On connecting with audiences and free films

On connecting with audiences and free films

Like many who got into the self-distribution game, I was at first hoping to score a more traditional distribution model. It had been so much work to finish the film, and it was very compelling that I could sell it, make some money, and have experts working to get it out to as many people as possible. I contacted Shorts International and Indieflix and got a no from both of them. (Funnily enough, a week after Indieflix said no I got an email from someone else at the company asking to look at the film, who then rejected it again.)

I think the key to good self distribution is a realistic assessment of your audience (current and potential), the viewing experience you want to create, and what human and technological resources you have available. By all means look at what others are doing, but also think about what you can do that is unique. What about the screening experience will be best for your film? Is there additional content or another perspective or community that would add something to the film? What can be improved on real-world screenings in an online setting? What might people want to see after watching your film?

Shabbat Dinner had been well received on its festival run, so I knew it had fans who would want to watch it again or recommend it to others. I also had a great network of over fifty film festivals, and I was hoping that some of them would use their considerable social media might to help promote the film.

I still remember the night I created the site. I was inspired by Amanda Palmer’s TED talk on developing a relationship with fans, and her message that fans want ways to support the artists they love. I wanted to make the film available under a pay-what-you-want model, but Tinypass, my payment processor, would not let me charge less than $1, so that was set as the minimum.

It’s important to establish the value of the product as a first step in the relationship. When visitors arrive at the film’s site they are greeted with quoted reviews of the film and a screen overflowing with festival laurels. The page is designed to say “this is a film worth watching.” If they’re not convinced, there’s also a link to the trailer. The text emphasizes how simple the purchase will be (“in seconds”) and mentions that the typical price for a film festival ticket is $9.

Setting the reference point of $9 was very helpful. The first few purchases of the film were for $10, and after a few months I had settled into an average purchase price of $4/view, which is completely unprecedented in this industry.

I added a live q&a using Olark, software that connects a chat box in the corner of the page to my gchat, and therefore my cell phone. Wherever I am, somebody watching the film can message me to ask questions about the film or just say hi.

I also added a Facebook-enabled comment box below the film, with a prompt asking viewers to tell me what they think. By default, commenting creates a post on that viewer’s Facebook wall with their comment and the page’s Facebook share text: “Watch Shabbat Dinner short film – Pay what you want!” with a description beginning “Watch the film the Huffington Post calls “A funny, revelatory family dinner” and pay what it’s worth to you.” This makes it very easy for viewers to recommend the film to friends, and once they do, the film speaks for itself on their timeline.

All of these elements together set up film to go viral. If a well-placed tweet or mention sends a few hundred people to the site, the film could spread very quickly.

Shabbat Dinner has since become available on other screening platforms: Seed&Spark, Amazon DVD and VOD, TLA releasing, and a DVD compilation called “Green Briefs.” I’d love to put it on iTunes and Netflix, but I haven’t found a distributor who wants to help.

The next step for the film is with the teenage audience. It was meant for younger people, yet so few have actually seen the film. I’d like to get in touch with GSA’s and other youth organizations over the next year and spread the film that way.

I want the ultimate home of the film to be be on YouTube, available for free. It’s a short and I didn’t create it to make money. Making it available for free increases its exposure and relevance in our culture by orders of magnitude, and could help my career more than keeping it hidden away. For those considering just releasing their short for free on YouTube, I don’t think it’s a bad decision at all.

For now, though, I’ve decided that a free release online would limit the film’s prospects more than help them. It wouldn’t have a chance of getting onto iTunes or into future festivals. Plus, the non-exclusive agreements I’ve signed are contingent on the film not being available online for free.

For those interested in the technical aspects of the site, I’ve encoded the video at multiple bitrates and am serving it through Amazon S3 with a custom javascript player that detects the user’s bandwidth. I’m using the PHP Tinypass toolkit to set a login variable which determines whether to show the welcome page or the actual film. Tinypass also now offers a custom module for charging for videos, which could well be a perfect solution for self-distribution.

I’m happy to consult with those who are looking to put their film out there on both technical and promotional issues.