Arin Crumley is our community’s guinea pig. With his film Four Eyed Monsters, he tested just about every new method of d.i.y. filmmaking and self-promotion you can imagine, and he’s been generous in sharing what he has learned from the experience.
Although ostensibly we were going to talk about the Open Indie project — a set of tools he helped design for filmmakers to promote and distribute their films — it ended up being a wide-ranging conversation about everything from Amazon Studios to the economics of free culture to creating a sustainable model for filmmakers and artists in general.
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Making the Movie: In the last few months, you’ve had consultations with dozens of filmmakers as part of the OpenIndie effort. What have been some common themes in these conversations?
Arin Crumley: One big one is whether or not to try to monetize a film, basically making as much money as possible, or simply getting as much audience as possible and really opening up the distribution. That’s kind of the existential question that I noticed that directors and producers are getting caught in — and having many internal disagreements about.
A producer will often say, “I think it’s a little early to just go releasing this thing for free online with a Creative Commons license. I don’t know if our digital distributors would be happy about that.” And directors tend to say, “Well, you know, Arin has kind of a good point. He’s saying we get as much audience as we can now in order to create demand and support for our next project. The economy’s crap right now anyways and big deals haven’t happened yet, so what are we holding on to? Let’s let this thing go. Let people see it.”
When the producer and the director are the same person it seems that this conflict still exists, but within the single individual. Either way, the calls usually end with a lot of food for thought on that topic.
We also talk a lot about marketing and go into the core point and counterpoint that their project is making so we can make sure the trailer, tag lines and website reflect that. This is what takes up the majority of the call. Them catching me up with what their project is about and me looking for something that resonates as universal and as the main point they seem to be making and then, right along with it, is usually a conflicted counterpoint. I’ve spent lots of time explaining to filmmakers why it would help to make their trailers contain more of this tension between the main point and the counterpoint so that the viewer becomes conflicted by watching a trailer and then needs to watch the film in an attempt to find resolution.
Making the Movie: You’re a big advocate of social media. What kind of social media advice are you giving filmmakers?
Arin Crumley: A big idea that I’ve pushed in the consultations as well as in my New York Film Academy new media class is having one’s first step be to create a personal media channel. This is not as entertaining as a feature film but it’s also not as expensive. It’s something anyone can do.
You start a Twitter account, join facebook, start a blog, a video channel and an email list and you’re rolling. You use bit.ly as a bookmarklet in your browser to easily 1-click tweet articles you find that relate to your project’s research, adding summaries and quoting excerpts. You take photos on your mobile phone that relate to what you’re doing to make your project and post with small captions to your facebook. You blog on a regular basis using the photos and tweets as ingredients and have the throughline be what your project hopes to be about. Then you create videos when you need to pitch the project, or fundraise for the project or release a section that’s been edited to get feedback. Or just post shoot tests or any side projects that demonstrate your skills and aesthetics.
The resistance is that this sounds like a lot of work. Also many students still use their social media for personal use and don’t think that any of their online friends care about their project. They also don’t want people interested in their projects to come see their facebook. I try to encourage everyone to use their social media tools professionally. Include personality, of course, but save the beer pong for the personal archives not the public ones.
The main point is that, instead of just a bunch of lakes, which are all the films you’ll work on, it’s smart to also have a stream that link them all together, which is your personal media channel.
Arin Crumley: Four Eyed Monsters emerged before a lot of this, so we didn’t think about “media streams” at the time. But our way of doing this was creating the video podcast. This was a stream that ultimately dumped people into the lake that is the film. But that stream ended when the video podcast reached it’s conclusion. In the future I won’t be doing things that way; the stream I’ve built for myself now will continue on and on and spill into future projects.
Making the Movie: What role do online “friendships” play in filmmaking?
Arin Crumley: Well, hopefully friends care about each other and support each other. The same should apply to online friendship. Since filmmakers need a lot of support it makes sense that filmmakers need lots of online friends. But also making a film gives back a lot of support by providing entertainment and new insight into whatever the film is about. So the more films you make, the more online friendships you’ll forge. Especially if you release your films freely online making it easy for people to watch what you’ve made.
I think it also helps a lot to really be yourself online, in your blogs, and in your videos. It also doesn’t hurt to also be in your projects sometimes. All of these things add up to people becoming friends with you and wanting to support your work. The more they recognize that when they feel supported by your work, it’s you that’s behind it, the more they will understand that, as an online friend, it’s really nice if they can also provide some support back.
Making the Movie: So what are some of the ways that filmmakers can ensure they get support or some kind of value back?
Arin Crumley: The value is in the cultural experience. The film being good and people appreciating that experience and valuing it is all that’s really needed. The way to get value is to acquire something from the audience. If this can be money, great. But with the modern media landscape providing lifetimes of free media, it’s hard to argue why your content costs money. It’s very difficult to pry money out of clenched fists of someone who doesn’t pay for any of their content.
So the question is what else you could get from the audience, what else could they do to give back? Encouraging them to spread the word is a good idea. Embracing a free and open release is a way to do that. If they have to admit to illegal file sharing they won’t feel too good posting to Twitter and facebook with links to the film. But if they got it legitimately and a message at the end of the film encouraged them to spread the word, then this is something they may do. Following you on your social networks is another way.
We’ve created a way on OpenIndie for an audience to “follow” a filmmaker which means they pre-request any new film that filmmaker makes. But the big question is how do you pay rent and buy food so you can keep making films. I think that asking for donations of money or other resources such as props, housing, locations and volunteering to make your next project happen is the best way to receive support from an enthusiastic audience.
Making the Movie: Your most recent distribution experiment interests me. You re-released Four Eyed Monsters online at Vodo and have since gotten over 350,000 downloads.
Was this the number of downloads you were looking for? (For comparison, the YouTube version of the film currently has 1.2M views.) Have you learned anything from this experience that would change how you did it a second time?
Arin Crumley: The opportunity came our way for Vodo to promote the film through BitTorrent’s network and Susan [Buice, the co-director,] and I both thought that, the more file sharing of the film, the better. The film had previously been on filesharing via the DVD rip and YouTube download, but both of those were lower resolution than this new release. Also, both were sometimes hard to find, making it difficult to always get a quick file-shared download. This release made it very easy.
Also, this release contained a message in the intro encouraging people to help distribute the film, as well as encouraging them to donate if they like what they see. Truthfully, we got virtually no donations, so maybe they didn’t like what they saw, or maybe it was too soft of a sell. The end of the credits contained a message letting people know the story continues and gave them a link and we’ve gotten under 100 clicks to that page so that didn’t work too well either. So the truth is that file sharing sort of sends your film off into the void with no really good “phone home” mechanism. But audience is audience and there have been some people that came and found me on facebook because of seeing the film on Vodo, so getting the film out there is simply good.
Also, I don’t expect the audience viewing habits to change overnight. I hope eventually audiences on file sharing networks will come to better understand the relationship that is available to them with the filmmakers who encourage the downloading of their films. This conversation is honestly a hard one to have with the audience and I’m looking to refine how this is handled with future releases.
Making the Movie: So that’s still being developed. You’ve also recently started rethinking the DIY filmmaking approach as well.
Arin Crumley: Honestly, I think the biggest problem with DIY filmmaking is that it’s done alone. A little too much in a bubble. If filmmakers could unite, then they could cross-pollinate audiences as well as avoid putting all eggs in one basket.
Or, in some cases, a DIY filmmaker with really strong cinematography might want to team up with a DIY filmmaker with really strong performance-directing and another DIY filmmaker with really great writing skills. I know this pulls the whole thing in more of a studio direction, but I think that a micro-studio is the new DIY and that when indie filmmakers unite, they can can do so much more.
Making the Movie: I’ve been promoting exactly the same idea. I’m really trying to discover how to make filmmaking sustainable, how to make it career.
Arin Crumley: The idea of a large co-op, collective studio online that does address the need of sustainability that you’re bringing up, and also introduces more abilities to collaborate. That could be really powerful. And I don’t know. Here’s the thing, I’ll be totally honest. I started these consultations and I started OpenIndie as well, with the idea of signing on to this ‘1,000 True Fans’. And what I’ve learned in the process is that, it’s not practical for every single creative individual on the planet to have 1,000 true fans. Because there might be somebody who is more of a visual artist who happened to make a film, someone who’s actually more like an animator and is really going to reach their highest potential when working with a larger team than they would doing the animation themselves. And that larger movie is something that’s gonna touch more than 1,000 people. You know?
There’s this kind of American thing of independence and individuality. Because I am teaching a lot of international students at NYFA, and then there’s also a lot of international filmmakers that I’ve talked to through the OpenIndie consultations, I’ve been exposed to the world cinema landscape. In the U.S., it’s very entrepreneurial. It’s very like, ‘you can build a business for yourself.’ And when you look at the examples of the successes here, you can see Robert Greenwald has done pretty well with crowd-funding; raising up to $300,000 for getting a budget together for a film, or even, you know, self-help kind of films, like The Secret. These are projects that have a clear business model to them.
But the more you depart into just art, where you’re making culture for the sake of expression, these kind of models don’t work. Your movie has value, but it’s not immediate. Some creations are a slower burn and the support is not as immediately passionate.
So the same with Kickstarter. Kickstarter is pushing this idea of a ‘bedroom project’. You can do a project in your bedroom. And it can have a global impact. And while that’s great and that’s where everybody needs to start, the thing is, is what do you do if that’s successful? That’s successful and now there’s going to be interest in other projects. You have to turn it into a business for yourself.
The relationship that’s been established, and this is true with Four Eyed Monsters, is a relationship of freely giving. So then you’re like, “Now I’m gonna charge money and haha, switch it on you.” And the thing is, when you have that changeover, you lose some of the audience. And so that’s kind of been the point we need to correct. We need to correct the culture of audiences so that they understand that they support the creatives and that is their role in this relationship, in this equation. Culture enhances their lives and they need to step up and help culture be created.
You know, Four Eyed Monsters, as successful as that was, we’re not getting $100,000 from our 1,000 true fans, or whatever, every year. But the resources are there to continue to make projects.
So what I’ve been thinking about over the past year of doing all these consultations is, is there any way that a community can come together that is more about aggregating the resources needed for filmmaking rather than the cash needed for filmmaking? Which sort of opens up a much bigger question that’s larger than filmmaking and is more about economies and how economies function.
And that’s what I’m currently working through with my company, The Co-Create, which is the company that made OpenIndie. We’re working on ways to have a film collective where people can contribute all kinds of things, not just money.
Making the Movie: I like that idea so much better than Amazon’s implementation. And I’m worried, because with Amazon, they have this million dollar prize and it’s almost like playing the lottery. You know, if you know anything about statistics, you’re an idiot to play the lottery. But people do and it’s because that hope of winning the million dollars overpowers the rational calculation of the odds.
It’s the same with the Amazon model, or really most script and film contests. The people who are sustained are not the filmmakers, but the people running the contest. Amazon and Warner Brothers are getting more than a million dollars, presumably, worth of ideas, development, content from emerging filmmakers who could instead be putting their efforts toward something that has a better chance letting them continue to make movies and develop their craft. Compare that to a collective where the contributions go in from, and then come back to, the people.
Arin Crumley: Exactly. Exactly. The problem with doing free work for Amazon is that they’re a major multi-million dollar corporation, they don’t really need your free labor and they don’t really necessarily value it.
What I’m imagining is a whole new economy for filmmaking where you can go in, have an idea, spend some money on that idea and then have it, if you choose, have it be part of the studio. But then, if that makes money, then it goes back to the people who put value into it. But if it doesn’t make money, which could very well be the case, and in every single mainstream studio, that’s perfectly fine. That happens the majority of the time. They spend a lot of money and it actually doesn’t make any money back, but they’re never banking on one project like us DIYers. They’re banking on a slate of films.
So the collective can bank on its slate. And the individual filmmakers can kind of relax a little bit and just create things and hope that they resonate and provide value in the form of whatever art it is.
Making the Movie: It’s a beautiful dream. One final question: what is your advice to an aspiring filmmaker in one hundred words or less?
Arin Crumley: Check your ego at the door and be nice.
All images courtesy Arin Crumley, except for Creative Commons, Kickstarter, Amazon Studios and Vodo, which are used as illustrations of the respective companies.