The world of independent movies is changing. Thanks to advances in technology—especially inexpensive HD cameras and the increased availability of consumer-friendly digital editing systems—it’s easier to make movies today than it ever has been before. That’s the good news. The bad news is that, since more movies are being made, distributors are paying less for finished movies.
In the pre-digital world, an independent moviemaker would take his or her film to a festival and hope that a distributor would purchase it for a worldwide release. This model still works… about .1 percent of the time. But what about those whose movies are not among the chosen few? What do we do? How do we monetize our content and help it find an audience?
If you’re like one of the indie all-stars profiled below, you’ll stop chasing that elusive old world model and begin experimenting with new approaches and paradigms. Each of these moviemakers is finding great success by creating new niches for themselves and discovering innovative ways to navigate the new world of independent movies.
Jocelyn Towne • Writer-Director-Producer-Actor, I Am I
The story of I Am I, about a young woman who unexpectedly meets the father who abandoned her as a child at her mother’s funeral, began over four years ago. With the help of a crowdfunding campaign via Kickstarter, Towne succeeded in raising more than $100,000 to finance the picture. Towne says that she chose Kickstarter over other crowdfunding sites because of its all-or-nothing platform.
“We felt that if we weren’t able to reach our goal we shouldn’t keep the money because we wouldn’t be able to go into production,” says Towne. “There was such a tremendous amount of support and it came mostly from people we didn’t know personally. We used Facebook and Twitter tirelessly to keep spreading the word.”
Towne was aided by a little bit of star power, as her film features “The Big Bang Theory” actor Simon Helberg (who also happens to be her husband).
“Simon had a pretty large Twitter following of about 40,000 to 50,000 people at the time,” notes Towne, “and I strongly feel that we wouldn’t have achieved our goal without them.”
Research also proved key to Towne’s success. “I went to a seminar on crowdfunding, which was very informative,” she says. “I read [Scott Kirsner’s] Fans, Friends & Followers, I looked at every single film project on Kickstarter and IndieGoGo for months. I used Blue Like Jazz and The Price as models. I also studied El Cosmonauta, a Spanish crowdfunding project.”
It was the key lessons Towne learned from looking at other Kickstarter projects that made the most difference. “One thing we learned was to keep our fundraising period relatively short,” notes Towne. “People make their decisions quickly on the Internet, so more time doesn’t necessarily mean a greater chance of success.”
The other constant Towne saw in successful projects was the use of video. “You have to do this,” says Towne. “People won’t emotionally connect to your project if you don’t show them what you’re all about.”
Supply and Demand
Josh Bernhard • Writer-Executive Producer, “Pioneer One”
The idea for “Pioneer One,” a Web series about a Soviet cosmonaut who claims to be from Mars, came to series creator Josh Bernhard at a time when scripted television dramas were a hard sell. Rather than take his chances pitching the series, Bernhard thought the show would reach more people if it was made independently and distributed online. So far, so good.
Since “Pioneer One” premiered on VODO.net, which distributes content through peer-to-peer file-sharing services like Limewire and Vuze, it has been downloaded more than two million times.
“I think the ‘secret’ here is really the network of BitTorrent communities through which VODO distributes,” says Bernhard. “The BitTorrent protocol is a very efficient way of transferring data online, and because of this it was first embraced by pirates. It created these communities based around media—people who shared film and television—and that was where the real word of mouth stuff was going on.”
After releasing his no-budget feature The Lionshare through VODO and seeing it downloaded 100,000 times in less than a month, Bernhard “thought it might be interesting to put out serialized content the same way. Once we released the pilot, people really responded to it. We hadn’t really intended to do more beyond the pilot. But the viewers were there… and we realized that we had created demand for more.”
Bernhard knew from his experience with The Lionshare that VODO was a useful tool for finding an audience. What he discovered with “Pioneer One” was that VODO was also effective in helping to secure fairly significant financing. “We were accepting donations from viewers and a lot of people donated—about $30,000 worth,” says Bernhard. “The pilot cost us less than $7,000, so we realized maybe we’d be able to make more. We shot the next three episodes in one large production block in October 2010, and have been releasing them since December 2010.”
Bernhard attributes a major part of his success to the ability to create different kinds of audience identification. “I think people feel very passionate and protective of the shows and movies they love,” he says, “and by donating to make more episodes of ‘Pioneer One’, they feel connected to the show in a way that you don’t get from traditional media.”
One challenge that has not changed in the new world of moviemaking is in monetizing distribution opportunities. “Truth be told, we haven’t quite figured that out yet,” Bernhard admits. “Since the pilot came out in June 2010, we’ve raised approximately $55,000 from viewer donations alone, and that’s been enough to allow us to continue the production, but no more.”
But Bernhard puts a positive spin on this question of monetization. “We think the value we’re creating right now is in the fan base for ‘Pioneer One.’ Our show has name recognition now, we’ve created a ‘property’ and given it value. We think that in the long run, that’s going to prove more important than whatever money we could be making right now.”
Timo Vuorensola • Director, Iron Sky
Look up Iron Sky on Facebook, and you will see that the film—a Finnish-German-Australian science-fiction comedy—already has more than 50,000 followers. It is not an easy task to create this sort of interest, but the director has his sights set even higher.
“To be honest, I don’t think getting 50,000 people to click one link on one social networking platform is a big trick at all,” says Vuorensola. “I see the successful Facebook fan page as one of the end results of almost a decade of hard work creating a community that’s based on two-sided discussion and collaboration… And still, 50,000 is basically not a big achievement in the Internet era; on the Internet, anything below one million isn’t noteworthy.
“We don’t view our 50,000 Facebook ‘Likes’ as a massive market force,” continues Vuorensola. “What we want to happen is to get a portion of these 50,000 people interested in the film and dig deeper into the production, start collaborating with us and become advocates for the film. These advocates will both help us finance and produce the film and eventually spread the word of the film to their friends. Having 50,000 people pay to see your film isn’t an achievement; making 50,000 people talk to their 100 friends about the film—and getting them to pay for you to make the film—is.”
Vuorensola has devoted an entire Website—www.wreckamovie.com—to that idea of community building. As explained on the home page, wreckamovie “is a social community, simple workflow and marketplace that builds communities around film productions… The communities developed in production will also create a viral social marketing force that will get films seen through the hundreds of existing online and standard channels.”
Like the other new world all-stars profiled here, Vuorensola is creating new options for the next generation of moviemakers.
Rewriting Web Rules
Sebastian Gutierrez • Writer-director-producer, Girl Walks into a Bar
Girl Walks Into a Bar takes place in 10 different bars over the course of one night. The movie was shot in 11 days in March of 2010. Post-production was completed in early June.
Girl Walks Into a Bar completely bypassed traditional distribution channels and instead premiered on YouTube. To date, more than 450,000 people have watched the film, which is more than some of the studio films released the same weekend.
“The question at the start of this experiment was: What if the Internet could work as both marketing and distribution entity?,” explains Gutierrez. “The Internet has certainly been blamed for illegal downloads, the death of art, the end of the world, etc. What if we tried to use it to our advantage? What if we could release a movie without having to spend tons of money getting the word out? What if we tried to get the viewers themselves, people already watching YouTube, to find the movie and spread the word though Twitter, Facebook, etc.?”
Gutierrez’s experiment has led to some interesting discoveries. “We uploaded the movie as both a whole film and split into a 10-part playlist. Much to my pleasant surprise, the ratio of people watching the whole movie versus segments is overwhelming. It proves that people will watch long-form content online.”
Gutierrez’s gamble might also have taught some other invaluable lessons about online content. “The exciting thing is that there is a very real audience and the response to Girl Walks Into a Bar has been overwhelmingly positive from YouTube viewers who were pleasantly surprised not to be condescended to but to be given a proper film with great acting and camera moves, sets and wardrobe versus the misconception of what a ‘YouTube movie’ might have looked like. And by that I mean the misconception that it might all be kittens in superhero capes and breasts (not that there’s anything wrong with that).”
Of course Gutierrez’s film does contain some recognizable names—Rosario Dawson, John Hartnett, Carla Gugino, Zachary Quinto and Alexis Bledel among them. While not every moviemaker may find the same results following Gutierrez’s lead, his moxie and words of wisdom can be a lesson to all:
1. Be bold. Never before has cinema been so accessible to the masses or so inexpensive to produce.
2. Think it through. There’s enough half-assed sloppy content out there, not enough truly inspired stuff.
3. Have fun. It’s a game.
Jeffrey Goodman is a moviemaker based out of Shreveport, Louisiana. He first focused on the new world of moviemaking in his MovieMaker blog, “Adventures in Self-Releasing”. For more on Goodman, visit his Website at www.thelastlullaby.com. Author’s Note: This piece would not have been possible without the help of Sheri Candler (www.shericandler.com), who helped source some of these wonderful case studies.