March 8, 2010

Festbook Pages: When Film Festivals Meet Web 2.0

Over the last several years, there has been a lot of talk about how films are making use of the Internet for marketing and distribution. The Web 2.0 revolution has hit film festivals as well, changing the way they communicate with their patrons, support their filmmakers and sustain their brands. Savvy festivals have adjusted with technology, taking advantage of all the new tools the Web has to offer. Along the way, they've had to make calculated decisions about how to invest their limited financial and human resources.

The new media landscape presents many questions: Where does social networking fit into a festival's conversation with its audience? What should be the purpose of a festival's website? Should festivals blog? If so, what kind of voice should be used? How can a festival take advantage of the Internet to create a year-round presence for a once-a-year event? With so many online tools now available, how can they help festivals operate more efficiently? I spoke with representatives from several festivals to find out the answers to these and other questions about how fests and the 'net intersect.

 

South by Southwest Conference and Festival (SXSW)

SXSW has long distinguished itself as a leader in making use of online tools. In addition to its film section, the Austin-based festival programs an Interactive component. Chief technology officer Scott Wilcox has been with SXSW since 1996, and he's been pleasantly surprised by everyone's willingness to adapt to new technologies. When it comes to adding new features to its site, "We look at what the filmmakers are trying to accomplish, and how a potential new feature might help them do that," he explains. "We try to use new technologies to further exposure for the films. Also, we are constantly looking for new models."

Conference and Festival Producer Janet Pierson echoes this sentiment: "I don't believe I'll necessarily figure out what the new paradigm is, but I'd like SXSW to be the place where people figure that out. It helps that we're already in the conversation." She believes that SXSW is a place where filmmakers often lead the way, and feel comfortable testing out new technology solutions for marketing and distribution. 

Experimentation at SXSW has taken all forms. The festival started playing around with online video in 2000, posting several film trailers when there was barely enough bandwidth to support streaming. Despite the obstacles, it was obvious from the beginning that the trailers were a great way to help patrons deal with the challenge of figuring out what to see; in 2009, 165 films posted trailers online. Over the years, the festival has expanded its original production efforts to include videos of conference events, alumni news and fun "how-to" pieces about getting around the festival, among other offerings.

According to former SXSW producer Matt Dentler, SXSW was one of the first festivals to have a MySpace page. Over the years, their social networking efforts have grown to include Facebook and Twitter. Dentler believes that it's important to deliver information in a variety of ways because everyone listens or pays attention to different things. The key is that no matter which tool you're using, you must be authentic and personal in your execution.

The advantage of today's social networking tools is that they let the audience know that the event isn't just a big, nameless corporate entity. Twitter posts and Facebook updates are ways of showing that there are people behind the event who care deeply about making it successful. This is also helpful for filmmakers, who at times can feel like they are sending their film babies off into a black hole of programming. Knowing there are passionate cineastes screening around the clock puts a more human spin on the submission process.

Blogs are now a regular feature of festival websites, but when Dentler started blogging for indieWire in April 2004, he was one of the first festival directors to do so. It was tricky, he admits, as the blog was officially his own, not an official representation of SXSW. However, he was very aware that many people read it just because he programmed for the festival. "I think the filmmakers appreciated hearing festival news from the source rather than from press releases or official interviews," he notes. "The blog also became a way to get feedback about films. I made it interactive by doing things like asking questions about what people wanted to see."  

Interactivity has been a double-edged sword for festivals. On one hand, Twitter and Facebook give SXSW the ability to respond in real time to the community, fostering dialogue that strengthens the event and deepens people's affection for the brand. It allows festivals to listen in on the conversation about their event in a way that was never before possible. But that community can be a needy one; people expect answers immediately. Plus, whenever you put a public face on something, you open yourself up to criticism.

Managing that conversation internally can be a challenge as well. According to Wilcox, several people are responsible for SXSW's social media output, and staying on message with a group can be difficult. Social media is a moving target, and the interactive group at SXSW is constantly fine-tuning its activities and voice in the space based on the feedback they receive.

To make all this happen, SXSW has an internal tech team of about 10 people, whose specialties include development, database management, IT, customer and staff support, social media, Web editing, and network and server management. They work with third parties on application development, and often hire outside designers for projects.

This is the first year that the film division of SXSW is making use of the Panel Picker, a tool the Interactive Conference has been utilizing for the past couple of years. People submit ideas for festival panels, and the public then votes on what they'd like to see. The tool promotes cross-conversation among audience members and increases the year 'round reach of the event. Pierson says that though she was at first a bit nervous about losing the curatorial hand over the panels, there has been a fantastic turnout of ideas.

Also on deck for the 2010 edition of SXSW is a new version of My SXSW, a tool that will allow attendees to make and share their festival schedules. SXSW has co-developed My SXSW with the Social Collective, and planned features include profiles, messaging functionality, groups and tie-ins to Facebook and Twitter. The goal is to expand the experience of the festival both before and after the event. SXSW is also experimenting with several mobile initiatives to take advantage of the fact that nearly everyone now has the Internet in his or her pocket.

 

Sundance Film Festival

If there's any festival whose brand is safely established, it's Sundance. But that doesn't mean the festival is sitting on its laurels when it comes to new media. "As a 'Discovery Festival,' we try to stay on the cutting edge, and using cutting-edge technology is a big part of that," maintains programmer David Courier. "It's important to put our money where our mouth is and to stay current."

Sundance has more resources than most film festivals, but still has to be smart about how to use them. In his article "Ten Ways to Harness New Media," Joseph Beyer, associate director of Sundance Institute Online, writes, "Every technological tool in your kit should be chosen and used for the direct impact it'll have on one of your core objectives. Technology flash is less enduring than technology smarts."

At Sundance, this core objective revolves around connecting artists with audiences. Says Beyer, "We try desperately to be just a step ahead of what's happening so that we can address our filmmakers' needs with all the resources that Sundance has. We try to stay as relevant as possible. At the end of the day, that's our standard: relevancy to our filmmakers and to our audience. Then we're doing what [Sundance founder] Robert Redford hoped we would do all those years ago."

According to Beyer, Redford is actively involved in the conversation about new technology. It speaks to the actor/director's constant energy for reinvention, and his personal push to not be afraid of change. He urges the team at Sundance to constantly ask the question: "Are we doing what we're supposed to be doing right now, and if not, how can we change that?"

There have been a lot of changes over the years in the way that Sundance communicates with its patrons. Previously, the festival's prime vehicle was a daily newspaper that helped acquaint people with lesser-known areas of the festival such as New Frontiers, Documentaries and Panels. But at the end of the 2009 festival, it was clear that the print components very quickly became dated, so Sundance decided to put its energy into moving its communication tools into the digital realm. For the 2010 edition of the fest, they're working with B-Side to develop a robust online version of the festival guide. In addition to film descriptions, credits and screening times, the online guide will allow patrons to see what others are adding to their schedule and to share responses to films. It will be mobile-enabled, and users will be able to add events to their calendar programs.

Beyer is also very excited about Sundance's new iPhone application, which he describes as "almost as necessary as mittens; the whole festival at your fingertips." The goal of the application is to simultaneously simplify and enrich the festival experience. It includes practical information as well as bonus content such as short films from previous years and a history section that features old festival trailers, archival photography and lists of jurors and awards. On the eve of the festival, Beyer predicted the killer feature for the app would be What's On Now?, which uses GPS technology and a time stamp to inform users about what's happening at the festival closest to where they are--including nearby venues showing films that are about to start.

"We understand that Sundance has been frustrating," says Beyer. "At times there are an enormous amount of tickets still available for events, but there's a mythology that you have to know someone or buy an expensive pass in order to access them. The features on this app will break down that idea."

When it comes to social media, Sundance takes the general approach that it won't participate unless it has value for the audience. "If a person is saying something helpful, that's great," says Courier about festival bloggers. "But personally, I wouldn't want to do it just for the sake of having my stuff out there. I'm not actually sure we should be blogging for our festival; we put the work out there and let it speak for itself."

Speaking of the work, Twitter and Facebook have been helpful in amplifying the conversation about the projects that are shown and created at Sundance. These tools give the festival a year-round ability to tell people about release dates for films and innovative distribution strategies. Sundance's Twitter account, @sundancefest, is featured prominently on the festival website, and includes regular updates from director of programming Trevor Groth and festival director John Cooper.

"Use social media differently than you use your traditional media," Beyer advocates. "Take the time to see what kinds of information the users are looking for on those platforms, take the time to recognize the tonality of how they are communicating on those platforms and take the time to develop a different voice on those platforms."

There's a lot of pressure to use the latest, greatest online tool, and often, festivals feel a bit out of touch if they're not Tweeting every 30 seconds. Beyer suggests that before a festival takes on a new platform, those involved should ask, "What is it I want to accomplish by using a new tool like Twitter?" Perhaps it's a dialogue with the audience, or maybe it's the ability to listen to your patrons. But if you can't answer that basic question, Beyer advises letting yourself off the hook from the pressure of using new technology: "Know what objectives are important to you, and then use technology to achieve them, rather than letting technology lead your sense of ideas."

Another Sundance mission is supporting artists' long-term careers, not just the particular project they may have at the festival in a given year. New this year is an alumni association, informally referred to as the "Sundance Posse," which includes a Posse blog featuring contributions and updates from alums. Sundance has promoted it via social media, and eventually it will be integrated into www.sundance.org.

This summer, the festival will launch "The Source," which Beyer describes as akin to a Sundance IMDb.com. It will utilize materials from the Sundance archives, drawing upon the festival's rich history. Users will be able to chart the entire trajectory of someone's Sundance career. 

Sundance has an internal Web team to support all of its online endeavors. The team is split across two departments: Sundance Institute Online and Creative Services. Online manages all of Sundance's visible media properties, while Creative Services is responsible for producing content. The managing editor sets the tone for the site and social media activities, making sure that the festival voice remains unified and clear. Folks at the festival are constantly meeting vendors and businesses such as B-Side, Withoutabox and iTunes to stay on top of what's happening in the new media space. There's also an internal task force that focuses on how to use new technology tools to support filmmakers.

"We've developed our process over the years," Beyer explains. "It wasn't always so easy to be flexible and nimble. I'm very proud that it looks good and big, but behind the scenes, we all do a little bit of everything. We all love pop culture, and are fascinated by this time that we're in, so that really does translate."

 

Tribeca Film Festival

The Tribeca Film Festival's (TFF) site is unique in that it showcases not just events at the festival, but film happenings all around New York City. Says executive director Nancy Schafer, "Everything we do is to try to grow the audience for independent film. We use the site to have a conversation around films big and small. That reflects the Tribeca Film Festival because we want to show all kinds of films to all kinds of people."

In addition to the usual film guide, schedule information and trailers, the TFF site features several non-fest-centric blogs: Free Flick Fridays showcases feature films online that can be watched for free; The Price of a Movie blog lists cheap, fun things to do in New York City; and Super Shorts guides users to cool short films on the Web.

Kristin McCracken, director of Web content and operations, makes sure that the voice of Tribeca is reflected on the site. As with Sundance and SXSW, this means managing several different people. During the festival itself, many different staff members Tweet from their different posts at the event. This keeps things lively and, taken together, gives a comprehensive sense of the festival.

Schafer doesn't think that all festivals need a website that features year 'round, dynamic content. "Ours grew out of the fact that we were capturing so much content and having such a lively discussion in months leading up to festival, and we wanted to continue that conversation. As a festival director, I like that we're engaging the audience year 'round. It reflects strongly on us as a brand. We are always looking for more and more ways to connect with our audience."

The future of that connection definitely includes mobile. TFF did a mobile festival guide in 2009, and will do so again this year. Says Schafer, "As people like myself and others live our lives through our mobile devices, we have to be in that space because we have to be where consumers are."

Sponsors also want to be right in the pockets of consumers, and that perhaps is why Stolichnaya Vodka signed on to sponsor both years of the TFF mobile guide. Another benefit of new media tools is that they can open up new, targeted opportunities for sponsorship, something that all fests sorely need.

 

Ashland Independent Film Festival (Oregon)

For smaller festivals, online endeavors present an interesting paradox: On one hand, they can help streamline operations and provide free tools for grassroots marketing; on the other hand, many festivals don't have the staff or time to support such efforts.

At Ashland, systems manager Christi Wruck does everything from maintaining the festival's website to overseeing IT operations. One board member is the president/CEO of Project A, a Web solutions company, and the company helps create the festival's online presence. Volunteers from the community pitch in as well.

Ashland has an active Facebook page that is constantly updated with festival information, deadlines and the latest news about films that have played at the event. Programming director Joanne Feinberg says that when deciding which social media tools to use, Ashland has to balance the needs of its local audience with the festival's industry presence. Right now Facebook has been a much more effective tool than Twitter for staying in touch with patrons; the 2010 festival will conduct an audience survey to see what the audience is really paying attention to.

Ashland is currently working with Withoutabox on a new online submissions feature, which allows filmmakers to submit their work online, rather than sending in a DVD. "I was initially resistant to trying it because we had spent all of this time and effort perfecting our systems for screening films," Feinberg admits. "However, I'm finding that I really like the online submissions. It's great to be able to easily share information, and our screeners can watch films from any location. I've found the quality to be really good; I just make sure I have a high-quality set of headphones."

Feinberg and her staff spend less time and energy copying submission forms, and less money on postage. She definitely recommends the service for festivals interested in more sustainable operations.

 

Tamara Krinsky is associate editor of Documentary

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