZo is about a Ouija board possession and it was shot entirely on Super 8mm so we have several interesting “hooks” and terms that we feel we’d like to be found under.  By signing up for AdWords (optional) and using Google’s Keyword Tool, we can see how many times some of our various ideas for keywords are actually being searched and also what kind of competition exists for advertising under those keywords.

Hint: More general words may seem to be more desirable and they’re certainly more costly for advertising, but they aren’t always better for your site because the traffic you generate may not be “qualified traffic”.  Just getting tons of people to look at your site doesn’t mean as much as getting tons of people who really like your content to visit your site.*

So in this example I searched for the most general term I could think of “Ouija” and luckily, it’s not very competitive, but reasonably popular.  Now do this for each site you own andeach individual page of each site.  Write down all your favorite terms that apply to each page of content you have and get ready to apply them to your site.

If you get one useful tip from this article it’s this: Google likes it when each page of a site has proper indicators as to the specific nature of the page’s content and content that matches those indicators.

Now let’s see how it’s done:

We now have a list of various keywords for our main index (Home) page ranging from general to specific such as: Ouija, Ouija boards, the Ouija, and La Ouija (never would have guessed this one), Ouija game, and down the line.  Also since it’s a film, we want to add in words like: movie, movies, videos, media, caught on tape, real stories, etc.  That’s just the Home page, we now go through each page of our site and try to think of different, but still related, words that we want each page to highlight.

In the example of I Am ZoZo, we shot the entire film on Super 8mm, which is quite different (yes, some have even called it crazy.)  Google loves unique content because usually readers do too, so I’ve set up a page focusing on the production aspects of our film that don’t relate to the story of the film, but rather the fascinating experience of shooting on film in general and on Super 8mm in particular.  Our story is based on true Ouija tales we collected over the years so this becomes another unique page and so forth.  Remember, the idea is to show Google that your site has both interesting and unique content that really relates to what it claims to be about.

Note: Some SEO scam artists make fake pages on your site that are filled with just keywords and little or no original content.  Beware these scams because if the Google bots discover it they can ban your URL permanently!

Now that you have the basic layout of your site and what each main page is going to be about, get down to writing content that uses the keywords you chose to focus on.  Google loves text, so feel free to write lots of appropriate and useful information for your readers.  As always, “content is king”.  This is tricky because  A) writing isn’t easy…and B) just because Google loves tons of text, your site still needs to function well in regards to UI (User Interface).  In layman’s terms; your site needs to be good for the visitors, not just Google bots.  The combination of the technical and creative has always fascinated me, so I enjoy working this piece of the puzzle on my own sites.  It definitely takes practice, with constant updating and critiquing from friends and colleagues to find the effective mix that makes both your readers and Google happy.  Hint: Also give credence to paragraph headings and section headings within each page because Google looks at them to further index the context of the content on your site.

Examples of keyword usage above the fold on the I Am ZoZo website:

More technical details:

Anchored keywords (Anchor Links) and hot-linked words are also important ways to indicate to the “bots” that certain content on your site is more important and to be focused on for indexing.  (This is also an important part of your Social Marketing strategy which may be the topic of a future article since it needs its own focus and attention.)  The gist is this; if you have a page on your site, either a top-level page or deeper level pages, you can and should occasionally make a link in your text to those pages if they relate directly to the content.  For example, on the front page of our website relating to our first motorcycle movie “Choppertown: the Sinners”, you can see lots of text and anchored links leading off to other sites we own as well as deeper into the site itself.

*I know you’re saying, “Dude, that site looks so ten years ago!”  True, the format might be due for an update, but Google LOVES this site because the information is accurate and text-based so we use it to help pull up our other motorcycle movie-related websites and social network.  Note: Google loves older sites and this one has been around since 2004, so if you give the SEO treatment to an older site you can expect bigger gains.  Also note all the targeted keywords used on this page such as: Motorcycle Movies, documentary, custom bikes, motorcycle videos, etc.

Digging Deeper:

Now that we’ve tried to fill our site with compelling, well-written, smartly-keyworded information it’s time to go behind the scenes and make some more improvements that Google demands. You need to make sure each page’s “title” is descriptive and full of your most important keywords.  The title is what appears in your browser, way at the top above everything else in the grey area.  Google looks at this as much as anything else!  (Remember it then matches that info against what it perceives to be the actual content of the site, so again SEO spammers beware.)

The title for reads: Choppertown: the Sinners – a custom motorcycle movie on DVD about biker culture featuring Kutty Noteboom, Jason Jessee, James Intveld, Rico Fodrey, and Cole Foster.

Notice it has our most important keywords first.  It’s a bit longer than Google normally likes (15-20 words) but close enough.  We wanted to put in the names of some of the more well-known personalities from our film so anyone Googling them will also find the film.

From I Am ZoZo is based on a real Ouija board experience gone wrong – ZoZo is a real Ouija spirit. He is pure EVIL. This Ouija movie was shot entirely on Super8 mm.

Remember, do this for EVERY page on your site.  Blogs and other template-based site programs have spots for you to enter this information, usually right at the top.  Hint: On blogs your post’s titles are already used for this, so plan your blog posting titles accordingly!

Note about menus headings: As with Anchor Links, the words you use for your Menu Headings are important as well because Google looks for certain “standard” words that it can index quickly.  For instance: Home, About, Contact, Store, and Blog are very common.  Both from a user perspective and Google perspective try not to monkey around with these too much.  However, where a lot of people fall short in terms of SEO is they leave the menu name as the title of the page.  This is the case if you look at the grey bar at the top and you just see “Contact”  or “About”.  This tells Google no specific information about the page and is a wasted opportunity for SEO.

Digging even DEEPER:

Visit a website you like – or even your competitors’ sites – and then select “Get Info” from the menu bar (⌘-I on a Mac, Control-I on a PC.)  The little window that pops up has all sorts of useful information.

At the very top is the title as we discussed.  Below that is “description” and “keywords” or “tags”.  There are places to enter this info on each blog post or web page you make.  Again, they should be DIFFERENT for each page/post and APPLICABLE to their associated page.  Try to put in keywords for each page that you really want to stress to Google are important.  The description is also indexed and important for all the above reasons, but it serves a very important marketing purpose as well; it’s the sentence or two that you see when you do a search on Google!  So it’s important to make this BOTH Google friendly and reader friendly so that the reader will actually CLICK your site’s link after they find it.  (Yes, Google does consider POPULARITY in its ranking algorithms.)

Yes, it’s a Popularity Contest:

Google also adds into its algorithm the amount of traffic that goes to your site and where it’s coming from. HUGE WARNING: Those SEO spammers that have been emailing you often mention “link-building” and the like.  Stay away from them unless you have already vetted the company because many of them create link farms of random junk websites just to provide you with thousands of inbound links.  When Google’s bots realize this they PENALIZE YOUR SITE.  Getting quality inbound links takes time and effort and some companies are willing to help you for a fee, but honestly you are your own best judge from what other sites in your space you would like to get inbound links.  Any time the New York Times or IMDB or Hopeforfilm writes an article and links to your site (hopefully with Anchor Text) Google perks up its ears and moves you up its rankings because it already deems those sources as worthy.  Hint: A good technique is offering original articles to various blogs you like in exchange for cross-linking each other’s content.  If your site is still small and the other is huge it may be a bit of a Catch-22, but we all know the indie film business is about jumping hurdles as we come to them!  If your article is interesting, the bigger blog might just reprint it and link back to you.

More Technical Details – A great technique not for the faint of heart:

(Before trying this technique BACK UP YOUR SITE.  Really!)

Every page of every website in the world is actually a file document (similar to a Word or Excel document that ends in .doc or .xls, web documents often end with .html)  Instead of your written content only, each web page file also contains lines of code that tell a web browser how to present it to the end user on a computer screen, tablet, or cell phone, etc.  The actual File Name of the page file is a big determiner when Google scans your page.  For instance, you design an “about” page and fill it with all sorts of useful information about your film, then you go in and add all the other details we’ve discussed such as a descriptive title, keywords, etc.  Don’t just save it as “about ” even though your page’s menu has an “about” button leading to this page.  Instead call it for example, “best-your movie’s subject-movie” or the like.  As long as the file name is still somewhat related to your actual content, Google will love it.  On our film’s site the “about” section’s page is called best-motorcycle-movie.html.

A word on Page Speed:

Recently Google made it public that they also factor in your page’s loading speed when determining rank.  This is a new development and in response to both the increased use of cell phones and tablets for internet browsing as well as the ever shrinking bandwidth of the internet “pipes” as more and more sites and users get online.   There are a million ways to make your site load faster and many of them require some technical knowledge to fix, but a good place to start is by running your site through and researching the errors it comes up with.  After reading Google’s announcement about speed and rankings, we put all our sites through the test and found lots of little problems that needed fixing.  We went from a 69% “D” rating to an 86% “B” after addressing some of the simpler issues.  That’s the thing about SEO, it requires constant vigilance and tweaking!

A picture is worth a thousand…and a video is worth a million:

It’s important to address the images and videos that are a mandatory component of any filmmaker’s site.  Remember Google has separate search sections for both images and videos and you want to be found there as well!

First, it’s important to make sure that all images have been properly “optimized” for web use either through Photoshop or a cool WordPress plugin like “” so that they will be small in size and load very quickly.  Make sure each image’s file name is SEO friendly by naming it something descriptive like “I Am ZoZo-keyart”  or “Choppertown-motorcycle-DVD” and make sure you add all requested metadata when you upload it.  Usually your design program has places for you to input this data such as “description”, “caption”, and “tags”.  Fill out everything to give Google more to chew on!

The same goes for video.  I recommend uploading your clips and trailers to YouTube and then embedding that onto your site (I know Vimeo looks better) but let’s face it, you want YouTube is Big Daddy when it comes to sharing video and you want every click to count!  (Also Google owns YouTube so it tends to offer up those videos first in search for better or worse.)

SEO and getting clicks for your video is probably its own article too, but many of the same steps apply; how you name your video is key so call it something that has the keywords for how you want to be indexed.  Don’t just call it “I Am ZoZo Trailer”…call it “I Am ZoZo Trailer (the Ouija movie based on real experience gone wrong)”.  Fill out a good description for it (with a link back to your own site of course!) and put in lots of appropriate tags.

Last Step:

Every time you change anything on your site, make sure you update your sitemap.xml file and then resubmit it to Google!  This lets Google know that your site is active and attempting to provide current information to readers.

To Sum it All Up:

  1. Choose a useful domain name
  2. Register for Google Analytics and Webmaster Tools
  3. Check that you have a sitemap.xml file and make one if you don’t already have it
  4. Make a list of keywords
  5. Write great content with Anchor Links
  6. Make sure all your site’s page titles are appropriate, short, and descriptive
  7. Add your metadata such as descriptions and tags
  8. Get inbound links from qualified sources
  9. Check your pages’ file names (optional)
  10. Optimize your pages for speed
  11. Do SEO on all your images and videos
  12. Update your sitemap

The Proof is in the Pudding:

So after all that work, here’s the results… Not one, but three of our sites are listed on the front page of Google under the coveted and targeted term “motorcycle movie”.

..And we’ve even made it to the front page for “Ouija movie” as well.  Note: We were ranked even higher until yesterday when Universal announced that it is going into production on a low-budget Ouija movie of its own.  Like I said, it’s a constant battle but honestly I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Thanks as always to our supporters who help us keep the dream alive.


Stay independent.



Top-ten SEO Blogs as listed in the article “Top 25 SEO Blogs” by Daniel Scocco of Daily Blog Tips.

  1. Search Engine Land
  2. SEOBook
  3. SEO Moz
  4. Matt Cutts
  5. Search Engine Watch
  6. Search Engine Roundtable
  7. Search Engine Journal
  8. Online Marketing Blog
  9. Pronet Advertising
  10. Marketing Pilgrim 

Special thanks to:

Allen Chou of indie distributor Passion River Films who first mentioned the word SEO to me back in 2006 and Eric Leuenberger of Zen Cart Optimization who gave me lots of great SEO advice around the same time.

…and of course Orly Ravid’s Film Collaborative, a fantastic indie film resource.

About One World Studios Ltd:

One World’s first feature documentary “Choppertown: the Sinners” focused on a renowned group of California bikers known as the Sinners.  Produced in 2004 with a stack of credit cards, this award-winning documentary heralded a return to the values of a simpler time and spawned a worldwide cult following culminating in a seventeen-country European theatrical tour sponsored by Dickies.  After selling 20,000 Choppertown DVDs out of an apartment in West LA, One World principals Zack Coffman and Scott Di Lalla were able to quit their part-time jobs, making and distributing films full time since 2005.  “I Am ZoZo”, the award-winning Ouija movie shot entirely on Super 8mm, is their sixth feature and first narrative.

About Zack Coffman:

Hometown: Dundee, NY  Education: UCLA (World Arts & Cultures), Yonsei University Korean Language Institute.  Resided in Seoul, Korea from 1992-2000.  Professional highlights: Head of Acquisitions, HMJ Films (Korea.)  Asian correspondent, Variety.  Line-producer and location manager for several Korean films including Korean/Philippine co-production Weekend Warriors.  Translator, Korean International Trade Association.  Co-founder and President of independent film company One World Studios Ltd.; a feature film production and distribution corporation in Los Angeles.

Contact/Follow Zack Coffman:



April 17th, 2012

Posted In: SEO

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

This post was originally published on the Future of Film Blog of Tribeca Film Festival on April 9, 2012

Recently I was helping a friend with a business plan related to publishing.  So naturally I needed to reference revenues in the publishing space.  There was plenty of revenue data available.  However, when one reads film business plans one knows that data is often unreliable, unverifiable, or misleading.  In my dealings with people from other professions and others in business, it always seemed to me that sharing real information was considered good business and led companies to learn from others.

I’m sure there are plenty of business that do not function transparently, but after 13 years in this one, I can say I know why people hide real information and why it’s bad for the film industry as a whole.

Box office grosses can be verified to a great extent but P&A expenses cannot and now with VOD revenues, it’s anybody’s guess what really happened except for those seeing the actual reporting (and even then…).  When DVD was a key revenue generator, one could at least get a lot of the main sales data via VideoScan.  It covered the retail brick & mortar sales numbers and Rentrak covered the rental business as well.

In today’s digital distribution market, which ranges from VOD, to iTunes and other smaller online outlets, the numbers are hard to find or verify.

Most of us probably criticized the mysterious banking practices that led to the economic downturn within which we are still presently mired.  Yet the film industry perpetuates a system that hides information and makes the data mysterious when it should not be. This mystery and obfuscation leads to incomplete or inaccurate business plans, an uninformed investor pool and an excess of supply that creates a glut.  In the end, no one benefits.

What and why people hide:

  • Filmmakers will hide the fact that their distribution deal was a service deal because they want it to seem as if their film was “acquired”.   Why does that matter to them? Part of it is ego and part of it is the desire to attract future investment.  Even though a DIY model can actually generate more revenue, there is a stigma associated with it.  Filmmakers often hide their revenues overall for the same reasons.
  • Distributors try to hide or not make public their fees or the specific revenues from VOD.   Why do they do this? Simply, it’s harder to analyze and compare options. When one can do this properly, you quickly realize how excessive fees are for certain rights categories and that there are extra middlemen who often serve no benefit to the licensor.  Further you realize how little is done to justify the fees.  When I write “excessive” I mean that one can get the same job done for a lower fee or smaller overall cost.  I commend the distributors and the filmmakers who have been transparent, but these are few and far between.
  • Studios are less transparent and public about data because their dealings with Cable MSOs and key digital platforms are required to be secret (I am told this is a condition of the platforms and the MSOs).  So we understand that their splits / terms (with MSOs and some platforms) are better but we do not always get the exact data.
  • Platforms such as Netflix also do not like to publicize how they arrive at the fees they offer as their deals vary with various suppliers.

So where does this leave us? 

  • With a pool of often revolving investors who know little about distribution and rely on business plans that contain little statistical backup.  My sense has been that many investors do not get their money back and are therefore not repeat investors.
  • With filmmakers who struggle just to create and have a career.   They usually prefer not to focus on distribution and either take bad deals or have to spend money on consultants to help them have access and make decisions.  In short, filmmakers are losing money and often making poor decisions because of the lack of information.  Digital distribution does afford more access for filmmakers, but not as much as it could and one day may do.
  • With a glut of films, many made by wide-eyed newcomers who don’t know the realities of just how competitive it is and how tough their odds are.  This lack of transparency and real data perpetuates a mystique around the industry that increases the supply.  It also feeds an economy of middlemen and consultants and hell, even us.

The choice by filmmakers to hide their real experience in distribution is a disservice to future filmmakers and investors as well as in some cases to the filmmakers themselves.  It only encourages competition and thus increases the odds of future struggle and disillusionment.

The choice by distributors not to be transparent is obvious in its motivation.  Personally, I think this industry would be well served by a market correction and a drastic adjustment of industry standards in reporting and transparency.  Obviously with a book such as ours, and business practices such as ours, we hope to be a catalyst in that direction.

I have said from the day I founded our organization that I would be delighted if we facilitated our uselessness.  It would show that an industry change for the better had taken place.

What would be the benefit of greater transparency?

  1. We could all learn from others’ mistakes and successes a lot more easily and with greater certainty.
  2. Filmmakers and industry folk could spend less on business-to-business transactions and more on direct-to-audience marketing and community engagement.
  3. We might actually see greater quality and less quantity–which would also positively impact audiences and create a more sustainable career for those who are the more talented.
  4. We might see more innovative thinking around marketing for a change instead of having everyone rest on their laurels because no one can really evaluate what has or has not worked.



April 13th, 2012

Posted In: Digital Distribution

Tags: , , ,

This piece by Jeffrey Winter originally ran on the Sundance Artist Services blog on March 22, 2012

We all know that the vast majority of folks make their film-viewing choices based on what they are hearing about a film — be it from friends, traditional media, the blogosphere, or social media. They’re not likely to go out of their way to proactively research a film, and if they haven’t heard anything about a film, they aren’t likely to see it. Whatever you want to call that…be it “buzz,” “word-of-mouth,” “going viral,” etc…it is the name of the game in contemporary grassroots marketing.

But how much can a filmmaker actually control that? We all know the ways they can try – by playing film festivals, hiring publicists, engaging their community via social media, reaching out to organizations, etc. Of course it helps if a film is actually good…really good, in fact….as the last thing today’s marketplace needs is another mediocre film. And the values of passion and hard work can’t be overlooked here either, as creating buzz and engagement for a film is often arduous and time-consuming…and for many filmmakers nearly as daunting as making the movie itself.

Often it feels like independent films are at the whim of the zeitgeist, and the most important aspect is timing, and the receptivity of the marketplace to the ideas in the film. Consider the cycle of elections, and the way political/environmental/social issue docs can explode into national consciousness around certain hot issues. Given the time it takes to make a film, it’s hard to know whether anyone can actually craft a film to hit at just the right time to capture a “trending” topic.

In the case of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Prize winner AI WEIWEI: NEVER SORRY, all the factors mentioned above came together in the final months of post-production to land the film this January at Sundance as an unlikely “buzz” film of the Festival. On the surface, it’s a straightforward documentary by a first-time filmmaker about a Chinese artist/ political dissident completely unknown to the majority of U.S. filmgoers. Hardly a guaranteed formula for indie marketing success.

Sundance key art

But just below the obvious, the twitterverse was ablaze promoting the film; the Kickstarter campaign was raising funds and attracting attention; art magazines were giving the film covers; and filmmaker Alison Klayman had already done numerous appearances on CNN, MSNBC, and The Colbert Report as well as print features in the likes of the Wall Street Journal, The Economist and The Hollywood Reporter. A few weeks later (by mid February), the trade publications were filled with the announcement of its purchase by Sundance Selects, and the New York Times was running a feature article about the film’s upcoming Summer 2012 release.

How does something like that happen for a debut filmmaker with no special access to funding, shortly after finishing a film about a Chinese artist?

Well, of course this wasn’t just any artist — Ai Weiwei is an internationally renowned art star and political provocateur whose unyielding criticism of the Chinese government has earned him legions of friends, enemies, and fans alike.  And Weiwei isn’t just an average political dissent, he is a dissident for the digital age, who because of the rigors of Chinese censorship has taken his activism specifically to twitter through linked computers to the West, and therefore has mastered the art of social media all on his own.

This is the study of a modern documentary subject, who is just as likely to be able to spread his/her own message through the media on their own, through the accessibility of social media, even in free speech-challenged China. In this case, it becomes the story of the filmmaker that becomes the mouthpiece of the subject…which many might argue is the way that it should be.

Filmmaker Alison Klayman began her work with Weiwei in 2008, as a recent Brown University graduate living abroad in Bejing and working as a freelance journalist. Her housemate was curating a show of Weiwei’s photography, and Klayman was asked to make a video for the show. Klayman and Weiwei hit it off creatively, and Klayman began to follow Weiwei as his documentarian — capturing his daily life, his frequent battles with the Chinese authorities, and his travels abroad for major international art shows.

Weiwei’s daily use of blogs and videos to spread his artwork — especially his videos criticizing the government’s response to the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province – became a driving narrative in the film, as well as a grassroots vehicle for spreading Weiwei’s fame and fan base. When the Chinese government finally cut off his locally-sourced blog, Weiwei was able to migrate his work to an ungovernable network of twitter-linked computers, untraceable to China. As such, his network was able to dramatically expand globally, while remaining accessible to tens of thousands of Chinese willing to access these quasi-legal networks.

From 2008 thorugh 2010, Klayman’s documentary follows Weiwei through major international art shows, startlingly intimate private moments, and incredible courage in the face of political adversity. And whenever Weiwei had a run in with the Chinese authorities, the encounter went instantly viral, through a devoted staff who filmed his every move and posted it immediately to twitter.

In late 2010, Klayman returned to the States to begin editing, without the financial means to complete the project. As such, in addition to applying for grants, Sundance labs, and bringing well-connected executive producers onto the projects (largely through Weiwei’s connections in the art world), Klayman strategized and launched a Kickstarter campaign, scheduled to go live on March 29th, 2011.  And that’s when the film caught a kind of lighting in a bottle.

Only four days after the Kickstarter launched, Ai Weiwei suddenly disappeared on April 3rd…apparently arrested by the Chinese Government, but without any official announcement or confirmation of his whereabouts. A global outcry went up throughout his social networks, the art world, and then the international press caught on to the story as well.

As a journalist and Ai Weiwei’s documentarian of record, filmmaker Klayman quickly emerged as the “journalist of record” on the Weiwei story, and the international press began flocking in her direction. Suddenly, it was the twitter feeds that Weiwei’s staff and Klayman had been maintaining throughout the documentary filming periods that became the main source of worldwide news for Ai Weiwei updates. Klayman and her social media teams ramped up their efforts in the U.S. and China, and started working on a rotating schedule to provide 24 hour updates on the story for several months. For all of 81 days, as Weiwei’s secret detention continued without any official response from the Chinese government, the international press continued to feature Klayman’s twitter updates on the story, and interviewed her about the story for numerous high-profile news programs.

Of course, Klayman was careful not to try to turn the story into a shameless plug for her movie…after all, her friend and colleague was “disappeared” and detained, and concern for his well-being was the first priority. But inexorably, in today’s hyper-media culture, Klayman’s sudden thrust into the mainstream became completely entangled with the finishing of the film…and catapulted the project into a far larger spotlight.

The film’s Kickstarter soared above the original asking goal of $20,000 to a final tally of $52,175 from 793 backers…even though it was only originally expected to bring in money from friends and family. The film attracted additional producers and lab invitations that Klayman freely admits it probably wouldn’t have. All in all, the film became a “cause célèbre” for an issue in the news, a fact which filmmaker Klayman could hardly have counted on while making the film.

When Weiwei was finally released, with a dubious charge of more than 1 million dollars in tax evasion, support from the community-at-large continued to pour in, with donations to the cause far exceeding the amount of the government fine. And filmmaker Klayman was finally free to turn the enormous pouring of goodwill towards deliberate promotion of the film, helped in large part by the incredible networks built during the crisis on twitter, and to a lesser extent, on Kickstarter and Tumblr. It is also worth noting here: because the Kickstarter campaign included a number of incentives/prizes towards donation, the film now had a wonderful amount of merchandise it could also now leverage towards wider buzz about the film.

Given this backstory, we can demystify the process of how a small film sometimes gains “buzz” beyond expectations…as was clearly the case with AI WEIWEI: NEVER SORRY and its incredible fortune of timing combined with passion, hard work, technical savvy, and community networks. Sometimes a film that seems the most difficult to market actually has the most subtle niche communities that can be reached…whether they be political activists, art-world enthusiasts, devotees of Asian culture, social media junkies etc.

However, according to filmmaker Klayman, perhaps the greatest takeway is this…. in today’s hyperlinked/hashtagged environment, it is ciritical to remember that today’s documentary subjects no longer solely rely on their documentarian to spread their message, and social media makes potential distributors and activists of us all. Sometimes, today’s filmmakers just need to choose their subjects wisely, and hold on tight for the ride.

Here is Klayman’s interview for Sundance’s Meet the Filmmaker promo videos




April 9th, 2012

Posted In: crowdfunding, Film Festivals, Marketing, Social Network Marketing

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

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