Thursday, February 28, 2008

SxSW: last minute filmmaker tips part 2 - warm up your web site

A nicely designed site for Blood Car As a filmmaker, your web site is one of the best marketing tools you have. Long before the lights go down at your first screening, your web site is where people will learn about you and your film. Months (years!) after the festival ends, your movie's site will be the touchstone for those curious about your work. Dollar for dollar, there is nothing else you can buy that will work for your movie as tirelessly and as effectively as the electronic sentinel that is a web site.

So make it good.

One of the best collections of advice for filmmakers I've encountered about their web sites comes from my friend Jette Kernion in her Open Letter to Indy/Low-Budget Filmmakers. Go ahead, click on over and read it. I'll wait.

Back again? Good. I hope Jette's words are sinking in and that you're ready to build a web site that isn't just attractive but useful as well. Let's review her advice with a few extra pointers.

» Include lots of text about the film, including the names of the cast and crew, so that the site shows up in Google searches. The fancy name for this is "search engine optimization," but the plain truth is that search engines grab onto text best. If you're rendering that text as graphics or you've embedded it into a Flash presentation, you could be shooting yourself in the foot. Keep it simple and leave the flaming logos to the site for the next Tomb Raider film.

» Post a number of striking photos at different resolutions, and make them easily available for download. The less you make a journalist (whether an editor from Variety or a local blogger) work, the more likely you are to get good coverage. Cropping screen captures is work. Resizing photos is work. I think you can figure out the rest. Again, don't hide them inside a PDF, a fancy Flash slideshow, or assume that a trailer is a sufficient substitute for still photos. If you want the word to spread, you have to make the spreading easy.

» Publish your contact info, including e-mail, telephone, and snail mail. Your web site is your business card to the world. If the world can't get in touch with you, it can't write nice stories about you. Or ask you about a new job on a film crew. Or buy your movie. So get your contact info out there, and get a good spam filter. (I recommend using gmail.)

» Post a trailer. Or five. Any halfway entertaining footage (bloopers, deleted scenes, etc) that didn't actually make it into the film should be present somewhere on the site. Include links to your previous work, especially short films that can be digested quickly and easily online. Make sure your trailer is on YouTube or a similar video site so that visitors can post it on their own web sites and blogs. (Get familiar with the mantra "Embed and Spread." It works.) Give away as much free entertainment as you can, because it's the way you win fans who will later pay to see your work.

pic » Start a blog. Yeah, you read that right. A blog. Most filmmakers like the idea of starting a blog but don't have a clue what to put in it. I'll cover that more in a later post, but for now start posting stories about the making of the film. Profile your cast and crew. Mention your other projects. Announce your upcoming screenings. Post recaps of your question-and-answer sessions. If your film is a documentary, post news about your doc's subject. (You can even get Yahoo News to email you the latest stories on your subject of choice.) It's a big world out there, and there's lots to talk about. A blog provides your fans with a reason to come back, so even if you just post once a week, post.

» Ask visitors to sign up for email updates. Both Yahoo Groups and Google Groups offer easy-to-run mailing lists where your visitors can subscribe to the latest news about your film. Updates should be more selective than, say, your blog, but once or twice a month is fine if you have something to say. Be sure to announce upcoming screenings in your e-mails, and mention the existence of your blog. Every e-mail you send to the list should have a link to your web site.

» Take advantage of existing social networks. People spend hours each day on services like MySpace and Facebook; insert yourself there and take advantage of the tools they provide. A MySpace page isn't a substitute for a real web site, but you'd be foolish not to have a presence there at all. Ditto for Facebook. Sign up for a number of social networking sites -- as many as you can reasonably manage -- and duplicate your content across the services. Check out the sidebar on the web site for Four Eyed Monsters -- they have pages and profiles everywhere. Just make sure your profiles all link back to the mothership: your main web site.

» When you start receiving reviews, post complimentary quotes from those reviews on your site and link back to them. E-mail the author of the review mentioning your link and ask for a link back. You should be doing periodic Google searches for your film's title to find the latest mentions of your movie. Anywhere you find your film referenced, e-mail to make sure that an accompanying link is included.

» Your web site address or "URL" should end in .com. It should also be as simple and easy to remember as possible. In these days when every conceivable web address seems taken that can be a challenge, but do your best. Then spread the URL everywhere. It should be on all of your printed material and most especially in the signature of every email you send. Think about all the emails you send out in a day -- sometimes even your friends and family need to be reminded of your film's existence.

» Start a links section and link to your favorite films on the festival circuit. Link to your friends' films and projects, and ask them to link back. Yeah, a link exchange is pretty 1997, but you know what? It still works.

» Don't just set it and forget it -- a web site needs tending. Think of it as your end of an ongoing conversation with your audience. If you don't hold up your end of the conversation, the audience will get bored and move on.

» You don't have to do it all yourself. This all probably sounds like a lot of work, and you're not wrong. But you don't have to learn HTML or CSS or programming, and you don't have to write every word of content on the site. Recruit from within your crew or elsewhere in your personal network. Chances are your girlfriend's brother is just the nerd you need to get your film's web site up and running. You just have to ask.

Read part three - before you leave home.

Missed part one of the SxSW filmmakers last-minute tips? It's right here.

(Disclosure - both Four Eyed Monsters and Blood Car, referenced in the screen captures above, are represented in some fashion by my employer, B-Side Entertainment.)

From Here to Awesome: Film Festivals Don't Work.

If you haven't heard about From Here to Awesome yet, this video outlines a lot of the ideas behind it. There's some pretty strong sentiment here, and not all of it will be welcome to the ears of festival organizers. However, it's hard to deny that the business of independent film is overdue for a transformation.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

SxSW: last minute filmmaker prep tips


Every year South by SouthWest turns the town of Austin, Texas upside-down for a couple of weeks. For the first half of that time, the film festival and interactive conference invades downtown Austin, filling the streets with tech geeks, festival directors, moviegoers, journalists of all stripes, and of course filmmakers. With over 250 films playing the festival, it's impossible to throw a rock in the Austin Convention Center and not hit a filmmaker, though maybe you'll get them on the ricochet.

If you're a filmmaker looking to build a career in the industry, a large festival like SxSW is the closest thing to heaven you can find: a target-rich environment designed specifically for the development of new connections and the communal pleasure of watching great (and sometimes, admittedly, not-so-great) cinema. Over the last couple of years of attending the festival, I've had the good fortune to meet a lot of filmmakers. I've also been surprised at how few of them seem to arrive at the festival prepared to promote themselves and their films to the fullest extent. Even if you don't have a film in the festival itself, you owe it to yourself to be ready to make the most of SxSW.

Let's get started with a few basics:

• If you're without lodging this late in the game you're not completely screwed, but you're either going to have to pay out the nose for something last minute or throw yourself on the mercy of the locals. The ever-trusty Craigslist may be helpful here, but you're more likely to find a couch to crash on with a friend of a friend. Reach out to your friends and acquaintances -- chances are there's someone who knows somebody who used to date someone who lives in Austin. If you're comfortable with the idea of crashing on a total stranger's couch, try If your film is in the festival, use that as a bargaining chip. People love to feel connected to the festival community, even if they're only "doing their part" in a tangential way.

» If you're a filmmaker in the festival, you're all set in terms of admission. If, however, you're merely attending the festival and you need a way to get into screenings and such, a Film Badge ($300 - $400, depending on when you buy) is what you want. If you don't have the money for a badge you can buy a pass for about $70 but chances are you'll be shut out of a good number of screenings. That's not to say a pass is worthless, but you're likely to be limited to second screenings and smaller films. (On the other hand, films playing at the roomy Paramount usually have seats for all comers.)

» If you haven't printed any promotional materials yet, you have a choice -- pay a lot of money for full-color materials printed in a hurry, or go lo-fi. Personally I think filmmakers waste a lot of money printing up posters and such that don't do them a lot of good in the end. There are only two essential pieces of printed material you should have, and you should carry them with you always. Always.

#1 - business cards, and lots of 'em. About 500 to really do it right -- few things suck quite as much as the statement "I'd love to give you my card, but I ran out." Because of their simplicity and size, business cards are still the primary method of information exchange during film festivals and conventions. The object of any professional gathering is to establish new relationships, and in the (often alcohol-soaked) haze of SxSW the business card is your ticket to remembering and being remembered.

You can get these printed at Vistaprint for not a lot of money or you can print some yourself on a laser printer with those perforated sheets. Go for the VistaPrint route if you have time; it's less trouble and they'll look much better than the homebrew kind. Don't worry too much about what they look like, though -- just make sure they have your name, the name of your film, and your e-mail address. If you're the outgoing type, include the number of the cell phone you're using while in Austin. If that sketches you out too much you can hand-write your number for those people you feel you can trust.

Goliath Flyer at Sundance#2 - Screening flyers. When you introduce yourself as a filmmaker with a film in the festival, the very next question is usually "what's it about?" and hopefully followed by "when's it playing?" Your screening flyers should contain that information, though you should take the opportunity to answer the questions personally. Follow up the conversation by handing over a flyer with a smile and a question of your own: "Will you come see my film?" Personal commitments like these may be your best chance of filling your screening, so you should always ask. If they say yes, say "I'm looking forward to seeing you there!" If they say no or are non-commital, point to the flyer and ask them to hang onto it just in case they find their prior engagement has fallen through.

At the very least, your flyer should have your film's title, synopsis, and screening times and places, along with the URL for your web site. (More about your web site in the next post.) Include a strong still from the film, one that conveys a lot of emotion and that will reproduce well on a xerox machine. Keep it simple and to the point, and then have a bunch made at your local copy shop. Spring for some bright colored paper -- yellow, green, whatever works best for your film. If you're driving into Austin it's probably best to print 1000 or so and store them in your car rather than waste time making copies while you're in town. If you're flying, consider whether the time saved is worth the extra bulk and trouble of lugging flyers on the plane.

Since this is a last-minute prep guide I'll assume that it's too late to print four-color postcards or posters, but the same general principles apply. Posters can be attention-grabbing, but my feeling is that flyers and postcards posted or distributed at random on walls or in stacks rarely convince anyone to go to one movie over another. Rather the repeated reinforcement of the fact that the film exists is the goal, so that when a potential viewer encounters more concrete information about the film, they have some vague idea of a connection to something they saw earlier. That "oh yeah, I remember hearing about that" moment is an important psychological weapon -- people like to be in the know or at least have some familiarity with something (a film, a book, a musician) before they commit to the experience. The more you can prime that pump of the mind, the more people you'll see at your screenings.

There are plenty of opportunities for posting flyers around the convention center and surrounding areas, but you should always do so with permission and without posting over others' flyers or posters. The tables and kiosks for flyers are obvious in most venues, but businesses in the downtown area should be approached politely.

» Last but not least, have plenty of screeners on hand. Now is not the time to be over-protective of your intellectual property -- the way to get noticed is for as many people as possible to see your movie. That's not to say you should be giving out discs indiscriminately, but anyone in a reasonable position to give your film more exposure should be seriously considered to receive a screener if they ask.

SxSW is crawling with scouts from other film festivals; since part of your business strategy should be to play as many festivals as possible, be ready to accommodate. Ditto for potential distributors and most especially the media. If you have any doubts about the legitimacy of a person who asks for a screener, play dumb and tell them you just gave out the last screener you were carrying with you. Ask for their card and offer to send them a screener after the fest. If they turn out to be a shmoe looking for free movies, you can conveniently forget to do so, but be sure to check them out online in case that person is actually an important connection.

Read part 2: getting your web site up to snuff.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Pardon our dust.

We're going through a bit of a redesign; please bear with me as I take this generic blogger template and get some help to whip it into a more attractive shape.

Thank you!

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Piracy - you should be so lucky.

Tim Wu on the fears independent filmmakers face about piracy:
I decided to try using BitTorrent to re-create Sundance in my Park City, Utah, living room. No more cold, no more lines, and no more pesky Q&As with the director, so I reasoned.

But the experiment failed. Not a single 2008 Sundance film is on any major pirate site that I could find. That might be accounted for by anti-piracy measures, but here's the kicker: There are also almost no 2007 films on leading pirate sites, and none of last year's Sundance "hits." The online pirate world and the Sundance world are, as far as I can tell, separate domains.

Read Please pirate my Sundance film. - By Tim Wu - Slate Magazine.

Interview with SXSW Master Chief Matt Dentler - Cinematical

Quoth Matt Dentler, festival producer of South by Southwest's film festival:
A programmer at another festival once used this analogy and I think it's appropriate: To do this job, you have to love movies like it's a marriage. You have to love it through thick and thin, sickness and health, richer or poorer. You have to be ready to embrace it during the good times and bad. And, that's very true. It can be a daunting gig, but I don't take it for granted. I love the idea of discovering great new films or a great new voice. That keeps it constantly interesting and usually entertaining.

Read Interview with SXSW Master Chief Matt Dentler - Cinematical.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The dos and don'ts of gaining a (great) reputation on the festival circuit MovieMaker Magazine

So this article's a few years old but it made me smile and still contains a ton of great, relevant ideas. Sneaky, low-down, dirty ideas, but still: ideas.
Before Bikini Bandits was even accepted to premiere at the Philadelphia Film Festival, [director] Grasse and [producer]Alan took out full-page ads in The City Paper, the local alternative weekly, promoting their participation in the festival. This naturally pissed off festival brass, creating more press in the ensuing uproar. When the film officially became part of the festival, the Bikini Bandits team purchased every available seat at the premiere, creating a sold-out screening and generating more frenzied buzz. They then threw a big ol’ party, let 3,000 in to celebrate and left 2,000 cooling their heels on the sidewalk. Buzz, buzz, buzz.

Read Festival Beat / The dos and don'ts of gaining a (great) reputation on the festival circuit at MovieMaker Magazine.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Film Festival Screenings 101

Film Festival Screenings: "Congratulations! Your movie finally got accepted into a film festival. But wait, there's plenty of fun (and work) still ahead of you."

It's pretty basic information on the things you should be thinking about before attending your film's screening at a festival, but if you're starting at square one it should get the creative and logistical juices flowing. Use this as your launch pad for the basics and then get creative.

CinemaTech: Talking with Brian Chirls about Online Audience-Building

Scott Kirsner of CinemaTech just posted this video of his interview with Brian Chirls. If you're familiar with Four-Eyed Monsters, you've encountered some of Brian's work; while Arin Crumley and Susan Buice are the filmmakers and public face of the 4EM project, Chirls masterminded much of the internet and marketing strategy around the film. His work apparently attracted the interest of John Sayles, for whose Honeydripper flick Chirls has been working recently. Check out the video below, and take notes.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Striking writers reach deal with independent filmmakers
Striking writers have reached interim contract agreements with four New York-based independent filmmakers, ending their 12-week walkout, the two sides said Sunday in a joint announcement.

The settlement appeared to be another step toward ending the national work stoppage by the Writers Guild of America that has brought film and television production on both coasts to a virtual standstill

I love the picture of the writer in the Superman suit with padded muscle definition. Classic.

Film festival for the big shots, not little guy

I love this article from the Collegian, in which a random college student who took a ski vacation to Park City during Sundance reveals her hurt feelings about being shut out of Sundance screenings.

"I primarily went out there to ski and see some friends, but I wanted to get a feel for how Sundance was, so yeah, I was a little disappointed," she said. "I thought it would be different. A lot of the stores were closed at like 6 or 7 at night for private parties and stuff. You would really have to know someone to get in."

Bird said she thinks the Sundance cannot be considered truly independent anymore.

It reads a lot like a facetious article from The Onion -- except that if it were in The Onion it would be even funnier.

Two things: if you can't get into a screening in Park City during Sundance, you're just not trying. Sure, most of the more anticipated flicks are sold out, but there are always smaller films or showings at odd times with tickets available. Then there are the satellite festivals -- there are no fewer than four other festivals besides Sundance (Slamdance and the Park City Film Music Festival, just to name a couple) going on at the same time. You can see some great movies at those fests, too -- particularly if "independent" (i.e. unknown low-budget) film is your thing. Parties are pretty much the same way -- for every high-end soirée guarded by a surly bouncer there are a handful of open-to-pretty-much-anyone parties going on at nearby condos, bistros, and retail shops. You just have to talk to enough strangers around town and make enough new friends to get invited to them.

The other thing? It's been a long time since Sundance pretended (if it ever did) to be anything but a festival for the very best independent movies out there. Sure, a lot of those independent films are well-funded efforts with full crews and big name stars, but Sundance prides itself on showing great pictures, not just the ones made by struggling and emerging artists. It all goes back to the question of "what is an independent film, anyway?" -- something people are going to be arguing about for years to come, probably without any meaningful resoluton.