I think when I first starting doing this weblog after my BoingBoing stint, I was going to focus my efforts on doing just massive essays on aspects of digital history… basically having a kind of boiler where I would throw out stuff that didn’t have any other place to discuss it. A lab, if you will, which would be sharing my thoughts and impressions on some aspects of computer history.
But the film has subsumed part of me, in a big way, as has the next documentary (a solid number of people know the subject matter now), and so this weblog has basically reflected that as well. For better or for worse, I do films as well as digital history. Of course, my films tend to be about digital history, so maybe we’re not that far off the track.
But I wanted to step aside for a moment to just mention some of my experience in “marketing” the BBS Documentary, and where choices I made years ago have worked and not worked for me.
First of all, it has become clear to me that what I ended up doing was somewhat unique. I don’t mean the subject matter; I would hope the subject matter of any film would be as unique as possible, and there’s a lot of work out there that is unlike the rest. No, I’m speaking of the fact that I ended up creating it, from the start, as a 3-DVD set with multiple episodes. Apparently, that was wrong.
What I’m supposed to have done, based on a lot of observation of other production and film weblogs, is slaved like crazy to make a single, hour or two-hour film, finished editing it in the nick of time, on borrowed cash, and then fallen to my knees and prayed that it would get into… a film festival.
From there, I would dress in somewhat OK clothing, showing up at one of these events, praying for a good time slot, and looking forward to foisting my film on a set of people who would previously have seen a buddy film, romance film, heartfelt drama, and maybe a rival documentary (all other documentaries would be my rival. Grrr).
Through all this, the showings, the festival, the application to the festival, the trying desperately to get attention… all through this I would be hungry. Hungry for attention, hungry for my film to be seen, hungry to get that distribution deal that would ensure my success. That wild-eyed look as you saw the money men come into the room and stand at the back of the theatre while your sex scene played, the fear in your eyes as they started talking on their cell phone and dipped out.. that concern that the weiners in your buffett table might be too cold and the money men won’t buy into your work.
I recently thought it would be a pip to maybe get one of the BBS documentary’s episodes into a film festival. So I went to go enter it into a few.
I used a service called Without a Box, which is basically a centralized festival submission engine. The cool part about it is how it forces you to think of stuff you might not have previously, so your entries really are a lot better. “What is the subject matter? How would you describe it in two sentences? In a paragraph? In multiple? How about yourself? Is this film geared for comedy? Romance?” and so on. You have to answer a ton of questions about your work, and have that whole “press kit” ready to go to mail in with your submission.
I submitted to 6 festivals. 4 have rejected me, and I have dire feelings about the other two.
I now realize I should have taken my film off the DVD, burned it onto a crappy DVD-R, and sent the single episode in, like a poor post-grad begging for a little time.
What I DID was just jam the whole finished professional-looking box into the mailer and send it along.
What got me, until recently, was how much money I had to pay for this privilege. I sent them a copy of my film, paid for the postage, worked up all the stuff for the press kit, and then had to pay anywhere between $20 and $50 for the chance of someone from that film festival to look at the work. Fifty dollars! Imagine they get 100 entries. And they get to charge admission! Where do I sign up for that gig?
Anyway, the problem was, I’m just not hungry. Filmmakers sign up and try to get their projects in and beg and plead and clasp hands because they desperately, helplessly want their projects to be seen, so that, hopefully, they can have their film up on the big screen and they can see their film go into a nice package and go into the world.
But I did that! I did that in May!
And outside of the 4,000 people (and growing) who I know have downloaded the film via bittorrent and other similar peer-to-peer methods, over two thousand people have bought the DVD set in box form! Two thousand!
There’s still three thousand boxes in my attic, by the way, so feel free to buy more… but the point is, I made my costs back. And while I’ll likely never get back the per-hour costs (measured in time of production across the 4 years), I am anything but a failure, and certainly, not by a long shot, hungry.
So of course I didn’t really look at these film festivals as do or die. I didn’t exaggerate the appeal of the work or what it was about to try and get it to somehow hornswaggle audiences into getting into a theatre to see it. It’s a niche project. It’s a niche audience. But it serves that niche audience very, very well.
I think what probably doomed me with the festivals was when they asked for running length. Hmmm, running length in minutes.
I always put 330.
THREE HUNDRED AND THIRTY! I’m trying to imagine the eyes bugging out on the poor intern going through the applications for the film festivals I applied to. Running this number through a divide-by-sixty… FIVE AND A HALF HOURS, OH MY GOD. AND WHY IS IT IN THIS PRETTY BOX.
So reject I will be, and reject I shall stay, and I think I can live with it. The more I read these weblogs, the more I see the desperation, and the more I realize how many people literally bet the farm on their films… the more I realize why I didn’t actually pursue the film industry when I got out of Emerson College with my film degree.
A few quick thoughts on what worked, and then I’ll be done gloating.
I didn’t sink my entire financial future into this film. By shooting over four years, never buying stuff I didn’t need as a “hedge”, and combining trips into single insane jaunts, I kept the total production under $25,000. That may seem like a lot to some folks, but split that over 4 years and consider the resultant output, five and a half hours of finished work, and you realize: the budget for my film ended up being $75 a minute. Believe me, that’s a bargain others would gut a volkswagen with their teeth to achieve. So when the time came to make decisions, I didn’t cry when I cut out a scene. I made better choices.
I was never scared about people knowing I was doing this. Heck, I announced it on Slashdot. For four years the world knew I was shooting a film on BBSes, and I wasn’t worried about being scooped, because I knew I was going for the best possible work, not the most profitable or marketable or anything else. I wanted this thing to rule, and if it took a 300 mile trip and an hour of sleep a night and endless phone calls to do it, so be it. It was about having a project that wasn’t dependent on anyone knowing “The Secret Ending” or me going against the other guys doing a BBS documentary. I was it, and I have now been it for half a decade. Not to say I wouldn’t mind another one coming out… I just figured if we were at 2001 and I hadn’t seen one, there wasn’t a likelihood I’d run into another crew out there… and I didn’t.
I treated my subject with respect. Some people said “nice work, but I don’t want to be on camera”. I didn’t hound them, I didn’t go crazy. Some people said “I’m a little worried about what you’ll do to my footage.” I gave those people a veto on the footage I used (not editorial control — just a “yes” or “no”) and let them see how I was going to use their image. I never had anyone pull out from that. I have had one or two people who I interviewed who had hoped the BBS documentary would cover present-day telnet BBSes in some fashion; this is a misunderstanding and I should issue a statement about that, since the documentary was always about dial-up BBSes and specifically about their history. But they didn’t feel I’d covered my chosen subject wrong or in a shallow manner. I’ve been involved with BBSes since 1981 – I wasn’t going to ruin the subject in the name of making the whole thing “marketable”.
Actually, let me just step aside and mention that issue in greater detail. I wasn’t aware until very recently that anyone I’d interviewed had a problem with the final BBS documentary. As it turned out, Rob Swindell (creator of Synchronet) was ultimately displeased. Not in the film as it turned out, but that the film didn’t also cover more present-day BBSes. He has issued a statement at his website about this, and I have sent a clarification/rebuttal to it (and talked to him on Usenet about it as well). The Summary: I considered my plate full enough covering dial-up BBSes, and covering the history of them, and getting the whole thing into a watchable, flowing work covering the five and a half hours. It’s all about the dial-up BBSes, and while there are in fact many telnet/internet connected BBSes, this is, to me, a different animal, and not what the documentary was meant to be about. That said, I interviewed Rob Swindell very very early in the production (the first year) and so I didn’t have a full clear idea of what the whole project was going to span, and so there was tons of opportunity for us to misunderstand each other’s interests, since none of mine were set in stone.
I never crippled the thing to make it “sell better”. Everything about the work was so that it would stand on its own, not be “a product”, and hence the release to Creative Commons and the fact that there’s so many separate episodes. I wanted this thing to outlast me and to outlast any specific “market share” or selling period. This actually has helped me in other ways, since every bit of it I believe in dearly and I didn’t compromise anything for nebulous outside forces. While it might have flaws in places, they’re my flaws, my choices.
Anyway, as the film festival rejections creep in (and by the way, for some of these festivals that you paid $30 to enter, the way you find out you’re not in it is you’re not listed in the schedule), I can console myself that it was not to be, that what I was doing and what film festivals do are different entities, and that, ultimately, I have to focus on what really matters: the thousands of people who have purchased or seen the film, who have written to me or talked about it, or who just watched it, smiled, and put this piece of history on their shelf.
…but damnit, I wanted the little cocktail weiners!
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