Film distribution case study: Indie Game

August 17, 2012
posted by sheric

I edited this piece and it was published on the Sundance Artist Services blog and The Film Collaborative blog. I am reposting it here because I think this film is the first and only one so far to eschew the typical Sundance offers, have the courage to know what distribution path is best for it and launch into the market straight after the festival. Also, I hope it serves as informative and inspirational to all who read this blog. My great respect goes to truly empowered filmmakers James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot.

written by Bryan Glick, with assistance from Orly Ravid and Sheri Candler

Indie Game: The Movie has quickly developed a name not just as a must-see documentary, but also as a film pioneer in the world of distribution. Recently, I had a Skype chat with Co-directors James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot . The documentary darlings talked about their indie film and its truly indie journey to audiences.

film distribution, indie game documentarySwirsky and Pajot did corporate commercial work together for five years and that eventually blossomed into doing their first feature. “We thought it would take one year, but it ended up taking two. I can’t imagine working another way, we have a wonderful overlapping and complimentary skill set, ” said Pajot. “We both edited this film, we both shot this film. It creates this really fluid organic way of working. It’s kind of the result of 5 or 6 years of working together. I don’t think you could get a two person team doing an independent film working like we did on day one. It’s stressful at times but the benefits are absolutely fantastic, ” said Swirsky.

According to Swirsky, Kickstarter covered 40% of the budget. “We used it to ‘kickstart’, we asked for $15000 on our first campaign which we knew would not make the film, but it really got things going. The rest of the budget was us, personal savings.”  The team used Kickstarter twice; the first in 2010 asking for $15,000 and ended up with $23,341 with 297 backers. On the second campaign in 2011, they asked for $35,000 and raised $71,335 with 1,559 backers.

The hard work, dedication, and talent paid off. Indie Game: The Movie was selected to premiere in the World Documentary Competition section at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival winning Pajot and Swirsky the World Cinema Documentary Film Editing Award . “[Sundance] speaks to the independent spirit. It’s kind of the best fit, the dream fit for the film. Just being a filmmaker you want to premiere your film at Sundance. That’s where you hear about your heroes,” noted Swirsky. “Never before in our entire careers have we felt so incredibly supported…They know how to treat you right and not just logistics, it’s more ‘we want to help you with this project and help you next time.’ It was overwhelming because we’ve never had that. We’ve just never been exposed that,” interjected Pajot

They hired a sales agent upon their acceptance into Sundance and the film generated tons of buzz before it arrived at the festival resulting in a sales frenzy. The filmmakers wanted a simultaneous worldwide digital release,  but theatrical distributors weren’t willing to give up digital rights so they opted for a self release. “There were a lot of offers, they approached us to purchase various rights. We felt we needed to get it out fairly quickly and in the digital way. A lot of the deals we turned down were in a little more of the traditional route. None of them ended up being a great fit,” said Pajot.

Several people were stunned when this indie doc about indie videogame developers opted to sell their film for remake rights to Scott Rudin and HBO. Pajot explained, “He saw the trailer and reached out a week or so before Sundance. That was sort of out of left field because it wasn’t something we were pursuing.” Swirsky added, “They optioned to potentially turn the concept into a TV show about game development…As a person who watches stuff on TV, I want this to exist. I want to see what these guys do with it.” The deal still left the door open for a more typical theatrical release. However that was only the start of their plan.

“We had spoken to Gary Hustwit (Helvetica). We sort of have an understanding of how he organized his own tours. We had to make our decision whether that was something we wanted to utilize. Five days after Sundance, we decided we would and were on the road 2 weeks after… Before Sundance this was how we envisioned rolling out…[We looked at] Kevin Smith and Louis C.K. and what they’re doing. We are not those guys and we don’t have that audience, but knowing core audience is out there, doing this made sense,” said Swirsky.

Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky

Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky

They proceeded to go on a multi-city promotional tour starting with seven dates and so far they have had 15 special events screenings of which 13 were sold out! This is separate from 37 theaters across Canada doing a one night only event. They also settled on a small theatrical release in NYC and LA.  When talking about the theaters and booking, they said theaters saw the sellout screenings and that prompted interest despite the fact that the film was in digital release. They accomplish all of this with a thrifty mindset. “P&A was not a budgetary item we put aside and if an investment was required, we would dip into pre orders. We didn’t put aside a marketing budget for it,” said Swirsky. Regarding the pre order revenue, they sold a cool $150,000 in DVD pre-orders in the lead up to release of the film. From this money, they funded their theatrical tour.

While the theatrical release was small, it generated solid enough numbers to get held over in multiple cities and provided for vital word of mouth that will ultimately make the film profitable. The grosses were only reported for their opening weekend, but they continued to pack the houses in later weeks.”I don’t look back at the box office. The tour was more profitable than the theatrical…They both have the benefits, having theatrical it gets a broader audience. It was more a commercial thing than box office,” said Swirsky. “We are still getting inquiries from theaters. They still want to book it despite the fact it’s out there digitally,” said Pajot. ”We had this sort of hype machine happening. We didn’t put out advertising. Everything was through our mailing that started with the 300 on our first Kickstarter and through Twitter,” said Swirsky. Now the team has over 20,000 people on their mailing list and over 10,000 Twitter followers.  In order to keep this word of mouth and enthusiasm going, the filmmakers released 88 minutes of exclusive content – most of which didn’t make the final cut – to their funders, took creative suggestions from their online forum and sent out updates on the games the subjects of their film were developing over the course of the two years the film was in production.

Following the success the film has enjoyed in various settings, Indie Game: The Movie premiered on three different digital distribution platforms. If you were to try and guess what they were though, you would most likely only get one right. While, it is available on the standard iTunes, the other two means of access are much more experimental and particularly appropriate for this doc.

It is only the second film to be distributed by VHX as a direct DRM-free download courtesy of their,‘VHX For Artists‘ platform. Finally, this film is reaching gamers directly through Steam which is a video game distribution platform run by Valve. This sterling doc is also only the second film to be sold through the video game service, where it was able to be pre-ordered for $8.99 as opposed to the $9.99 it costs across all platforms. This is perhaps the perfect example of the changing landscape of independent film distribution. Every film has a potential niche and most of these can arguably be reached more effectively through means outside the standard distribution model. Why should a fan of couponing have to go through hundreds of films on Netflix before even finding out a documentary about couponing exists, when it could be promoted on a couponing website?

As they are going into uncharted territory, both Pajot and Swirsky avoided making any bold predictions.”It’s just wait and see. It’s an experiment because we’re the first movie on Steam. We’re really interested to look at and talk about in the future. I don’t want to make predictions…I do think documentary lends itself to that kind of marketing though. We’re trying to not just be niche but there is power in that core audience. They are very easy to find online,” said Swirsky.

Just because they are pursuing a bold strategy doesn’t mean they were any less cost conscious. “The VHX stuff, it was a collaboration, so there were no huge costs. Basically subtitles, a little publicity costs from Von Murphy PR and Strategy PR who helped us with theatrical. Those guys made sense to bring on,” said Pajot. “A lot of our costs were taken up by volunteers. If they help us do subtitles, they can have a ticket event, a screening in their country,” added Swirsky.

They also note that a large amount of their profit has been in pre-orders. 10,000 people have pre-ordered one of their three DVD options priced at $9.99, $24.99 and a special edition DVD for $69.99 tied with digital. While the film focused on a select few indie game developers, they interviewed 20 different developers and the additional footage is part of the Special Edition DVD/Blu-Ray. That might explain why it’s their highest seller.

All this doesn’t mean that any of the dozens of other options are no longer usable. Quite the contrary,  they have also taken advantage of the Sundance Artist Services affiliations to go on a number of more traditional digital sites. Increased views of a film even if on non traditional platforms can mean increased web searches and awareness and could be used to drive up sales on mainstay platforms.

The real winner though is ultimately the audience. For the majority of the world that doesn’t go to Sundance or Cannes each year, this is how they can discover small films that were made with them in mind. The HBO deal aside, this is bound to be one incredibly profitable documentary that introduces a whole new crowd to quality art-house cinema. “We are still booking community screenings. If people want to book, they can contact us…We are thinking maybe we might do another shorter tour at some point,” said Pajot.

Here’s to the independent film spirit, alive and well.

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.

Don’t Outspend, Out-teach and Share

February 24, 2011
posted by sheric

In this last post based on the book REWORK, I want to address the chapter on using your web presence to teach rather than shill. I regularly advise filmmakers and artists on building their brand using online tools and one thing I always say is share your knowledge. Don’t use your website or social networking page to constantly talk about yourself and your projects. Everyone is an expert at something, so use that expertise to build relationships. Some get it, some don’t.

The book chapter is again about a page and a half and it spends some time talking about how to outmanuever the big guys. In the case of the book, they are talking about corporations. In your case, I am talking about Hollywood. Studios have large marketing departments with large budgets to spend large amounts of money to buy people’s attention. You know why that is a problem? They are doing what every other studio is doing. They buy advertising, they sponsor events, they hire agencies to redouble the efforts of the people hired full time to do that job and then complain that marketing costs are just skyrocketing. They go to great lengths to outspend each other. What they don’t do is teach.

“Teaching forms a bond you just don’t get from traditional marketing tactics. Earning loyalty by teaching forms a whole different connection. They’ll trust you more. They’ll respect you more.”

I know several filmmakers doing this right now. My friend Jon Reiss was doing this on his blog before he finally gathered up all of his writing in Think Outside the Box Office. He still blogs. Well before that, my friend Chris Jones and Genevieve Jolliffe gathered up their filmmaking knowledge into a series of books called The Guerilla Filmmakers Handbook. Chris still does this on his site and through his bi monthly internet TV show. Gary King regularly shares his experiences and thoughts on filmmaking on his blog An Indie Life. Screenwriter John August devotes his personal site to sharing his knowledge of screenwriting; he even has a tag line that says “A ton of useful information about screenwriting.” It would be so easy for them to use static sites that are completely devoted to one of their films, so much less work, but that isn’t how people get to know them. All of them can’t spend tons of money to get attention for their work, but they can spend time and energy which is not something studios are willing to do. Besides the fact that big corporations are obsessed with being secretive. Everything they do has to pass through lawyers and publicists and upper management. When you are small and niche, you can outmanuever that, you answer to yourself.

I know what you are thinking, you want that studio type success so you will emulate what they do. You can’t, you don’t have that kind of cash and the type of films you are making do not compete with the multimillion dollar extravaganzas they make. Take those thoughts and put them away. Celebrate the niche, OWN it. Where is it written you must scale big to be a success? Believe me, if the Hollywood dream is still your main goal, become a small success. They will come to you to get a piece of that. Isn’t that a better position to be in, having them come to YOU?

Now, consider how do some people become “personalities” and capitalize financially? Often it is by being a respected expert. Do you know Emeril Lagasse, Paula Deen, Martha Stewart, Robert Rodriguez, Kevin Smith? You do because they freely share their knowledge and opinions, they are respected as experts in their industry. You may not like their work, their food, their movies but you have to admit you know who they are. They didn’t get into your consciousness by being secretive and hoarding their expertise. They put it right out there along with their work. Shouldn’t it scare Paula that copying her recipes might give someone else a competitive advantage? No, just following her recipes isn’t going to result in a competitive business model. Paula is a unique talent and so are you. Share your knowledge, champion other people’s talents more than your own. You empire will grow much faster that way, rather than by toiling in secret obscurity. And be patient for god’s sake! It will take some time for you to capture attention; it won’t be immediate gratification. All of the above personalities spent long, hard hours working and sharing long before TV studios and film studios picked up their work for wide distribution so that everyone knows their names and so it will be with you. First, you have to start.

The Return from Sundance

February 1, 2011
posted by sheric

With Trevor Anderson at Sundance 2011

As long as everyone else is weighing in on Sundance 2011, I may as well add my 2 cents.

I went to Sundance to work with filmmaker Trevor Anderson and his short film The High Level Bridge. We had a great time attending parties, doing interviews, seeing a few films (and I do mean few). The High Level Bridge is one of the lucky 12 shorts to be featured on the YouTube Screening Room and in the first 24 hours on the site, the film was watched over 30,000 times. If the goal of making your short is to serve as a calling card film, I can’t think of a better way to get it in front of people. How many other short films get that kind of traffic on the festival circuit? on digital sites? It has now enjoyed over 106,000 views, good for Trevor!

Whereas I spent the majority of my time in Park City last year with Slamdance, this year I learned some of the ins and outs of the authentic Sundance experience. I have to say the Sundance program truly is top notch in the way they take care of filmmakers. From the unique swag (special director’s jackets from Kenneth Cole) to networking opportunities within the industry and access to future opportunities in their lab programs, it is no wonder those who are invited to screen at the festival feel part of the “chosen” group. It is just not possible to get this kind of nurturing from many other places in the independent film world and they are to be commended for providing what they do.

Even if you haven’t (yet!) been chosen to screen, I think it is an educational experience just to attend the festival. Before jumping in, I think you should spend time watching. Observe how things happen, start watching what the film teams are doing before they get on the ground, how they are covered when they are there, what opportunities are presented, all of it you appreciate more when you are in the thick of it instead of seeing it from afar. Plus, seeing the films before anyone else which just raises your insider knowledge.

BUT…mostly watch. Park City is also full of the wanna-be, didn’t- make- it- into- Sundance- even- though- my- film- is- brilliant filmmakers. The more you see it, the cheesier it is and you can’t really see it when you ARE it. No, everyone doesn’t get in. That’s what makes it special. That’s why the opportunities are greater for the ones who do. Even if you don’t get in, you can still learn from it.  You just have to be patient and be willing to observe. Study the articles written about those filmmakers, how did they accomplish it? You’ll see a pattern, trust me.

If you want to check out my pics, they are on my Flickr account.

*****

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention I was ecstatic to hear Kevin Smith’s announcement. Yeah, there are those who defend the status quo of the industry and bemoan how awfully they were treated at his premiere. I am not one of them. I was utterly surprised to hear his statement and can do nothing but cheer him on. He is living my Building the Community Web Around an Artist post and I can’t wait to see how it turns out for him. Can everyone copy this? No, not initially. Smith has been building his web for over 15 years. It takes time and consistency. But I wager that it will work.

*****

I have a few projects coming up. Lots of writing for me as well as working on a few new projects and continuing with some familiar people like Jon Reiss, Roberta Munroe and The Film Collaborative. I am also booked to attend SxSW in March, so if you will be attending, we’ll have to catch up. I really enjoyed meeting in person some people I have only connected with online while I was in Park City like Laura Costantino, Gregory Bayne, Tiffany Shlain (you HAVE to see her film Connected), Elsie Nwankwo, Zack Godshall (you HAVE to see his film Lord Byron), Ira Deutchman and Michael Barnard. It is always a good idea to extend the online relationship into the offline space. Great meeting you all!

Building The Community Web-Those Already Doing This

December 14, 2010
posted by sheric

I have investigated some artists already building their communities (and sustaining themselves) and thought you should use them as examples to follow.

Examples of artists who have built a community web

In addition to the Grateful Dead, a group most all of you are aware of, there are  examples of artists from many areas who have successfully built up a community around themselves and their work.

Kevin Smith is a great example. Smith says he can spend up to 9 hours a day online and started this back in 1995. He has never put his career only in filmmaking, saying he never expected THAT to last. Instead, his community has been introduced to a variety of his activities; a SModcast, comic books, stand up comedy, regular writing contributions to various magazines. Smith isn’t tied to only one avenue of revenue and in fact can make a living off many things outside of making films. He was able to pinpoint exactly what his fans liked about him early on and he reaches out to them continually. If I had to suggest something, I would ask him to allow a community aspect on his site so that fellow fans can contact each other.

Matthew Ebel is another example. Ebel is rock pianist who is now forging a path into the transmedia world on his next project which involves an album, a novel, a graphic novel, and a radio drama. He continually infuses his music with stories and characters which helps to draw in the listener. Ebel regularly blogs and has his own podcast which has grown his community of supporters. He acknowledges that these activities exploded him out of obscurity and credits them with his ability to make a living as an artist. He releases new music through a subscription service on his blog as well as touring the world and he encourages his fans to take his music and create something new from it. I will be exploring Mike Masnick’s CwF+RtB=$$ in  a future post with Ebel as a good example of someone doing this successfully. Ebel regularly engages with his fans on his Facebook page as well as in comments on his blog.

Jonathan Coulton is a musician who left his day job in 2005 to write music full time. When he was first starting, he released a new song a week (Thing a Week) to his site under Creative Commons where anyone can take his music and do whatever with it as long as it is non commercial. This experiment served to self discipline him to stay on track with his writing; he made himself achieve this goal. It also built up his fan base who regularly needed to be fed content and who enjoyed interacting with him. Within 2 years, Coulton said he was making more at songwriting than he had been from computer programming, the job he left to start his musical career. He also found during this time that his community did not just want to buy music from him, they wanted to be his friend.  Community members have drawn artwork for each song, contributed their own versions of his music, given him tips about other revenue streams he could be investigating. Coulton doesn’t see his work as a musician simply to sit around strumming a guitar and thinking up song ideas. He actively engages his community every day.

A roadmap

My friend Ross Pruden has been giving me feedback on this post while I have been writing it and even though I said I am not going to give you 10 steps to guarantee community, he insists that I give you SOME kind of guidance on beginning this process.

Goals-as I mentioned before, start with small steps. If you are starting from zero, try to get your first 500 true fans in the first year or two. It takes a lot of time to find, nurture and consistently maintain this community. You must be committed to doing this work and perhaps have someone help you.

Interaction-Not only do you want your community numbers to go up, but you want the engagement to rise. This is easily seen on the new Facebook analytics if that is a place you have chosen to speak from. It should also be seen on your Google analytics through your site traffic numbers and from the number of comments on your posts. Don’t get TOO caught up in measurement. The goal is building a worthwhile community, not gaming numbers, but it gives you a good idea of what is working and what is not so you can adjust.

Allow for creative connection-Ideally, you want a community involved in your work and to connect with each other. Allow them to riff on your content, remix it to share with others, become part of this “in” crowd. View this spread of your content and ideas as a way to enlarge your community, not as revenue lost. More on this to come.

Connect to others with communities-You aren’t the only artist looking to build an audience. There surely are other similar artists, maybe in another medium, with similar fan interests. I saw this quote on Twitter today from John Maeda “Talent recognizes other talent and shows appreciation for it, instead of envy.” Live this quote, connect yourself and your community to like minded communities in order to widen the circle. Don’t be selfish and egotistical, traits like that will not allow you to have a community. You will be widening your circle incrementally, welcoming in new members who become exposed to your work and ideas through others.

I just need a community and all will be well?

I will acknowledge that while you are beginning to  build your web, you will have to reach out much more using traditional methods. Advertising, publicity, affiliations are all tools in the mix and they can work a bit faster than connecting with people one by one. Be mindful of where you place these, again the goal isn’t everyone, just those most interested in what you have to offer. You are issuing an invitation to connect when you talk about your community, not an invitation to buy something. Refer back to Bob Moczydlowsky’s equation for financial success. DON’T make the film first and hope it finds an audience. Build your web first, then make the film. I will restate that this work is going to take a lot of time and effort. This isn’t “buzz” building, it is a long term strategy to building a sustainable career. One where you can live as an artist free to make whatever content pleases you and delights your community while making a living.

PS added later that day: another artist building her own community is Amanda Palmer. Palmer has such a following that she now works with other artists. She has fan art, she has her own store, she has a street team called The Reconnaissance with a bootcamp to teach one how to become part of the team, there is a forum on her page where fans can interact with her and with each other. Palmer uses Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, Youtube and Flickr to update and talk to her community and she gives away content as well as selling all manner of merch in her store. She famously went on Twitter one Friday evening and started talking with fans when she came up with the idea of selling tshirts about what losers they all were for being home on Twitter on a Friday night. She sold over $11,000 in merch within 2 hours that night! As she said, her record on a label to that point had made her $0. Check the post here.