Social Networks and Filmmaking

I recently had opportunity to hear film writer, director, producer and all around independent spirit Lance Weiler talk in Berlin about how social networking can help independent films compete.

Weiler made his first film The Last Broadcast for under a thousand dollars and thought it ridiculous to spend thousands of dollars more just to transfer his digital movie onto film stock for distribution. He along with then partner Stefan Avalos became the first to distribute a movie digitally.

His social networking breakthrough came as he sought to release an alternative soundtrack for this next movie Head Trauma. He decided to take the alternate soundtrack on the road combining it with theatre, gaming and technology into what he calls a Cinema Alternative Reality Game.

Instead of just using traditional marketing and advertising to reach his film’s audience, Weiler’s idea is to use the movie’s story to build trans-media franchises that promote – and just as importantly – fund each other.

As he explained it, the idea is to start out with a plot or a story world with interesting characters and settings. These basic creative artefacts are then broadened through the creation of a backstory, parallel storylines, alternate perspectives, and integrating audiences and social adaptations. In the end not only a feature film is made but interactive comics, potential media series, and mobile and live events, many of which are themselves money-making ventures.

Instead of traditional publicity and advertising, social networks are used to build audience for each phase of the franchise. Weiler for example produced short episode material that would be put on other people’s websites, a form of „crowd sourcing“ he says builds story and adds promotional value.

In the case of his horror film Head Trauma, the film itself was the main attraction. Prior to screening the film in any location, a cryptic online comic book would be distributed. With information provided by users of this promotional comic book, interested potential film audience members would receive text messages and cell phone calls that provide clues for Head Trauma-related games, thus whetting audience appetite for the online game as well as the movie.

Moviegoers immediately prior to screening are plied with hidden clues scattered throughout the cinema area, through for example ringing payphones and the physical presence of characters from the film. In some screenings the music track is removed and DJs and live musicians perform the soundtrack live, providing added value for the overall experience.

A further innovation is that audience members are asked to keep their cell phones ON during screening in order to receive calls and text messages relevant to the film’s storyline. This all began in 2004, and I’m sure Twitter and the latest mobile technologies have been added to Weiler’s business model.

The experience continues after the movie ends, with calls and text messages leading audience members to a series of online hidden game clues and sites that expand the story. Viewers can even contribute to the story and remix video online.

A quick check on the internet reveals mixed reviews at best for Weiler’s movies, but the fact of the matter is he’s making a living despite the ambiguous reviews. He says the money is in hitting niche audiences that appreciate his work. Questioning the viability of traditional theatrical releases for „truly“ independent films, he stresses the importance of controlling all his media rights – as opposed to the traditional step of trading them for cash – in a quickly changing environment.

Speaking to US business school Wharton, Weiler said „I want to string a narrative across multiple outlets – have these touch points and create a sensation where you feel tension or surprise. And you want to share that with someone else so you introduce them to it.“

Since starting, Weiler says he’s come to realise that with so much advertising vying for people’s attention, it is not the best products that rise to the top but the best advertised. A way of getting around this is to engage the audience more directly.