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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.)


Underground Film Feedback (10 comments)

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  • Mike,

    Cool article. Care to check out my site and give your feedback. Always looking to improve.

    Brian

  • I agree with you. I really, really do, however, there are inherent differences between feature (or short) filmmaking and webcomics that prohibit promotional film websites/blogs from having the same interactivity that webcomics have.

    A good webcomic will put 1 or 2 pages up per week. That means that it is the job of the comic creator to post NEW content regularly. At the same time the new content is posted the comic creator can also post a blog commenting on what they have posted (like Jason Brubaker does with http://www.remindblog.com/ ) I think it’s a great model. In contrast a feature filmmaker can’t post 1 or 2 scenes per week (if they do it’s now a web series (Like “Wreck…” and not a feature or short film). So, either “special feature” content needs to be posted on a regular basis or it gets posted when there’s “news”

    As a filmmaker I would love to be able to put up a behind the scenes clip every day that I’m on set. But at the end of a day that usually extends past 14 hours, blogging just isn’t on the schedule. Having a producer around that is willing to document the “making of” (Like the “Gravity…” blog you link to) would be a Godsend. I don’t want to diminish her blog, I’m sure it’s fantastic (haven’t had time to read it yet) and I’m sure she is very busy during the course of the production but when you’re the writer/director/camera/production designer/editor etc etc blogging isn’t conducive, and can be a bit distracting actually. Looking at her blog I see that there is only 9 subscribers, I don’t know if that is reflective of the overall readership but if it is, considering the ample amount of time that she has put into it, I’m not sure what the cost/benefit analysis would say about that effort.

    Like I said I agree with you. I also think that we’re about to turn a corner where the independent/underground film world stops talking about “distribution” and starts talking about “awareness”. Web presence is definitely a major part of building awareness and finding a way to use it successfully is the golden ticket. Looking at other models from other arts is definitely a good place to start (people started comparing the indie-music scene and indie-film scene about a year ago or so). Looking at what they do successfully is as important as seeing why it’s successful for them and if the same successful properties will apply to indie film. Maybe the solution is to have “press” on set every day of the shoot, rather than just one or two days, and let them do the content for you.

    This is a great conversation to have.

  • Nathan: On the one hand, I do agree with you. You hit on all the “negatives” that I was thinking of while writing this article, but consciously left out.

    I don’t think my analogy to webcomics is a one-to-one comparison, but there are similarities as evidenced by the Wreck & Salvage and Fling a Ding websites. And, yes, time is the enemy of us all. I have enough trouble working a full-time job and forcing myself to write one blog post a day — and that doesn’t involve editing video.

    Now, on the other hand, taking you specifically as an example, I think it would benefit you greatly if there were more integration between all of your online efforts, such as melding your blog and film sites together. For example, this long, extremely well-written, thoughtful comment you’ve left on my site could easily have been a blog post on your site with a link back to my article. I also see you Tweeted something about yourself today: Again, that’s another blog post in the making instead of a Tweet. But, instead of having a centralized “you” on the web with two blog posts on your own website, you’re scattered all about forcing other people to put together the pieces of who you are.

    The great thing about WordPress (the software I use to run the Underground Film Journal) is that you could have blog posts and separate pages for your film on the same site — and have them look completely different. Like, you could have a special promotional section devoted to your film Hunting Season designed completely differently from your news-y blog posts. Granted, that would take some work setting up. You’d either have to teach yourself (which I don’t know if that’s a possibility) or hire a web guy to do it with money you probably don’t have. But, once the tough set-up is done, populating both aspects of the site is easy. (Heck, that might be a good new series to run on the Underground Film Journal: WordPress tips for filmmakers.)

    Thanks for commenting, as always. I write these types of things not for final answers on anything, but to get a conversation going or just to get people thinking. So, the feedback is much appreciated.

  • Mike, You’re absolutely right. I spend time replying to other blog posts when I should post it as an open letter/opinion on my blog. I see other bloggers (like Ted Hope) do this all the time. You may have opened a window for me.

    I’ve taken your advice and posted my comment above as a blog post (with an introductory paragraph and a slightly tongue in cheek additional paragraph (we’ll call that an “Exclusive Special Feature”).

    Plus it’s a good way to promote the blogs that I like and frequent.

    check it out at http://nwrann.wordpress.com

  • Nathan: Great! And, see, you get a pingback here and everything. (Those, I tend to think, drive a minuscule amount of traffic, but every little bit helps.) Now, I’m gonna go Tweet a link to your blog post and the circle will be complete.

  • joanna says:

    Well put, I noticed myself how stupid some of these sites are, but apparently, some people appreciate and actually follow them. I stopped reading your article when you mentioned “Vlad the Veagan Vampire”, because that is the most enormous proff of stupidity and because the idea of it simply annoyed me beyond any limits. Good post though, I’ll keep following you.

  • Lev says:

    Mike, great post – thanks! And I really appreciate Nathan’s comments, esp. re: the Rube Goldberg problem and need to do cost-benefit when generating peripheral content like Behind the Scenes videos.
    I’m nervous about the advice to post about trials and tribulations. Making a film can give you a real “me against the world” feeling. If I had posted about my percieved trials while making the film, I would posted A LOT and have been in the wrong nearly every time, damaging friendships and connections for the sake of a few blog hits. While there’s nothing I regret not-posting to my blog, there are a couple things I wish I could take back.
    I’d like to add two thoughts about promotion and awareness – I won’t call it advice because I haven’t tried them out. They’re the things I didn’t do for my film BLONDES IN THE JUNGLE (http://www.blondesinthejungle.com) and wish I had.
    1) Good photos of “stills” from the film is something we wish we had a LOT more of. Pulling stills, even from HD, doesn’t provide images with the 300dpi resolution needed for print. We shot on film, so blowing up from the 16mm is a possibility, but honestly it’s so expensive that so far we haven’t gone through with it. We’ve just been scraping by without having many hi-res stills.
    Just having behind-the-scenes photos isn’t enough. We have hundreds of shots of us on location, but besides giving web visitors something peripheral to browse through, they haven’t been much use. I guess if press was going to do a story on the making-of they would be. But realistically that’s way less likely and further down the road than press about the movie itself.
    With the next film, we’re planning to have an on-set photographer often, and at least an assistant with a camera all the time. We’ll have him/her shoot “stills” from rehearsals and sound-takes, restage shots, and also stage new shots that illustrate crucial elements of the movie. Like for BLONDES there’s practically no scenes where all the blondes are on camera together – fine for the film, but it would have been really nice for our promotion if we’d had a shot like that.
    2) Keep the focus on festival screenings first. I think non festival screenings are great for building new audiences and demonstrating that alternative film can be a legit draw to non-theater venues. Here in NYC we’ve had 5 awesome screenings since the movie came out last year, all non-festival (if you count NewFilmmakers, which in this sense I do).
    But there’s a downside. Recently we got a rare thing, a personalized rejection letter from a bigger NYC festival. It basically said that they loved the film but that it’s has played too many times in New York for them to give it priority.
    D’oh. My takeaway from this is that we should have focused on festivals first and then worked on the other screenings. The reason for this is that festivals care about premiere status much more than other venues do. Other venues either care first about their curatorial vision (like galleries) or the ability to draw a crowd (clubs & parties). They don’t really care if your movie’s 2 years or 5 years old. What’s more, you might end up using your promotional juice on the non-festival screenings (where you’re friends will come whether or not there’s press) and not on festivals, which are for getting new people to know about your film.
    I think in organizing non-festival screenings first we were working from a false premise – that because our film is so weird and underground, we’d need to build “buzz” before we’d get into any festivals. In our experience this hasn’t been true, buzz has been useful for bringing in audiences, but support for BLONDES from programmers and curators has come from their seeing a screener, seeing the film at a festival, or hearing about it _through a festival_.
    It’s easy, with festivals taking 4 or 5 months to respond and rejection rates being SO high, to want to “get the film out there” when it’s done. But next time we’ll just have a secret screening for friends and then wait until after the 1-2 years of festival runs to worry about other venues.
    As I said, these ideas come more from our mistakes than our successes. So I’m really eager to hear any thoughts. What have been your experiences, everyone?

    L

  • Donna K. says:

    Mike!

    Aw, thanks! (bows, accepts flowers, candy, applause)..I’m kidding! (Unless someone out there actually has candy they want to give me…?)

    I dunno if I can add to the conversation above but I do think finding an outlet that suits whatever you have to work with is most important! Like if you have a guy who loves texting his girlfriend on set all day? Make him post the texts at the end of the day! Maybe not the best example hehe…but I mean indie/underground film is all about using the resources you have and making the most of those resources! Even if one of those resources is just a guy with a girlfriend!

    Now…we were talking about candy…?

    -Donna K.

  • Lev, thanks for your interesting thoughts. Yeah, the blog format really lends itself to ranting, which is really bad for tired filmmakers at the end of a long day wanting to post about something. So, that’s something very important to watch out for. Best to write angry blog posts, then hit “Delete” rather than “Publish.” (I know, I’ve been there.)

    Also, don’t underestimate the power of still images on the web. Web visitors love clicking through photo galleries. That’s one reason why gossip blogs — and I would venture to guess IMDB — are so popular. That’s why I started putting galleries on the Underground Film Journal. It hasn’t been a phenomenal hit on the site, but it’s helped.

    It’s also really important for filmmakers to pick great images to promote. I see so many film sites fail in this department. I would even go as far to say that image resolution is far less important than just having compelling images to begin with.

    BTW: I know you are griping about your own choice and amount of images, but you do have good compelling ones of your characters for your rotating homepage.

    Lastly, thanks for your comments re: festival and non-festival screenings. That may be a good topic for a future post on the Underground Film Journal!

  • Donna: Thanks for your suggestion, too. My purpose in writing this post wasn’t to offer concrete ideas on website film promotion, but to get filmmakers thinking about how they can do things differently, in their own way.

    Now, if Tiger Woods happens to be a PA on your set, then publishing his text messages would be a PHENOMENAL promotional tool!

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