“Building an Audience and a Creative Career in the Digital Age” with Scott Kirsner

FACT, Liverpool, 27 Jan 2010, 10am – 4pm , organised by Northwest Vision & Media

About two and a half years ago I was at a NWV&M event at Fact which focused on independent feature filmmaking. In fact I was a member of one of the panels and spoke at the event. It was held in FACT’s large cinema and the event was packed.

Since then interest in low/no-budget independent cinema has been growing exponentially, and all the talk is about ‘new distribution models’ through which filmmakers seek to connect with their audiences, utilise the power of the internet, cut out ranks of middle-men and (in some cases) actually make some money.

American journalist, Scott Kirsner, has quite a reputation as a commentator on these developments, and he’s best known for his book, “Fans, Friends and Followers”. Attendance at the event was free, but you had to reserve tickets – and, hardly surprisingly, they’d all gone almost as soon as the event was announced.

So I arrived at FACT full of anticipation. And I was particularly looking forwards to bumping into many old friends. I had to get my skates on too as I was ten minutes late.

But where was everybody? A few people were hanging around in the foyer, helping themselves to NWV&M’s free coffee and biscuits, or looking at the floor. Just what was going on?

We then were ushered into some side room. Quite large and capable of holding a decent number if it wasn’t full of regimented rows of identical maroon-coloured sofas. I kid you not. What was this, some storeroom for a particularly unpopular model from DFS?

OK, so it did have a large projection screen and a lectern, but no microphones or PA., which meant that NWV&Ms introduction by Lynn Kelly, their  ‘Head of Skills’, bumbled away somewhere in the background for a few minutes whilst I was looking around and seeing a few HD camcorders set up to record the event. “But no one’s got a mic on!” I thought, “Who is responsible for this display of incompetence?”

Scott did his standard powerpoint presentation. At least he was well used to addressing audiences, had an engaging manner, and did know that, under these circumstances, you had to speak up. I’ll return to what he had to say in a minute.

Scott was followed by Krishna Stott and Enda Carey. Someone probably introduced them, but I didn’t catch what they had to say. Krishna looked as if he’d been called that because his parents had lived in a commune. Neither he nor Enda stood up. After a while they stopped mumbling and it was time for our free lunch.

The afternoon was supposed to be devoted to helping people formulate new media-based ‘plans of action’. It was ‘facilitated’ by Krishna. At least he stood up, but beyond his repeating Scott Krisner’s list of key points, he didn’t seem to have anything to say. Still, Scott was still there with his laptop connected to the digital projector, and at one moment he opened up Krishna’s site – www.bellyfeel.co.uk, which describes itself as ‘compelling interactive entertainment’. It turned out that Scott has had success making pop videos and the like; but other than getting him an Arts Council grant, ‘bellyfeel’ seemed to have hardly found an audience, let alone any ‘Fans or Friends’. In point of fact Krishna ended up confessing that he hoped he might be able to sell some of the content to kids TV… You could go and see for yourself by clicking the link, but I don’t like to be cruel.

The thing is, Mark Ashmore and Jenny Inchbald of Future Artists were there in the audience. They regularly speak at and organise events around this sort of stuff – and they do it miles better than this yet another example of NWV&M incompetence. Obviously I have nothing against Krishna and wish him every success, but just why did NWV&M put him in such a position in the first place? Have they no idea about what’s going on?

Still, back to Scott. There’s a few things that you need to bear in mind: the USA is a vastly bigger market, filmmakers can release films ‘unrated’, if you don’t want what you’re watching interrupted every five minutes by adverts (or to see any intelligent factual material) you have to pay, and people give more to charity.

Social networking, etc, is growing like wildfire. But when it comes to audio-visual material the market is still absolutely dominated by DVDs. Selling DVDs from your own site means you get most of the money, but shifting 1,000 copies this way adds up to a major achievement. By way of contrast “The Football Factory” has sold over 600,000 copies through High St shops. Drama, even when it’s micro-budget, still costs money to produce, and it’s only things like the Finnish sensation, Star Wreck, that’s generated decent incomes for its rights owners – and that’s because most of the SX content has been provided free by legions of enthusiastic hobbyists.

Documentary/factual material is another matter. It is possible to operate as a one person HD crew, and you don’t have to pay the people you film, you just have to get them to sign release forms. And there is money to be made selling to niche markets: fishing (that’s a major hobby), antique aircraft, religion, UFO’s, conspiracy theories, classic cars, all of these are communities easily reached via countless websites where you can advertise your DVDs. Your DVD on old Porsche sports cars might well be classed as ‘automotive porn’ – and it damn well should be if you hope to make money – but you do have the benefit of not having to give the BBFC £1,000 before you can legally sell it.

Maybe you’re less commercial? You can always make your material available as free downloads and invite donations (in the hope that you may build enough traffic to start selling DVDs) – but the word that’s comes to mind here is ‘busking’. Other strategies, such as asking people to give you money to (maybe) make a film might be called ‘crowd-sourcing’, but I can’t get the word ‘begging’ out of my head.

Sure, all of this building relationships with audiences and so on is important, and will become more so. But I can’t help wondering if the UKFC’s current focus on ‘The Digital Economy’ is little more than a smokescreen – a way of going, “So what if Hollywood completely dominates our cinema screens and our High St DVD retailers? We don’t have to do anything about challenging any of that. No, we can run digital economy workshops instead”.


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One Response to ““Building an Audience and a Creative Career in the Digital Age” with Scott Kirsner”

  1. Luci Temple Says:

    Hi Jonathan,

    Interesting post, shame the event wasn’t better run.

    Maybe it wasn’t explained very well (though I understand your cynicism considering bellyfeel), but digital distribution and social media needn’t be about busking or begging.

    If you look at a film like Age of Stupid or StarWreck you can see that some audiences like to be involved in the process, whether it be by donating, investing, designing posters, voting on production choices, seeing behind-the-scenes as it happens, and what not. What you’re selling in this situation isn’t simply the film, it’s a participatory experience. A small core fanbase will be happy to purchase this premium experience, and help spread the word to the larger less-committed audience.

    And this core fan base may well stay with you beyond the one film – such as how StarWreck has had their community follow to support their next film Iron Sky http://yetanotherstrugglingwriter.blogspot.com/2010/06/iron-sky-crowdsourcing.html

    Nobody is saying you shouldn’t still sell dvds through High st shops, but rather that you should maximise your reach by distributing it in a number of ways – via the internet anyone in the world can watch your film, while they can’t if they need a physical copy that simply hasn’t been made available in their territory.

    Further, by purchasing direct from you (or Amazon etc) a greater proportion of that price comes back to the filmmaker than the traditional route. Don’t know what it’s like in the UK, but only about $5 out of $30 comes back from a shop sale, whereas via Amazon it would be more like $21 (not including DVD production cost). And digital downloads have next to zero production/distribution cost, which allows a low sales price, and people are more likely to give it a try for a couple dollars where they wouldn’t be inclined to fork out $30 for the dvd.

    And social media is a hell of a lot cheaper than advertising, so it’s really the best option for indie films that don’t have the multimillion dollar budget that hollywood does.

    If it makes you feel any better, we’re having the same conversations in Australia – and from where I’m standing, the British film industry looks a a lot more healthy than ours!

    all the best 🙂

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