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Auteur? Shop your movie to the ‘soc-net’ set

Indie filmmakers plug into Web’s social networking sites to find finance, distribution, and feedback.

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The sites then facilitate huddled interaction between production crews and Internet supporters. Film devotees can rate their enthusiasm for projects, offer feedback, and promote the project virally with bumper sticker-like widgets across the Web. In turn, directors are able to winch up support for their project by blogging about each stage of production and sending private messages to contributors. Indiegogo even encourages filmmakers to offer PBS-style fundraising perks such as signed DVDs or private screenings with directors.

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For filmmakers, these niche social networks are a key part of a wider presence on the Web. As Indiegogo cofounder Slava Rubin explains, “You can have your own site, you can have a MySpace site, you can have a Facebook site, you can have a YouTube site, and all of these different sites that you’re using as a multi-platform promotional campaign, you can link one place on Indiegogo. It’s like a one-stop shop for everything about your project.”
If anything, these social networks could boost the one sector of the film industry that most needs help: small documentaries.

On Indiegogo, “Tapestries of Hope,” a documentary about the Zimbabwean urban myth that sex with a virgin can cure AIDS, has raised over $22,000. Filmmaker Michealene Cristini Risley has connected with activists concerned about sexual abuse by blogging about her experiences, which include being arrested and detained in Africa for filming without a journalist’s permit. “[The documentary] goes after that niche audience that is aware of the issue, that is somewhat socially conscious,” says Anand Chandrasekaran, one of the film’s producers.

But that fundraising model won’t work for someone making a documentary about, say, Tiddlywinks competitors. Documentaries that aren’t about controversial subjects may suffer, observes Dade Hayes, assistant managing editor of Variety entertainment magazine. “What about ‘Spellbound’ or ‘Grizzly Man’? Those don’t seem to have an obvious advocacy group.” Mr. Hayes also worries that Internet video, still in its infancy, is more geared to snacking on YouTube clips than sitting at a computer for a 90-minute film.

But Lance Weiler, founder of the cutting-edge social network From Here to Awesome, believes nontraditional distribution outlets can work. His site allows visitors to view movie trailers and then rank the films by interest. The most popular entries are then screened during an unusual film festival that melds offline conference talks with screenings over a variety of platforms, including Netflix, Amazon’s Unboxed, and Hulu. “The festival will be everywhere on the 26th [of July] because it will be in certain theatrical venues,” says Mr. Weiler. “It will be online; it’ll be in living rooms; and, in some instances, it’ll be based on mobile devices.”

For Zielonka-Packer, a traditional theatrical release would be ideal for “The Lilliput.” In the meantime, she’ll keep her core band of online supporters posted on further developments as she prepares for next year’s shoot. “The fact that Indiegogo reaches back out to the community and lets everyone know when you’ve succeeded is very heartening,” she says, “and makes it exciting for the people who participate.”

[Editor's note: The original version misstated that Anand Chandrasekaran is the producer of "Tapestries of Hope." He is one of the producers.]