The Web was going to be a bottomless well of content. No matter what your interest, you could log on and find something to fit your tastes. And go as far as you’d like from there.
There's a problem with that. Infinite is a big number. Audiences can't browse online forever. Talented artists and content creators spent more time keeping up with software than actually creating content. Learn HTML; XML comes along. Master Shockwave; here comes Flash. When independent filmmakers finally get online, they're competing for bandwidth with someone innovating new ways to drop Mentos into Coke.
The old days of a Web campaign for a film attracting audiences on novelty alone are over. According to Henry Jenkins, director of the comparative-media-studies program at MIT and a South by Southwest Interactive 07 speaker, "It's no longer the case that, if you build it, they will come. If you drop your film on YouTube and do nothing around it, it will get buried under a billion other videos." Instead, filmmakers are finding success in reaching out to online communities, and firms are developing new Web tools to build and maintain those links.
For a while, the solution for successful Web promotion seemed to be this: Go meta. The defining model was The Blair Witch Project, which built buzz by extending the movie narrative onto the Web site. "Part of what worked for Blair Witch," Jenkins says, "was it was an underdog, and that underdog status is a major part of what makes viral marketing work." When big studios tried to mimic the format, the results were mixed. For Steven Spielberg's A.I., Warner Bros. poured cash into an elaborate, 30-site alternative-reality game.
"That campaign turned out to be a landmark for ARGs," Jenkins says, "but it's not clear that it helped the Kubrick/Spielberg movie. Where transmedia works right now is television. You want to see the Blair Witch model revved up? It's NBC's Heroes. It's made a very effective use of a variety of platforms to continue the universe, to feed into the buzz."
For Jenkins, it's structural to television that it has the edge over movies in building Web communities. "A film is a single event. Television is ongoing, and this model works best over time. A serial format is better at tapping this format than a one-off. However, by and large, the most imaginative work in film of that sort has been by independent filmmakers."
What really worked for The Blair Witch Project was not the material, but the sense of community. People felt they were discovering something special and sharing it with others. That excitement and sense of community can still be created. Jenkins points to the example of the indie picture Four Eyed Monsters. Arin Crumley and Susan Buice got visitors to their Web site to sign a petition saying they would see the film if it were showing near them. "They say, 'We'll go to any town where we can fill a theatre,'" Jenkins explains. "They take that petition to an exhibitor and say, 'We've got enough people. Will you show our movie?' That's a hard thing for a cinema to turn down."
But constructing a community is tough. It's simpler, Jenkins suggests, to access an existing community either one that has developed on the Web or that has developed a Web presence.
"There are models emerging out there for filmmakers whose work doesn't usually get into the multiplex but who serves a specific constituency well. The Asian-American community has a very powerful mailing list, making its readership aware of work by an Asian-American filmmaker playing anywhere in the country, mobilizing them to turn up and support that product. Figure out what community has a stake in your production, and go after it. Give something they can do productively, something they can do with modest steps."
For Rick DeVos, founder and CEO of film community Spout.com, that's where Hollywood goes wrong. "They think of community as, oh, I'll put a message board on my Web site, and that's building a community around this film. It's much deeper and more complicated than that."
Spout is a community first, a commercial entity second, and it's powered by connections. "We've stolen liberally from Malcolm Gladwell's ideas around the tipping point," DeVos explains. "We think of our users as three components: You have the casual film consumer; you have the maven, the passionate film fan, the connector who's tagging and blogging like crazy; and the filmmaker. We think of the maven as the way of connecting the consumer and the filmmaker. They're a trusted voice in this sea of content."
While there's a retail component to the site readers can buy DVDs recommended by the site's resident bloggers and other users DeVos sees a qualitative difference between his site and the talk-back boards on IMDb or user recommendations on Amazon.com. There's no "one-size-fits-all" conventional wisdom of "good" or "bad" films. Users find their own experts and trusted voices within the community. "You can have the super movie-fan who's the maven for a huge group," DeVos says, "but my friend is into art movies, so he's my maven. When we ask people about who is their maven, they say, 'They're like me, just a little bit more.'"
Part of what drives Spout is the failure of the major entertainment companies to colonize the Web effectively. This gives bloggers a chance to discuss films they want to discuss. The other part is the vast volume of high-quality, underpromoted content out there. "While the Titanic is turning," DeVos explains, "there's kids picking up cameras in Tulsa and Jacksonville and D.C. and making really compelling films not just clips they're posting to YouTube. That's what we get excited about."
While sites like Spout have become powerful advocates, others take a more hands-on approach. For Alex Delyle, managing editor of TheDailyReel.com, transferring YouTube fame for a single clip to commercial or career success still takes professional support. "Theoretically," she says, "everyone can be seen on this new platform, but there are still only so many slots for people to stick out. It's still the old criteria: Audiences want something new and innovative and entertaining."
The Daily Reel tries to be a trusted voice: for visitors looking for good material to media watchers looking for good material to content creators hoping to get that extra push. Editors scour the Web for creative and innovative footage and then feature it as part of a daily Top 10. Filmmakers can also submit their own material. What differentiates this site from other video hosts is a commitment to building the careers of emerging online talents.
"There are some people who want to use it as their calling card to get into traditional media," Delyle says. "Just by being in the Top 10, that's a promotional asset, because we've always targeted the traditional industry as our primary readership. We get a lot of people from entertainment and media looking at the site, trying to work out what's hot."
The site has already had successes: Mad TV's Lisa Nova is a Daily Reel alumnus, while site exposure for the Star Wars-spoofing "Chad Vader: Day Shift Manager" shorts got creators Aaron Yonda and Matt Sloan representation from William Morris. The site marries filmmakers with funders and companies looking for new talent. "But the interesting change," Delyle says, "is the people who want to stay online, where the shorter, more subversive stuff works better."
There's also room for dramatic improvement in how content creators can present their material online. Prerelease production diaries can help their project live a little longer and build the kind of buzz that a TV show can achieve. But blogging and podcasting take time and might not be found by Web users. For Marshall Kirkpatrick, director of content for SplashCastMedia.com, the solution is simple: Let other bloggers do the heavy lifting for you. But how to make sure the content they're highlighting is your newest work? "When someone embeds a YouTube video," he explains, "they're sharing a one-off incident of someone else's work with visitors to their Web site. But there's no consistent connection between the content producer and their supporter."
"While some firms are experimenting with players that show multiple clips, SplashCast does something unique: online syndication. Content creators can mix film, photography, and sound into a channel. Bloggers can select which channels they want to carry. Inserting one simple section of code supplies them with regularly updated content in a simple, skinless player. "We use RSS technology to create that connection, where each time a content producer publishes new work, it's automatically supplied to all these embedded players that supporters have put on their site. There's people building whole Web sites with large video libraries in one 400-pixel-wide player, rather than a display of multiple items demanding a whole page cluttered with players."
SplashCast depends on bloggers forming a community around content creators and then the communities that form around a blogger. At rollout in January this year, 1,000 people had signed up as broadcasters. Within three weeks, that number had trebled. Simple, usable developer tools, tied in with regular, self-editing content for bloggers, seems to be appealing. Soon, Kirkpatrick hopes, it will also be lucrative. "We're hoping that, when it does come to moneterization, that it serves up ads for nonpremium accounts in a classy and nonobtrusive way."
Indie filmmakers looking to use the Web aren't treading on virgin soil here. The smaller size of an MP3, compared to a downloaded movie, has made the bandwidth-limited Web a natural fit for music. That industry has already developed innovative, blogger-friendly tools and commercial models, like Independent Online Distribution Alliance. The firm encodes music for around 800 small and indie labels, then distributes it to 300 digital retail stores. Every track is also uploaded to IODA's Promonet service; through a simple interface, rights holders decide which tracks to license for promotion, download, or streaming. Bloggers and podcasters can then legally embed an MP3 on their site. With 21,000 tracks from their distribution clients, plus more from labels just buying the Promonet service, it acts as a one-stop clearinghouse to connect content creators with bloggers.
For IODA, the community of music bloggers is the key, one that had to be courted, nurtured, and, most importantly, given something to talk about. "When music blogs and podcasts started to become popular a couple of years ago," explains IODA digital marketing manager Corey Denis, "we connected with them the old-fashioned way calling, e-mailing, conferencing, connecting in person. But mostly, it's content. The more content, the more users. We host the MP3 as well, so the blogger doesn't have to worry about that, either."
That hosting issue may only become more important, as the ugly specter of the end of Net neutrality rears it head. In a two-tier Web, bulky video files could burn up costly bandwidth quickly. "Net neutrality is a very central issue for independent filmmakers, whether they understand it or not," Jenkins asserts. "They could lose the ability to control the flow of information and self-distribute on the Web, just because they can't afford to pay the rates to get the fastest lane in the communication process. The loss of the idea that all ships are equal in the waters will force you to partner with some big company to distribute your stuff."
"Being an established service will make its end easier to weather," says SplashCast's Kirkpatrick. But even the new intermediaries are hedging their bets, and pre-emptively building new user tools. "People can use SplashCast to display and automatically update all their videos on YouTube. And if there's anyone who won't be adversely affected by net neutrality going away, it's YouTube."
Net neutrality or no, the online film scene, and the companies in it, are changing. IODA already supplies streaming music videos to their bloggers and is working on a short-content and film department. Spout is talking to filmmakers about what content-creation tools they would like to see on the site and is considering adding retail download to its DVD service. For Jenkins, these fast-moving innovations could be a boon to independent film.
"We are in a period of dramatic change in how media-makers relate to consumers," he says. "It is a space that creates enormous opportunities for independent filmmakers and content producers to do long-term plays with the market to create content that is going to have a lot of support but in a very narrow niche."
For "The Future of Film, Part II: The movies," see the Screens section in next week's SXSW Film 07 issue.
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