On Friday, I posted about my distaste at the way Youtube, National Geographic, Cinedigm Entertainment and producer/director Ridley Scott and Kevin MacDonald were handling the crowdsourced documentary Life in a Day with footage submitted by hundreds of people from around the world. It lead to quite a lively debate on Twitter with my friend Ross Pruden and was referenced on the DocumentaryTech blog and the Chutry Experiment blog.

Ross, Ted and Chuck all brought up great points on what a participant gets out of the crowdsourcing exercise. For the corporations, the motivations seem to be profit potential and an army of unpaid volunteers to take on the work that might otherwise take years and substantial financial investment to accomplish in exchange for a credit in the closing titles. For the volunteers, it is the thrill of knowing they contributed to a film that is getting worldwide attention and, as Chuck says, were part of an ” anthropological ‘project,’ a snapshot of a moment in the history of the world” that serves as part of a legacy to human kind. Even the Youtube channel that houses the trailer for the film offers that “you can be part of cinema history” if you sign up your email for updates. They are also willing to have you remix their trailer for them and a few will be released in theaters to promote the film.

(a side note, I found a couple of screen grabs on Flickr and Picasa of the closing credit roll with the names, but when I tried to repost them here, it wouldn’t let me. So much for being able to share that).

I buy that being part of human legacy and cinema history is a great incentive for wanting to be a part of the film. Too bad the film isn’t going straight to national television (around the world) and/or YouTube so that all could watch it relatively free. If the film is about human life on July 24, 2010, then all of mankind should be able to enjoy it freely. Also, if it were hosted on Youtube, all could pass it around by posting it on personal blogs and publications could host the viewer on their sites. It is that kind of word of mouth aspect that the corporations are asking for when they invite participants to sign up and be part of the marketing team. But it isn’t being hosted in its entirety on Youtube and it isn’t being broadcast worldwide yet. Though the film was on Youtube for the premiere at Sundance, it has been taken down and  only the trailer is available now. So let’s be real, the corporations’ motivation is money not a gift to mankind, or a gift to the volunteers. Money from ticket sales and money that will come from exposure by being attached to the project is their real goal. Oh, and you can help them accomplish this by buying cinema tickets and bringing your friends along to see your name in tiny print as it rolls in the end credits.

Why should it be available for free? Corporations make money right, so why would giving it away for free help them make money?

1)if the film is great, and people know it is because they can see it online for free, then they buy a ticket to the cinema for the communal and cinematic experience. That is the reason every filmmaker gives me for why cinemas will always be the preferred way to see a film so having it online as a “try before you buy” is not going to deter people from going to a theater right? A day and date broadcast on Youtube and every theater in the world with access to the Cinedigm library would have been a better proposition.

2)goodwill. A testament to the wonder of mankind on a typical day (the sentiment behind Thornton Wilder’s Our Town by the way) by having the film available to all would go a long way to attracting even more attention than showing it in select cities for ticket revenue. Attention=money in the long run. Youtube sells advertising on pages that attract tons of views for pete’s sake. They’ll make money from having it available for free online.

3)the ego factor. There is no way those involved will not buy some form of physical merchandise that proves their involvement. DVDs, thumb drives, mugs with all the names of the volunteers, tshirts with the same. A glossy book with stills from the film AND the names in even bigger print would make a great RtB (reason to buy). Make the movie freely available and monetize the other stuff.

Outside of the brag factor, I’m still not seeing a lot of benefit for the volunteers.

Ok so after taking that side road into monetizing free…let’s look at what they could have done to make crowdsourcing mutually beneficial and how independent filmmakers with no corporate support can do it too.

1)A real back and forth. A motivational drive behind this effort was being connected with a high profile effort. Ridley Scott, Kevin MacDonald, Youtube, National Geographic and Sundance were all aboard so it gave the project legitimacy and attention from the start. It also gave the impression that your work would be held up there right alongside theirs. This is very hard for the independent filmmaker to pull this off if she is unknown. Life in a Day wasn’t true collaboration because there was no interaction with the high profile people involved, nor among the other participants, but that is the thing you can offer. There has to be a back and forth and I don’t mean holding contests and polls with 3rd party providers. Holding a dialog isn’t that difficult with the online tools available now. Would it have killed Ridley Scott or Kevin MacDonald to give participants the chance to actually speak to them to give at least a semblance of connection? There are so many online tools now that can facilitate a direct dialog between an individual and a group (Google plus hangouts, Tinychat, Justin.TV, Ustream, Livestream) that I don’t believe these guys can’t take like an hour to live chat (preferably on video for that important face time and proof that you aren’t just speaking with their intern) with those that have donated their time and effort. Giving some personal time just to these participants would be a benefit. A 30 minute session once a month is easily accomplished, people. You can talk about developing the film, the story, individual pieces from the participants that were exceptional, what inspires you, ask questions of the participants. This  is totally doable for free.

What would Scott and MacDonald get out of this? Connection to a personal fanbase that they really aren’t in touch with. Increasingly, consumers expect a level of personal interaction with the “brands” they buy. If Scott and MacDonald would like the chance in the future to break free of the corporate bonds that hold them tightly now, this personal interaction will be crucial. Also, god forbid, if they should ever fall out of favor with those corporate entities, they can continue in their careers. See Kevin Smith for pointers.

What would an unknown filmmaker get out of this? The same freedom of having direct interaction with an audience so that you aren’t dependent on being picked by a corporate entity.

What would the fans get out of this? Strong idol worship at play here. The chance to really speak to those they respect, perhaps even become valuable to them which can lead to personal worth. Not just self esteem, though it can be that too, but may lead to real paying work.

2)Build a sustainable and engaged community. As Life in a Day doesn’t seem to have it’s own website (there’s a YouTube channel and a Facebook page), they have taken the typical disposable audience angle that all studio films take. Get audience attention only for this project and then start all over again from the ground on the next one (totally ignoring the business idiom of being cheaper to keep the audience you have than to keep going out finding new ones). Admittedly, it is damn hard work to keep a community going and since there is no real ownership of the project going on here (all involved seem to be participating for different and very finite reasons), there is no clear mandate for any one group to nurture a community. If it isn’t nurtured, it will die quickly.

You, dear filmmakers, cannot afford to keep doing this and now you don’t have to. Part of community building though is to provide a place where like minded individuals can hang out and communicate with each other. You have to build that place and entrust a few people as well as yourself to keep it going. I was heartened to see that director Robert Rodriguez is proposing this on his film Heavy Metal. He wants audience participation in the development of the story, the characters and the world of the film and is going to launch a website where international artists can come together and share their work and ideas. I really hope he will actively communicate with participants and enable them to showcase ALL of the work, not just the ones that make the cut. Please Robert, don’t just use these ideas and cast the participants aside until you need them to market for you!

Make the community as much about them as it is about you and your work. Let the members of your community shine, highlight their businesses, their accomplishments, these are all real people who all have lives just as deserving as yours of some kind of attention. Let them have it. A great example of this can be found on the Grateful Dead site.

3)Make your work a mission. People love being part of a mission especially if you can give small, actionable steps toward accomplishing the mission. This works really well for documentaries. If your participants feel like their efforts will go toward the good of the mission, they are more likely to want to contribute. Life in a Day does have this, the mission of recognizing the beauty and hope in the world that we largely ignore in our every day lives. It celebrates the humanity of us all and in this way the film is meaningful and makes a meaningful statement about those who participated by sending in footage for consideration. It naturally lends itself to sharing by the participants so you don’t really need to get them to sign up for a marketing SWAT team. They will spread the word anyway if the film turns out to be excellent. Also tying proceeds from your work into a charity that helps a larger community than your own perpetuates that mission feel.

4)It wouldn’t kill you to pony up some cash. Life in a Day has some pretty deep pocket companies behind it. Would it have been a hardship to pay a licensing fee to those whose material you ended up using? The amount would be far less than the typical licensing from, say, a music corporation or photo library or archive. Yes, people aren’t always motivated by money, but I think most would gladly take a $100 check for the use of their work in a film you are hoping to make millions from. They are providing you with the bulk of your film’s material after all. Did Ridley and Kevin get paid? Did the editors? Do all the executives who work at these corporations who came up with this idea? I’m thinking yes. So why should this exercise mean those who contribute get no compensation? Providing a mix of financial and non financial incentives would have made this crowdsourcing effort a little less one sided.

For the indie, is there a way to profit share? Could these sweat equity investments in your film be repaid in some way? Yes, it will make the paperwork more complicated, but if you are asking people to donate their time, effort and talent to your work, they should have some kind of financial compensation if YOU are going to receive financial compensation. Make it a flat fee to make math easy “when I reach this level of compensation, you receive xx if your work was included in this project” and don’t make it after everyone who had any part in working on your film gets paid in full either. Some may tell you to roll their amount into your next work, some may say they don’t care about compensation. Follow their wishes, but make some form of compensation an option.

These are just a few of the ways I see for the crowd to receive benefit from your crowdsourcing effort. Remember, the crowd isn’t there just to serve you and your goals. It has to be a two way street. Can you think of more? If so, leave them in comments.

The Myth of Instant Social Media Results

January 14, 2011
posted by sheric

It is quickly becoming my biggest pet peeve, filmmakers (and distributors) who want to start their social media accounts and “campaigns” a short time (like a week!) from when they are launching something. While I have spoken at length about creating community and how long it takes, I am still being contacted in hopes of being able to provide a large number of instant followers/fans who will buy the DVD/order VOD/go see it in a theater/festival next week! This is an unrealistic expectation and a fool’s errand to undertake. Please don’t try to do this. I know this thought is a result of not being educated on what social media is, except that it is cheap,  so I want to address that here. If you expect social media sites to provide you with instant results, you are using the wrong tool.

What social media is good at:

-Conversation-this is a two way communication medium, not a one way message mechanism for free. You can’t develop strong relationships and meaningful conversations in a week, or a month. Before you can influence active behavior using social media, you have to have a relationship.

-Community-whether you are building your own or participating in others, you should not use a community just to shill.  It is an intrusion, an irritation, and no good results will come of it. To become part of an online community, you have to spend time there just as you would in offline life. You won’t have time to do it if you leave it too late.

-Contribution-social media relationship building means contributing meaningfully to the relationship, just as in real life. You will get out of it what you put into it. Provide value (information, answer questions, be helpful) consistently and you will get the attention you need to convert people. Again, this happens over time.

What you need to implement social media strategies:

-Research-You have to mine the space for data to see which tools to use for your audience. It might be Facebook, but it might be a forum dedicated to the topic of your film. It is probably several sites, each with their own way of communicating effectively. Data mining takes time, patience, energy. You’ll also want to find influencers to help. It takes research to find and evaluate those people.

-Content, and plenty of it-yes, production stills, videos, director blogs are all content, but they are really boring if that is all you are talking about. You need a content calendar to plan out what  the sites you own (your own pages) will run and at what frequency and what kind of material you will be commenting on at other sites. This is where your Google alerts and your social mention programs come in. What other kind of information can you share or comment on?

-More tools than just social platforms-distributors know this, in fact social media is often left too late because more focus is given to other tools like advertising and publicity. There is more work to maintaining a community than there is to buying ads and pitching media, so they often just treat it as a free way to advertise. The filmmaking team needs to be doing this community maintenance (they are the closest to the community), but the success of social media initiatives are tied together with an integrated plan using many different tools, not just social platforms.

-ROI or VOI-probably the most contentious issue in social media marketing, how to measure Return on Investment (ROI)? A recent eMarketer report cites that social media strategists’ biggest goal for 2011 is better measurement of this. Since social media is a conversation medium, it is difficult to measure the effect  particular conversations have on sales or awareness. You can measure how much/far your message traveled, how many people potentially saw it or how many directly participated in a conversation and correlate that to sales. I think it is better to measure on the Value on Investment (VOI), how valuable is it to speak to your community? Is your community growing and active because people learn from you and enjoy being there? Are you considered a source of information and a brand that is connected and listening to their followers? By using social media as a listening device, are you better able to learn what messages resonate and how you might make effective changes? These are all valid goals so don’t just measure in sales and revenue.

I don’t even agree that you social media efforts should be viewed as campaigns. A campaign is an aggressive activity conducted for the short term. Social media marketing is more of a way of doing business. The mindset you have to have is your activities are geared toward the on going conversation and steady growth of a community around your brand, not the quick collection of numbers on your Facebook page or Twitter account. Plan for the long haul when using social tools.

The New Independent Film Distributors’ Business Model

September 30, 2010
posted by sheric

I want to focus on how to rehabilitate the film distribution entities so that they may continue to exist. I know what you are thinking “What’s she on about? We’re fine. We survived the latest shake out and are all the stronger for having less competition.” I am here to tell you that is fallacy. The old ways of bringing films to market are fading fast and it is time to reinvent your business. I want to acknowledge my gurus Gerd Leonhard, Seth Godin and Clay Shirky (though he is more my go to guy on all things having to do with immersive storytelling and audience collaboration) for being a constant source of inspiration for me in looking toward the future of media.

When Ted announced on his Facebook page that he would take part in a panel discussion at the upcoming Woodstock Film Festival concerning the new distribution paradigms, I had to look at who would be involved in this discussion. What people and companies would be taking part who are practicing radically changed business models for film distribution? It was as I thought; none. I posted a link on his page (http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20100326/1452138737.shtml) asking all involved in the discussion to read it and then talk about how they see the new paradigms. I don’t know if anyone did, but I did get a response from Dylan Marchetti from Variance Films explaining to me how his company functions to actively engage audiences for films they’ve booked in the theater. It was a lengthy exchange that resulted in my writing this post. I don’t think he read the article before he spoke because the point of that piece was to inform on how businesses need to form ecosystems around their companies, not continue only to sell copies of the content they distribute. Distribution companies should not be focused on selling copies, either for viewing or for owning. They should be selling access, creating networks of devoted fans around their brand and developing customized experiences instead. In other words, selling things that cannot be copied. This means they must first gather and cultivate a community of engaged followers and then develop, acquire, produce, and source material with only these people in mind.

Of the companies taking part in the Woodstock panel, I would say only Cinetic with their Film Buff organization has started with the potential to do this, but rather than building an engagement platform, they have merely built another online distribution portal (like so many others in existence that consumers have never heard of) to put copies out on the internet. Actually you can’t see any of the films on the site, it just directs you to their existence on VOD channels. Their “community” engagement is only a call for an email address so that they may send marketing messages. What is communal about that? What connection would a consumer have to the company itself besides advertising? None. Cinetic has no idea who these people are, what drives them, motivates them, interests them. It is not fair to pick only on Cinetic, I can’t think of a single distributor currently connecting directly with audience who can answer those questions. Troma comes to mind as a distributor with a very clear brand identity but even they are not directly in dialog with their audience. All current distributors are far too dependent on push marketing, usually hired from outside the company, and sourcing films purely on guesses based on audience reactions at festivals , favorable press or from hottest trends in market research. Every investment prospectus will tell you future earnings are not indicative of past performance, so why is that how decisions are continually being made?

What would I suggest for these companies? First, a total rethink of what business they’re in. Distribution of goods is no longer needed from you. You should not think of yourselves in the film distribution business because distribution has become easy to access by anyone online. (I know Dylan, you’re not online, but art house theater days are numbered too). Attention getting is now your main role. But from whom? If you don’t have a following as a company, a deep relationship with a community, how will you get attention and keep it? By building a tribe around the people in your company and, in turn, the company brand itself. This starts by identifying what kind of group you appeal to or want to appeal to, actively seeking them out and forging those deep connections. At first, this will mean attracting people through outside means, appealing through media and various outside groups to introduce yourself. Eventually the effort to enlarge the circle will be done by the community members, but until you have one, you must do that work.

Often, in a rush to monetize, companies jump right over the relationship building. The dismal failure of paywalls in newspaper circles only serves to prove my point. They did not build up an engaged community first, and then ask for payment. They falsely thought that their paper subscribers would be willing to continue the previous paid relationship even after it was possible to get most of the news stories from aggregators for free online. There is a great video from Jeff Jarvis explaining the new business models for newpapers here (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jsb9NfJmqPY&) and lots can be gleaned from it for all corporate endeavors.

The reinvention

“The future leaders in business will be connectors, not directors”-Gerd Leonhard
The new model will be to build and foster a community around the brand as a company and to be in the entertainment fulfillment business. This community will have interests that the company can fulfill and that is the company’s ONLY function. To try and serve a well balanced diet of wide ranging content is to spread too thin and attract no one. Mass is not your target.
You will be a resource to your community not only in entertainment but in anything that interests them. This means you MUST know what “that” is. Is it books, is it music, events, clothes, games, causes, other similar tribes? These will be your other revenue sources as you create a network of interconnection with other companies who have their own niches, their own tribes. Also, consider enabling community members to profit in what you have sourced, to be affiliates and to create networks of their own. The network will feed each other spreading the brand even further.

A key part of your site will be to connect your community to each other. Some companies have sites where they connect to the user, but they don’t allow for intraconnection and some networking platforms are merely housed on a company website but members are never engaged by the company, merely left to use the tools as they see fit. Listening and collaboration will be cornerstones for this model to work. This isn’t work to be left to interns, by the way, but by those in power within the company.

You will also partner with other tribes of like minded individuals. Through these interactions, you tribe influence grows. There is no need for shouting out messages, gaining favorable PR placement, buying media for attention or forcing members to spread the word. If you are fulfilling their needs admirably, they will do it. You will however, generously reward those members in your community who do enlarge your circle. Instead of paying large amounts of money to outside companies to get “buzz” and “traffic,” you will invest that money in building experiences tailor made for your community. Development of experiences can only be done from active participation in the community and collaboration with them.

This model is far simpler to run as you won’t be going for masses, you will only cultivate your community. It will be labor intensive work, but not prohibitively expensive. You will need to develop tools so that the tribe members can speak to each other and so that they can spread the word to their friends easily. You should be facilitating sharability at all times, not closing it off and being insular.

The filmmaker/artist whose content you will source (not acquire as creators will have an equal partnership in your tribe) will be encouraged to participate with the community. In fact, if they will not, then their work is not very attractive to your community. Engagement at all times is key, this is no place for egos.

How To Make Money?

It may be that while you are in audience building mode, you will be spending more than making to develop a truly exceptional experience for your community. If you start this now before your entire business collapses, you will fare better.

-Create an online experience that makes the lives of your community better, easier, richer and be the number 1 site they visit for news, information, resources and community tailored to what interests them.

-Fill the vacuum of the lack of curation. People are confused by where to find things they like and overwhelmed by the choice. In a sea of content, be their favored destination. In this way, you can take on the likes of Netflix, a company that offers a huge range that makes finding content specific to personal interests nearly impossible because they don’t intimately know who their customers are. You will know this.

-Lock in the community by maintaining a dialog that will turn their initial attention into a revenue stream for your brand. A subscription model is what you should aspire to, but you cannot rush to that without first showing what you have to offer and reeling them in. First offer the ability to sample, share and then buy.

-Innovate in the online experiences you build to keep the community engaged and interested in making the circle bigger for you and for them. Incentivize those who are the most active at enlarging the community. Take the money you would have spent on outside marketers and use it to think of interesting incentives for your tribe.

I fear the problem for all of you will be waiting to see if another business model becomes successful before you decide to reinvent your own. This is extremely detrimental because waiting only results in being that much further behind. The first ones to embrace a new model win. It is why Netflix beat out Blockbuster. By the time Blockbuster conceded the model Netflix forged was legitimate, they could never catch up. Entrenched companies usually misjudge the speed with which change happens. Now is the time.

As previously stated, many distributors will have marketing procedures in place to help sell your film when it is ready for distribution. The true use of a social networking strategy comes long before your film is ready for distribution.

A social networking strategy will take many months to a year to implement and it will be an ongoing effort. This effort starts with you and your team first. You will determine whom you are trying to attract into your community and what you have to offer them of interest. It is NOT all about your film, in fact very little direct mention of your film is best. Follow the 80/20 rule, 80% of your assets are about the interests of your audience, 20% of your assets are telling them about the film. You will build your engagement pages and populate them with interesting and valuable content. You will not be asking your supporters for ANYTHING, merely building a solid base of supportive fans who will be there when you are ready for distribution.

You should never do anything that will make them feel that you have formed the community in order to use it for your own purposes. Companies and filmmakers who do this stand to ruin the very thing they have spent so much time developing; a genuine and authentic community that is very loyal and connected to you and your film. That kind of loyalty is extremely difficult to accomplish with advertising and it is really the ultimate goal of all brands.

In strategy, you first have to determine what is the goal. Is it to build up a solid base of supporters? Is it to activate them to do something (buy a DVD, go to a screening, donate to a crowdfunding effort, tell others about your film)? Usually that is a goal. But if you begin with a campaign where you launch into selling and goading without first building up the base, you will never accomplish that goal. To build up, you have to allow time to do that.

A social networking strategy will take many months to a year to implement and it will be an ongoing effort. First, you will determine whom you are trying to attract into your community and what you have to offer them of interest. Then, you will start to put those assets out there. You will build your engagement pages and populate them with interesting and valuable content. You will not be asking them for ANYTHING. Ideally, you will not need to ask them at all because when you become a valuable resource, they will want to help you in any way they can. You may call on your group for help in achieving a goal every so often and if they can truly see how helping you will help the community in general, they will be happy to do it. You should never do anything that will make them feel that you have formed the community in order to use it for your own purposes. Companies and filmmakers who do this stand to ruin the very thing they have spent so much time developing, a genuine and authentic community that is very loyal and connected to you. That kind of loyalty is extremely difficult to accomplish with advertising and it is really the ultimate goal of all brands.

Too often, filmmakers and companies wait to start considering social networking until they need to achieve set goals and they need them now (usually when selling something). The problem with that is they don’t have a base of support in place from which they can achieve anything. In order to use the tools of social networking effectively, you really must commit the time to grow your base, feed and cultivate it. If you cannot commit to that, social networking tools will not work for you and you should turn to more short term tools like mass advertising.

Recently Ari Gold, director of Adventures of Power, mentioned that at his screenings, instead of just asking people to sign up to his mailing list, he had them text their emails to a special designated #.  He captured way more emails than he would have hoping people would remember and bother to do it later. Of course, you can pass out a list the old-fashioned way. Have an option for people to sign up on your site as well. Having a fan or community list will give you customers later and forever as you make more films. You may even test-market your films to that community before you finish them.