Freelance writer Amanda Hirsch, former editorial director of PBS Interactive, blogs about documentaries and the Web in her column, Outside the Frame.
In his latest book, Fans, Friends and Followers, writer Scott Kirsner explores how a range of artists — filmmakers, comedians, writers and others — are using the Web to build an audience, and their careers. Kirsner, who writes the “Innovation Economy” column for The Boston Globe and edits the CinemaTech blog, focuses on two questions in particular: How do you cultivate a big audience for your work, and how do you leverage that audience to support your career financially?
And the man practices — well, if not quite “what he preaches,” then certainly that which his book explores. On his website, he’s executed a hybrid sales approach for his book that is very de rigueur: you can peruse the book’s table of contents, download a 35-page PDF sample or purchase the complete work in digital or paperback form.
I met Kirsner at South by Southwest back in March, where, appropriately enough, he moderated a panel on building audiences online. We caught up over email recently to talk about how the Web is changing the artist/audience relationship, embracing the Web as a creative medium and more. An edited transcript of our discussion follows.
Scott Kirsner: I was at the South by Southwest Film Festival in 2008. I couldn’t help noticing just how many fliers and postcards and posters were covering every surface of the Austin Convention Center. What was happening in the real world with fliers was happening in the digital world — a thousand times over. So many people were making films, and trying to promote them online, that the result was just noise. Everyone was complaining that it was impossible to stand out, and they were also frustrated that it seemed so difficult to make any money online. So I decided to find some of the filmmakers, musicians, writers and other artists who’d been grappling with those issues, and talk with them about their strategies. The result, hopefully, is a book that will be useful to creative people trying to find a way to keep doing the work they want to do — and get it seen by large audiences.
Since this is a blog about documentaries, I wonder: What’s the #1 thing you think documentary filmmakers need to know that you learned from the artists you interviewed?
I think the top thing would be that your audience is already hanging out somewhere online. Whatever topic your film is about, there are no doubt blogs, discussion groups, sites, online communities that attract people interested in that topic. So rather than thinking about how you can cultivate an audience from scratch around your film (and its website) — which is a huge effort — the best approach is to identify the places where people already congregate and make friends with the people who run those sites. (There are also free tools you can use to figure out which sites attract the most significant crowds. Read about them under the “Traffic and Analysis” section of this preview of my book.) Robert Greenwald got a lot of momentum around his political documentaries by aligning himself with MoveOn.org. Curt Ellis, Aaron Wolf, and Ian Cheney did it with King Corn, by building really strong relationships with the Slow Food Movement and a number of food and agriculture blogs. What Ellis told me when I interviewed him was, “We felt like our job was really just to engage the communities that already care about the issues in our movie. That’s a lot easier than trying to convince people to be interested in your film.”
A lot of the artists you interview emphasize how the Internet has changed their relationship with the audience. What are some of the most interesting examples of how filmmakers in particular are engaging with the audience in new ways online?
I think a handful of filmmakers working on the edge right now are exploring new avenues of participation and collaboration. As you’re researching your film, you should think about whether there are ways that the online community can help you find interview subjects, or important data points worth including in the film. Maybe they want to contribute video or images of their own, or remix footage that you’ve shot, as director Brett Gaylor invited people to do with his latest film, RiP: A Remix Manifesto. When the film is finished, people may get involved by organizing house parties — something producer/director Sandi DuBowski talks about in the book, with his film Trembling Before G-d. Basically, when you give people opportunities to get involved, they become truly part of your team — and they help spread the word further and wider than you ever could alone.
Your book makes it clear that there’s no “magic bullet,” a one-size-fits-all business model for artists online. And yet, the general consensus in most fields these days — the arts included — is that having a strong online presence is key, and that not having one puts you behind the times. If there’s no sure-fire business model, then what’s the primary argument for having a strong online presence?
I think the primary argument is that it’s the cheapest possible way to communicate, and build an audience for your work. Creating a digital connection with people interested in your current project — whether that’s a blog that you write, or an email list that you build, or a Facebook fan page you create — is the least-expensive (and most efficient) way to communicate with people about a DVD you have coming out, a TV broadcast or a festival screening of your film.
Out of everyone you talked to, who stands out as someone who is really embracing the Web as a creative medium onto itself, versus using the Web as a means of distribution or marketing?
You know, I’d probably pick one of the animators that I spoke to, as opposed to a documentary filmmaker. Maybe that doesn’t surprise you. But guys like Gregg and Evan Spiridellis, the co-founders of JibJab Media, really approach animation in a way that’s totally different from Disney or DreamWorks or Warner Bros. Their political and cultural satires are paced for the Web, art-directed for a small screen experience and just generally conceived so that they’ll go viral — you can’t help but want to tell other people about them.
But they’ve been at it for a while — a decade, really — so they have lots of experience with what works and what doesn’t. And they’ve been building a subscription model around their content pretty successfully, too, which they talk about in the book. They also talk about the importance of having a really tight feedback loop with the audience, and paying close attention to what resonates with people. My goal in talking to lots of different artists, like animators and musicians and comedians, is that everyone hopefully can learn from one another’s experiences.
Last but not least: What do you think about my “call to arms” for more multimedia documentaries? (You can be honest — it won’t hurt my feelings.)
You make a really important point in that post, which is that the challenge to storytellers right now is to figure out not only how to distribute and promote the old kinds of “product” they’ve been making for the past few decades (for instance, 60- or 90-minute documentaries). It’s to think about what new forms of storytelling can be done in the digital realm. That’s really what will lead to artistic and economic growth. There’s something I talk about in the book as “paying attention to shifting behaviors.” Basically, in the past three years, we’ve seen people starting to consume significant amounts of video on the Web (and on cell phones and iPods and other portable devices). To ignore that shift and say, “What we’re going to give those Web viewers is more of the same 60 or 90-minute docs we make for TV or cinemas” — well, that just seems to be ignoring a big sociological change, which is never a good thing.