Film Fund-amentals: The DIY of Film Making

Hey kids, let’s put on a show! At least that’s the gist of the recent New York Times story on the surge in internet-based indie productions. Though the Gray Lady doesn’t quite utter the infamous Mickey Rooney line, she comes close.

It also means that the rapidly emerging field of small feisty productions going directly to YouTube and other online venues by indie filmmakers has now been officially noted (since The Times likes to think that it makes things official). Previously, it was an extremely major but unofficial movement. Since it’s already sort of post-modernist in concept, I give it about two more weeks before someone slaps the prefix Neo-something on it. Next year, it will be retro.

The idea is not new, since the internet indie distribution model partly evolved out of the old concept of public access cable television (back in the days when the FCC made public access mandatory rather than a mere suggestion for cable operators). But unlike the old days of public access, the online system has several distinct (and extremely advantageous) extras. Online systems such as YouTube have an international audience that surpasses any turnout that the public access system could muster. Likewise, the digital format has allowed some filmmakers to actually make money in the process.

In its article, The New York Times focused primarily on some of the major companies that have rapidly developed within the digital field (for example Maker Studios). These are mostly companies that have paved the way for a potential commercial process through either direct advertising (usually those annoying bits just before the film) or various production grants (such as the YouTube Partner Grants). The feature thriller Girl Walks Into a Bar was made exclusively for digital presentation (courtesy an advertising grant from Lexus), and since its YouTube debut on March 11 has attracted nearly half a million viewers.

But the majority of digital productions are infinitely more modest affairs. Some indie filmmakers are creating their own form of TV series (for example The Guild, which now has all three seasons on YouTube). Others are using the format to create so-called “mini-sodes” (a term coined by E. Charlton-Trujillo at his web site for the projected series Fallen) as a model for raising more funds for full production. Over at The Hero of Time web site, the oddball genre of fan production is being turned into a full-time profession. Even an established TV producer like Joss Whedon has had more success recently with his online series Dr. Horrible Sing-Along Blog than with his last couple commercial TV shows.

So yes, there is definitely a new venue out there. Of course, there’s the question of finding an audience. It’s a really big question. Internet distribution is a bit like jumping into the middle of the ocean with only the vague idea that if you keep paddling in one direction, you might just hit land. Many filmmakers are hoping to build a web presence by way of the social networking sites. Not a bad idea, but it requires more effort and planning than some folks realize. For many people, the social networking sites are just another part of the ocean. And by the way, that water is deep, and you just realized that you forgot to bring along a paddle.

It doesn’t hurt if you have a hook. The concept of search engine optimization comes in many forms and needs to be thoroughly studied before you precede with any online distribution plan. This needs to be developed in conjunction with a social networking strategy. Ideally, you want to create an extremely constructive approach to building a web presence. Over the past few years, I’ve taken a pretty half-baked approach to the process and I’m occasionally surprised by the half-baked but decent results. So I strongly suspect that a coherent effort will prove productive.

Likewise, cashing in on certain terms or names that are currently very Google-friendly can help. One of the people discussed in the Times is Lisa Donovan, who scored a hit for herself on YouTube with her Sarah Palin impersonation (though personally I thought that Lisa Nova‘s bit was better). Sure, you’re riding on someone’s coat tails, but so what, if it works. Also, a provocative name never hurts. I do some writing for an e-magazine called Naked Sunfish. Based on the stats from search engines, the word “naked” does wonders for the site (though I’m not sure why we were coming up on Google whenever people searched for “Nympho Georgian Housewives”).

Then there’s the model offered by the vast subculture of gamers. Seriously. You want to study what they do. They have all these sites out there. They spend large chunks of their waking hours roaming through these sites, sharing opinions, concerns, advice. OK, there’s actually a lot of sniping, gossiping and random diatribes, but what’s important is that they’ve created an extensive, interconnected world of shared interest. It’s not exactly a social network. It’s more like an obsession network.

This type of web universe exists way beyond the world of gamers. It covers many fields and topics (for example, I just discovered the curious world of “lap quilting” — heck, it’s legal and doesn’t involve dollar bills placed in a garter). You want to seek out these sites, engage with them and basically start promoting (just don’t be so heavy-handed that any person with half a brain will finally tell you to shove off).

None of these tips is guaranteed to get you out of the digital ocean. But with luck, you’ll discover a map that might just get you someplace dry.