The Best Way For An Independent Filmmaker To Make Money?

When I was in Sydney, Australia to lead a two day workshop on producing for Screen Australia, I was asked by Screen Hub journalist Andrew Einspruch what the best way for an indie filmmaker to make money these days. I replied:

I think the question should probably be something a little bit different, or they’re going to get trapped along the way.

The answer to that question is finding the aggregated and underserved communities and addressing them directly with what they are starved for. That has kinda been the history of independent film, at least in the States. The clearly definable demographics. The rise of New Queer Cinema was not just a cultural phenomenon, but it was a wise business practice. It was a group of people with high discretionary income that were already gathered, that had ways to address them directly and engage them socially.

It works the same, essentially, for Tyler Perry. Middle class, church-going family black audience in America being underserved for years. And he had ways to reach them directly and was well rewarded for it.

Even movies as diverse as Fahrenheit 911 and Passion of the Christ – same sort of thing: underserved, pre-collected audiences with ways to address them directly.

And now, we can drill that down, like single liberal-leaning wooden boat enthusiasts living on the coast. You can reach those people. And if they’ve been underserved, and they gather, then providing them more of what they want or what they can’t get hold of is good business practice – as long as you are basing your costs around what the size of that audience is. You need to factor all that in. That’s how a filmmaker can make money.

But, I’m not sure that would be rewarding on a long term basis for the creative spirit. The good business practice in the long run is very similar to what is also most nourishing of that creative spirit. And that is asking of one’s self, “How do I maintain a productive, prolific creative life? How do I make sure that I produce material on a regular basis?” And I think that is sound business practice, as well as being something that will become rewarding.

Not all of that content is going to be monetised. Most of it is going to be used to engage with audiences. By focussing on having an on-going conversation, we reward and transition audiences into different forms of engagement.

For example, the music business thought, at one time, that their business was on the pre-recorded product, and things like live shows were ways to drive greater sales of that product. Now they’ve turned that 180 degrees around, recognising that in a world of cultural abundance, and an excess of leisure time options, people crave the authentic and unique experience.

If we are able to provide content and engagement to a core audience that starts to identify with that relationship as part of their identity, the breadth and variety of those forms of engagement also come with a different level of pricing. We can create engagement that is also event-based, even if our main form of expression is linear and pre-recorded.

This is the first question in an interview that I did with Andrew Einspruch for ScreenHub.  If you are a member of that organization you can read the whole thing here.

Screen Hub is “The daily online newspaper for Australian film and television professionals.” Their web site for the link is http://www.screenhub.com.au.

Andrew Einspruch’s indie Australian film company Wild Pure Heart Productions has created the feature film Finding Joy and the documentaries 2012: This Sacred Earth and 7 Days with 7 Dogs, and is currently working on the low budget feature The Farmer. Andrew can be found on Twitter as@einspruch and at andreweinspruch.com.


"7 Reasons To Release Your Film For Free"

guest post by Todd Sklar

A few weeks ago, my good friend Dean Peterson emailed me about releasing his film Incredibly Small for free on the internet. In full disclosure; he was emailing me not because I know a great deal about releasing movies on the interner (I don't), but because I was a producer on the film, and had been assisting with the film's release over the past year.

Flashing forward for a second; we went through with it, and thanks to the kind folks at Vimeo, you can now watch Incredibly Small on-line for free at the following link -- www.vimeo.com/40112752 -- As of this posting, the film has been viewed by over 31,000 people in less than a week. And at no cost to them, as well as no cost to us.

Back to Dean's original email -- my initial response was "YES! Let's definitely put it on the internet for free", which was quickly followed by; "But once we do that, it's like, on the Internet and shit, so we should make sure that's what you really wanna do. Cause that's essentially putting the curtains down so to speak on any other release plans we might have."

He said that it was, and my final email said; "I love it. Let's do it. But just for posterity's sake, gimme one good reason as to why we're doing this. So that we have something to put on the epitaph if for no other reason."

This was his reply;

You want one good reason? How 'bout 7...

1. I'm supremely bored by most of the traditional routes people have taken when distributing smaller movies. I'm really not interested in selling the rights to the movie to somebody for no money and then at best, getting a bullshit release, but more than likely, not getting one at all. We set out to make an interesting movie because we were excited about making movies, and I think we should take the same approach in the release and do it in an interesting way that we're excited about. Let's rattle the cage a bit even if it means we don't make back quite as much money.The opportunity to shake things up is worth whatever the shortfall is. That's the cost of doing it the right way -- you taught me that on the first Range Life tour, and just like with those films, creating exposure and getting the movie to a wider audience is our only priority right now. What better way to accomplish that than making it free and making it accessible to literally anyone with an internet connection.

2. Speaking of the internet, it's awesome. I spend most of my time on the internet and it's where I learned much of what I know about filmmaking, and I know for a fact that's even truer of you, and it's where both of us have connected with the majority of our audiences.It's where we both live, and I think that's true of a lot of people, especially ones that will like this film. You took your movie to college campuses because that was your wheelhouse and that's where your target audience was. Same goes for this one and the internet. Quite simply, this is where my movie belongs, we just took a roundabout way of getting here.

3. And if we agree that it should be on-line, then I know we both agree it should be free. Cause that's what the internet is all about. And I think the fact that this movie didn't cost us a ton to make puts us in a unique position that we have a bit more freedom to be adventurous when rolling this out. We've made back enough of the money that even if we don't make another dollar on it and none of the people who watch it on-line buy a DVD, or make a donation, or give us their money in some other way, it won't be much of a loss.

4. This movie is the product of the crowd sourced, internet 2.0, 'other buzz word' culture of the internet through and through. We raised money on Kickstarter, garnered an audience and fan base on Tumblr and Reddit connected with fans on tour through Twitter and Facebook, and if Google+ made any sense, I'm sure we'd find a way to utilize that too. Now it seems fitting to stay true to that spirit and bring it all back full circle and put this motherfucker on Vimeo or YouTube right?

5. One of the other major benefits of putting it online is that we can reach people all over as opposed to a traditional release of a smaller film like this, which would in a best case scenario play 3-5 markets? If that? We probably wouldn't do any screenings in Scottsdale, AZ but the residents there are crying out to see this movie (Maybe)(Probably not)(THEY COULD BE THOUGH). And even if we continued touring, how many colleges can we hit before it's not worth the work anymore? Let's buck the trend and not just focus on major cities. OR college campuses. OR both. Let's get EVERYONE

6. We can have the option for people to donate money if they so feel inclined. We can't do that at Target, or on Comcast, or at the multiplex. I know we're both big fans of bands that have done this and I don't see why it's not more prevalent in film. It should be as unobtrusive and nag-free as possible, just a button somewhere below the video that's quietly sitting there. I really think that if we give the movie away for free that people will respond to it and if they like the movie maybe they'll chip in a few bucks or whatever they feel it's worth. Did you read the Chris Anderson book "Free" that I told you about? He outlines pretty eloquently how in the past when artists have given their product away for free that it's worked out fantastically.

7. Torrents. Piracy is viewed as a huge problem in the film industry but what if we turn it into a boon? If you go on Pirate Bay there are over 10,000 people who are currently downloading The Hunger Games, who I'm sure the studios view as villains but we should view them as potential audience members. They're our friends! This is a huge untapped group that I think it would be a mistake to ignore. They're going to download movies no matter what we do, so we should at least provide them with OUR movie to download and watch versus one of the other ones. Let's put a super hi res version of the movie on torrent sites and try to get something from them. An email address, a donation, a DVD sale or them blogging or tweeting about it or using that X-Box headset thingy to tell their Halo friends about it. That's better than nothing.

That's all I got for now.I don't think nearly enough filmmakers have explored this option and it would be exciting to try it out. Let's talk about it more at the batting cages.

P.S. Let's start going to the batting cages.

Please watch Incredibly Small for free on Vimeo

And please share it with other is if you enjoy it.

And please help us find some batting cages.

INCREDIBLY SMALL - Free Independent Feature Film from Dean Peterson on Vimeo.


Dean Peterson grew up in Minneapolis, MN and has studied film in New York, Paris, and Chicago, where he received his BA from Columbia College. He was an official participant at the Berlinale Talent Campus as well as the Adobe Reel Ideas Studio at the Cannes Film Festival. His short films have played in festivals around the U.S as well as in France. His interests include but are not limited to: black coffee, Siberian Huskies and twirling pens on his finger. Incredibly Small is his first feature.

Todd Sklar loves coffee. In 1994, Sklar won Best Blocked Shots in his youth basketball league. In 2007, he wrote & directed his feature length debut, BOX ELDER, which developed a cult following after Sklar & his comrades toured the film across the country throughout 2008 & 2009. Afterwards, Sklar founded Range Life Entertainment, a privately held marketing company that tours independent films to college campuses on a quarterly basis. His latest short film, '92 SKYBOX ALONZO MOURNING ROOKIE CARD premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and serves as a prologue to the upcoming feature, AWFUL NICE, which recently finished filming.

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.

Building The Community Web Around an Artist

Today's guest post (part 1 of 2) is by 2010 Brave Thinker Of Indie Film Sheri Candler.

I think I have been promising this post for a while, ever since I wrote the New Independent Filmmaker’s Business Model. If you haven’t read that post, give it a little peruse so you can see what I am on about. The key premise is that all artists should be building a tribe (a Seth Godin term as it relates to marketing) or an engaged audience for their work. One that transitions from one project to the next throughout your career and indeed your life. These supporters will be your friends, your evangelists, your patrons and if you cultivate this relationship, you will not have need to reach a mass in order to make a comfortable living. I have been thinking though that maybe the idea should be compared to a web.

In looking through some other advice on this, I can see why some can be turned off by the idea. It seems most of the advice focuses only on how to lure people in just so you can sell them something, kind of like how the spider spins her web. It’s a strategy I guess, but that isn’t what I am going to tell you to do here. I am a firm believer that self promotion is about helping other people. What I propose is offering value, sharing knowledge and genuinely wanting to connect with people and connect people you know who should know each other. Perhaps it is better described as a web, an interconnected community. One that you lead, but is dependent on everyone’s interactivity. To me that is much more palatable to an artist because it is authentic, no ulterior motive, which is refreshing in today’s society. But reciprocity does happen because it is really human nature to help someone who has helped you, in fact in this scenario, it is expected.

First elements to understand when constructing you community web:

Permission-You must have permission to talk to people. Permission? Yes, you will only be talking to people who have opted in to hear what you have to say. You will NOT be eblasting everyone you ever met once a week. You will NOT be spamming hundreds of strangers who don’t want to hear from you. You will have “the privilege of delivering anticipated, personal and relevant messages to people who want to get them.” (Seth Godin).  How do you get permission? It starts simply by communicating with people on a one to one level. Aren’t you doing that now? You should be, that’s what social media is for. Not automated, canned message, advertising social media but real conversations. So think of what online services you can use, that you feel comfortable using for communicating every day. It doesn’t have to be hours every day, but some amount of time every day.

Trust-We need to trust you. We need to know you are listening, you understand us, you will help us as we will help you and each other. We need NOT to feel that you are using us.

It’s not you, it’s we-Although this post is directed at building the web around yourself, it is really more about taking a leadership role that is missing from a community. There are lots of people in the world with similar interests and outlooks on life. Artists can contribute a lot to bringing these people together around ideas and creativity. Without leadership, they are just a crowd, unconnected to one another. You and your work are the catalysts that bring them together, if you actively step up to that role.

Building it, getting them to come

I have been reading a book this weekend by David Meerman Scott and Brian Halligan called “Marketing Lessons from the Grateful Dead” and it has helped me to think of how you should be looking at building your web. No one can tell you “do these 10 things and you will have a community,” but you can start by setting goals for yourself and thinking through the small steps you can take to achieve them. A goal could be to start building an email list of names so that you can speak directly with your community. This is exactly what The Dead did starting in 1971, long before social media made it easy. They placed a call to action postcard in the album sleeve of the famous “Skull and Roses” asking “Dead Freaks Unite!” by sending in their addresses. The band used this list to communicate directly, gauge where the tours would be booked, offer exclusive content, they even gave priority ticket offers for the live shows to list members. Their list of hundreds of thousands was built over 30 years and continues to this day, despite the fact that the official band no longer exists. The community lives on.

First start with you. What’s your story? What can you share with us that helps us to know if we are kindreds? This clearly means that you will not be attracting everybody. Everybody should not be your goal. Everybody isn’t loyal. Trying to attract everybody is like cat wrangling, way more trouble than it is worth. You want the RIGHT people, those who are most open to wanting to contribute to something greater than themselves. Those are the people who are going to enlarge the web, to help you weave it.

Give us the genuine signals that you care and are passionate about what you do. We can sniff out the disingenuous; those who are only in this for money and fame.  Make us believe in you and that you want to know us as people, not as targets. We won’t join you if you want to manipulate us. We have everything we need. We don’t need yet another commodity, another product.  Make us different people for having known you and your stories.

Then, find us. If you know yourself and what you are interested in, you can figure out where we live. Think about your throughline. Many people say that they are interested in many different things, but if they really analyzed all of those seemingly different areas, they will find a commonality. That’s your throughline and those most likely to connect with you will have the same. When you know what characteristics those are, it will be easier to find your community. Start to embed yourself in the places where we already gather.

I have heard some say that it is difficult to move people from one community to another. I personally have found this isn’t the case once they know you and I have advised people on how to embed themselves and have seen their personal community numbers grow. It takes time  and constant attention, but it will work. Your web will become intertwined in others so the goal isn’t to move people, it is to become an extension.

Build the platform. Give yourself a place to speak from and a place for the community to gather. This may be an interactive website, it may just be a blog, it may start with a Facebook page (though ideally you’ll want your own dedicated platform!). You may grow your community by starting in another one, but eventually you need a place of your own, a little place your community can grow and thrive.

Think of ways to delight us, to keep us coming back. As the propagator of your web, you need that connection to stay strong. Sometimes community members are lazy and forget to check back in. There should be a fresh serving of something noteworthy on your site at regular intervals. I saw a great reminder email the other day from a community with which I am involved. Just a message telling me what was going on over there, new discussions that were happening, new members who had joined and an invitation to check back in. It was very effective in catching my attention and letting me know that they had missed me, like they actually know I have been out for a while. Was it somewhat automated? Probably, but it still made me want to check back in and see what was happening. Someone should be thinking up and executing content that will keep the community engaged and involved.

This PMD person, how is this going to help?

This is the person who can keep the content on track and keep the community interested. I don’t think you should turn your personal identity over to a PMD (Producer of Marketing and Distribution), but a PMD can have access your community while helping to spread the web to other influential individuals and groups and help to figure out the best way to get your film out to them. Ideally, the person you choose to help you is either already in your web or someone you introduce to them as a helper to you. Back to the Grateful Dead example, it was Eileen Law who became the community manager for the Dead’s fans. She was one of the band’s earliest fans. Eileen put together the newsletters, collected and organized the fan list, her voice was the one fans would hear on the message machine when they called for priority tickets. The Dead had a record label, but the label wasn’t talking to the fans and much of the turnout to their shows came by word of mouth from the band. You still must keep engaged, but this person will serve as your liaison while you are in the creative process. All in the community must be kept aware of what is happening, transparency is important here. Believe me, once you start getting a community built up who expect regular interaction, this person will be vital.

Next post: Artists who are doing this and a roadmap…

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.

How Big Brand Sponsorship Saved Our Indie Film (pt 2 of 2)

Guest Post by Amy Lo.  Yesterday Amy started the tale of Planet B-boy's march into brand sponsorship and how they teamed up with Samsung.  Today she concludes with how it was a win/win and some thoughts towards the future. Taking the long view We were relieved that our immediate need for post production funds was met, but our proposal also kept the door open for a much bigger fish to fry: distribution. Our initial strategy was the typical indie film non-strategy of keeping the film under wraps, doing a big premiere at a festival and waiting for any offers to come along. With Samsung unexpectedly involved at an early stage, we started thinking about how we could partner with them to bring the film out, either with or without a traditional distributor. We came up with a plan for live dance events combined with the film screenings, a 25-city tour presented by Samsung.

In the meantime, we finished the film and got it into competition at the Tribeca Film Festival. We had a magical outdoor premiere on the riverfront with Fab 5 Freddy as emcee, live performances, and breakdancing lessons before the movie. More than eight thousand people turned out. We’d made it an event. We knew we could be on to something.

We pushed Samsung and came so close – with no less than the Chief Marketing Officer for North America behind us – but internal politics and timing ultimately thwarted further P&A support. Planet B-boy still had a great run with distributor Elephant Eye Films, held over in NY theaters for 10 weeks and spreading to about 50 other cities. We threw some fantastic events, too.

Working towards the future I’m convinced there’s a still lot further to go with sponsorship and indie film, particularly for distribution and the hard work of getting finished films to audiences. Folks like Rooftop Films , Alamo Drafthouse , and Range Life are making movies more of a communal event. Film festivals, too. Brands get behind those curators without dictating programming, so if a filmmaker’s vision is clear and resonates with audiences, why not experiment with individual film releases, too? Or theaters? Kind of like the old days of TV – Wild Kingdom never had anything to do with insurance but the show’s always been presented by Mutual of Omaha. Sponsorship’s coming back for indie music , why not indie film, too?

Samsung didn’t take any ownership or approvals of the film, and our deal with them paradoxically, became our best guarantee of creative freedom, no strings attached. Sponsorship wasn’t our plan at the outset, but by focusing on the film first, by preserving its quality and originality, we had something for others, both audiences and sponsors, to get excited about.

It most likely won’t happen the same way for me again on another film, and on each project, we as producers have to be more resourceful and more imaginative than ever, looking at every option. I’m telling you this story because the lesson learned is: You never know who might save you. When some doors close, just find new ones to knock down.

Amy Lo is a 2010-2011 Sundance Institute Creative Producing Fellow. Through her production banner Mental Pictures , she develops and produces feature films, documentaries, and new media, focusing on director-driven original stories. She can also be found on twitter @amy_lo .

For more on this subject check out: "Can Brands & Indie Films Collaborate Without Sacrificing Integrity Or Goals?"

How Big Brand Sponsorship Saved Our Indie Film (pt. 1 of 2)

Guest Post by Amy Lo

Behind every finished film, there are 1,001 war stories.

This is just one small part of how we willed into being a film called Planet B-boy , and maybe it’s a rare, lucky case. But when it mattered most, it was a big-time brand that 1) came to our rescue with cold, hard cash; 2) allowed us to keep complete creative control; and 3) gave us greater ownership of our own film to boot. They didn’t even realize how crucial it was to us, but the truth is, Samsung saved our indie film.

Starting on our own
I met a filmmaker named Benson Lee who had a great character-driven story structured around the vibrant resurgence of breakdancing around the world. I didn’t know how, but I wanted to produce it. Industry broadcasters and production companies loved the idea but said essentially the same thing – go and shoot it, show us a rough cut. Fair enough. We turned to equity investors and scraped together enough to buy plane tickets and cameras….Fast forward through production highs and lows, and three months later, we had 300 hours of footage to log in four different languages. We also had a negative bank balance. So what next?

Rallying our cohorts
Between going back to investors and trying to raise money, we didn’t wait around. We posted a clip on YouTube, rehauled our website, and started reaching out to b-boys and folks online for feedback. While Benson went through footage, I spent days seeking out those who would become our most ardent supporters. Our video racked up tens, then hundreds of thousands of views, netting us our first featured spot on the YouTube front page. As the momentum grew, we did our part to keep it going.

One of our first videos showed main characters dancing in distinctive settings, like the Eiffel Tower and a Buddhist temple. We started getting messages from all over the world “Come film here!” and “What about our town?”, so we figured why not open it up through a video contest? Anyone could send us footage of their own choreography in front of their own city landmarks, and selected shots would form an epilogue to the movie during the end credits. With the community involved, our film ended up covering dancers from every continent – except Antarctica (though we did get b-boys from the Arctic Circle in there!).

It was a simple way for people to connect with the film, and individual participation naturally fit with the film’s themes about self-expression – how each dancer interpreted the art form and made it their own, feeding their own culture back into it. Early on, I had also gotten the idea from Four Eyed Monsters to collect email addresses and zip codes as “screening requests” – and we got 500 subscribers from Poland in a single day – a fan in Warsaw had built their own mini-movement around the film.

Sticking to our story
Meanwhile, we had been shaking the money tree and editing the film simultaneously but were running out of equity investor options. We didn’t have a rough cut yet to show distributors or production companies who might put up finishing funds – and if we were able to get that far on our own, would we necessarily want to give up creative control and rights to our film?

When we explored the idea of sponsorship, we were clear on our parameters. Our first priority was being able to make the film our own way. That was never in doubt and wasn’t negotiable. One key difference between commissioned work versus independent work looking for support: We were the ones who could set the terms. Any sponsors would have to be on board with our creative independence, and we made that authenticity itself an integral part of our proposal.

Figuring out our strengths
Once we established what we wouldn’t do for sponsors, we still had to think carefully about what we could offer them. There weren’t many indie film examples we could turn to. We weren’t cult filmmakers like David Lynch, Spike Jonze, or Wong Kar-wai. We had no guarantee of distribution or a film festival premiere – we didn’t even have a film yet.

But we did have footage – 300 hours of amazing dancing and stunning back stories that wouldn’t all fit into our feature-length film. We had plenty of “content” to lend to a willing partner. Going back to our initial YouTube clips, we also had a growing following and the potential to transcend a niche audience once we had a finished film. The creative goal for the feature was to show b-boy culture in the truest light possible, and through our characters, also make it a relatable story about identity and self-expression. It was a story we were passionate about, and it seemed like something a sponsor could get behind.

Doing our homework
Where to start? We connected to Samsung after much due diligence and research. We asked around for help and suggestions within the b-boy community, and we drew up lists of target companies. We found as much information as we could about each: decision makers, past projects, other forays into sponsorship, and what their mandates might be. Some companies supported the arts through non-profit arms, while others fielded proposals through their in-house marketing departments or ad agencies.

Samsung seemed our best match as an electronics company. They had empty hardware; we had content to fill it. I built a sponsorship proposal tailored to them around this idea. We promised to give them a series of five trailers as exclusive content – for embedding into new Samsung cell phones, mp3 players, and other portable media devices, and in retail displays and product road shows. The videos wouldn’t be commercials for Samsung product; they would strictly promote the film – and identify Samsung as our supporter. And for this, they were willing to put substantial money towards us finishing our movie, a mid-six-figure sum that meant all the difference for us, and was less than the cost of a traditional 30-second ad for them.

Tomorrow, Amy concludes with some thoughts on "Taking The Long View" of brand sponsorship of indie film.

For more on this subject check out: "Can Brands & Indie Films Collaborate Without Sacrificing Integrity Or Goals?"

Amy Lo is a 2010-2011 Sundance Institute Creative Producing Fellow. Through her production banner Mental Pictures , she develops and produces feature films, documentaries, and new media, focusing on director-driven original stories. She can also be found on twitter @amy_lo .

Thoughts On Audience Building

Today's guest post is from filmmaker (and mind map builder!) Mike Ambs.

In a recent post here, Ted Hope listed "38 More Ways The Film Industry is Failing Today"; many of the questions and points made among the 38 stood out to me, and I've spent the last several days trying to openly brainstorm steps that could lead towards change. But today, I wanted to write about one in particular: Ted asked why we don't encourage, or even demand, that a film build it's audience (say, 5,000 fans) prior to production and greenlight.

For starters, I love the idea of audience builds. I think the practice of audience builds before a film gets too far off the ground would be a great shift in how we think of films, how we approach them, how to involve the audience long before they ever sit down in a theater - but it raises a few key issues:

Filmmaking is storytelling, and stories are told many different ways and take very different paths. Because of this, it might not be the best idea to mandate audience builds. One reason for this is it could, if taken advantage of, create yet another "door" that is opened easier only for some.

So the real question is, "why" take this route? If you had a fork in the road, would you, as a filmmaker, only take the path of audience building prior to production because it was the path less traveled? Or would it come with it's own real incentives outside of "popularity"? For example, would studios honor and take seriously independent films that have done the hard work of pre-building their audiences? Or would certain grants and financial benefits kick in at such a watermark? It's important to help build that distinction and give filmmakers real incentives at thinking of storytelling in this way: your supporters are your foundation, build that first, then your film.

This topic of audience builds is interesting to me because, as much as I agree with the idea of pre-building your supporters, I've been very hard at work on For Thousands of Miles for six years now, always with a strong interest in the community that can grow around a film, and I still fall short of that hypothetical benchmark of 5,000 supporters. Even with Facebook, Twitter, mailing list, Kickstarter, production-blog subscribers, Vimeo community, etc: we are not above 5,000 people. Have we overlooked the importance of forming a relationship with the audience beforehand? Does our film's approach and idea need more work before people really begin to relate on a larger scale? And on top of this, these supporters overlap: people who follow the film on Twitter, also might be subscribed to both our blog as well as our mailing list. Which raises the questions:

How do we keep proper tally of the numbers during an audience build without counting one person two or three times? How would an outside review separate individual supporters across multiple social tools? And more importantly, who would do this validating? Should we be building stat tools and options for keeping these aggregated numbers public, letting the film's own growing base self-check it's own real-world size? Does this public display beg for popularity contest, where growing your numbers by any means necessary as fast as possible becomes the focus, instead of slowly and steadily reaching out to people who will really follow and support your work over the longterm?

Measurement can be relative when it comes to films, support can vary wildly depending on how a filmmaker goes about engaging people beyond their film. So how do we really measure this? Hitting a set number of followers / supporters / fans / backers could be one way, or if anything, the first step in audience building. From there it's what you do with these people: how you involve them in the process, what they get out of supporting your project. As filmmakers we cannot change the future of storytelling without the audience's full support - we need them to fall in love with a new "norm" of getting involved and be right there next to us when going head-to-head with the old ways of industry.

Mike Ambs currently lives in Ypsilanti. He loves to film things and tell stories. And read on the subway. He's pretty sure blue whales are his power animal.

The Twenty New Rules: What we all MUST TRY to do prior to shooting

I am prepping a new film with the shortest amount of time I have ever had to prep a movie. It is also one of the more ambitious projects I have been involved in. There is so much to do I can't afford to squander any time (luckily I have been prepping some blog posts in advance, so this doesn't take time -- it expands time!). The short prep is also unfortunate because now is a time that the producer has to do even more than ever before.

My To Do List may be more of a Wish List these days. Instead of doing everything I think I should be doing, I have to focus first on what absolutely needs to be done to get the film in the can.

Now is the time we should be doing things differently; yet given the opportunity to make the film I want, with the cast I want, even at a fraction of the budget that I want -- how can I let that opportunity go by?
Having more options and better tools, doesn't solve everything by any means.
These times are tough indeed. Everyone knows it is hard out there for an indie filmmaker, particularly for a truly free filmmaker. Most would acknowledge that it is harder now than it has ever been before. Few have revealed (or admitted) how the current situation will change their behavior. I think right now, with reality staring me in the face, I can only speak about what I wish I could do. There is still a big gulf between thought and expression. How does the present alter what we all wish to do on our films?
Personally speaking, I would say we need to evolve the definition of what it means to be ready to shoot a film. Granted, more can always be done on the creative level and that is certainly worthy of discussion, but here -- on TrulyFreeFilm -- we are discussing the apparatus, the infrastructure, the practices that can lead to a more diverse output, robust appreciation, business model, and sustainable practice of ambitious cinema. So, what would I do if I really had my shit together? I have been trying to answer this and share my thoughts along the way.
Today's version:
  1. Recognize it is about audience aggregation: Collect 5000 fans prior to seeking financing. Act to gain 500 fans/month during prep, prod., post processes.
  2. Determine how you will engage & collect audiences all throughout the process. Consider some portion to be crowd-funded -- not so much for the money but for the engagement it will create.
  3. Create enough additional content to keep your audience involved throughout the process and later to bridge them to your next work.
  4. Develop an audience outreach schedule clarifying what is done when -- both before and after the first public screening.
  5. Curate work you admire. Spread the word on what you love. Not only will people understand you further, but who knows, maybe someone will return the good deed.
  6. Be prepared to "produce the distribution". Meet with potential collaborators from marketing, promotion, distribution, social network, bookers, exhibitors, widget manufacturers, charitable partners, to whatever else you can imagine.
  7. Brainstorm transmedia/cross-platform content to be associated with the film.
  8. Study at least five similar films in terms of what their release strategy & audience engagement strategy was and how you can improve upon them.
  9. Build a website that utilizes e-commerce, audience engagement, & data retrieval. Have it ready no later than 1 month prior to first public screening.
  10. Determine & manufacture at least five additional products you will sell other than DVDs.
  11. Determine content for multiple versions of your DVD.
  12. Design several versions of your poster. Track how your image campaign evolves through the process.
  13. Do a paper cut of what two versions of your trailer might be. Track how this changes throughout the process.
  14. Determine a list of the top 100 people to promote your film (critics, bloggers, filmmakers,etc)
  15. Determine where & how to utilize a more participatory process in the creation, promotion, exhibition, & appreciation process. Does it make sense for your project to embrace this?
  16. How will this project be more than a movie? Is there a live component? An ARG? An ongoing element?
  17. How can you reward those who refer others to you? How do you incentivize involvement? What are you going to give back?
  18. What will you do next and how can you move your audience from this to that? How will younot have to reinvent the wheel next time?
  19. What are you doing differently than everyone else? How will people understand this? Discover this?
  20. How are you going to share what you've learned on this project with others?
As I've said, I know I am not doing all of these yet on my current production, but that leaves me something to strive for the one following. The goal is to keep getting better, after all. But man, I wish I could be doing more!
The desire to do more is so huge, but time and resources limit me, limit us. Sometimes it feels like an accomplishment to at least get the film financed. Still though, I can't claim to be doing my job (producing) well if I am not doing all of these. I have to do better. I know it is even harder on smaller jobs. Still though, as much as our job descriptions keep expanding as our salary level decreases, this list is what we must accomplish. Or at least it is the list I think we need to accomplish right now.
I am going to shut up now and get to work. There's too much to be done.