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Steal This Film: Sharing as a Marketing Tool

By Pamela Yoder

Left: Cover art for the DVD of Robert Greenwald's <em>Uncovered: The Whole Truth about the War in Iraq</em>. Right: Cover art for the DVD of Robert Kane Pappas' <em>Orwell Rolls in His Grave</em>.

Can giving away music be good for business? And if the answer is yes, can giving away films be far behind? Before you freak out and set this magazine on fire, take a minute to read a bit; it's worthwhile.

 Let's begin with the now villainized MP3—you know, the file format that made burning and trading music easy, and that the music moguls said would mean the end of the industry.

But a recent piece of research found that sharing music may be having the exact opposite effect because the bands that are the most highly shared tend to be the ones that are also the most highly purchased. Researchers at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina monitored downloads over a four-month period. They matched the data on file swaps with actual sales of the songs being downloaded. The effect on CD revenue was "statistically indistinguishable from zero." The study found that it would take about 5,000 downloads to displace sales of just one physical CD.

Music executives, who have been pointing to shrinking sales numbers as proof that sharing is killing their industry, fail to point out that many of us have spent the last five or six years purchasing the same songs on CD that we had on vinyl—great for sales, but that makes the volume of new music sales hard to keep up.

So what about us filmmakers? After all, we're the same as musicians, except our file sizes are bigger.

Well, what if the real truth is that sharing builds market share virally, by word of mouth, and that there is now—truly—a way to both share your films and make money. How does that sound?

Think about a few of the recent releases like Outfoxed (Robert Greenwald, dir./prod.), Unprecedented (Joan Sekler and Ray Perez, dirs./prods.) or Orwell Rolls Over in his Grave (Robert Kane Pappas, dir./prod.). These were modest films, with no shelf space and no big studio push. But they're each doing well, some having sold over 100,000 copies.

Which brings me to sharing...

Networks and distributors have access to consumers. That makes them powerful. But there aren't many musicians who love their labels, and similarly there aren't many filmmakers who love their distributors.

Why? Because we have different goals. Distributors want large audiences, profits and fat margins. Filmmakers want influential audiences, sustainability in revenue and the karmic feedback that comes from making work that resonates. These objectives are often in direct conflict with one another.

So sharing your work, or portions of it, gives filmmakers the opportunity to engage in Reputation Creation. Your reputation—your brand—can be enhanced by pass-along viewership, word-of-mouth and brand-building.

By way of example: What if you decided to share your trailer, and share it widely? Anyone can see it, copy it, even use it in collaborative long as they don't sell it. What could happen? It could begin to generate interest, excitement and awareness for the larger doc. It could get viewers to say, "Who is this filmmaker, and how do I see more of his/her work?" It could turn browsers into buyers.

Without waiting for mainstream distribution to validate the work, sharing is a powerful marketing tool, a way to engage, excite and empower audiences to seek out new ideas, explore new topics and take a taste of new voices.

And it gets filmmakers one step closer to what they want-an audience.


Steve Rosenbaum can be reached at