Notes from IFP Indie Film Week: Day 5 – Sundance #ArtistServices Workshop

Like last year, the final day of IFP Independent Film Week, held at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, consisted of a series of Sundance Institute-sponsored panels called, collectively, the #ArtistServices New York City Workshop. And just like last year, the Workshop heavily geared toward technical and practical subjects meant to benefit the directors, producers, and other industry-insiders who comprised the majority of attendees. Nonetheless, there were moments of accessibility during each panel, even for a journalist.

The panel that was most accessible to non-industry types was arguably its first, a crowdfunding-centric discussion called “How to Win Fans and Influence People.” Crowdfunding has become crucial to independent filmmaking, and understanding it is a necessity whether one is making films or writing about them. Kickstarter dominated the proceedings, as Dan Schoenbrun, Kickstarter’s Film Partnerships Lead, spoke of his company’s dominance of the crowdfunding sphere. “What Kleenex is to tissues, Kickstarter is to crowdfunding,” Dan said. Tough to argue. But then, everyone already knows that. The more intriguing thoughts came from fellow panelist Danny Yourd, producer of the 2013 Sundance-featured doc ‘Blood Brother.’ Yourd discussed Kickstarter’s role not just in raising money, but also in gaining and maintaining connections that become crucial for funding future projects. According to Yourd, Kickstarter should be used as a social networking tool as much as a crowdfunding platform. Sage advice.

The next event, called “Direct to Fans: The Art of the Bundle,” was the Workshop’s least successful. Panelists Straith Schreder (a developer for BitTorrent) and filmmaker David Charles discussed “bundling,” and BitTorrent’s goal of breaking away from its image as a piracy hub. After Charles and Schreder spoke for close to thirty minutes, audience members made clear with their questions that they still didn’t quite understand what bundling was, and moderator Joseph Beyer (politely) instructed Schreder and Charles to better explain themselves, which they finally did. The upshot: Bundling allows filmmakers to stoke interest in their projects by releasing select items—such as movie clips, or scenes that didn’t reach the final film cut—to large groups of people.

The packed day continued with the intentionally lower-cased “quid pro quo distro (or how creative partnerships might save you).” If, like me, you’ve seen John Oliver’s (admittedly hilarious) recent tirade against “branded content”—the increasingly prevalent practice of companies paying writers and filmmakers to cover certain topics—this panel made for a fascinating counterargument. Mentioning documentaries like American Meat (partnered with Chipotle) and ‘Burt’s Buzz’ (partnered with Burt’s Bees), the panelists argued—convincingly, I might add—that in today’s climate, where it’s increasingly difficult to fund documentaries, branding allows certain stories to be told that would otherwise never exist. One panelist, Bond Strategy and Influence CEO Marc Schiller, argued that branding need not be the death of integrity, pointing out that ‘Burt’s Buzz’ was, in places, critical of its sponsor.

After a lunch break, the panel returned with “Everything You Wanted to Know About Digital Deliverables (but were afraid to ask).” Panelists discussed topics ranging from proper digital formats to projection technologies. The most engaging section centered on the guidelines of applying to iTunes and other digital platforms. For instance, Premiere Digital business developer Paul O’Neill pointed out that iTunes rejects trailers that contain festival laurels. That information elicited a disappointed groan from the audience.

The day continued with “Strategy to Know: How Small Groups of Fans Power the Big Screen.” There were four panelists present for this one, but producer Lydia B. Smith did most of the talking. Smith’s fascinating story involved a four-year effort to fund and produce ‘Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago.’ Smith wound up succeeding with the help of mostly small donors—and this in the days before Kickstarter made this far easier. Smith mentioned techniques such as merchandising and reaching out to the right people with booklets and information. “What’s so interesting is how I often I get credit for putting together this great plan,” she said. But really, she said, she just did it because there was no other way. Well, you know what they say about necessity and invention.

The next section, called “Designing Your Look and Feel—What We Love Right Now” focused on web design. Squarespace Business Developer Jeremy Schwartz and VHX CEO Jamie Wilkinson were co-panelists, but Schwartz was a more dynamic presence, in large part because he did more talking. I’ll put it this way: By the end of the presentation, I was convinced that Squarespace was a terrific tool for film promotion. But I still hadn’t learned anything about VHX than I hadn’t already known. Schwartz discussed the finer points of creating a film website, such the importance of an effective “call to action section” (it’s important to be direct: if you want money or email addresses, just ask for them). Schwartz also discussed the evolving life of a film website: Recruiting backers, gaining funding, and lining up contacts during the pre-production phase, and then, finally, using the site to maintain those contacts once the film has come and gone.

In the final panel, “The Producorialist Roundtable,” a group of female producers answered questions about the challenges of the industry. ‘It Follows’ producer Rebecca Green spoke of the increasing difficulty of taking on multiple projects, precisely because of the time-consuming nature of factors discussed in the previous panels: seeking distribution, marketing the film, etc. etc. Meanwhile, Obvious Child producer Elisabeth Holm compared film-productions to marriages and marathons: marathons because they’re long and difficult, and marriages because successful creative partnerships consist of people who can move on from their clashes and disagreements.

All in all, a very useful day for industry professionals, particularly directors and producers. From Danny Yourd’s discussions of Kickstarter to Jeremy Schwartz’s emphasis on the importance of using a website maintain a connection with one’s backers, the importance of keeping one’s supporters engaged for the sake of future projects emerged as the theme that most interested me. Even as a journalist, it’s still helpful to know the techniques industry-ites use to get their projects out there. It is my job to cover these folks, after all.

David Teich

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