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LESSONS IN DIY
Here’s how four filmmakers became distributors to get their films in front of audiences.

Web Savvy BY LANCE WEILER (director, Head Trauma)

HEAD TRAUMA. PHOTOS BY: MARTIN PEPE AND JACK BROMILEY

“Do it yourself” is a simple phrase. Filmmakers have been “doing it themselves” for years, especially when it comes to production. However, the concept of DIY distribution, often considered to be a last resort or even a sign of failure, has recently become a first choice for many filmmakers.

The digital video revolution of the late ’90s ushered in a new wave of filmmaking by making the tools of production accessible to the masses. That democratization has, in 2007, become a bittersweet reality. While producing new voices and stories, it has overloaded the current system, flooding festivals, distributors and theaters with movies. The old adage that quality work floats to the surface is quickly becoming a myth, especially with the thousands of films produced every year.

With so many independent films pouring into the marketplace, how can indie filmmakers hope to break through the clutter and get their work seen? One answer is to build value around films through the Internet. Falling storage and bandwidth costs combined with a boom in user-generated content and social networking sites have created a number of free tools and services that can be used to promote and build audiences for independent movies. Below is a discussion of these new tools, many of which I used to promote my own latest feature, Head Trauma.

 

HEAD TRAUMA MAKING-OF SHORT AND COMIC.

WEB SITES

For any filmmaker the first Internet marketing material to be created should be a simple Web site. When building a site, create something that embodies the spirit of the movie. Also, make sure the site has hooks to keep the Web audience coming back. For example, when it came time to distribute my feature, everything started with a Web site that reflected the story, mood and style of the film. The site was our anchor point. Head Trauma tells the story of a drifter named George Walker who returns after many years to stake a claim on his deceased grandmother’s abandoned house. Struggling to build some semblance of a normal life for himself, George tries to clean up the place by day. But his nights are uneasy and plagued by troubling visions of a mysterious hooded figure. Despite his best efforts things grow worse as the house is condemned and his nightmares refuse to remain in the dark. To capture the feeling of the movie we designed the Web site — www.headtraumamovie.com — in the style of an interactive comic with a number of things hidden under the surface. Visitors were teased by an immersive experience that told a story.

 

SYNDICATION

Filmmakers can use syndication tools to reach large audiences with information about their films. Most famously, Arin Crumley and Susan Buice created a video podcast for their film Four Eyed Monsters which has been viewed by over 1.5 million people in just one year. The podcast was syndicated using a RSS (really simple syndication) feed. RSS can be read by feed readers known as aggregators, certain browsers and services like iTunes. But RSS is not just limited to podcasts; it is often possible to pull a feed from your blog. For example, your audience could subscribe to your RSS feed. Every time your blog is updated, they will receive a headline, or the whole blog entry. The updates can be delivered and read by a feed reader or as e-mails by using services like Feedburner, Zookoda or rssFWD.

Syndication allows your audience to receive updates without having to travel to your site or blog. RSS feeds can also be embedded into your fan’s sites, blogs and networking profile pages, which means your fans can “broadcast your feeds” and help amplify your message.

 

GETTING FOUND

Search-engine optimization is a big business. Firms and consultants get paid large amounts of money to help companies rank higher within Web searches. But there are a number of simple and free things that one can do to help increase a film’s Web site ranking, which in turn makes the marketing materials contained within easier to find.

Since search engines crawl for links, they look for link activity in the form of hyperlinking. Basically, the more a site is linked by other pages the more you, the site owner, link to them and the easier it is for a search engine to find you. One important tool for discovery is keywords and tags. When you prep your site and blogs you can add keywords to the title section of your HTML pages. Tags can be used to identify your media within social and video-sharing networks. These keywords and tags are picked up by search engines, which then direct surfers to your site.

When thinking about keywords and tagging it is important to consider your own searching and viewing habits. Netflix’s recommendation engine, Movies You’ll Love, pulls from over a billion users’ reviews and ratings in order to service each customer with a unique set of movie recommendations, recommendations that account for about 75 percent of the DVDs that Netflix ships in a given month. Although most filmmakers do not have the luxury of such a robust system, one thing is obvious by the Netflix example: the true power of a viewer’s recommendation. When coming up with your own keywords and tags, consider how you might recommend your movie to your friends and embed accordingly.

 

THE SCATTERSHOT APPROACH

One Web strategy that we used for the promotion of Head Trauma was what we called a scattershot approach. All told, we created and maintained the following 13 domains:

headtraumamovie.com official site
htmob.com/blog official blog
htmob.com/vlog a podcast site called HT radio
myspace.com/headtraumamovie social-networking site
audience.withoutabox.com/users/headtrauma social-networking site for filmmakers
social.indiewire.com/userprofile.php?u=Lw social-networking site for filmmakers
iklipz.com/headtraumamovie social networking site
tagworld.com/headtraumamovie social-networking site
pageflakes.com/lw.ashx Ajax-based startpage
headtraumamovie.suprglu.com Web site that allows you to combine RSS feeds
flickr.com/photos/headtraumamovie photo sharing
youtube.com/headtraumamovie video sharing
del.icio.us/htmob/news social bookmarking site

We hyperlinked between all these domains and, where possible, pulled RSS feeds from one domain into another. We also used an effective keyword and tagging scheme based on a series of terms we felt would hit our target audience. Our goal was to scatter the domains all over the Web, and then by hyperlinking pull them back together again.

Before we started the scattershot approach it was impossible to find our site using Google because the term “head trauma” was so generic. A search would spit out a ton of medical documents and sites but no mention of the movie. But as we built out the domains and interlinked them “head trauma” began to climb within search results and now sits on the first page of a Google search.

 

DIGITAL SWAG

Movie promotions usually involve swag — posters, T-shirts, coffee mugs and the occasional kids meal. Most swag is well beyond the budgets of the majority of filmmakers, but digital swag is easy, cheap and sometimes even viral. For Head Trauma we adopted an “embed and spread” campaign and created a number of digital assets to help promote the movie.

 

EMBEDDABLE VIDEO

Thanks to the abundance of free video-sharing sites (YouTube, Google video, MySpace, etc.), it is easy to find places to handle your hosting needs. Once you have uploaded your video, you can easily embed the video into your Web pages. With a little bit of extra work, you can place the embed code right below the video. Then it can easily be copied and placed into other pages.

For Head Trauma, we created experimental loops, behind-the-scenes shorts and two different trailers. Most of the media was open for anyone to take and use, but for certain outlets we created exclusive content. One successful outlet for an exclusive behind-the-scenes short was Amazon.com. We worked out a deal where Amazon would feature the behind-the-scenes short and a trailer for the movie on their main DVD page, the DVD horror page and also give it placement on the sales page for the actual DVD. In other cases we would offer embeddable media to online horror and movie news sites to accompany an interview or review of the movie.

 

AUDIO PLAYERS

Numerous social networking sites allow you to place audio players into your profile pages easily. Once you have the player in place you can point it toward audio files that can help promote your film. For instance, you can let fans listen to songs from your soundtrack or interviews with your cast and crew.

An option that worked extremely well for us was the creation of our own flash audio player. By using the XSPF (musicplayer.sourceforge.net ) open-source music player, once people embedded the player, which we called HT Radio, into their pages, we could easily update it via XML files. The new audio would then automatically play in all the places that had embedded our player. In effect we created our own broadcast channel, and HT radio players started popping up all over social networking profiles in addition to people’s blogs and sites. As the audience quickly grew listeners started to ask questions and I would answer them “on air.” I even worked out a way to update HT radio from my mobile phone. I could call in from the road and the audio would be automatically uploaded.

 

GRAPHICS AND PHOTOS

A very simple form of digital swag is banner links. Banner links are excellent tools for social networks because they can be used as a giveaway to fans who can place them in their pages, profiles or within a comment section of a page. For example, we created banners and wallpaper for the film that have been extremely popular within social-networking sites and on portable devices like the PSP. By downloading these simple digital assets, fans felt they were discovering something they could share with their friends and thus increased the film’s exposure.

 

EMPOWERING YOUR AUDIENCE

The Internet enables filmmakers to build audiences for their work in a cost-effective manner. Over time an audience can grow with a filmmaker and, if cultivated with care, enable the funding and distribution of future work.

One emerging trend is filmmakers using their audience to fund and assist with the distribution of their projects. Robert Greenwald’s work is an example of this new model. For his latest film, Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers, Greenwald and his team at Brave New Films reached out to their audience with a special fund-raising request. Via a mass mailing to their fan base, they asked for donations. Within 10 days they had raised over $200,000. During the production of the movie they turned to the audience to gain their insights on certain topics, and some audience members even assisted with the creation of bonus features that can be found on the DVD. When Iraq for Sale was released earlier this fall, it was available for screenings at house parties organized by audience members. The success of the house parties has lead to the formation of a new division of Greenwald’s company called Brave New Theaters. Brave New Theaters allows filmmakers to tap into a screening system they have created. Filmmakers looking for screening venues and audiences looking for films are paired together in what is becoming a grassroots screening network.

In one final example of what some are calling Cinema 2.0, or open-source cinema, a group called Swarm of Angels (aswarmofangels.com) is harnessing the Internet to raise its own production funds for two feature films. When an individual joins the Swarm for a small fee they become an Angel, a contributor to the project; they have access to everything from script to screen and can vote on key decisions in the film’s production. When a project is finished everyone in the Swarm will assist in the seeding of the film across the Internet for download by all of the members, who are then able to remix the film or use elements of it in their own projects.

In the end, there is no one right way to distribute or market your film. But if making Head Trauma has taught me one thing, it’s not to lose the sense of empowerment experienced during the production of a film when you get to the distribution phase. With the new tools of the Web you do not have to be powerless once you finish.

 

NEXT: Logging The Miles BY STACY SCHOOLFIELD (producer, Jumping Off Bridges)

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