More and more frequently, filmmakers ask me for feedback on their film websites, and I keep seeing the same thing: heavy, multimedia sites built on Flash. I keep seeing site navigation all in a full-screen image representing some iconic place in the film; animations of design elements flying or fading in on every page; music playing automatically; long loading screens; and the dreaded splash pages. This seems to have become the standard. Hollywood does it. (See: Beowulf, Lions for Lambs, American Gangster.) The indies do it. (e.g. Margot at the Wedding, Eagle vs. Shark, Weirdsville). It’s awful, and it’s so Web 1.0.
We are well beyond denying that a film website is the most effective and often the only entry point to discovery of your film. The audience has to jump an increasingly absurd number of hurdles to see your movie in the theater. The website is an opportunity to introduce the film as quickly as possible, provide the detailed information your audience and the media are looking for, to engage your audience repeatedly, and to make it ridiculously easy for fans to promote your film for you.
Below, I’m going to explain why this ancient model fails and suggest a few starting points for an alternative approach.
Why Flash sites fail
Flash sites are heavy and slow. It takes extra time to download and process all those big graphics and sounds, and you can’t afford to make the casual web browsing fan wait. Many of them may be browsing on computers a few years old or spotty wi-fi connections. That “loading” progress bar isn’t part of your story, is it? Nobody likes it.
Flash sites give your site a non-standard interface. Where did the right-click menu go? How do you copy text to the clipboard? Where does that link go? Does it open in another window? What does the “back” button do? Where the hell is the button that stops that loud music? Nobody wants to re-learn how to browse the web just for your little movie.
Flash is not searchable. If you do it right, many visitors will find your site through a search engine. With Flash, that all disappears. It also prevents searching within the browser.
Most of these sites don’t allow deep-linking. That’s the trade-off for not having to reload the whole flash file every time you go to a different section. This is important for encouraging links to your content. See if you can find a direct link to the trailer on the Lions for Lambs site.
Those animations keep repeating. They’re cool the first time, but don’t make me watch your menu fly in every time I go to another section of your site.
You’re tied to your designer. Most Flash sites don’t allow you to easily change around your interface without going back to the busy, expensive Flash contractor you hired to build your site. What if you want to change one little menu item? Or even redesign the entire layout without losing all the content? Even another Flash expert could have a hard time tracking down the original source files and scripts. Same goes for jpg image map interfaces.
Most Flash sites, like the examples cited above, give the impression that the site is finished forever, that there’s no reason to keep coming back for new content. Even if there’s a news section, it’s much harder and more expensive to implement in Flash than in other HTML-based options.
No need to re-invent the wheel. Web browsers are good at laying out text and images and performing all the functions that go along with it. Flash requires you to re-implement all that, and more often than not you’re not gonna cover all the bases.
That’s not to say that you can’t solve any of the above problems within a Flash-based framework, but it’s a lot harder.
Set your film site up as a blog. It’s that simple. They’re searchable, deep-linkable, syndicate-able, re-designable, subscribe-able, modular and allow easy user interaction through comments. Get yourself Wordpress on your own server or on theirs. You can also try Livejournal, Blogger or Moveable Type. For the most part, they’re all free. Do a comparison.
Most blogging software will double as a content management system. So even if your main purpose is not to blog, you can easily set up fixed pages to give the basic information about your film. You may still need help from an expert to fully customize your layout, but they all come with multiple themes that should be enough to get you started.
See Four Eyed Monsters as an example. There are some things I would do differently if I had it to do over again, but for the most part, the site was a success. I wish I knew more examples of film sites that I like. If you know of some, please comment on this post.
When Flash is okay
There are some things that Flash is much better at than HTML, and I encourage using it for those specific purposes. The best example is for embedded media players, such as YouTube or any of the countless other video hosting sites. There are also good embedded audio players, like the one in the Audio Player Wordpress plugin. (See it in action on Lance’s site.) Flash is also great for games or animation, as on Homestar Runner.
The other reasons I think it works so well in those situations are that the non-standard interface is within a confined space of the specific media player and because the specific, compartmentalized rich-media experience makes it worth waiting for the download. (More on that another time.) Otherwise, lose it.