Imagine you and your friend have smartphones, and are standing at a table facing each other. You hold up your phones’ cameras, and can see each other in the luxurious (if small) screen. Your friend walks to the left, you can see him/her walk to the left in your phone screen. Now imagine, looking into your phone, that there is another layer of reality there. A ping pong table. And when you move to the left your phone can hit a virtual ball, and you both see it bounce on the table in your screen and your friend moves to the right and hits it back. Welcome to aug-mented reality, cellphone style. Watch it here.
But there’s another form of augmented reality out there, and one much more relevant to film-makers. It’s the incessant chatter of tools like Twitter and Meebo. Let your imagination swing back to the ordinary. You’re on a panel and the whole audience can contribute to a running Twitter commentary on what you’re saying, projected in letters a foot high on a big screen right next to you. If they’re all saying "you suck" it might sound like a bad recurring dream. Welcome to SXSW Interac-tive.
Twitter is everywhere at the year’s biggest and best interactive conference. SXSWi is so big in fact that this year’s edition revealed the scalability cracks in some essential industry technologies—ATT (iPhone), wifi and Twitter. When so much is going on simultaneously Twitter can become a cacophony of simultaneous opinion to the point of breaking (the infamous "fail whale" that appears in such cir-cumstances has become a meme of its own). But if you sub-scribe to the right feed, rather than following a hashtag (a key word with # in front of it to loosely collect all Twitter messages around a thing, say, *#sxsw8) it can be the key to answering the ever present "where to next?" question. Each panel has a hashtag that allows you to pull up all tweets relevant to the panel you’re watching, and this is what gets projected. It’s surprising how well behaved people are when their messages appear in public. Fear of reprisal?
But how can you use these tools to augment the reality of your own film’s life?
Ladder of Engagement
Ugh. Just hearing those words makes my skin crawl. Anyone who uses the phrase "ladder of en-gagement" without a hint of irony is either trying to sell you something—usually their services—or has been to one too many marketing meetings. The codification of this kind of common sense idea seems like a shameless lingoistic ploy, straight from the PowerPoint playbook. All it trans-lates to is that it’s a good idea to nudge your audience along from passive information gatherers (visiting your film’s website) to active participants (buying the DVD, hosting events around your film, donating to your project). Saying it is easy, doing it is incredibly difficult. As my coworker Andy says (or at least his Twitter alterego, MrSkeleton does) let’s just call it the Elevator to Enchantment. It goes from passive (lobby) to obsessive (pent-house), via several less extreme floors.
The point is, give people little ways to get involved until you’ve turned them into active advo-cates of your work. Hook them in, bit by bit. Communicate with them. Despite what you hear on panels, it’s more easily said than done. But here are some very basic steps, for beginners only. In this over crowded digital world, start building your own crowd from the outset.
Many documentaries seek funding for production without considering the power of getting peo-ple involved very early on. The website should be budgeted in your pre-production costs. Before you start shooting, even if you don’t have funding, you should probably have at least some kind of a web page, a Twitter account and a Facebook page. Then when you continue to look for sup-port, funders will be impressed by your demonstrated work and dedication to community build-ing and marketing.
A person hears about your film somehow. The first thing they might do is Google your project. Your website comes up. Then they see they can follow you on Twitter or Facebook. During your production, you post notes and photos, possibly even videos, and tweet from the road. People get interested, they feel involved. Your project has begun having a narrative in the augmented world. When you leave, say, Africa, you leave a prepaid phone card with one of your more trustworthy experts/subjects. They tweet from Africa, they respond to your community’s questions. You post clips as you edit, you let the local members of your community in on test screenings. Your audi-ence posts links to your project on Facebook; they retweet (repost) your messages to their friends on Twitter. They embed your trailer. In a perfect world, they’re now on board.
Twitter, Facebook, Ning, the Very Basics
Once a technology merits a full page infographic in the New York Times, you can bet it’s finally hit the mainstream. Twitter is a great way to keep your audience informed about news, upcoming screenings and events around your film. At the very least, even if you don’t have a Twitter community, you can still use your Twitter RSS feed to feature your project’s lat-est news on your website. To do this in Twitter, click on your profile picture in the top right. This takes you to your Twitter profile page. Then click the link under your Following list that says "RSS feed of [yourfilmname]’s updates." Copy the URL it takes you to, and put it anywhere on your site or blog that allows you to display an RSS feed. Be sure to follow others and respond to them using @[username], and ReTweet. For help use this Twitter glos-sary.
You can also track the buzz around your project by searching for it on Twitter Search, or in your Twitter app of choice. We’ve just started follow-ing what people are saying about Link TV. This can also be turned into an RSS feed. If you aren’t online all that often, there are also tools out there like FutureT-weets that allow you to schedule your tweets in advance.
Start a Facebook page (not your personal page, but an official Page). That way, friends who want to hear up-dates on Facebook can opt in, and you won’t risk alienating your actual friends with ceaseless self promotion. The Pages platform on Facebook is slowly improving, and now Page status up-dates appear in your fans’ news feeds. You can set multiple users as administrators, and Face-book gives you some visitor stats—number of visits, demographics, etc. You can also use this profile to set up cheap ads for screenings, DVDs, etc, if you wish.
Once you’ve set up these accounts, be sure to feature links to your Facebook and Twitter pages on the home page of your website. If you want some little icons for those links, feel free to steal the ones on our home page, under Join Us Online.
Speaking of your website, if you don’t have a lot of money to build one, think about using Ning. Ning is a free online tool that allows you to create a website that is loaded with social networking features. You can post general information about your pro-ject, photos, videos, updates, links, RSS feeds and more, all with a customized look and feel (they have templates too). Check out the SXSW ning, to see it in ac-tion, and also take a look at the Ning Blog for a variety of examples. Ning sites include a blog feature that allows your community members to submit posts them-selves, but if you want more control you can either turn it off and use Notes instead, or only al-low administrator-accepted posts to appear. The same thing goes regarding videos and photos. The Ning platform is set up to promote community, so your members can also post photos and videos, but again, you can choose to only display items you’ve approved, or you can remove the feature and use other modules to post those items. Notes are a good technique for one way com-munication. But circumventing Ning’s community elements is going against the spirit of the site. The more people engage with your project, and invest themselves into it by posting related con-tent, etc, the closer they get to the penthouse suite in the Elevator to Enchantment.
Ning gives you a lot of control for free—but there are also premium options. If you want to get rid of Google Ads, remove the "Create Your Own Social Network" pitches, bump up your stor-age or host on your own URL (rather than the default myfilm.ning.com), there are monthly pric-ing plans. Then when your film’s site is up, you can either make your Ning site it, hosting at a unique URL, or just post a link to your Ning community. Just be wary of spam members.
It’s very easy to feature an RSS feed of your Twitter posts on Ning. Just drag on the RSS mod-ule, and paste in that URL I mentioned earlier.
If you’re looking for the opposite extreme—complete control and opacity, check out WiX or experiment with iWeb, Mac’s iLife website template tool.
The chatter at conferences I’ve attended recently has been that eNewsletters have gone out of style, thanks to low open rates, spam filters and general audience saturation. But at the very least, they remind your community that you’re around, and they will probably outlive more faddish communication trends. It’s best to use a service like Constant Con-tact or Vertical Re-sponse to handle your lists and mail-outs, to make it through spam filters and conform with unsubscribe best practices. Vertical Response offers non-profits 10,000 emails for free a month, so is often the provider of choice. Constant Contact is the service I’m more familiar with, and they offer an easy way for non-programmers to link to a sign up page for your list. Create an account and send out an eNewsletter to yourself. When it arrives click on Forward email and forward it to yourself. When the email arrives click on Subscribe Me. You will be taken to Constant Contact. Click where it says "Click here if this is not you," and you’ll be taken to a URL. Copy this URL, and link to it from your webpage. You should have your web designer automate this using a call to the Constant Contact API, but this is a dirty workaround if you simply want to add a link to your Ning page or blog.
These tools will not make your film. Like the title suggests, they’re merely augmentations. But for the next generation of up and coming filmmakers these will be the unspoken norms of indie production.
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