In the space of four weeks, life can change dramatically. It’s hard to believe that it’s been so little time, but looking at my calendar I am forced to conclude that it has.
Yo, watch Shabbat Dinner if you haven’t already! (Did I say that yet?)
Yo, share Shabbat Dinner on Facebook or Twitter and you will get lots of candy in the afterlife!
On December 19 at 8pm I went to a friend’s holiday party on the Upper West Side, staying until about midnight and enjoying spending the last bit of time in a while with my friends. At some point in the party I pulled out an audio recorder I had brought and convinced everyone to sing Amazing Grace for my film Lily in the Grinder. I downed a five-hour energy (it would not be my last of the month) as I got on the subway for the long ride to Williamsburg.
The next five hours was a rapid process of finishing my film. We had just recorded 14 minutes of incredibly beautiful string quartet music a few days prior. The music was written to match the film down to the second, but in recording music, even with a click track, it diverges a bit from the film it was scored to. A change in tone or an upswell doesn’t exactly match a cut. The score is such an integral component of the film, so in those cases, rather than edit the score to the film, I was recutting the film to the score. It was 5:30am and I finally exported the audio and sent it to our audio editor.
At 6:30am I left my apartment for a flight. I arrived in Phoenix a total zombie and was picked up by Nancy Yates, wife of John Yates (Culadasa), my meditation teacher. About 16 hours after that holiday party, I began a meditation retreat. For two weeks, I didn’t speak at all and silently sat, about eight hours per day, focusing on my breath. It was my fourth such meditation retreat, and entirely distinctive in its quality of experience. I found following my breath to be much easier than it used to be (meditation up to that point had been more akin to banging my head against a wall) and started to see my life from a slightly different perspective. It’s funny that the ways in which meditation feels like it is working are often wholly different from the ways in which I notice my mind has changed. Perhaps a topic for another post.) I broke silence for New Years, slipping my roommate a note asking if he wanted to wake up at 11:50 and look for fireworks. It was a nice way to start 2014.
No sooner than one hour after the retreat ended, I was pounding away at the distribution plan for Shabbat Dinner. I worked through the weekend, sending emails on my phone while meeting new friends in Phoenix and staying up late nights to finish coding the website. It felt like my mind could handle it, but I was reminded that the mind is very sensitive after an intense experience like a meditation retreat.
One day in my friend Tracy took us to a warehouse-sized Mexican grocery store in Phoenix, which was pretty much a Mexican person’s idea of what Americans would want in a grocery store: colorful, giant aisles, food everywhere, tacos and burritos and enchiladas and christmas music on the 5th of January. The word started to feel weird and rush around me very quickly and I had to sit down, put my head between my hands, and ask Tracy to bring me some chips with salsa. When I felt better, it was back to work.
My new short film hadn’t gotten into Sundance (which was disappointing, but the odds are truly stacked against us) and Shabbat Dinner was making good money through online VOD sales. What to do when money finally starts to trickle in on a short film? Recognize the opportunity and release it online. We put the film out on the 9th, and a little over two weeks later, it’s got almost 40,000 views. How did I get from here to there? Here’s ten of the ways:
- Built relationships with friends, fans, and followers! And I mean real friends here as well as Facebook friends. I sent out an email the morning of the 9th to 3,500 people, many of whom I know well in real life and some who have signed up on my site. The email was direct and clear, asking them to watch and share the film and explaining the importance of their doing so. I try to send as few emails as I can, and make each one count. One technique I used to ensure the message got directly into their inbox was to segment my Mailchimp list into a list of the 350 most active people / closest friends, and use Digital Inspiration’s mail merge tool to send those through Gmail (you get 500 emails per day on Gmail.) That helped get the email straight into their inbox, not in Gmail’s promotions tab.
- Reached out to critics. I built a list of film critics and sent the film to them individually, making sure I was aware of their work and understood the context in which they would watch the film. This led to a number of good reviews of the film.
- Reached out to LGBT organizations. I spent a week calling about 200 LGBT organizations and speaking directly with them. It was so cool to say only “I made a film about coming out” and hear an enthusiastic “oh! COOL!” From that outreach we’ve had several new screenings around the country and some positive reaction and engagement.
- Reached out to LGBT sites. I emailed, called, and Facebook Messaged a ton of people who run LGBT sites, giving them a preview of the film and asking them if they could share it. This led to our first big break, a post on Joe My God, which led directly to a reblog from Towle Road. It’s often like this: you can’t necessarily control who picks you up and how, but what you can do is increase the odds.
- Built a sweet website that works. I’ll say upfront that even though I did my best to share the website url, shabbatdinnerfilm.com, people found the YouTube URL and shared that one instead — so this cuts both ways. I wish people had been more into visiting the film on its own website, which has a live director Q&A that goes directly to my cell phone, a feature that allows them to enter their email address and be reminded to watch the film in 3 days (since many people first encounter the film at work), a link to my other films, and more information about the creation of the film. So I’m left with a two-fold conclusion: host your site on a major platform for maximum discoverability, and build a website if you can that allows you to customize the experience for those who want it. It’s like building your own theater!
- Tweet the shit out if it. I tweeted…the shit…out of Twitter. I tweeted about the film and shared each new post with my followers, retweeting and responding to anybody who talked about the film. I targeted about 400 top LGBT tweeters and sent the film directly to them, resulting in over 500,000 people worth of retweets.
- Tumblr! Don’t ignore Tumblr! Pre-teens and teens are on Tumblr, and the anonymous and super-sharable nature of the site makes it perfect for sharing a film virally in the audience I wanted to target. I found every GSA and “gay teen” blog on Tumblr I could, and sent them the film using the “submit” feature. Before its internet release, the film had mostly been seen by gay men over 40. Now, there are countless articles about it on Tumblr with reblogs, comments, and some incredible engagement.
- Facebook! Facebook shares accounted for most of our viral engagement. It’s a sharable film, short and funny, and people really responded. We posted everything to our Facebook page
- Advertising! Yes, advertising, the dirty secret of promotion. We took out ads on YouTube and Facebook, not spending a ton of money (a total of about $300…money goes far in ads.) We used the ads to encourage people in target demographics to like the page. I also used Facebook to target my friends who had been sent the initial email, so that after reading the email on a Thursday, Facebook ads kept encouraging them to watch it throughout the weekend.
- If you read between the lines above you might see that the secret to promoting a film is that there is no secret. Make as good a film as you can, spend as much time and money as you can afford, and be genuine and open in your dealings with those on the web. PR is just a lot of work. Although I guess if you’re friends with someone at Upworthy, you might have a little bit less work cut out for you.
In the three days leading up to the promotion of Shabbat Dinner, I slept four hours. It was wonderful work, but it was hard, grueling work. That, along with some decisions I made on the meditation retreat, have sent me in a slightly different direction moving forward. In 2014, I want to work collaboratively as much as possible, and solo as little as possible. It’s difficult to do with a big vision and no budget, but I prioritize being in something like this as a team so highly. There’s nothing like sharing a workload, a passion, and the joy of seeing people engage with work.
I’ve also decided to release my next short film, Lily in the Grinder, primarily online, not relying on festival distribution to get the film out there. It’s remarkable that in 50+ film festivals, about 4,000 people saw the film, and we added 10x that number in just two weeks. Thanks all for being a part of this ride, and I’m excited to see what comes next! <3 Mike