If you watched Banksy's street-art film Exit Through the Gift Shop, a finalist at last week's Oscars, you might have been the unwitting subject of a social-media experiment. At U.S. movie theatres where the film opened last April, people who "checked in" on the social-networking site Foursquare could unlock a secret "Banksy badge" to add to their array of Foursquare trophies.
People who got the badge told their friends, giving them a spur to go to screenings too instead of just queueing up the film on Netflix. In addition, "curated" pre-release screenings to hand-picked audiences created a buzz before the movie even came out. Marc Schiller, CEO of Electric Artists, which handled the social-media strategy, believes all this made for bigger audiences at the openings. That in turn helped Exit -- after opening at just eight theatres and making a measly $171,000 in its first weekend -- get more theatre bookings; it eventually grossed over $3 million, pretty big money for a documentary. The wider distribution then drove DVD sales. The idea, says Schiller, was to create a "constant virtuous cycle of amplification."
But if all that sounds like sophisticated social-media wizardry, it's not. Such techniques just skim the surface of the kinds of tricks independent film-makers can -- and, increasingly, must -- pull to get their films noticed, or even made in the first place.
It's a cliché that technology is transforming everything, but for film-makers it has truly turned the world upside down. On the plus side, you can now shoot and edit decent-looking films with equipment that costs a hundredth of what it did a few years ago. You can get the film out independently on YouTube, Hulu, Netflix, iTunes and other online channels. And instead of begging investors or writing endless grant proposals, you can raise money through crowd-funding sites like Kickstarter.com.
The drawback? Navigating this new world is fiendishly complex, and because it's accessible to everyone, you've got competition like you never had it before.
Peter Broderick, a consultant on digital distribution, wrote a useful ten-point guide to the difference between the old and new worlds in 2008. It boils down to this: in the old world, you (or rather your distributor, assuming you were lucky enough to find one) did mass, one-size-fits-all advertising, hoping it would reach enough of the people who might want to see your film. In the new world, you take a targeted, customized approach --i dentifying your core audience, figuring out ways to appeal specifically to them, building up a fan base, and using them to spread the word.
It can be all-consuming. In 2005 Susan Buice and Arin Crumley, two young artists, made Four-Eyed Monsters, a film about their burgeoning relationship. As they describe in this talk, after failing to get a distribution deal at the Slamdance film festival (a parallel event to Sundance), they started making video podcasts about their struggle to market the film. They got fans of the podcast to enter their zip codes on a website, and emailed them when there were screenings in their neighbourhoods. Then they got people to request screenings via the site, and used those requests to convince more theatres. That led to some small awards, a Valentine's Day show in 31 cities, and a screening in Second Life. Still $100,000 in debt, they took a gamble and put the whole film on YouTube for free. Spout.com, a movie-fan website, agreed to pay them a dollar for every viewer who registered for Spout after watching a short ad at the start of the film. The exposure -- 1.3 million views to date -- also got them a broadcast and DVD deal that cleared the debt and made them a small profit.
They succeeded -- if working your butt off for over two years for a few tens of thousands of dollars can be called success -- because they learned how to find and rally the young, idealistic people who would not only watch, but go out and evangelise for a film about one young couple's beautiful, quirky love story. But it was a slog. And right now, every filmmaker must beat his or her own path.
The makers of Iron Sky, a science-fiction comedy now being filmed about a Nazi space base on the dark side of the moon (honestly), have been raising funding and recruiting future viewers through things that usually happen after a film, not before: "making-of" videos, merchandise, a request-a-screening site. They have even asked people to contribute footage or volunteer as extras. I Am I, about a young woman's relationship with her mentally ill father, exceeded its $100,000 target for funding on Kickstarter last month and plans to start production in the summer. Franny Armstrong, a documentary-maker (Drowned Out, McLibel), turned her climate-catastrophe movie The Age of Stupid into a rallying point for green activists, with not a little help from its star narrator, the late Pete Postlethwaite.
Brian Chirls, who helped Crumley and Buice on the strategy for Four-Eyed Monsters, believes filmmakers will have to embrace this all-fronts approach. "It's like being a chef and restaurant," he says. "Maybe you make rack of lamb, and that's your art, but you're still going to concern yourself with the salad and the plates and the lighting and the décor."
Sandi Dubowski, director of Trembling Before God, concurs. "We also need to think in terms of multiple media," he says. "You could make a feature-length doc, but also a 1-2 minute version that lives on smartphones so people can use your film when they're doing a national lobbying day in Congress to create policy change. Or when they're campaigning door-to-door."
The good news is, it won't always be this hard. The lessons these trailblazers have learned are spreading; systems are emerging. Last year Crumley and Kieran Masterton set up OpenIndie.com, an online platform that gives film-makers many of the tools Crumley and Buice used to raise an audience, much like Kickstarter provides a platform for raising funding. Lance Weiler (Head Trauma, The Last Broadcast) has set up the Workbook Project, an online resource center where film-makers share their trial-and-error experiences. Last November Broderick, the digital consultant, and Scott Kirsner, an author on tech innovation, hosted the second Distribution U., a one-day crash course on audience-building, in Los Angeles. The Good Pitch, where Dubowski is outreach director, holds events where film-makers can meet all manner of potential partners, such as philanthropists, distributors, NGOs, and big commercial brands.
The last couple of months have also brought three pieces of good news for documentary-makers in particular. We launched The Economist Film Project, a partnership with PBS to encourage the kinds of documentaries that, like The Economist, try to make the world a more comprehensible place. Submit your completed documentary, and if we like it (some guidance on what we like is here), we'll give you the money to create a 6-8 minute edit that will air on PBS NewsHour. Also, the Ford Foundation has launched a $50m documentary fund, JustFilms. And apparently a lady called Oprah something has started a TV network. Among other things, she says, it plans to do the "same thing for documentaries that I did for books." Whatever that was.
Follow Gideon Lichfield on Twitter: www.twitter.com/glichfield