Last Friday, Boston-based nonprofit organization Filmmakers Collaborative hosted “Making Media Now: Thriving In A Changing Landscape,” a day-long series of panels and discussions at the Massachusetts School of Art and Design. The conference was an intimate affair, but attendees tackled big questions such as how to embrace disruption caused by new media and economic challenges and find new paths forward.
Here are the 7 top takeaways from the event:
Every project should have a Kickstarter page.
Project websites are so 2007. After Kickstarter came onto the scene and spurred a crowdfunding revolution, all media creators need to consider a Kickstarter site as a crucial starting point, both for funding and audience gathering.
Bill Lichtenstein, producer/director of “The American Revolution,” a documentary about a Boston radio station, advises filmmakers to have some donors in your back pocket to save for the last minute to push a project over its Kickstarter goal; he also suggests sending updates to donors to make them feel they’re a part of your campaign and targeting all web traffic to your fundraising page. And while Kickstarter projects aren’t anything new anymore, he suggests hiring a publicist to promote it.
“Digital turns dollars into pennies.” Be prepared for it.
At a panel titled, “Reframing Distribution: Times are a Changin’,” consultant Brian Newman spoke the above dictum, a terse assessment of the changing economies of scale in the new digital realm in which $10,000 advances become $100 royalty checks.
“We can no longer think about creating a revenue scenario that has the same amount of money, but drawn from different sources,” agreed Crowdstarter’s Paola Freccero. “When you add up iTunes, Cable VOD, et cetera, it doesn’t add up to what buyers used to pay upfront.”
Newman said the magic budget number for an independent project is $300,000, “unless the money is grant money that doesn’t need to be paid back,” he said. “You have to shoot on very little so that when you make little [money] back it’ll cover what little you spent.”
Create a demand.
Media makers should start marketing the minute they start a project. If they seek help from financiers and other supporters to get something off the ground, they should also ask for help when it’s complete to spread the word.
“Marketing is about creating demand,” said Freccero. “And if you don’t have something that has inherent demand, you need to create it. And I think the way you create demand is that you start giving it away for free. And the more people like it, the more people start talking about it.” While it may sound counterintuitive, Freccero says that once word gets out and people start asking for a project, “then you can start charging for it.”
There are not enough distributors, so be willing to experiment.
There are some 50,000 movies submitted to film festivals worldwide, according to Newman; there certainly aren’t that many conventional distribution slots. Filmmakers need to educate themselves on their options and be willing to experiment with a wide variety of distribution approaches, platforms and strategies. While traditional distributors and audiences are dwindling, some projects are particularly suited to nontraditional distribution, such as documentaries with clearly identifiable and reachable target audiences.
Create contexts for the emergence of the unexpected.
According to Jesse Shapins, co-creator of Zeega.org and associate director of Harvard’s metaLAB, successful media projects today should allow for a space where new and surprising elements can organically develop from them. Shapins cited Zeega’s website and broadcast series “Mapping Main Street” as an example, which not only produced radio segments for National Public Radio, but also allowed contributions from everyday readers.
Audience participation should be encouraged, but it is also authored.
Participatory culture strikes a delicate balance between audience involvement, but not to the point of utter chaos, according to Shapins. He advised media makers to “create structures for people to succeed in contributing” that go beyond simply adding a button on a website that says, “Share your story.”
For “Mapping Main Street,” the public was asked to contribute photos, videos and audio stories about their own Main Streets. But one has to be careful with crowdsourced projects. Creators have to create a simply designed and tightly controlled framework in which contributions will be part of the project, said Shapins. “There’s this idea that everyone is a great storyteller,” he said. “It’s total bullshit.”
Quality is the #1 driver
For a moment, forget marketing, budgets and participatory platforms. Remember: If it isn’t great, no one will want to see it. The ultimate leveler, quality separates the wheat from the chaff. Ultimately, it is still the most important aspect of creating a film, a documentary, a YouTube series or a transmedia project. It has to work. It has to be effective. And if it doesn’t, no amount of crowd-funding, audience aggregation or viral marketing will do a damn bit of good. Unless, of course, it has cats in funny costumes.