Personal Perspectives on the Internet
By Rich Samuels
At first glance, the Internet seems to be an impossibly complex jumble of vague electronic resources. For an on-line neophyte, the task of learning where-and how-to start sometimes seems overwhelming. The enormous hype surrounding the Internet, and in particular the World Wide Web, either leads an individual to a nagging feeling of "missing out, "or a deep suspicion that the grand frontier of the so-called "information super-highway" is pure hyperbole. The fact is, the Internet is a great tool - it's a wonderful opportunity to supplement your reach in a number of important areas. If you use it diligently, there's one area where the net is unparalleled: expanding your horizons.
For those of us working in documentary, the Internet offers a growing landscape of methods for research, promotion and networking. Used with care, it enables us to work more efficiently in almost every aspect of the production process.
First, just a hint of how the Internet works:
Electronic Mail, or e-mail, is probably the most prevalent and familiar aspect of using the net. It allows you to send and receive messages and files to other individuals who also have an e-mail address. For those of us who often collaborate with others during the development process, e-mail is a godsend. I often exchange word processing documents with writing partners. The time we save from retyping faxed information or even hand-delivering documents, for example, is enormous. My partners and I could be on opposite sides of the world and collaboration becomes easy. And fast.
The World Wide Web has been touted as the Next Big Thing in the world of business opportunities: so far, though, the web seems much more useful for disseminating information than attracting paying customers to a commercial website. Almost every film advertisement—in newspapers, magazines, on TV—carries a web page listing (www.starwars.com) where interested moviegoers can find interesting information, photos, audio, or even video, for a particular film. On the production side, there's a huge array of vendors providing information and resources on the web, from stock footage houses, to distribution outlets, film and video stock dealers, job search services, and so on. (Take a look at the advertisements in this magazine and you'll discover that many vendors provide not only website addresses, but e-mail addresses, as well.) As for professional networking, don't overlook the fact that, like IDA, most professional organizations have websites that promote their associations.
Thousands of Usenet Newsgroups exist: these are public discussion forums on almost any imaginable topic. If there's a topic that interests you, chances are you’ll find a public discussion group featuring messages from a wide range of like-minded people. You might be tempted to announce the availability of your new documentary on the very topic for the newsgroup: careful how you go about this, however, since many newsgroups have an aversion to blatant commercial messages. Typically, you'll use a "newsgroup reader" (this is an option built into a program such as Netscape) to access the newsgroup, only to discover a long list of messages available for your review.
Cousins of the newsgroup are mailing lists. These can be either public discussion forums, as with newsgroups, or simply one-way news updates on a specific topic. In a mailing list, however, you must first subscribe by e-mail. Once you‘ve subscribed, messages are delivered directly to your private e-mailbox. In short order, every message that's posted to this forum will turn up in your e-mail. (Interested in staying up with the world of Internet addiction? Subscribe to the Internet Addiction Support Group, and you'll be graced with messages and discussions from both researchers and individuals.) The mailing list is a great way to learn who the movers and shakers in any particular field are, along with some of the stories that are out there.
Methods and Examples
I've long had an interest in developing media that explores the subject of runaways and the issues surrounding them. Several years ago, I began a research effort that I hoped would bring me greater understanding of that particular community, and of the people who work with them. As part of that effort, I subscribed to a mailing list that consisted of social workers who used computers. Each day, I received a number of messages that others posted to the group—some were responses to other individuals, others were completely new postings inquiring about a wide range of subjects related to the general topic. I was free to respond at will and therefore have my message added to the messages sent to thousands of others subscribed to the group. One day, an intriguing message appeared about a non-profit organization using computer communications to reach kids in juvenile hall. It was a small, little-known volunteer-run organization based in Fresno, California, 200 miles north of Los Angeles. The director of the organization had posted the description of her organization in response to another inquiry. Through that initial message, I was introduced to a truly unique story which ultimately led me to the production of a documentary; that chance encounter allowed me to reach my objectives in a way I hadn't anticipated. The value of online networking is enormous. Think of it this way: you're online because you appreciate the value and power of information; and, so is everyone else online with you.
Last February, my partner Sven Berkemeier and I decided to attend the Berlin Film Festival European Film Market. During the preparation for our journey, we discovered that some of the most up-to-date resources—at least in certain major markets—were on the world wide web. Many of the major English and European television networks have extensive websites, often including names (sometimes e-mail addresses) of top executives. One of the advantages of e-mail over a letter or fax is that e-mail very often reaches the named individual directly. (The catch, of course, is that not everyone has e-mail—and if they do, they might not access it on a regular basis.)
Two weeks before we took off for Berlin, we had another idea: why not take advantage of our trip to do some initial research for an anticipated project? Building on my experience with cri mi nal youth, I decided to seek out individuals in Berlin who worked with such youth there. By posting a message on the CompuServe Information Service in the European Forum, explaining my interests and objectives, I again let thousands of people know what I needed. Sure enough , a German social worker responded to my inquiry and provided me with a long list of local Berlin organizations that might be able to help us. When we reached Berlin, it took only two or three quick phone calls to set an appointment with a social worker several miles outside of the center of Berlin. His insights led us to begin the development of yet another documentary we hadn't anticipated, on tr youth and the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Promotion and marketing are probably the most prevalent uses of the Internet, and in particular, the World Wide Web. The web could be described as a gigantic never-ending magazine with millions of publishers and no editor. Anyone and everyone can put up a WWW "site" on virtually any topic, be it to promote or sell a product, or themselves. Numerous documentarians are using the web to promote their documentaries and their credibility as film/videomakers. In addition, the web is becoming a platform for an entirely new form of Internet-native documentary. Sometimes, as in the case of my own website, the Internet documentary has its equivalent in the video world. ln other cases, it exists solely on the web.
Can you sell your documentary directly on the World Wide Web? So far, results on Internet commerce are, at best, mixed. Success on the web also involves a great deal of additional promotion: if people don't know about your site, they're not going to visit. You've got to spend time listing your site with the numer ous "search engines" ("destinations" you click to track down sites), and within the many newsgroups that cater to audiences that could be interested in your topic. While some people reap great success on Internet sales, most report that sales on the net are, so far, minor as compared to more conventional avenues. Traditional distribution outlets needn't worry... yet.
The Internet, at first, may seem confusing and a challenge in learning how to navigate, but the results can be invaluable. In a world where it's become critical to be "plugged-in," the net is one place where, beyond all the hype, there is solid value.
RICH SAMUELS is a member of the IDA Executive Board and serves as Second Vice President/Secretary.
"The internet has expanded my business faster than any publicist or marketing strategy... My website has been responsible for attracting distributors, buyers and clients. My company has made video and CD sales from direct response to my website. Posting on newsgroups has accomplished several additional revenue sources. The newsgroups have been a tremendous resource for finding businesses that are looking for and soliciting speakers and content providers. I use the internet (www) to research software and hardware that would enhance all phases of my productions. This includes scouting locations, making hotel and airline reservations and getting door to door maps of my travel itinerary."
-Robert Dunlap, R.E.D. Productions,
“...We've done some research on the web for bumper stickers-on [the search engine] Yahoo, a general search for 'bumper stickers' came up with 78 ,315 entries! In fact, my co-producer and assistant producer have used the web to find stories, interviews. etc. for Fender Philosophers."
-Lisa Leeman, True Stories
"We use the net extensively for research. For example, we're just finishing a documentary for Discovery called Future War. We have used the web for everything from getting bios of potential experts... to seeing the "lay of the land" of shooting sites... to getting Marine Corps history ... to finding hacker groups... and militants. We use e-mail to communicate with Discovery. We also send graphics via e-mail. Our consultants keep us up-to-the-minute with new articles, etc. via e-mail. In other words the internet has changed almost every aspect of our business ."
-Carol Fleisher, Fleisher Films
"I feel like I'm just touching the surface."
-Lyn Goldfarb, Lyn Goldfarb Productions, Inc.
PLACES TO START
- Cinemedia bills itself as the internet's largest film and media directory, with links to over 12,000 World Wide Websites: http:!!www.afionline.org/cinemedia/cinemedia.films.html
- The Internet Movie Database is another great source for links to the industry, as well as perhaps one the most thorough databases of domestic and international motion pictures avail able on the internet (including at least 3,200 documentaries): http://us.imdb.com/
- For information on film festivals around the world, and additional market-related links, start with the Film Festivals Server at http://www.filmfestivals.com/
- For a sample of one documentarian's usage of the web to promote his work, try R.E.D. Productions' http://www.nethomes.com/dinosaur and http://home.earthlink.net/-redp rods
- Two of my favorite "search engines" : these sites provide the user with a quick way to search the Internet for solely the information sought. Be careful to be as precise as possible when entering search terms, otherwise you're liable to face 70,000 matching links!
- Alta Vista: http://www.altavista.digital.com
- Yahoo: http://www.yahoo.com/
A Web Documentary-one of my favorite web-native documentaries:
- The Alexander Palace Time Machine: http://www.travelogix.com/emp/batchison/ bobhome2.html Finally, my own web page:
- NED, a website Not Easily Defined http://home.earthlink.net/~ned