By Cullen Hoback | Indiewire November 21, 2013 at 3:16PM
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 event?
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 www.demandprogress.tv. 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 concerns:
"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
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.