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.