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Festival Circus: Are Film Festivals On the Verge of a Social Media Revolution?

Festival Circus: Are Film Festivals On the Verge of a Social Media Revolution?

Certain years are watershed moments in film festival history: 1932, the year the world’s first festival was launched in Venice with the aggressive support of Mussolini’s Italian Fascists. 1946, the post-war launch of Cannes. 1951, West Berlin’s three occupying Western allies of the U.S., the U.K. and France helped create the first edition of the Berlinale, opening with Hitchcock’s “Rebecca.” 1968, when the May ’68 events in Paris triggered a filmmakers’ revolt in Cannes, and the creation of Directors Fortnight. 1969, start of FESPACO, the first major African festival in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. 1971, when American festivals began to get their mojo with the already existing San Francisco, Chicago and New York events along with the start of Filmex in Los Angeles and the USA Film Festival in Dallas. 1977, when Hong Kong kicked off its major festival as the start of a long-distance spurt of East Asian events. 1978, marking the launch of the Utah/US Film Festival in Salt Lake City, which soon became the Sundance Film Festival. 1999, marking the start of a vibrant film festival culture in South America with the starts of the Festival do Rio in Rio de Janeiro and BAFICI in Buenos Aires

Then jump forward, to 2009, when festivals got aboard Twitter.

Does this really rank with these other key datelines? At this point, there’s no question it does.

Before 2009, social media was in its infancy, revolving around email, Facebook — already developing a phalanx of haters — and a few other sites like the quickly fading, music-oriented MySpace.

With Twitter, which truly broke out into the mainstream that year (and when I and my festival colleagues either jumped on board or noticed that people were starting to regularly use it), something new happened. If you were working for a festival and had a Twitter account, you were suddenly a de-facto part of the festival’s publicity and marketing operation. A Facebook posting of the announcement of opening and closing night movies or of the first wave of a program was fine, but somewhat limited as it went out to your friends and maybe somewhat beyond that circle.

A tweet of these same events generated a different effect. It produced something exponential, first circulating through your web of followers, then instantly expanding with your followers’ followers, then their followers, and on and on, into an ever-expanding web. This was when I personally witnessed for the first time the true, tangible effects of social media.

Facebook, from a festival’s marketing standpoint, was walking. Twitter was sprinting.

Now, festivals are at the point of the next, potentially revolutionary phase of using social media to make the world — or at least their communities — aware that a festival is going on.

Filmmakers’ use of crowdfunding and crowdsourcing has been amply reported here at Indiewire and elsewhere, and even before these tools came into style, filmmakers noticed that tapping into a distinct community could draw out a previously under-appreciated audience for a movie. “Ulee’s Gold” presaged this in 1997, when distributor Orion Pictures came upon a national network of beekeepers — always a closely linked community — that formed an ideal, word-of-mouth audience for the fine drama about a Florida beekeeper played by Peter Fonda.

As Cinetic head John Sloss noted in his keynote speech in December at the International Film Festival Summit, the “Ulee’s Gold” template perfectly applies now to festivals deploying social media tools to find, link and drive their natural constituency to their screenings.

“Look, if a festival has the resources to do bombardment marketing, the way studios do with their movies, more power to them, I guess,” Sloss said in a recent conversation. “But how many festivals have that kind of money? I’m guessing not many, if any. The promise of social media, I think, is being able to identify your audience and marketing and appealing directly to them.”

The promise of festival social media outreach is obviously most tempting to those in smaller towns and cities where marketing budgets are likely slimmer and the target audience is more contained and potentially more engaged — more than big-city festival goers, who can be distracted by the million other things going on. It makes such discussions as I witnessed during festival organizing meetings — debates over how much should be invested in a street banner campaign — almost a relic of the past.

Take, for example, the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Missoula, Montana. It’s the definition of specific and contained: The programming focuses on non-fiction, the schedule is a single week (Feb. 15-23) and the audience is largely drawn from Missoula and the surrounding area. Missoula is too big for audience growth to be generated merely by small town-style word-of-mouth, yet small enough for social media to capture a significant crowd and possibly create serious mass awareness. Right now, Big Sky’s primary social media channels are Facebook and Twitter, which can theoretically do much of the work that far more expensive, pre-2009 (the festival started in 2003) marketing tools used to handle.

But that’s likely to change, both in Missoula and everywhere else.

The new tools that festivals are trying out, and witnessing being used by their audiences, include Tumblr, Snapchat and Vine. Just as individual festival staffers have previously gone to Twitter and Facebook to do their own bootstraps p.r., so Tumblr became these folks’ hot new outlet in 2013. At several festivals I attended last year, I caught programmers, festival directors and tech staff shooting out items on their Tumblr and Instagram accounts like I’ve never seen before.

Conversely, festival audiences and filmmaking guests are deploying Tumblr, Snapchat and Vine to record their memorable festival moments. They also just happen to be providing the festivals with publicity and marketing boosts without those festivals’ staffers lifting a finger.

“Several social media services really blew up in 2013,” said the American Film Institute’s digital content strategist Steve Pepdjonovic. Beyond the near-universal use of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube as well as a big uptick for Tumblr, he noted that an increasing number of festivals are using Instagram and Pinterest. Audiences tend now to be ahead of festivals in the use of Snapchat and Vine, although look for a likely Snapchat/Vine explosion at Sundance in a couple of weeks.

Who gets captured in a festival’s social media net, though, is another question. Maybe a festival skews young, but doesn’t have the kind of sustaining dollars found with older, deeper-pocketed crowds that have traditionally been bedrock constituencies for American festivals. (This, incidentally, tends to be one of the enormous differences between North American festival crowds and those elsewhere, which tend to skew far younger, whether in Europe, Latin America or Asia.) For these “younger” fests, social media outreach may just draw in more of the same crowd without expanding the demographic.

On the other hand — though this is inevitably changing too — these bedrock older audiences still tend to be less likely than younger generations to gather their cultural information from online sources and to fan the publicity flame by using smartphone apps like Tumblr. Sitting in some of these audiences in cinemas before screenings, you’ll still see a lot of newspapers being read.

Still, we may look back at 2014 and place this year in the list of key festival landmarks. Time, and several million clicks, will tell.

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