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Give it away smart – Advice for film makers

September 22nd, 2006

I have a lot of friends who are filmmakers. I even worked briefly in that industry myself. Who knows, I might even get back into it.

I wrote this piece specifically for a magazine for documentary filmmakers, but I think the advice could be helpful to anyone who uses video to sell.

Give it away smart – Advice for filmmakers

Twelve years ago, I organized and sponsored the first conference on the
subject of the commercial potential of the World Wide Web.

Our sponsors and supporters included Pacific Bell, a then-obscure
twenty-person company called Netscape, the International Interactive
Communications Society – and  the National Alliance of Media Arts and

Why did I make a special effort to get independent film makers involved
in this formative effort to kick start the Internet revolution?

Two reasons:

1.  To me, independent non-fiction filmmakers are the truth tellers of our society.  The government? Please. The corporate owned news media? Hopeless. The educational system? Disappointing at best.

Folks like Barbara Kopple,  Barbara Trent, Robert Greenwald – and now Dylan Avery –  are my heroes.  We’d be a much poorer society without them.

2. I had the opportunity to experience the indie film business first hand as a partner to Bill Markle, a veteran cameraman and director who cut his teeth with the Maysles Brothers and went on in the late 1980s to pioneer digital audio sound design for the movies (Credits: "When We Were Kings" and "Like Water for Chocolate.")

Though I probably made less on an hourly basis from my involvement with that enterprise than anything I’ve ever done before for since, it was the most fun I ever had at "work" hands down.   

Back in that 1994 conference, I predicted that the Internet was going to become the best friend the independent filmmaker ever had and I laid out the beginnings of a method to make that vision real. 

Now twelve years later, I can offer a streamlined version: Run, don’t walk to embrace the new generation of video sharing web sites, especially Google Video and YouTube.

I can almost feel some filmmakers recoil at this suggestion. YouTube? You mean that ragtag collection of 15 second stupid dog tricks and lip synching  tweens.  Yes, I mean that very site.

Here’s why in a nutshell: There’s awesome promotional power there.

One of the reasons I was so early to the Internet party is that in addition to being a businessman, I’ve been a passionate student of the history of media.

The reality I’ve taken from what is now a twenty-plus year study of media is twofold: 1) media forms come and go and 2) most practitioners take years to adjust themselves to the new realities and in the process miss out on tremendous opportunities of the low-hanging fruit variety.

For example, there was a time, and it wasn’t that long ago in the scheme of things, when all books were hardcover. Initially, few booksellers and publishers could imagine the indignity of putting serious writing in paperback form. 

Hollywood’s legendary and incredibly foolish opposition to the VCR, to the point of trying to block its sale in the US, is another example of establishment minded folks not getting it.

So why YouTube and Google Video?

First, economy.

These companies – so far at least – will host and stream your films for free. 

For example, I put up a short seven minute excerpt of a film a friend made, did some very modest no-cost Internet-only promotion, and in less than a month generated 9,428 downloads (as of today.)  The quality of the presentation was fine. Call up one of the companies that specialize in hosting and streaming video and ask them for a quote for similar service. (UPDATE: I now have THREE documentary-style films that have had over 10,000 online viewers.)

Second, simplicity.

If you can follow simple instructions, you can start upload videos to these services as soon as you put down this magazine.  Open an account, open the upload page on the service’s web site, click on your video file, press upload and go get a cup of coffee.  It couldn’t be easier.

Third, viral potential.

Films succeed when people talk about them.  That’s the bottom line reality behind every successful film production that’s ever been. 

In the old world, starting a buzz for a film depended entirely on enrolling the media.  Press kits. Phone calls. Endless schmoozing.  There’s still a place for all this and it will never go out of style, but how about cutting out the middleman and going straight to the marketplace?

That’s what YouTube and Google Video allow you to do because not only do these sites make it easy for you to host and stream your videos, they make it easy for people to find and pass them along.

Got a trailer?

Don’t delay. Get that thing that cost you so much time and money out of the closet and put it up on Google and YouTube.

But think beyond the trailer too.

Dylan Avery gave away his 9/11 documentary "Loose Change"  which has already resulted in well over 5,000,000 downloads with more taking place every day. Not bad for a 22 year old kid.

Is putting your entire film on a free download site the right move for an established filmmaker?  Maybe, maybe not, but there is a middle ground: meaningful excerpts.

It’s funny. Hollywood spends millions to get its stars and starlets on Jay Leno to show excerpts of their newest films. Why don’t documentary filmmakers have excerpts of their movies on their web sites? Many do, of course, but a surprising number do it.

This is a screaming opportunity.

Excerpts can actually do a better job of selling a film than trailers.  Why? The principle of sampling and demonstration.

Gary Bencivenga, who is considered the most effective direct mail copywriter of the last thirty years, shared with me once that all the verbal and promotional fancy footwork in the world pales in comparison to a single powerful demonstration of the product at work – and that’s exactly what an film excerpt is.  In contrast, a trailer is an ad and no matter how well-crafted it is, viewers know it’s an ad and instinctively raise their skepticism reflexes to protect themselves. 

It’s true that when you give away meaningful excerpts of your films, you may give away part of the impact of the total film experience and the power of surprise, but consider this: if there’s no one in the seat to watch the film in the first place, what’s the point?

If you’re buying what I’m saying, here’s a simple action plan for you to follow:

1. Visit Google Video and YouTube today, use the search function and see how many of your far-sighted peers already get this.

2. Note all the things you can do to make your videos more findable in the search engines these video sharing services provide

3. Sign up for an account

4. Upload one juicy except of a film you want to promote

5. Mail a notice to your list of fans, colleagues and the press with the web address where the excerpt is being hosted.

6. Make sure your clip ends with an easy to read web address pointing viewers to your site.

7. If want to get sophisticated, become a member of one or more of the social computing networks like Digg and StumbleUpon and spread the word there. I once got over 10,000 visitors to a blog article I wrote in less than six hours from a standing start using this method.

In summary, the world is changing (again.) Video, once a scarce and precious commodity and hard to distribute, has transformed into a new animal.  These changes have opened new doors for the promotion of non-fiction films. Walk through them.  You won’t regret it.

Ken McCarthy

P.S. Do you want to be notified when new articles like this one are posted to the blog?

Ken McCarthy was one of the pioneers of the movement to commercialize
the Internet and was involved in early tests of what have become
Internet promotion mainstays like e-mail marketing, banner ads, and
pay-per-click advertising.  If you go to Google Video and search the
term "marketing,"  a short film about his work is often in the top ten,
if not the number #1.

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Copyright: Ken McCarthy, 2006

Reprint rights: You may reprint this article in full as long as you print it in it’s entirely including the P.S.


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  1. September 25th, 2006 at 16:34 | #1

    Nice post, Ken. I borrowed from it for a post for filmmakers, but I’m a filmmaker “wannabee” not an actual one.
    I was in awe about how the people I met at IFP genuinely wanted to get their films seen. For them, it wasn’t about the money either. Kinda sad that even a big Indie hit won’t cover the costs.

  2. Stephen Lahey
    October 11th, 2006 at 14:27 | #2

    I have attended The System Seminar and I have great respect for you. However, when you name Dylan Avery as one of your heroes I scratch my head and wonder – why? Yes, “Loose Change” is impressive if you judge it as a viral phenomenon. But, in my view, it’s also only slightly more reality-based than H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds.” It appears to me that Mr. Avery doesn’t care about the truth behind 9/11 – just about making a name for himself and inflicting the most damage possible on those with whom he disagrees.

  3. October 13th, 2006 at 11:38 | #3

    Well said Ken, and Hoo Ya for the Google Coo!
    I very much agree with the premise of sampling to attract prospective buyers, viewers, listeners etc.
    Sampling has worked for direct sales companies and eateries since Eve offered Adam a taste of “forbidden fruit”.
    This is also the beginning of the end of major label control of all indie artist as we’ve known it.
    The once enslaved independent artist are now freer than ever, and soon, only the consumer will decide who thrives.
    Thank you for the support.

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