Twitter, File Sharing and Pink Slime

Over at Filmmaker Magazine, Jake Abraham, writer/producer of “Lovely by Surprise”, wrote yesterday about his troubles with Twitter and file sharing. I know he’s not the only one, so it seemed a good opportunity to share a few points on how to turn these tricky points to your advantage.

Abraham writes:

Twitter in particular has proven to be a great device for communication amongst our followers. It has also become a tool for evil, I’ve discovered. On Saturday, August 8th, one month after our official release date, there was a spike in tweets related to LBS. We wondered why and took a look. It appeared that people were tweeting and re-tweeting a URL that linked to a pirated version of the film.

Remember the pink slime from “Ghostbusters II”? For most of the film, it was also a “tool for evil.” But Dr. Spengler et al. sprayed it all over the inside of the Statue of Liberty, and then it made everybody hug. (Ok, it represents a slightly different kind of “free,” but I think the analogy holds.)

I don’t need to spend a lot of time on how to compete with free, since it’s a well-covered topic. Kevin Kelly’s essay “Better Than Free” lists a number of factors that you can build into your film/story/product to give it value that make it worth paying for, even when it’s available for free. Brian Newman has a blog post and video on it, which is worth watching.

What this is really about is taking advantage of Twitter and other communication tools to play a major part in the global conversation about your work. (If there isn’t one, you need to start it.) Piracy on Canal St. happened before the Internet, and illegal downloading happened before Twitter. As Abraham acknowledged, you can’t stop it. Beyond pointers to free downloads, people are going to be saying lots of things about your film that you don’t like, including bad reviews, off-brand descriptions of your work and possibly even lies or personal attacks. The power of the Internet is that you can be in on it. You can know it’s happening, you can respond to it and you can preempt it.

As a filmmaker, you are at a tremendous advantage in owning your brand’s online story. Presumably, you know all about your film before anyone else does, so you can start putting your message out there before anyone else gets to it. You own the domain name, twitter account, etc. for the name of your film. (You don’t? Get on it!) And the people who love the film are probably the most vocal about it, and they’ll link back to you. You have to work real hard to piss people off enough that the haters will shout more loudly than the fans. If you keep the conversation going, those tweets and blog posts about torrent links and other nastiness will drift off the front pages and into obscurity. There are a few tiny things about me personally from way back that I’d rather not have out there (nothing too juicy, sorry), but you have to dig pretty deep to find it, because I’ve put myself out there with Twitter, an open Facebook account, my blog, etc.. But if you keep quiet, the nasties will fill the void for you.

Of course, it’s much harder to take advantage of this when you’ve got $1 million or more at stake and you address the matter after your film is already out. I think it’s wise to keep budgets low for now, as the details are still being worked out, but they will be worked out, since these are not entirely new business principles. Mercedes-Benz doesn’t go out of business just because it’s cheaper to get to work in a Hyundai. And Coach is still profitable, even though their belts are being knocked off everywhere. That’s because Mercedes and Coach are premium brands, and it’s not about a cheap ride to the office or keeping your pants from falling down. Their advertising messages reflect that, which is why Mercedes ads have Janis Joplin and vintage cars instead of some announcer shouting about seasonal discounts.

Most independent films are also premium brands. Your film is probably not about killing 90 minutes. It’s not about catching a glimpse of Megan Fox bent over, and it’s not about keeping the kids quiet in the back of the minivan. You can’t compete with “free” on price any more than Mercedes can compete on price with Hyundai. So don’t. Your film is about a deeper story, and the ability to create that is your sustainable competitive advantage. Twitter and other digital media are your opportunity to demonstrate that.

I’m writing a film right now, and even before the script is finished, I’m planning some cool stuff for screenings, merchandise and other payment points to add value along the lines of Kevin Kelly’s article. When I release the film, I will probably put it online for free. By putting it out there myself, I can beat the pirates to it and make sure free copies are burned with a URL to my online store, and I can track how many people are watching it. But it also tells the story that my film is a full experience and more than just a few hundred megabytes of pixels. After all, as a filmmaker, I should know how to tell a story, right?

Sure the Internet is a double-edged sword. But if you know where to swing it, you don’t have to cut your face off.