Here’s How the Filmmakers behind ‘Terms and Conditions May Apply’ Had the Most Robust Film Screening Q&A of the Year

Here's How the Filmmakers behind 'Terms and Conditions May Apply' Had the Most Robust Film Screening Q&A of the Year

When Cullen Hoback, the director of the documentary “Terms and Conditions May Apply” finished his film, he knew he’d need to get it to the active Internet users that need to see it.  So, working with a few Internet privacy organizations, he and his team created an online screening room for the film.  And afterwards, the audience flew to reddit and engaged in a conversation that may be this year’s most robust film screening q&a.  The film explains to all users of the world’s most popular websites how their privacy is being violated, and how they all may be somehow implicated in the web of security and surveillance that now hangs over all of our internet use.  Here’s how they planned the screening that got them to the reddit home page, and that had over 2,500 people watching the film at once.

Doing a mass online screening for my documentary “Terms and Conditions May Apply” followed up by a town
hall was one of those ideas that could have totally blown up in our faces.
 Maybe people wouldn’t find out about it?  Maybe the box-office
system we developed would fail? Maybe people wouldn’t want to watch a film on
the Internet at a specific time because VOD has spoiled us all?

We kept coming back to one word: event. How do you make it an

Since it’s not a head-to-head matchup with two sports teams, or
Jon Stewart battling Glenn Beck in real time, we needed some other way to
persuade people to “tune-in at 5PM EST on a Sunday.”

With a film like “Terms And Conditions May Apply,”
a social issue doc that tackles how our privacy is disappearing click by
click, we’re dealing with a massive civil liberties nightmare.  As such, there are a strong list of
organizations who are active in the space like the ACLU, Demand Progress, and
Free Press.

The hope was to engage their social channels and push through
the mailing lists to drive a real-time, totally online event that had continuous
involvement followed by discussion.  In
the week leading up to the event, people were able to RSVP at the online venue.

We hoped the whole experience would combine the best of going
out to movie theaters with the comforts of viewing in a home environment.  And as any booker/festival programmer will
tell you, if you can have a Q&A session following the film you will fill
way more seats.  Our solution for making
this an event was a reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything), where we would have a panel of experts
alongside myself after the screening. 
But would this be enough?

So at 4PM EST the digital doors opened at  The first 3,000 people would get to watch for
free.  We never expected to hit 3,000,
but that was the deal we arranged with our distributor.  As people entered the room, they were
informed that their seat was saved, then invited to tell their friends.  At 5PM we rolled some privacy-related
trailers and special content.  Then the
main event… 

2,752 seats were filled. 
That’s one big digital theater!

And since the whole thing was online, we hoped that people would
want to discuss the film on Twitter in real-time. We setup the hashtag #TACMA
(acronym for Terms and Conditions May Apply); nothing too innovative
there.  But the brilliant folks at Demand
Progress who managed all the technical/design aspects had a Twitter feed
playing alongside the film, so people could see the active conversation.  The dialogue turned out to be way headier
than what you might see during, oh, say “The Voice.” There’s nothing like having your anger
vindicated by your fellow audience — after all, yelling in a theater “I
can’t believe how many people don’t care about this!” like @The_Bulge tweeted
would usually result in a chorus of shushes. 
Here you get retweets (240 total).

At the conclusion of the film, everyone was redirected to reddit
for the ‘town hall’ (check out the full transcript here). By pushing everyone to reddit, we were able to give users were a Q&A that
was in some ways an improved experience over what you would see at a festival.
On reddit, the audience got to determine which questions were most relevant and
should be answered through upvotes.  No more
endless diatribes from that one person in the audience when you pick
the wrong hand — they get downvoted to oblivion.  

After an hour and a half of answering questions, along with Ben
Wizner of the ACLU (and a legal advisor to Edward Snowden), and Tim Karr from
Free Press, I thanked everyone and went to dinner.  It was one of those rare moments when it felt
like everything had worked, and the time and energy had paid off.  But here’s the incredible part: our initial
audience had opened up the conversation to people who hadn’t even seen the film yet.

When I returned from
dinner, the conversation thread was still climbing.  I proceeded to answer more questions from
around the world for hours, and we eventually landed on the front page of
reddit in the #9 slot (which translated into 123,429 total page views and
54,599 unique page views).  There were
over 500 comments and nearly 10,000 people actively engaged discussing issues
prompted by the film!  Over on Twitter,
the conversation kept going and we could track that there were easily almost 3
million impressions for the film during that time frame of the screening and
reddit town hall session.

And these weren’t softball topics.  The top question we had responded to was:

With so many of us dependent/addicted to online services, do
you feel that demanding changes from the corporations would be more effective
than seeking legislative changes or is legislation the best way to restructure
what corporations are allowed to collect? –kdram

This discussion even resulted in a new activism campaign
surrounding a statement that Mark Zuckerberg says near the end of the film
when I approach him with cameras on his way to work, asking about privacy

“Are you recording?” Mark asks.

“Yes,” I say.

“Can you please not?” he requests.  

It was cool to see people taking on this issue themselves and
posting tweets around the hashtag #canyoupleasenot.  Thanks to fantastic
users of reddit, we now have plans to expand on that concept at our activism

In addition, we saw a spike in sales at our Vimeo OnDemand page,
where the film is available DRM-free.  We
prefer to direct people here for both the rights management, and because the
split is preferential to iTunes.

The whole event was different than anything TV programming could
offer — everything lived on the same screen and took advantage of many of the
tools that make the Internet great.  This worked particularly well for a
film about digital privacy, where the event itself had an ironic undertone: “Is
someone watching that I’m watching this? 
NSA, are you out there??”  That
said, I think the format could work for a whole host of films, especially those
that are issue-driven.  With a physical
screening, you are limited to the number of seats in the theaters.  With a new format screening like this, the
possibilities are limitless to engage an audience as wide as the Internet will
take you.

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