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The NYU Cinema Research Institute brings together innovators in film and media finance, production, marketing, and distribution to imagine and realize a new future for artist-entrepreneurs. 

Online Distribution & Grassroots Distribution: Notes from a fellow CRI Fellow's Symposium

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Online Distribution & Grassroots Distribution: Notes from a fellow CRI Fellow's Symposium

Michael Gottwald, Carl Kriss & Josh Penn

Claire Harlem 6

Claire Harlem’s CRI symposium on community and online distribution reflected a year of hard work and offered new insights into how the Internet is changing production, financing, and distribution. Claire’s program was especially relevant to our study since the Internet is a key tool for grassroots self-distribution. Here is a link to Claire’s fellowship blog from last year. During Claire’s symposium, several entrepreneurs spoke about social media sites they designed to help filmmakers raise funds and distribute their movies. The first presenter was Emily Best, the CEO and President of Seed&Spark.  Seed&Spark has a similar platform to Kickstarter with project pages that display a trailer, summary of the film, and prizes for donors. However, the Seed&Spark website also includes a wishlist where donors can contribute money or loan supplies that a filmmaker needs to make their movie. This feature seeks to tap into the “higher sense of service to others” that we discussed in our previous post Giving vs. Taking here.  Basically, creating a sense of service to others can be more effective than offering monetary rewards in motivate people to contribute since people have an inherent desire to help others in need.

However, Seed&Spark supplements the altruistic spirit presented by the wishlist with various material incentives and prizes for people who contribute. Similar to Kickstarter, Seed&Spark offers people who donate or loan supplies to a film project prizes such as DVD’s or movie posters. In addition, “sparks” points are awarded to people who sign up to follow projects, spread publicity for other films or watch films through the online cinema feature on the site. “Sparks” can then be used to watch movies offered on their cinema site or to get discounts from Seed&Spark partners, such as Film Independent and Big Vision Empty Wallet.

The Obama campaign applied an approach similar to that of Seed&Spark by having wishlists at field offices that displayed everything local offices needed, from food donations to cell phones and computer supplies. However, in contrast to "Seed&Spark," the campaign did not offer rewards or incentives to volunteers who donated. Instead, supporters were given more access to and ownership in the campaign, which motivated volunteers to believe that they were an integral part of a movement. See our post on Motivation and Transparency here.

Another speaker named David Geertz, discussed how his social media website Sokap seeks to create a community-based distribution system through a monetary relationship between the filmmaker and audience. Non-profits and individuals are incentivised to purchase the right to screen films in a town or city for a flat fee and then reap a certain percentage of the profit whenever someone buys the DVD in their area. This motivates people to advertise the film locally since they will receive a percentage of the revenue every time the film sells in their region. The amount of each commission varies between projects and is set by the filmmaker or production company. This model seems best suited for social issue films that relate to non-profit organizations with local chapters.

In contrast to Seed&Sparks, Sokap is focused on motivating audiences to help with the distribution of films locally rather than contributing resources for the production of the films. Furthermore, Sokap incentivizes audiences to get involved in the distribution of film by creating a monetary relationship with the filmmaker and audience, whereas Seed&Spark offers material prizes and “spark” points to motivate audiences.

All the speakers expressed the importance of filmmakers tweeting, facebooking and blogging in order to build their online audience. Although it is important for filmmakers to lay the groundwork for any future film by using social networking sites, we wonder if there is a ceiling to how much new filmmakers can accomplish when they do not have much work that is well known or at least can be shared and linked to on the internet. This is one place where a grassroots approach focused on offline outreach (cold calling non-profits, advocacy groups, etc.) to create relationships would probably bear more fruit in the early days. If no one is aware of who you are, tweeting a lot won’t magically build your audience. However, creating face-to-face or at least telephone relationships with people who have similar interests could result in people feeling more connected to you personally and later becoming more invested in your projects.

Social media platforms like Seed&Spark and Sokap that attempt to help filmmakers fund and distribute their films raise questions about what motivates people to donate their time, money and efforts to a project. Sokap attempts to motivate people to promote films by offering a percentage of the revenue.  Seed&Spark tries to motivate people through a sense of altruism offered by the wishlist and by offering material prizes. However, part of the success of sites like Kickstarter is the simplicity of pressing a few buttons and knowing you've contributed to a film's success. We found on the Obama campaign that when we tried to convey the power of donations in terms of what the amount of money could buy for the campaign, people were less incentivized to give. For example, giving $25 to a presidential campaign is more appealing than the explicit knowledge that that $25 will buy lunch for three organizers. In some cases, people seemed to prefer not knowing precisely how their monetary contribution would be used.

Furthermore, millions of Obama supporters were willing to donate their money without the promise of material rewards largely because it was the ultimate example of giving to a very large cause that they believed in. The campaign built personal relationships with supporters and volunteers, and organizers met with local supporters one-on-one to connect their interests to the goals of the campaign. Through these personal relationships, supporters became more connected to the grand cause of getting Obama elected and driven by indirect prizes that would come from his administration like passing healthcare reform, middle class tax cuts and bringing soldiers home from Iraq. People were inspired to get involved because they felt included in a movement that gave them hope for the future of their country.

Perhaps if filmmakers ran more of an offline campaign to build relationships within a community, audiences would be more willing to donate and loan supplies to film projects, whether online or offline. The Obama campaign was able to create a personal connection with supporters by setting up field offices and deploying thousands of organizers across the country. Obviously, a film campaign is much smaller in size. But perhaps a more narrow and focused approach to offline grassroots organizing would help independent filmmakers grow a deeper and broader connection with audiences online.

-Josh, Michael and Carl