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

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

By , Staff Writer for The Christian Science Monitor

The pitch: a movie about a Jewish dwarf who survives the Nazi Holocaust by hiding in garbage cans. When director Minna Zielonka-Packer posted the idea on indiegogo.com, a social-networking site that connects independent filmmakers with cinema enthusiasts, the community helped raise $10,000 for the project.

While that figure would barely cover the cost of the Batmobile tires in “The Dark Knight,” it was a windfall for an indie filmmaker. Financing in hand, Ms. Zielonka-Packer flew to Eastern Europe, where she had previously made a documentary about children of Holocaust survivors returning to Poland, and filmed several scenes for her new film “The Lilliput,” which is based on a true story.

“I would have to credit indiegogo for being there at a time when we needed them to forklift us,” says the New Yorker, who was also awarded a Fulbright Scholar grant.

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Realistically, Internet fundraising will only subsidize a fraction of the $1.2 million feature – the early footage is designed to woo big financiers and distributors. But filmmakers such as Zielonka-Packer are discovering something musicians have known for years: Social networks can be dynamic tools for building a core audience. Even as established sites such as MySpace make fresh forays into the film industry, a host of social networks such as From Here to

Awesome, Indie Maverick, Indie Share, and Indiegogo have sprung up to help finance, market, and distribute indie films. For now, such sites may only have an impact at the margins. But their emergence underscores the degree to which independent filmmakers have to become wily entrepreneurs.

“Filmmakers are only a decade or so behind rock bands in the realization that they have to start developing a list or database for people who like their movies,” says Scott Kirsner, a journalist who writes a blog called cinematech. “The good news is that once you’ve built this audience, they might help fund your next movie à la Indiegogo, they might just buy the DVD, they might come out to a theater, they might tell their friends and help you market it. I think it can be really powerful once you have this direct connection with the audience.”

The minds behind MySpace seem to agree. In June, the nation’s most popular social network announced a project to empower its users to collaborate on a film adaptation of Paulo Coelho’s acclaimed novel “The Witch of Portobello.” (Clearly, it’s not aimed at fans of auteur filmmaking.) The project follows an audacious $2 million film called “Faintheart,” funded by the British arm of MySpace. The country’s MySpace users voted for the best story pitch by an unknown director, offered casting suggestions based on audition videos, suggested seven songs for the soundtrack, and weighed in on the script – even providing lines of dialogue. Mercifully, the thousands of participants stopped short of demanding screen credits on “Faintheart,” a comedy about battle reenactors, which gets a wide British theatrical release next month.

The new wave of filmmaker social-network sites have neither MySpace’s financial clout nor site traffic, though they hope to capitalize on similar fan enthusiasm. Indiegogo, Indie Shares, and Indie Maverick each offer variations on a basic formula: Filmmakers are invited to pitch a film; the online community votes for the ideas they like best; individual members are then invited to invest in the films, even if it’s just $10.

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.

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 ...to 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.]

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