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Is MySpace changing the way independent films are marketed?

BY ALEXANDRA DELYLE

LESLIE McCLEABE’s ROAD.

Even before it was purchased by Rupert Murdoch for $580 million last July, MySpace.com was well on its way to becoming the most powerful entertainment marketing resource on the Web. And now, with over 60 million users who are overwhelmingly young, hip and media-savvy, the site is still the leader in the social-networking arena, allowing its members to meet and hobnob over pages they design and personalize themselves. MySpace occasionally analogizes itself as the online equivalent of a high-school locker, adorned with photos of the student’s friends and favorite celebrities. But the site has attracted much of its media buzz due to its success as a promotional powerhouse able to combine the information-age qualities of the Internet with old-fashioned grassroots publicity values.

MySpace proved its worth to artists with its success in promoting new music. For any up-and-coming band, a MySpace page with tour dates that can be clicked directly into a user’s social calendar and a crowded friends list ready for the latest e-mail blast is a must when it comes to getting the word out. With the launch of MySpace Film this past spring, MySpace has made the film world its next area of conquest. “I went with music and film on MySpace because I was a musician who went to film school,” MySpace co-founder Tom Anderson told Filmmaker. “It’s both what interested me personally and what seemed to make the most sense within MySpace.”

When joining MySpace, new members can identify themselves as filmmakers when they join, and MySpace has a film home page that rotates banners promoting five featured filmmakers each week in addition to running other content. (Filmmaker is a partner on this page, contributes a “pick of the week” each Friday and maintains an active MySpace page of its own with over 25,000 friends posting comments and movie clips.) As with music, MySpace allows its filmmaker members to cut and paste their trailers and promo clips into their friends’ comments sections, allowing news about a film to spread virally across its network. And MySpace Film offers special promotions and events. When Abel Ferrara’s Mary, which is seeking a U.S. distributor, wanted to create an event during the Tribeca Film Festival, the producers turned to MySpace, who arranged a “secret screening” open only to MySpace film members.

Discussing MySpace’s film strategy, Christine Moore, Content Producer, comments in a statement, “The core strategy of the MySpace film channel will always be to build a community for independent film, filmmakers and industry professionals to promote themselves within the community and to related audiences. The evolution of the channel will consist of a growing number of users, new features, and enhanced tools for promotion and education. Some of these will come from strategic partnerships, channel sponsors and festival and school tie-ins.”

The growth of the MySpace film channel is happening concurrent with the major studios’ sudden acknowledgement of the site’s power as a marketer to young audiences. The leader here, of course, is the Murdoch-owned Fox, which created an X3 skin on MySpace for the film’s opening week. Other studio films, like Pirates of the Caribbean 2: Dead Man’s Chest, The Hills Have Eyes and Ice Age: The Meltdown, did major buys on the site, and each film blew past expectations during its opening weekend. Discussing the studio MySpace strategy, Anne Thompson wrote in her “Risky Business” column in the Hollywood Reporter, “Each studio is able to repurpose their ad materials and artwork for a MySpace page, working with MySpace’s interactive team.... The studios create contests, engage MySpace members in downloading wallpaper, AIM icons and screensavers, watching video clips, listening to songs and podcasts, creating do-it-yourself content and learning about the different characters in a movie [who often have their own profiles].”

But what about the true independents, the film equivalents of garage bands who tour tiny club to tiny club in a rented van? There are tons of them on the site already, but are they scoring the indie equivalent of that Pirates 2 opening weekend? And will MySpace drop the indies as the studios devote more of their marketing dollars to the site?

Moore says not. “The focus of the film channel will continue to stay on the independent filmmaker,” she says, noting that MySpace is launching a new Movies channel that will be separate from the Film channel. “With the launch of the Movies channel there is an established place to feature and promote the larger studio films without taking away the independent film focus of the Film channel. Occasionally there will be some cross-over content when it benefits the overall film community and channel, like a question and answer session with a director or access to special screenings for the community.”

We spoke to several filmmakers — independents without major distribution — who are promoting their films on MySpace, and their reactions run the gamut. Some liken the social-networking landscape to an unmowed lawn: messy and overgrown. “Every 12-year-old with a camcorder is posting his movie,” sighs one forlorn filmmaker. “There’s so much junk out there, your film can get lost in it.” But others see the vastness of MySpace its most valuable resource — a massive talent pool with limitless networking possibilities, all free of charge. “Regardless of the clutter, [MySpace] has given indie filmmakers a kind of base operation,” says Dominic Greco, a Utah-based filmmaker who used the site to find cast and crew for his upcoming film Plastic. “We can all browse each other’s projects and team up with other filmmakers who have similar visions.”

Greco knows a lot about networking on MySpace: it’s where he met (and fell in love with) cinematographer Janissa Rose Hamilton, who moved from Virginia to Salt Lake City to collaborate on Plastic, a drama about teenagers who get embroiled in credit card fraud. Greco and Hamilton cut together a spec trailer for the film, created a MySpace page that has over 7,200 friends and now hope to secure financing through their growing network of supporters.

When the producers of the bio-doc Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him)? began searching for their target audience of Nilsson fans, they devised a pretty logical strategy using the site. “We heard there were a lot of Harry fans on MySpace, [and] we knew how powerful the site was,” says Arlene Wszalek, an associate producer of the film. A simple query into the MySpace music search field yielded hundreds of profiles, and before long the official Who Is Harry Nilsson film page had 1,630 friends. “Once we got accepted to the Seattle Independent Film Festival...we sent a bulletin to [our] MySpace friends, and people started e-mailing [to say] that they would be traveling to Seattle to see the film,” says Wszalek, who points to the film’s MySpace popularity when speaking with potential distributors.

While this promotional tactic — building grassroots support through an already-existing fan base — is ideal for a small film with a niche audience like the Nilsson doc, it requires a good chunk of time spent sifting through those 60 million users. But some lucky filmmakers find that they don’t necessarily have to expend this effort to gain attention for their films. When the trailer for Matt Riddlehoover’s feature To a Tee earned a nomination for the MySpace Film User’s Choice Award, the filmmaker himself didn’t even realize it was in the running. “I uploaded the trailer at the end of April and a few days later received a call from another filmmaker alerting me to its User’s Choice nomination,” says Riddlehoover, who ended up winning the award in May. Though To a Tee has yet to secure distribution, Riddlehoover is confident that the MySpace attention is invaluable. “It’s being advertised, for free I might add, on one of the top visited, viewed and used sites on the Internet,” he says. “It’s nice knowing that the film has a surefire audience if and when it gets distributed.”

Other filmmakers have also sort of stumbled into their audiences on MySpace. Writer-director Alison Murray launched a page for her film Mouth to Mouth prior to its theatrical release by Artistic License. When Murray was selected as a featured filmmaker, her friends list exploded and the film’s own Web site, the URL of which appeared on her MySpace page, saw its traffic jump to 1,000 hits a day.

Writer-director Leslie McCleave and producer Zach Mortensen put up a page on the site for McCleave’s eerie, environmentally-themed road movie Road, which will be released in theaters via Seventh Art and run on Showtime this fall. “We set it up, and we had 30 friends — mostly other films that I knew — and that was fine,” she says. “But then, all of a sudden, I had hundreds of [friend] requests over one weekend.” That was the weekend McCleave went up as a “selected filmmaker” on the MySpace Film home page. “Two thousand people saw the trailer,” she says, “and a lot of people wrote and asked how they could buy the DVD. We have distribution, but we don’t have a DVD deal. If only we had direct marketing, though, we could have made a lot of sales.” McCleave collated all these names on a separate list and will send them a bulletin when the DVD is ready. She also says she joined several environmental groups on MySpace to get the word out about the green themes of her film.”

Mortensen sums up the benefits of MySpace like this: “It’s a way to keep something live without having a full-time Web designer at your beck and call, which is outside the budget of most independent films. It’s one more place to let people know about screenings and show them the trailer, and a lot more people wind up learning about the film on MySpace rather than a personal Web site, because it’s easier to stumble across it there.”

How did McCleave get prime placement on the home page? “I have no idea,” she says with a laugh. “I don’t know anybody there. We have a hot trailer and our page design is really good, so maybe that helped.”

Mortensen’s producing duties on Road including designing its MySpace page, something he also did for another film produced by his company Ghost Robot, Choking Man. “I approach the design from the viewpoint of ‘Let’s try to make it look good,’ because MySpace is hard to make look good,” he says. “It’s great because it’s modifiable, but it’s difficult because there are a lot of limitations.” Mortensen copied his code from one of the many MySpace page editors that can be found on the Web, tweaked it a bit using his own Web knowledge, and tried to “make [the page] as solid visually as we could.”

So, how do films and filmmakers pop up on the MySpace film channel page? Says Moore, “The process is fairly organic. We are constantly scouring the site for filmmakers with great content who are actively promoting themselves to the community. The films in our Featured Filmmaker section sometimes come from festival associations and/or have been approached to provide exclusive MySpace content. We are also sure to include films of all sizes and genres within the smaller Featured Filmmakers section. As the channel continues to evolve there will be rotating areas that will feature user-generated content through promotions and contests.”

Funnily enough, it’s not the studio films or the no-budget films that seem to have an identity crisis when dealing with MySpace. It’s the mainstream indie films — those with distribution and studio affiliation — that find themselves in a tricky spot. How do they best utilize their marketing resources and somehow maintain street cred? While big-budget movies infiltrate MySpace with the usual Madison Avenue game plan, which banks on celebrity appeal and brand recognition, middle-of-the-road indie films often hybridize this mainstream approach with a slow-building grassroots campaign.

The MySpace page for Ryan Fleck’s Half Nelson is a great example of this hybridization. The page is elegantly understated; it has the look and feel of a friend’s personal profile. The main picture is a tiny shot of Ryan Gosling which could pass for a candid party photo (very grassroots); scroll down and there’s a sleek, high-res slide show of screenshots (very studio). Blog entries are populated with links to laudatory reviews, and the Favorite Music section lists all the songs used in the film’s soundtrack.

Essentially the Half Nelson profile has all the elements of a well-produced press kit. But will it attract the right viewers? Whitney Ewing of Hunting Lane Films, one of the film’s producing companies, has been handling the MySpace page recently. She suggests that a less-is-more design philosophy is a golden rule of MySpace promotion. “The page was designed to give users key information,” she says, “and give them incentive to return to the page for updates: added images, videos and press.”

A successful MySpace profile is one that builds curiosity among its users, compelling them to visit weekly — even daily — and thus whetting their appetite for the film itself. This can be done through the profile blog, where the poster can establish a “tune in next week” rapport with his readership. The temptation to stuff your page with lush stills and dozens of Quicktime clips is very real — avoid it. Visiting an overloaded site feels like a trip to Times Square. Because MySpace is so cluttered — with users, bands and blockbusters alike — the best way to stand out is, ironically, to de-clutter.

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KINGS OF INFINITE MYSPACE (FILMS)

How to make the most of MySpace and your movie.
By Liz Cole

MySpace Film is a new portal for indie filmmakers to promote their work and connect with their peers. It adds a new facet to Web marketing strategies, which ideally should combine social networking sites with niche-interest and music-based message boards, tastemaker seeding on blogs, event listservs, activist listservs, specialized appropriate sites like Shooting People, Indymedia, craigslist events and Yahoo groups and chat rooms. The promotional reach MySpace gives a filmmaker is both broad and shallow, which makes it an ideal site for publicizing a nationwide release or for selling DVDs and downloads of your feature film. For smaller releases, like a film screening in select areas, it’s a little problematic. Bulletin event announcements go to your entire friends list instead of targeting a specific geographical area, and the general Screenings Bulletin on MySpace Film gets traffic only from those who know where to look. This can be frustrating to people in the boondocks missing your film, as well as you. Filmmakers should use the Forum to network and connect with other filmmakers, post in the Classifieds and the Screenings bulletin space, but also keep in mind that nothing beats good ol’ fashioned, real-world social networking for rallying the troops.

But I digress. Here are a few helpful hints for first-time viral video users who want to publicize their films on MySpace.

1. Make a profile on MySpace Film (as opposed to the general site). Include all the screening dates and all locations your film is playing. Write a tight synopsis. Your contact info, or an alternate way to reach you, should be on there somewhere, although MySpace’s terms of service prohibit posting phone numbers as well as full names and addresses. Include a video trailer and stills plus goodies like pictures from some of your screenings, outtakes and other stuff people can’t see anywhere else. Be sure to link to your vigorous and beautifully laid out primary Web site. Even though MySpace is becoming the Internet itself to teens, your work deserves a better showcase than MySpace’s Fisher Price layout.

2. Posting images and video is pretty self-explanatory. MySpace’s video module is still buggy, so it’s recommended to have a linkable backup stored on YouTube or a server. Images must be 72 dpi or less (that’s screen depth, as opposed to a 300 dpi print-quality monster). The site automatically converts video to .flvs.

3. Make your profile’s aesthetic as consistent with the posters, packaging and other imaging of the film as possible so there is some degree of branding with your non-Internet materials. Consider using “Pimp My MySpace,” “Tom’s MySpace Editor” or any of MySpace’s free editing software to tweak the design of your profile and give your page a distinct character that feels right for your film.

4. Once you’ve added all your real friends and acquaintances, add new friends according to how their interests match up with the marketable elements of your film. For example, Garrin Vincent is the 28-year-old director of Starslyderz, an impressive homemade camp epic which Variety lauds as “the accumulated snarky-satiric musings of every American ex-teen raised on Star Trek, Star Wars, Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, Transformers and fantasy video games.” It also has the bad-taste humor of the best John Waters movie John Waters never made, and it’s probably poised to become the next great midnight movie. The audience, as explained to Garrin by the director of San Francisco’s Hole in the Head fest, is “the low-hanging fruit.” Garrin elaborates: “Our audience is stoners, frat boys and college kids, people who laugh at anal-sex jokes, and wrestling fans.” That’s who he went after.

5. On that note, it’s most efficient to find future fans in the heavily padded profiles of other like-minded filmmakers, films, organizations and famous people. MySpace’s search function isn’t the best, so searching people by keywords like Evil Twin Booking (the film booking agency where I work) will return hundreds of people with twins, Evil Dead fans and the like from MySpace’s massive database. Better you visit the profiles of, say, Michael Moore (probably not really run by him), Filmmaker magazine or the Sundance Channel and add away.

6. If your film’s soundtrack is by a band with a MySpace profile, add their friends, and be sure to mention the band’s name in your profile. Starslyderz features the music of Estradasphere, a popular (at least more popular than Starslyderz) band produced by a member of Mr. Bungle, a group with a fiendish cult of fans. The obvious choice when adding friends, Garrin says, “was to add all Estradasphere fans,” and eventually the high friend count on the Starsylderz page tipped into a steady stream of friend requests on his profile every day.

7. Post a three- to five-minute trailer (not the whole film) in high-traffic areas such as the comment boxes on popular profiles, in active threads on the MySpace Film Forum and other message boards on the site. Announce your screenings and events in a bulletin, which goes out to everyone on your friends list.

8. Use the Top 8 (or Top 16 or recently added Top 24). This is a prominently displayed list of your favorite friends’ profiles, which you curate. Your Top 8-16-24 is one of the first things people see when they visit your profile, so it should reflect your film’s aesthetic as closely as possible. It’s equally important to get your profile in other people’s top 8-16-24. A few good Top 8 placements in popular profiles is the best free advertising you can get on MySpace.

9. Promoting: The primary demographic of MySpace is teens and people in their early 20s. Older people don’t have the time for it, they don’t find it relevant, or they think it’s a data mining site for Rupert Murdoch. So it’s good if other people besides you are sending messages about your film. According to Evil Twin Booking’s Scott Beibin, “Younger audiences think that if someone has to self-promote, it’s worthless. Older audiences appreciate it; they think it shows you have gumption.” This goes for other forms of promotion too: flyering, merchandise, etc. “Even at a film fest I can’t allow myself to wear an Afropunk T-shirt,” says Afropunk director James Spooner. “I come from a culture where if you’re in a band and you wear your own shirt, it’s mad cheesy. I’d rather give them to other people and act like I’m too humble.”

10. And “don’t make the mistake of letting MySpace become the Internet for you,” says Beibin. “There are parameters under the user agreement that aren’t exactly transparent, and accounts are deleted in what appears to be an arbitrary manner.” Make sure MySpace isn’t your film’s only way to reach people over the Net.

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