Thursday, October 6, 2011

IFP conference, Day 5

DAY 5 – September 22

By the final day of the conference I was getting a little worn out, so I got to the conference a little late. The first panel I attended in its entirely was titled “Webumentary: Online Releasing and Transmedia Extensions”. The major themes, which seemed to resonate with earlier panels, were: 1) Think of film festivals as your theatrical release, since they attract reviews and critical notice, but 2) be aware of non-theatrical venues for getting your film seen.

Panelist Amy Slotnick, formerly of Miramax, said to make sure you have a trailer and a poster, and to create awareness of your film through a blog and a website. She pointed out venues for renting your film online, such as Distribber and Vodo. Another panelist, attorney Bob Seigel, said to make sure to get releases and clearances, and to go to the American University website to find a writeup of proper guidelines for fair use. Ryan Davis, social media director at Blue State Digital, said to think of everyone who worked on your film as a brand ambassador, and to have their email addresses.

Wendy Levy, strategist for Tomorrow Partners, said to think about your story in a “non-agnostic” way, meaning that a 90-minute feature film might not be the only platform for telling it. She said to consider online and interactive outlets in order to reach “the people formerly known as your audience”. Jason Spingarn-Koff, who made the film Life 2.0, announced that the New York Times is soliciting short video pieces to display on their websites as op-eds; this triggered a lengthy debate about whether political “advocacy” would be permitted in these pieces, and what the definition of “advocacy” actually was.

I was kind of surprised to hear a documentary panel steer into a discussion of gaming and interactivity. Levy described some projects about trafficking or vaccination, in which users could use a mobile tool to enter information about troubled areas in a comunity-generated map. During the Q&A, someone said that in his/her experience, kids found documentary-based games did not have enough levels, posing the question: How do you measure the effectiveness of games, and are the games the right way to go?

Levy said this was a great question, but didn't quite seem to answer it; she did, however, say that at a games panel last year at Berkeley, someone said that games have fought the culture war with cinema, and won. She said that “smart games” have a reputation for being clunky and expensive, and did not have the prestige of, say, Grand Theft Auto. (She added that she would love it if Grand Theft Auto had a secret layer where, when you pick up a bimbo, you can take her to the women's shelter.) “Your documentary can be on Xbox now,” she said. “If you can make something simple and impactful and cool, that's the way to go.” She also mentioned the game World Without Oil, which was played by many people and generated a lot of data.

Davis highly recommended Jane McGonigal's book Reality is Broken, about how game mechanics shape our lives. I haven't read this book yet, but apparently its thesis is that games provide motivation and rewards that are lacking in real life, and that therefore games could and should be used to structure people's thoughts and actions to become more positive and productive. I've read a range of reviews of this book, from positive to negative. The most scathing I think was in Filmmaker magazine of all places; the critic found it lamentable that one would need to build a game to enable one to perform certain basic life tasks. Having spent my own life pursuing artistic, academic and career goals, I'm somewhat troubled by the suggestion that motivation and rewards exist in games but not in real life. But I haven't read the book myself, so I could be getting McGonigal's thesis wrong.

The next panel was arguably the best: “How to Mobilize an Audience”, which consisted of a motivational lecture (and Power Point presentation) by Paola Freccero of Crowdstarter. Freccero's main theme, which she repeated several times throughout her presentation, was “Get over yourself.” She said the biggest problem facing independent filmmakers isn't piracy, but obscurity; if you're being pirated it means people are interested! She said the way to spread awareness of your film is to show it, and while a traditional theater screening still beats showing the film on a TV or iPad, any darkened room will do. She discouraged four-walling (renting a movie screen yourself), saying that your favorite cafe might be a better place to show the film.

Frecerro said that you have to preach to the choir – by which she meant screening the film for your core audience – before reaching the masses. The audience for a film may not always be obvious, but she defined the “core” audience as family, friends, and people who worked on the film in front of or behind the camera, and the “masses” as strangers who would be interested in the subject matter and/or genre.

In terms of marketing and publicity – specifically the trailer, artwork and synopsis – Freccero said that it doesn't matter what you want, it matters what is useful or interesting to the audience. She said you might want to get someone else to develop these materials. She also suggested having test screenings – get friends of friends to a screening, or use a secure online streaming platform to show it to other people – and use a site like Survey Monkey to solicit feedback.

Freccero cautioned against the expense of parties, T-shirts and other publicity materials; while they might be fun to do, you should ask yourself whether these things will help you directly reach your audience. She said to have a website, even if it's not fancy, and that trailers, clips, photos and Q&A sessions from screenings should be “shareable, embeddable, emailable, postable, tweetable, retweetable.” She said you should try to capture the name and email address of everyone who comes into contact with the film. She added that because filmmakers are often too “sheepish” to ask viewers or organizations to help publicize the film, you might want to get someone else to perform this task.

If there's a website where your core audience hangs out, offer the site exclusive content. She also said that the best time to get an audience mobilized is when there's an end in sight (i.e. a showing), rather than trying to get people excited about a film that won't come out for years. If it does take longer than expected, show humor and humanity on your website by apologizing for the delay.

When asked how to generate an audience in the first place, Freccero said to try and convey the idea to people that if they like a certain subject, they will like your film, and to make your online presence about that subject, not just the movie. You can't take the attitude of “My film is unique, you have to see it to understand it.”

For the remainder of the day, IFP scheduled panels in different rooms at the same time, making the attendees have to choose to attend one panel or the other. However, panels in the main room were being streamed live online, so I decided to try an experiment: I would attend panels in the secondary room, but through the magic of wireless technology I would also listen to the streamed panels in the main room. The effect of this was like the Mike Figgis movie Time Code, where your attention shifts among the different simultaneous storylines, focusing on one and then another.

I attended a panel on post-production solutions for independent filmmakers. Jeremy Chilnick, of the documentary Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan's Hope, discussed how a Marriott Hotel suite at Comic-Con served as the production office and edit suite for the film; 13 camerapeople would film the convention, then every day the filmmakers would screen the day's footage (“dailies” to us professionals) and make decisions. Other panelists discussed similar experiences when they were able to begin editing each day's footage immediately, in mobile or unconventional locations.

Avid Media Access seemed to be the tool of choice for these panelists. A feature called “script sync” was discussed, allowing the editor to take dailies, then drag-and-drop onto the script, and the tool will identify where those lines appear. Another feature called “phrase find” was praised for making it easy to find certain words in footage. I didn't know what they were talking about in either case, but they said these were particularly useful tools for documentarians.

Chilnick stressed the importance of backing up your material. (He said that he does triple backups of his digital footage, and also records it to analog “because I'm paranoid!”) Another panelist, Matthew Parker, said to figure out your workflow before you start, not a week in. The panelists generally said that you shouldn't skimp on post-production; panelist Andrew Weisblum said that it almost always ends up costing more in the long run if you don't follow a proven standard, or at least thoroughly explore and test your process.

The panelists discussed final file formats (DCP, EasyDCP) that I've never worked with. They also recommended some books for editors: The Lean Forward Moment by Norm Hollyn, Dream Repairman by Jim Clark, and an unnamed book by Walter Murch (probably In the Blink of an Eye). Additional tools they mentioned included Dreamcolor, an $1800 color correction tool; Lightworks, an open-source video editing program; and the streaming device Slingbox.

During the above panel, I was trying to listen to the panel in the other room, where Indiewire's Eugene Hernandez was interviewing two women responsible for the success of the documentary Bill Cunningham New York. I confess to not getting much out of this panel, since the post-production panel seemed more interesting me, as well as actually being in the same room as me. So my experiment was off to a weak start.

A panel called “Music Matters: Driving Your Narrative Through Music” was an anomaly in the conference, in that it was about actual filmmaking technique rather than marketing or promotion. I didn't take a lot of notes on this one because it was mostly stuff that, as a film music buff, I kind of knew – music sets the tone, absence of music can be important too, and music can play against the nature of a scene to change its meaning.

Meanwhile I listened to a panel about new venues for documentary filmmaking, including VOD. A panelist said that the documentary “bubble” had burst, and said there are so many documentary films that “there's no place to put them anymore. But you can do it yourself. Don't make as many of them as you have. If there's not a burning need to tell the story, don't.”

I don't know how many people were on this panel or who said what, but I learned a few things. I learned that major distributors such as Netflix might pay $180,000-$200,000 but that you'd give up your ancillary digital rights for a long time, whereas Blockbuster, Microsoft, and Google are acquiring nonexclusive rights to films, so you can work with a digital aggregator or sales agent. (In fact, I learned that those big guys won't talk directly to filmmakers and prefer to go through an aggregator or agent.)

One panelist comment echoed Frecerro's panel earlier in the day: “It's still important to establish an identity for your film. How is the average or discerning customer even going to find the film if there's no identity created for the film? Showmanship, communication, publicity, marketing ... If a film doesn't have a subject that can be communicated, if you're not prepared to do that from the very outset, create assets, communicate and get others to communicate – how are you going to get people to find out about it?”

This panel partly overlapped with the final panel of the day, which posed the question of whether issue-related documentaries are “Preaching to the Converted”. Some by-now familiar themes made a last stand here: know your goal, know your audience and how to find them. Clara Aguilar, president of programming at ITVS, discussed a why-do-we-celebrate-Black-History-Month documentary called More than a Moment; she said that the filmmaker made a mobile app to designate significant places in black history, as a complement to the film and to get people to think about issues. “He thought of this late, but really you should think of it early,” she said.

So what did I learn from this epic week?

Know your goals with the film.

Know your audience and how to reach them.

As an indie filmmaker, you can't do everything, especially not publicity. Get someone else to do it, so you can concentrate on filmmaking.

You can make a no-budget film, establish credibility, then work your way up to having producers and name actors.

Your work should somehow belong to the audience, not just you the creator.

All of that wisdom didn't come cheap, but now you get it for free!

Have a good night.

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