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Learning Not to Share: The Benefits and Pitfalls of Social Media for Independent Films

Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe in Swiss Army Man (Photo courtesy of Cinetic Media)

Mynette Louie, president of Gamechanger Films, recently had a problem.

She caught a stand-in on set not only taking photos of her film’s star, whose contract had specific photo approvals in place, but posting the photos to Facebook.

“I told him to delete them from his Facebook, then I went through his phone and deleted all the photos he took on set.”

Traditionally, producers, marketing departments and publicists labor over key stills and publicity images, methodically crafting a film’s identity in careful, strategic installments. This practice continues today, but can quickly be subverted by a tweet, post or status update. Indeed, the proliferation of smartphones and new social media platforms has made it easier than ever for anyone — from a star-struck intern to a DP with a sizable Instagram following — to snap a photo on set and share it with the world in a matter of seconds. Candid shots of actors, plot spoilers and other behind-the-scenes content can now be broadcast instantly without producers’ knowledge.

Making matters worse, aggregator sites that pull content from around the Web ensure that once something is online, it’s effectively accessible forever. Rejected stills, unapproved poster images and outdated synopses can become a part of a film’s identity without filmmakers’s approval or knowledge, and with no way to scrub them.

Yet, despite this potential for chaos, social media offers filmmakers important opportunities to build audiences and maximize a film’s reach. In fact, audiences today hunger for and expect behind-the-scenes looks at films’ productions and direct, seemingly unfiltered communications from their creators and key collaborators.

As filmmakers adapt to this new environment, a set of best practices is emerging for how to control the images and other content coming from film sets, while taking the fullest advantage of the opportunities that social media affords.

The Dangers Of Overexposure

Deal memos for name talent often grant that talent some form of photo approval, but without differentiating whether the still is for Vanity Fair or Instagram. And, as Louie, whose credits include Land Ho! and the Sundance 2016 premiere Lovesong, explains, unauthorized photography is becoming more and more common.

“On another film, a crew member posted a production still on their site,” she says. “It was picked up by an actor’s fan site, and then by at least two press outlets — all prior to us announcing a premiere or releasing any official photos. It wasn’t a production still that we wanted out there since it wasn’t the best representation of the film, and we hadn’t gotten the actors’ photo approval. But now the photo is out there, and there isn’t much we can do about it.”

Entertainment lawyer André Des Rochers of Gray Krauss Stratford Sandler Des Rochers LLP describes a similar experience: “On the production that I’m working on now, the set photographer took a picture of a big-name actor and put it on his Instagram. The actor and her camp went apoplectic. I think it was just a young guy, overzealous. And it was probably a seemingly innocuous photograph.” Nevertheless, he says, “it created a huge issue and he had to pull it down.”

So how do you control a film set these days?

“It’s hard to police,” Des Rochers admits. “Five or 10 years ago, anyone who was taking a photograph had a camera, you could spot them, and usually it was someone who was being paid, like the set photographer or a member of the media who was stalking the set and trying to take pictures for US Weekly or something. But now everyone has a phone and you can’t really stop them. You won’t even necessarily notice that they’re taking photographs of the set without your permission.”

Des Rochers believes the source of most problems is not sinister motives, but people failing to see the harm in their actions. He says it’s helpful for crew and other people on set to understand the actors’ perspective.

“Actors make their money off of their image,” he says. “It’s really valuable to them. Anytime you’re doing something that capitalizes in some way off of their image, their reps expect to have some discussion about that. Some actors don’t care, but their reps will, because technically you’re diluting the value of that capital by blasting it on Instagram without their approval. They might want to have their hair and makeup done, and you’ve got them looking tired with a coffee and a cigarette in their hand.”

Setting Expectations

Controlling what’s shared online is a tremendous challenge. There’s no way to guarantee that people won’t tweet or post things from the set or about the film without permission, but producers are working on ways to minimize this behavior.

Marian Koltai-Levine, executive vice president of film marketing and distribution at PMK•BNC, says that with many productions, “We are on the call sheet every day letting people know that they’re not allowed to post photography and/or comments about production without the permission of the producers.”

Koltai-Levine and her team also provide three to four talking points to every member of the crew and cast, to make sure everyone talks about the movie the same way. She says, “We like to just give them two sentences [and tell them], ‘You can use them or not, but these are the two sentences we’re using.’

“The other talking points also tend to be descriptors of the production,” she continues. “For example, people will always say, ‘What’s the budget?’ You don’t comment on the budget. Because most [crew] don’t really know the budget. There are always gross exaggerations of budget, high and low. You know, ‘I did it for $10,000,’ and ‘I did it for $100 million.’”

Even filmmakers without a high-powered firm like PMK can heed Koltai-Levine’s advice by simply speaking plainly and openly with cast and crew about what’s expected of them.

Says producer and Animal Kingdom co-founder David Kaplan, “It’s about treating everybody respectfully and trying as best as possible to articulate the reasons why — even though people think it’s harmless to take a picture of something that’s being shot and put it online — it’s actually not in the best interest of the film.”

Producers are also paying more attention to the language that goes into contracts. Most producers, including Louie (see sidebar), already include language in their cast and crew memos requiring permission from the production before the sharing of any on-set or behind-the-scenes images. Now it’s becoming more common for those contracts also to contain clauses explicitly mentioning social media platforms, though there’s yet to be industry-wide adoption.

But for Lulu Zezza, Physical Production Executive at New Regency studio, contracts are just the start.

“Remember, that’s just policy,” Zezza says. “That doesn’t mean it’s actually what’s being followed.” To ensure greater security on her productions, Zezza issues phones to crew and prohibits the use of personal devices on or near the set. Zezza, whose credits include The Reader and Nine, says the industry has been slow to catch up to today’s digital environment but that production companies are getting smarter and stricter with each film. “[Crew] will say something like, ‘I just worked on The Avengers and they didn’t make me do this,’” Zezza says. “And my reply is, ‘Yeah, well, trust me, they’re going to make you do it on the sequel.’”

In order to satisfy cast and crew’s desire to post about the projects they’re working on, producer Miranda Bailey encourages them to share, like or retweet the content posted from the film’s official pages. Bailey, whose upcoming film Swiss Army Man is also premiering at Sundance 2016, says this has helped her control what goes out into the world related to her films. “It’s better if the social media is organized by a single source,” she says. “It’s best if content is being controlled, for instance, by a single Facebook account. With tagging and re-sharing, the rest of the cast and crew can participate and you can still control the content stream.”

The Benefits Of Sharing (And Not)

Despite its risks and challenges, social media can be an enormously useful tool, as producers are constantly reminded. Still, although filmmakers today are being pressured to be active on social media while early in production, not every film benefits from this approach.

Kaplan’s productions Short Term 12 and It Follows became breakout hits after their festival premieres. He says he knew social media would eventually be important for promoting both films, but that he wanted to keep their profiles as low as possible while they were in production.

“I’ve always really enjoyed being able to go into a festival with very limited expectations on a film,” Kaplan says, “because then you give yourself the possibility of being able to catch people’s surprise and over-deliver as opposed to the opposite. When you roll into a festival with so much information out there, such high expectations, everybody knowing about the film, suddenly the film is going to have to stand out. And that’s just stacking the deck against yourself.”

Silence during production may help some films, but for others, it could mean a missed opportunity to develop an audience early. Anna Rose Holmer’s Sundance 2016 selection The Fits — a micro-budget film developed at the Venice Biennale College Cinema about an all-girls dance team in Cincinnati — is one example.

Says Holmer, “For The Fits we knew that [social media] was going to play a part because we are working in the space of teenage girls. To ignore the fact that everybody in our film was actively involved in social media would have been a wasted opportunity. So we decided really early on, before the first draft of the script, actually, that we were going to be very active in social media during the making of the film.”

Holmer and her team were aware, though, of the dangers of sharing too much and diluting the mystique of the film before bringing the film to festivals. Their solution was to capture content from the world of the film and release it during production, while keeping any content from the film itself private.

Holmer enlisted the help of filmmaker and visual artist Tayarisha Poe to serve as stills photographer and social media producer on the film. Holmer was an admirer of Poe’s work, especially her online Selah, and the Spades, about the leader of a teenage girl gang in a small Pennsylvania town.

Holmer says of Poe, “She was engaging with audiences in a much different way than I had seen before, and I really liked her storytelling tendencies.” Bringing on Poe as both stills photographer and social media producer, Holmer says, “allowed us to think about the space of additional and supplemental content as its own sort of story and narrative. So it wasn’t just about duplicating the story that we were telling in the film and having an identical identity online. It was about finding other narratives to tell. We really wanted to highlight what the experience was for 45 real girls to be involved in the process of this film.

“We put out of a lot of content,” adds Holmer. “But we tried to make sure that almost none of the content we put out during the making of the film was a setup of the movie. It’s all about the experience of creating together. And that was the theme that we had.”

Their team created accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr, and produced distinct content for each. Going into its North American premiere at Sundance 2016, The Fits has roughly 1,000 active followers across all of its platforms.

“What’s really great is that there’s a way for each of those people to share the film with their communities in a space that is comfortable for them, whether that’s showing a Vimeo link on Twitter or tagging somebody on the poster on Facebook.”

And audiences aren’t the only group that filmmakers are engaging online. When critics, programmers or other tastemakers are potentially important to a film’s success and there aren’t preexisting relationships between them and the film’s team, social media offers a way of establishing those connections.

Michael Prall, a producer whose most recent film The Mend has been a favorite among critics, attributes much of the film’s critical success to its social media campaign and specifically to the work of the film’s director, John Magary, who spent time cultivating relationships with critics online.

“John is really active on Twitter and tweets back and forth with film critics all the time,” Prall says. “Now the film’s showing up on a lot of top lists, and I really think that has a lot to do with visibility. I think a lot of people heard about it, not because we spent money on advertising, but because we got it out there via Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.”

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