Indie Film Lives, Thrives, Blossoms & Blooms!!!

It is no longer the dawn.  We are now officially in the new era of a Truly Free Film Culture. Yes, the business of indie film is back.  The rapidity, volume, and consistency of deals blossoming ($30M and counting!) at Sundance should give investors more confidence that you no longer have to rely just on foreign; the US acquisition climate seems quite robust again.  Whew.  But the good news does not end there.

Indie Film has been infected by a new breed that -- like those that came before them -- refuses to ask for permission.  But unlike the earlier wave, their go-get-them attitude doesn't stop at production, it extends into all the pillars of cinema -- from discovery and participation on through production, distro, appreciation, and presentation.  The content, the form, the plans of cinema are not only for re-examination, but the rules have been thrown out.  Time to get out of the way, and let the fresh air disrupt the stale space.

It is so happening in every which way. Yes, there are new stars, but also new ways of working.  This Sundance there are plenty examples of "tribal filmmaking" (thanks to Brit Marling for that phrase) -- teams of collaborators, working together, and moving beyond single authorship.  The web world calls this "collabs", but the spirit of this can be found in Martha Marcy May Marlene, The Sound Of My Voice, The Woods, and Another Earth.  We will find more teams taking over in the days ahead -- and it is an incredibly refreshing antidote to the antiquated construct of pure "auteur" cinema.

New spirit is there in old bodies too.  Kevin Smith's self-distribution plan recognizes the realities of the day.  No one in indie film has used social media as well as Kevin Smith has. He understands clearly the need to eventize his picture, and he has done it well. Things started off with a bang at Sundance, and he plans to keep it going.  He gave a nice lecture on his past and his plan for the future.  In between the curses, he lays it out how he plans to go forward.  His roadshow approach of teaming the local premieres with his live act is a value-add propisition that his million plus fan community hopefully can not resist.

Smith's RED STATE plan has the core indie value at it's heart.  To me previously I only really saws this value in terms of content & production, but now has extended well beyond this. Indie refuses to ask others for permission. Smith makes movies his way -- as he learned what happens when he doesn't.  He gets his fans the way his fans get him.  It is not a one way street, but a true community.  He might be divisive, but he is a model to follow.  Perhaps, precisely because he is divisive!

The failure of corporate filmmaking to represent the world we live in, particularly compared to indie's success at that, is evident at fest like Sundance.  It is also painfully drummed home by the Oscar noms, when all the Best Actress candidates hail from indie projects.  As long as corporate filmmaking fails to offer realistic takes on women's lives, Indie Film will always thrive as a welcome alternative.  Sundance must be acknowledged too as a tremendous generator of quality content; Sundance's responsibility in delivering 15 Oscar nominees is nothing short of mind-blowing.  If the world was just, the Oscar would be renamed the Bob.

I left Sundance boosted and relieved.  As great as it was to license our film to a top distributor for a significant profit, it is more the spirit launch that I seriously needed -- and that came from the individuals I got to meet with and hang out with.  We are at time of change -- but as someone pointed out to me, what is so great about the now we are in, is that the new breed recognizes change as a constant.  They will not take this moment for granted.  They accept the fluidity of all.  They recognize how the whole world must turn for that one leaf to fall.  And they are okay with it.

We ARE going to work together to make this better.  Whew!

Building The Community Web-Those Already Doing This

Today's guest post is Pt 2 of 2 from 2010 Brave Thinker Of Indie Film Sheri Candler. 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. For more on this story see a NYT article on him from 2007.

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: 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.

Sheri Candler is an inbound marketing strategist who helps independent filmmakers build identities for themselves and their films. Through the use of online tools such as social networking, podcasts, blogs, online media publications and radio, she assists filmmakers in building an engaged and robust online community for their work that can be used to monetize effectively.

She can be found online at www.shericandler.com, on Twitter @shericandler and on Facebook at Sheri Candler Marketing and Publicity.

1000 True Fans

Kevin Kelly's articulation of survival on the long tail was one of the essential readings this year for anyone trying to figure out a new paradigm for Indie and Truly Free Filmmaking.  It may be old hat out in blogland, but it is a concept that still hasn't been discussed enough among indie filmmakers.  It promotes the notion that: 

A creator, such as an artist, musician, photographer, craftsperson, performer, animator, designer, videomaker, or author - in other words, anyone producing works of art - needs to acquire only 1,000 True Fans to make a living.
As a fan of a great deal of diverse artists, I regularly marvel at how musicians in particular do a good job of maintaining an ongoing dialogue with their fans.  Filmmakers, outside of Kevin Smith, don't seem to embrace this necessity.  I suppose it can be argued that prolific artists working in multiple formats, like Michel Gondry, do it well too.  The Safdie Brothers are another good example amongst the more emerging set.  But as Kelly points out:
The key challenge is that you have to maintain direct contact with your 1,000 True Fans. They are giving you their support directly. Maybe they come to your house concerts, or they are buying your DVDs from your website, or they order your prints from Pictopia. As much as possible you retain the full amount of their support. You also benefit from the direct feedback and love.
To ignore this advice and still hope for the industry to simply discover you and reward you, limits your options to mainstream tentpole pictures.  This may well be some filmmakers' dream, but they might as well plan to win the lottery.   What is so exciting is that there has never been a better time to plan on building the apparatus that allows you to be a Truly Free Filmmaker.  The tools to build your 1000 True Fan circle are there.  Kelly illuminates:
 The technologies of connection and small-time manufacturing make this circle possible. Blogs and RSS feeds trickle out news, and upcoming appearances or new works. Web sites host galleries of your past work, archives of biographical information, and catalogs of paraphernalia. Diskmakers, Blurb, rapid prototyping shops, Myspace, Facebook, and the entire digital domain all conspire to make duplication and dissemination in small quantities fast, cheap and easy. You don't need a million fans to justify producing something new. A mere one thousand is sufficient.
... This small circle of diehard fans, which can provide you with a living, is surrounded by concentric circles of Lesser Fans.

I have frequently feared that it is the dream of stardom and wealth that fuels both the indie production cycle and film school enrollment lists.  Maybe that is because the possibility of survival and being a true artist seemed so impossible.  But that does not have to be so, if you invest some time and energy in building your own support system.

Young artists starting out in this digitally mediated world have another path other than stardom, a path made possible by the very technology that creates the long tail. Instead of trying to reach the narrow and unlikely peaks of platinum hits, bestseller blockbusters, and celebrity status, they can aim for direct connection with 1,000 True Fans. It's a much saner destination to hope for. You make a living instead of a fortune. You are surrounded not by fad and fashionable infatuation, but by True Fans. And you are much more likely to actually arrive there.

Any way, read the article and take it to heart.  And for those of you who already know this gospel, please help to promote the word.