Building an Audience with Social Media

Your film has all the elements of an underground hit: tears, laughter, intrigue, love, hate, betrayal… audiences will love it! But you spent your entire budget on production.

So the question remains: How can you effectively spread the word so that your film is viewed by as many people as possible, particularly when you lack adequate funding?

What Is Social Media?

Social media is the umbrella term under which various social “networks” and e-mail fall. Over the past few years, social media has taken over the Internet — and some might say most people’s lives. Sites such as Facebook, Flickr, LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube, MySpace and the oh-so-hyped Google Buzz are quickly becoming household names and for many, a way of life. The questions for independent filmmakers are threefold: Can filmmakers benefit from using social media? Is it worth the time and energy? And can a social media campaign offer positive results in comparison with traditional advertising and marketing?

To be sure, success via social media is not dependent upon budget (can you say Paranormal Activity?) but rather is dependent on technique, effort, patience and most of all, resourcefulness.

Benefits of Social Media

Not surprisingly, the number one benefit to using social media according to filmmakers? Those we spoke to responded with a resounding, “It’s FREE!”

But even better than free is free and effective. So what steps were taken by filmmakers to ensure the effectiveness of their social networking campaigns?

Ryan Gielen, executive producer of Believe Limited, and his brother and partner Matt Gielen, utilized social media exclusively for their coming-of-age film The Graduates. Though the film can arguably be called “a cult hit,” the Gielens admit to facing some serious challenges when using social media.

Developing an Audience From Scratch

As anyone on the social media scene can attest, there is little chance of sustained audience development without acquiring e-mail addresses – valid addresses and lots of them.

“We really started at ground zero in this department,” Ryan Gielen says. “Frankly, [the film’s participants] all knew people who have e-mail addresses, but none of us knew enough people to make a dent in an e-mail campaign… not even collectively. We needed big numbers.”

So how did the Gielens acquire over 100,000 valid e-mail contacts? “We went to where our audience was. We went to the beach, we pounded the pavement,” he says. “We sold our DVD to as many people as possible. But more than that, even if passersby weren’t interested in the film, we asked if we could add them to our e-mail list. Most said yes.”

With contacts in hand, the Gielens understood that they were developing a long-term relationship with their new fans and friends, which meant staying in touch without flooding in-boxes.

“We went from The Graduates ‘the movie’ to The Graduates ‘the company’ and looked at the film from a business point of view,” says Ryan Gielen. “We used Twitter [now with nearly 9,000 followers] and Facebook to keep our audience informed, and in the beginning, we sent teasers periodically to keep our audience up-to-date with the film, its status on Hulu, iTunes and Amazon, and where the next showing would be held.”

By the time the film kicked off this past April (with 20 college showings in 30 days), the word had spread and its May 1st and 2nd showings at the Astoria Beer Garden in New York, were sold out each night.

The investment in social media has continued to pay off for The Graduates. To date, the film has won three awards: the 2008 Directorial Discovery Award at the Rhode Island International Film Festival; the Aloha Accolade Outstanding Filmmaking Award at the 2009 Honolulu International Festival; and Best Comedy Award at the 2009 Seattle True Independent Film Festival.

The Graduates is still going strong and the Gielens have a ready-made audience for their next film. Meanwhile, a college tour began in November and this month viewers will be able to download the film for free. What’s the benefit of offering the film for free? To introduce The Making of The Graduates, the Gielens’ latest documentary.

Reaching the Offline Audience

While films that target teens and college students are a natural fit for social media, what about films whose ideal audience is not the typical social network user?

The Way We Get By is a critically-acclaimed independent documentary by newlyweds Aaron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly. It follows the lives of three outstanding seniors over the course of three years.

Bill Knight (86), Joan Gaudet (75, mother of the director), and Jerry Mundy (73) are three seniors who meet daily at a small, unassuming international airport. There, they welcome and bid farewell to American troops who serve in Iraq, while facing their own struggles: mortality, health problems, and other personal issues.

While the trio’s purpose is to pay homage to American troops, the film’s primary focus lies with the seniors themselves. So how does a filmmaker use social media to reach an audience of seniors, the very audience that utilizes social media the least?

The Importance of Partnerships

“We realized that most seniors aren’t connected to the Internet, so we had to connect with them through various agencies and organizations that come into contact with them,” Pullapilly says. “We partnered with groups [such as] the USO, National Council on Aging and AARP. So while the seniors themselves aren’t on the Internet, senior organizations that reach that demographic are.”

By having showings at military bases, a younger audience has been introduced to the film as well, with many soldiers recommending the film to family and friends, who in turn use social media sites to pass the digital word along to their family and friends.

The result? The film’s trailer has been viewed more than 63,000 times on its site and 1,400 of those viewers signed up to purchase the DVD prior to its release this past November. In addition to a special White House viewing as part of President Obama’s United We Serve initiative, PBS also featured the film on Veteran’s Day during its P.O.V. airing. This labor of love, which began in December 2004, has been brought to fruition thanks to the effectiveness of social media.

Although we’ve only profiled two films, one thing is certain: social media can work. It takes effort, resourcefulness, time and a lot of patience… but, when used correctly, social media can prove an effective tool to accomplish your goal: to have your film viewed by a vast audience – and isn’t that the whole point?

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