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Rethinking Your Underground Film’s Promotional Website

Promotional websites for films — no matter what budget the film is — pretty much blow. Yeah, all of ’em. Well, not all, but most. Even the big, fancy Flash animation websites with dancing graphics blow.

I’m not saying they blow from a design viewpoint. Yes, lots of these sites look great. Fantastic, even. I’m talking about from a practical standpoint. They’re useless. And, here’s the best piece of advice I can give to underground and low-budget filmmakers: Don’t let your website emulate the websites of big Hollywood movies. In addition: Flash animation is not your friend. Indeed, it is your enemy.

There’s a lot of chatter online these days about the need for filmmakers to promote their films on the Internet. This chatter typically translates into the need to send out massive amounts of stupid Tweets and irritating Facebook updates. If you do those things, the theory goes, you’ll build an interactive “community” around your film online and generate interest that will build as your Twitter and Facebook profiles gain more followers.

It’s a good theory and I do advocate filmmakers posting stupid Tweets and irritating Facebook updates. Actually, doing both those things have been a monumental boom for the Underground Film Journal within the past couple of months, so the practice works. Calling them “stupid” and “irritating” is just my way of being dramatic — they’re actually very helpful.

But, amongst all that chatter about interactive community building, I don’t see a lot of attention or advice being given to filmmakers to build great interactive websites. This is probably because website consulting is a big, lucrative business for many people and if too much free advice were given out that business would dwindle vanish. So, here’s my free advice:

Ok, you’ve made your indie or underground film and now to promote it, you need a website. If you don’t have a website, then your film pretty much doesn’t exist. For better or worse, it’s just that kind of world we live in these days.

When it comes to websites, filmmakers have two options. The first option is just to create a cheap blog. You can get one for free, templates exist already so you don’t have to hire a designer and, then, for your film you’ll have a website that looks like a cheap blog.

The other option is to hire a designer — or con a web-savvy friend for free — who will most likely create a website that looks like a Hollywood movie website. It’ll be like 3 to 6 pages with fancy Flash animation — or not — with a page for a trailer, a page for some stills, a cast page, a crew page, a press page. Yawn.

Both of these options are practical, of course, but don’t suit an underground filmmaker’s needs in order to create an interested, engaged “interactive” audience. Blogs at least have some interactivity built into them with commenting features, but if you’re promoting your film, you had better damn well put up interesting posts that will get readers excited enough to leave comments. And you better post a lot because if you don’t post anything for months on end, people will stop coming back.

And, if you build a standard Hollywood-knockoff film website, you’re really not giving people a reason to visit your site more than once. If somebody comes to visit to look at the pretty pictures and watch the trailer, why would they ever come back? They’ll look at the site, say “Hey, that looks like an interesting film,” then completely forget it exists.

There’s a third option out there for film websites that I don’t think I’ve seen many examples of, even though they exist for other art forms on the web. I’m thinking of specifically webcomic websites.

Maybe you’ve noticed recently on the Underground Film Journal, or maybe this is your first time here, but I’ve been running lots of ads for webcomics on the site. Why? Well, because the webcomic world seems to have its shit together. I don’t seek them out. They find me via the Project Wonderful ad program, which I highly recommend if you have a website, by the way.

Here’s an example of a webcomic that’s advertised here: Vlad the Vegan Vampire. (Though I must be nuts to give ’em free promotion when they’re willing to pay for it.) (That was a joke.) Webcomics combine the best of both worlds: Part blog, part promotional site. There’s a) lots of reasons to visit this website continually; b) lots of opportunities for readers to get involved, by commenting on strips and random blog posts; and b) there’s the ability to sell crap on every page.

Film websites need to start emulating this model. Posting Tweets and Facebook posts are good and all as I said, but a film should have a great home base that your “community” can actually visit and get involved with. The community needs a place that they feel like they own a part of or at least have a vested interest in.

I’m not proposing that your film website is more important than your film. Or, that you need to spend more time online than working on your films. But, don’t think about putting up a promotional website only after you’ve completed your film. You should be thinking about it, and updating it, with behind-the-scenes photos and making-of videos as you’re shooting and editing. Post about your filmmaking trials and tribulations. It doesn’t have to be a lot, just a little. Forget posting a tweet. Write something that’s 200 characters and call it a blog post.

Your film’s website needs to be better integrated with your film, and I really believe that it doesn’t take much work to keep it updated once the basic framework is laid out. Ok, that framework is tough and there aren’t many examples to copy. At least the webcomic world has its own WordPress add-on, ComicPress. Like I said, the webcomic world has its shit together.

Now, I introduced this article by saying that all film promotional websites blow. Well, that was just me being dramatic to get you reading and to inspire you to rethink your own film’s website. Here’s some examples of some film sites that get it right. They don’t all follow what I’m proposing about interactivity like webcomic websites, but they do some great things:

Gravity Was Everywhere Back Then. This is the best making-of film blog of all time. No contest. Not even close. Not everyone can be as wonderful a writer as Donna K, but the standard she’s set is something to be emulated. Her posts are witty, personal and very insightful on the filmmaking process. Plus, she posts TONS of great behind-the-scenes stills and a couple videos. This blog has me so excited to see this film that I can’t hardly stand it anymore. P.S. The title of the blog is the same as the title of the film being directed by Brent Green that Donna K is helping work on.

Wreck & Salvage. I love these guys. Granted, this blog isn’t about one film. It promotes the W&S collective’s short films. However, this site has the type of interactivity I’m advocating. There’s videos you can comment on, a page to buy stuff and a page where you can hire them! Great stuff — and watch their videos. They’re amazing.

Fling a Ding. This is the website of Trent Harris’ travel videos. It’s similar to the Wreck & Salvage website to encourage interactivity and to find out more about Trent. Again, this is close to the webcomic interactive model I’m proposing and, even though it’s for Harris’ short films, this kind of model could work with a feature if you replace the short films with behind-the-scenes videos and/or stills.

Sita Sings the Blues. The site for Nina Paley’s animated feature film doesn’t quite encourage interactivity on the actual site. However, in addition to making the film, Paley made herself an advocate for releasing films for “free.” There’s lots of informative stuff on her site for this movement that encourages repeat business. And she does keep a separate blog, too, in which she writes about a variety of topics.

So, those are just a couple of examples. If you know of any more great, interactivity-inspiring promotional film websites — or you think yours is one — let us know in the comments below. (No code needed. Just paste in a URL, e.g. http://www.undergroundfilmjournal.com/, and it’ll pop up as a clickable link. And if it’s link spam, I’ll know.)


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