A Case Study in How to Release Your Short Film Online

A Case Study in How to Release Your Short Film Online

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This week, Vimeo reprinted an article from Short of the Week creators Andrew Allen and Jason Sondhi called “How We Launched Our Film Online: The Thomas Beale Cipher.”  These filmmakers wanted their film to be seen by a larger audience after 8 months of festivals, where they paid a lot of money and received no interest from distributors or the industry.  But they knew they had to have a plan.  They couldn’t just upload the film and hope for it to be seen.  So they constructed a great strategy that can be followed by many looking to release a film online to a wider audience.  Let’s take a look at what they did.

The Thomas Beale Cipher: How to Launch a Short Film Online

In broad terms, we’ve discussed how after you upload your video, you need to start sending it to places outside of YouTube or Vimeo or whatever video site the film/video is on.  And you want to take advantage of all your social media and any friends or crew who worked on the film to use their social media.  In this article, we looked at ABC’s Nightline study about how to make a video go viral.  In this one, YouTube’s Kevin Allocca talks about how videos found their way into the hands of “tastemakers.”

I don’t think Allen and Sondhi were looking to go viral as much as they were just looking for a larger audience on the whole.  Here’s their film, “The Thomas Beale Cipher:”

Now this is a cool film, complete with 16 hidden messages of varying difficulty to decipher (which gives it pretty good replay value), but most importantly this is a well-made, interestingly-animated movie.  So Allen and Sondhi had good content, they just weren’t reaching the right people.

Here was their launch plan:

  1. Go Vimeo. It has a stronger filmmaking community than YouTube which may hit more viewers, but Vimeo will attract the right viewers—those more likely to pass it on to others.
  2. Post early. Upload the film early Monday morning (12AM EST) to give the film a full 24 hours to rack up views and keep it relevant all week .
  3. Use Short of the Week as a springboard. Feature the film on our site and use our social media outlets to get the word out.
  4. Harness the crew. Make sure everyone associated with the film knows the plan, and shares it with their social networks. With even 8-10 people sharing on Twitter and Facebook (even if no one individually is Mr. Popular) its not hard to get over 1000 impressions which can be enough to reach a critical mass.
  5. Target key influencers. Email a few major blogs and news sites that share an interest in the film’s topic or technique. A key consideration is crafting a good email. As curators of a site  w/ a submit button, we know it is important to look pro. Have a well-designed email with well-written teaser description, something about the context of the making of the film, a blurb about the filmmaker and a hi-quality image. Make it easy for a blogger to turn around and publish without any further follow-up with you.
  6. Keep at it. All day, all week if needed—continue reaching out to new people.

Now, let’s discuss this plan.

Their first step (Go Vimeo) is something of an enigma.  I think they are right to target a video site like Vimeo for content like this, considering that Vimeo is a site that is home to a film-making community looking for high-quality content.  But they did upload this video to YouTube, about 2 months later.  I’m not sure there is any disadvantage to uploading it anywhere you can.  They uploaded it to their own website, Short of the Week, but to kick-start the conversation, they chose Vimeo, because these people were more likely to share the video.  But hey, it’s on YouTube as well.  You can’t really go wrong there especially if you follow the steps they did.  You can get exposure on many levels.  By the way, the Vimeo version touts 226,000 views, while the YouTube one sits at around 207,000.

They chose to start at the very beginning of the week, Monday morning at midnight (just after Sunday night), to upload the video.  This gave them a full week to play with, where they could share with new influencers each day and chart the progress for the entire week.  Had they launched it on a Friday, they would have had to either wait the weekend to share it with some sites or hope that those sites were open for submissions or requests over the weekend.  Otherwise, your video has 3 days of upload time and it’s not exactly new anymore.  One of the things websites who post videos like is to be able to be “first” or timely with their own audience, “in on the ground floor,” so to speak.

They used their own site as a springboard.  Really, they used their own site, and Twitter, and Facebook too, wherever they had followers.  For good measure, they made sure whomever worked on the film went about using their social media as well.  That’s connections upon connections upon connections.

So now they target influencers, beginning Monday afternoon.  And they had a schedule.  Here’s what it looked like:

  • Monday 24th, 12AM: Posted the film on Vimeo
  • Monday 24th, 12noon: Motionographer, Vimeo Staff Picks
  • Wednesday 26th: BoingBoing, Gizmodo, MetaFilter
  • Thursday 27th: The Daily What
  • Friday 28th: Fast Co. Interview, Fubiz
  • Next Monday 31st: Wired article

Pay very close attention to what he says in the “Target Key Influencers” step.  You are targeting sites “that share an interest in the film’s topic or technique.”  You want to find those who are most likely to want to share the video.  This harkens back to the Freddie Wong blog post (now updated) where he did a “Price is Right”-themed video and sent it to “Price is Right” fan sites.  In a video called “Light Warfare,” he submitted to some photography blogs, because he felt they would be interested in the techniques he used in the video.

Also important in this step is being able to follow guidelines.  And I’ll repeat what Allen says here: A key consideration is crafting a good email. As curators of a site  w/ a submit button, we know it is important to look pro. Have a well-designed email with well-written teaser description, something about the context of the making of the film, a blurb about the filmmaker and a hi-quality image. Make it easy for a blogger to turn around and publish without any further follow-up with you.

People who run blogs/sites are always looking for good content.  Making it easier for them to say, “This person is legit,” goes a long way.

So what were the results of their work? They made graphs.  Here’s what happened during the course of the week they were shared by influencers:

After their initial launch, this is what they saw with their film:

  • 170,000 views on Vimeo
  • 1300+ blog reviews/mentions
  • Shared over 5000 times on Facebook
  • 2000 Tweets
  • +500 Facebook fans

Here’s how their experience compared to the festival circuit:

What They Learned

Here’s what Allen and Sondhi learned from this experience:

  • It’s a lot of work. Next time I might think about engaging someone early in the project as PMD—Producer of Marketing and Distribution. This is a newish position that many in the indie-world are getting behind, folks like Jon Reiss, Sheri Candler and Ted Hope. We did it ourselves, but it was tough.
  • Facebook reigns. Perhaps most surprising is that although we had articles in Fast Company & Wired and mentions on big sites like Gizmodo, BoingBoing, and Motionographer, Facebook topped them all with the most number of views.
  • The online video world is not a meritocracy. If we thought this going in, we most definitely know it now. You can’t just put a film online and expect people to find it just because it’s a good film. You need a surge of traffic to get noticed.
  • The industry is now watching. The online premiere generated a fair amount of industry interest, far more than I ever expected. I was soon taking calls from studio execs, production houses, and others interested in collaborating on future projects.
  • Capture your fans. Ultimately, you want to make use of the views you get. I set up a website with additional info on the film and a Facebook page for news updates. The Vimeo page linked to the film website which linked to the Facebook page. After the surge of traffic to the website, I moved the FB Like button to right smack on the homepage. I now have a fan base! Who knew!? And one that I can easily contact, so they can be advocates for my next project.
  • Have something ready to promote or pitch. This is the one area where I could have done more preparation. The success of the online launch caught me by surprise. Fans of the film wanted more, but we had nothing to offer. If I did it again, I’d take a cue from Kirby Ferguson (Everything is a Remix) and ask for some support for future content/projects.

What people find out time and time again is that it’s not just about making videos, it’s about marketing and distributing them, too.  It’s a tough fact of video life that a lot of people don’t understand and hope they don’t have to do.  But in that Freddie Wong post I mentioned earlier, he says you pretty much have to look at this as a 40-hour-a-week job.  That’s tough for a lot of people because they already have a 40-hour-a-week job.  They might need some help, or bite the bullet and realize that it’s going to take a lot of time to work your pay job and your fantasy hope-for-pay job.  Allen and Sondhi realized that they just might have to hire someone to do this for them in the future.

I think it’s interesting, also, that they found Facebook to be their top source for their video being shared.  But it’s not terribly surprising when you consider that the people on there are people who can vouch for you, and champion you like no other.  But you know, they didn’t make a viral video here.  They made a ten-minute film.  That would probably change the results a bit.  If this were a typical viral video, they might have seen those blogs/sites stats go higher.

Next is a huge point: online video is not a meritocracy.  If there’s anything I’ve said on this site more than any other, is that videos just sitting around on a video site don’t just get seen magically because they’re good.  They get seen because you are proactive in finding an audience.  It’s just like any other business: you have a great product to sell and you need to advertise, or make it known somehow, that you have a great product to sell and where people can get it.

Here’s a very nice ray of hope here: the industry is watching.  These guys shopped their film around the festival circuit for nearly a year with nothing.  Then they posted it online, showed that they could market the film, and had producers and industry people calling them on future projects.  Of course, this was in early 2011.  We’re almost to 2013 and we know that online video is amazing tool for getting noticed, and the money and offers are pouring in for those who can make great content and know how to market it.

Capturing your fans means that you’d like to be able to drum up excitement for your future projects and go to them directly in the future.  You’ve built an audience who likes you, so now you know exactly where to go the next time you make a video.  In this instance, they set up a website with extra information, a Vimeo page that linked to a Facebook page with news and updates, and they gave their fans a place by which they could interact.

The last one is very important.  After watching The Thomas Beale Cipher, Allen and Sondhi didn’t have much else to give their fans.  This is especially important for those who want to make regular videos for a living, because that one or two videos you have sitting on your channel six months apart aren’t going to generate much excitement.  Here, they made a film people liked, but they didn’t have anything else to show and they didn’t promote anything for the future, so they lost out on their initially excited audience to create something more or leverage that excitement.

In the end, Allen and Sondhi learned a lot about the power of the distribution of online video,  They could reach a whole lot more people than they could languishing about in the festival circuit.  It made the process a whole lot more efficient for them, and they’ll do even better next time.  I’d like to thank Andrew Allen for his post: it has extremely valuable information!

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