Facebook Was Vital For Indie Filmmakers. Now Their Followers Are Held Hostage, and the Ransom Keeps Changing

IndieWire investigates the role the social media platform plays in independent creators building a community. The results aren't pretty.
Mark Zuckerberg Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg delivers the keynote address at the f8 Facebook Developer Conference in San Francisco. Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, are donating $25 million to the CDC Foundation to help address the Ebola epidemic, the foundation saidZuckerberg Donation, San Francisco, USA
Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook CEO
Ben Margot/AP/REX/Shutterstock

When Qasim Basir made his 2010 debut feature, “Mooz-lum,” the story of an American Muslim going to college in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Facebook changed the trajectory of his filmmaking career.

“It was a very difficult movie to get out,” said Basir. “It wasn’t about terrorism, [but] it still received a great amount of opposition and hate.” He turned to Facebook, writing individually to his followers and asking for help in building awareness. Sharing behind-the-scenes footage and telling his personal story, Basir quickly built a community around his “Mooz-lum” Facebook page.

“We went straight to the people and built a community of 100,000 from around the world, who were literally writing, ‘We want to see this movie in our city,'” said Basir. Running contests on the now-defunct Demandit, where followers’ interest dictated where the film screened, Basir worked with AMC Independent to create his own theatrical release in dozens of cities around the world. VOD and Starz home video distribution deals followed.

“Mooz-lum”Ian Dudley/Peace Film

Until recently, indie filmmakers viewed building a Facebook community as essential to success. That’s a belief they’d like to maintain — but it’s now extremely difficult without an ad buy. And while there are other social media platforms, Facebook has 2.2 billion monthly users and a unique ability to combine visuals, text, links and two-way conversations with followers. For now, that’s an audience reach and level of engagement that can’t be duplicated.

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“I Believe in Unicorns” director Leah Meyerhoff used Facebook from pre-production to get female teenagers involved in key creative decisions, ranging from casting to wardrobe. Not only did that give the film authenticity, but it also attracted more than 100,000 followers whom she could effectively mobilize.

“Facebook became a really useful tool for finding that 14-year-old girl living in a small town in Idaho who wasn’t going to see my indie film play at any festival or theater,” she said. “Rather than having to wait two years for it to show up on Netflix or iTunes, she was able to engage with the process of it through Facebook.”

In 2018, that’s virtually impossible.

Natalia Dyer in "I Believe In Unicorns"
Natalia Dyer in “I Believe In Unicorns”

“That was when you could leverage a community on Facebook,” said Frederick Joseph, the marketing consultant who created #BlackPantherChallenge and founded the creative agency We Have Stories, a nonprofit designed to help diverse artistic voices find their audience. “Now Facebook is not vital unless you have an ad budget.”

This trend isn’t new; Facebook first announced its reemphasis on “friends and family” three years ago, when Facebook first started to “throttle” fan and community pages for nonprofits, films, and other organizations. In the wake of Donald Trump’s election victory and the controversies over “fake news,” Facebook has noticeably tightened the spigot. Today, Facebook film and nonprofit pages are virtually cut off from their followers, with independent filmmakers forced to pay to “boost” posts to reach the followers they once reached organically through likes and shares.

Facebook would not comment on the record for this article about how changes to its algorithm had lessened the reach of public pages for films, filmmakers and non-profit organizations.

When Basir met filmmaker Nijla Mumin and saw her film “Jinn” — the story of a teenage girl whose life is turned upside down when her mother converts to Islam — he instantly knew his “Mooz-lum” followers would want to know about it. But when he posted about its SXSW premiere a few weeks ago, it reached just one percent of his audience.

By contrast, the Sundance 2018 premiere of  his third film, “A Boy. A Girl. A Dream: Love on Election Night,” reached an enormous audience — but that’s because the film was part of a Facebook partnership with The Blackhouse Foundation that was designed to elevate diverse voices at the festival. It’s an example of how Facebook re-opens the taps for independent filmmakers in partnerships with companies like IFC (“The Cured”) and Magnolia (“In the Fade”), while charging filmmakers to reach the followers they organically attracted.

“The partnership reach at Sundance was incredible, but we should not lose the audience we worked to build,” Basir said. “People signed up to hear from us, and all of a sudden Facebook is deciding who’d hear from us. It used to be all I had to do was post something good. Now I put up something, they immediately say, ‘$20 to get this to 5,000 more people’, but I have 100,000 [followers]. Why isn’t it going to those people, anyway? What am I starting over?”

Rooftop Films Screening
Rooftop Films screening

Rooftop Films’ artistic director Dan Nuxoll is all too familiar with Facebook’s bait and switch. As a grassroots non-profit and vital early supporter of filmmakers like Benh Zeitlin and Gillian Robespierre, the 21-year-old Rooftop holds dozens of sold-out outdoor screenings each year throughout New York. However, Nuxoll has seen Rooftop’s Facebook reach decline by 95 percent.

“Facebook said they want to focus more on friends and family, but this idea that they are doing something good is bullshit,” said Nuxoll. “They are taking our audience hostage and making us pay to reach them.”

According to Nuxoll, Rooftop (47,000 Facebook followers) once relied on a Facebook post reaching 5,000 to 10,000 followers, which could result in selling upward of 500 tickets. Now, even when the non-profit does pay Facebook to boost a post, he doesn’t reliably reach his followers at the same rate.

“I don’t want their algorithm,” he said. “I don’t want to spam people’s feeds that don’t follow Rooftop. The beauty of Facebook was we followed the people or organizations we wanted updates from. I never felt like we were spamming our followers, who obviously sign up because they want to know about our upcoming events, but also like and share our posts which celebrate and support smaller indie films and filmmakers.”

Nuxoll said he would be happy to pay a set fee just to have Rooftop’s old Facebook back, but the current system contains tremendous cost inefficiencies thanks to inconsistency of Facebook’s ever-changing algorithm.

“Look, this is my job, I have a staff, we adjusted and found ways around this, and are doing fine,” said Nuxoll. “But people need to realize this is affecting every type of group with a page — indie films, filmmakers, bands, school PTAs, the local soup kitchen. Everyone is being asked to compete with giant corporations for what is essentially ad space. That’s not the Facebook we all became dependent on to build our communities.”

Mark Zuckerberg Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg during the keynote address at the F8 Facebook Developer Conference, in San Francisco. Facebook says people who use its Messenger chat service will soon be able to order flowers, request news articles and talk with businesses by sending them direct text messages. At its annual conference for software developers, Zuckerberg said the company is releasing new tools that businesses can use to build "chat bots," or programs that talk to customers in conversational languageFacebook Conference, San Francisco, USA
Mark Zuckerberg Facebook CEOEric Risberg/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Non-profit organizations like the IFP and Sundance, crowdfunding advisors, consultants, and publicists who work with filmmakers all say they notice the Facebook shift, but many advise filmmakers to adjust. Social media consultant Dor Dotson tells her clients that as the rules of the game change rapidly, filmmakers need to protect themselves by leveraging in-person relationships, maintaining an email list, diversifying platforms, and experimenting with micro-targeting in the manner of corporations and political campaigns.

“There is a scrapbook-like element and a level of engagement with a Facebook post that is not repeatable on other platforms,” said Amy Dotson, IFP’s deputy director and head of programming. “And for many filmmakers, Facebook is where their social-media roots are in terms of friends, family, and early supporters. Those people can’t always be migrated to other platforms.”

When it comes to actual distribution, many also agree that Facebook can’t be ignored. Chris Horton, who spearheads the Sundance Institute’s efforts make self-distribution viable for indie filmmakers, said he continues to find Facebook essential.

“Facebook’s tools are powerful and efficient at targeting specific people at specific times,” wrote Horton. “Independent films are highly specialized in terms of their audiences and distribution patterns, and need equally specialized tools to reach their audiences. Social networks, especially Facebook, are sometimes the only ways that smaller distributors, let alone independent content creators, have to reach and cultivate potential audiences with paid ads and community management.”

For her part, Meyerhoff is deeply conflicted. She is also the co-founder of Film Fatales, a group that began as a six-person dinner party and is now a powerful 500-plus female filmmaker collective that spans dozens of cities. While the group has in-person meetings once a month, Meyerhoff says the real community happens in their private Facebook group where women help each other with finding work, crew, or even just a ride from the airport.

“Some of our filmmakers are really upset [about the Cambridge Analytica], but most are taking a wait-and-see approach to see how Facebook responds, while also trying to move some things over to other platforms,” said Meyerhoff. “And that’s the irony, isn’t it? We are having the discussion about leaving Facebook on Facebook.”

Frederick Joseph with kids from The Boys & Girls Club in Harlem
Frederick Joseph with kids from The Boys & Girls Club in Harlem where he started The Black Panther ChallengeJoseph's instragram page

Many are deeply skeptical that Facebook can still be used to build a grassroots community. “Facebook changes their algorithm so often you have to pay someone, or you’ll never stay ahead of the curve,” said Joseph. “If I stepped away for a year, I wouldn’t know how to use [Facebook effectively] and I do this for a living, versus Twitter, which is just about audience and content. There’s an algorithm there, too, but it’s really about tracking when you get the most traffic, impressions — it’s all very simple.”

Joseph said Twitter excels in working with influencers to help them navigate the platform and find best practices. He spread #BlackPantherChallenge by spending his time cultivating and targeting key influencers like ESPN’s Jemele Hill, activist DeRay Mckesson, and popular athletes who, to spread the word, simply had to retweet. (Many did more than that.)

Producer Dan Schoenbrun, Kickstarter’s former outreach guru for filmmakers, said Facebook has become almost useless for up-and-coming artists. “[It’s] difficult for emerging artists without corporate ties or deep pockets to reach an audience [on Facebook],” wrote Schoenbrun. “Facebook’s entire business model is predicated on creating an increasingly monetized barrier between you and your audience.”

For most filmmakers, trying to get noticed begins with a short film. Jason Sondhi, the first curator hired by Vimeo’s Staff Picks and the founder of Short of the Week, has been an industry leader in connecting festival-quality shorts with an online audience. He became intrigued by Facebook’s big video play after Shant Hamassian published his short, “Night of the Slasher,” to the native Facebook player and received 150,000 views.

Sondhi took a serious look at moving Short of the Week content to Facebook’s native player. However, Sondhi came to two big conclusions. One, those effectively using Facebook’s video player had to put a tremendous amount of work into keeping up with trends, keywording, headlines, and A/B testing. Two, Facebook was unreliable.

“People were doing well when Facebook decided to prioritize video, but building a brand and community on top of assumptions is dangerous when the carpet can get pulled at any time,” said Sondhi. Ultimately, Sondhi decided he didn’t have the staff or stomach to ride the Facebook wave. Last month, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg confirmed the company recently deemphasized video shown in the News Feed. This led to a 5 percent drop in time spent on Facebook, but served the company’s larger mission of prioritizing social interactions.

Yet at the same time, Facebook believes video is the future of how creatives can connect and build an audiences on its platform. Specifically, in December the company announced videos “that connect people, spark conversation and build community” will appear more often in users’ feeds. Exactly what that means is unclear; by Facebook’s standards, that might include the nearly 300,000 views for Omar Epps’ Facebook Live promoting “Traffik” in Facebook’s Los Angeles headquarters.

Along with a promise that the company would share best practices and further insights of how to use video more effectively, the announcement put its heaviest emphasis on how new tools surrounding pre-roll ads and branded content were built so that partners could more effectively monetize video on Facebook.

“You realize Facebook is just constantly throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks,” said Sondhi. “I don’t know how an independent creative entity can produce enough engaging content, or have the time to compete on a platform that is both constantly changing and being overrun with brands.”

As Basir finalizes plans to release his third feature, he can’t help but have faith in the social media platform that meant so much to his career.

“You go through these moments of ‘Gosh, what is the cost-benefit analysis, is it harmful, is it good?'” said Basir. “From my assessment, it’s been far more good than not. I think we’re in that phase where we are working out the kinks, but it’s also important to remember how Facebook has changed everything.”

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