These days, most discussions about film and new media revolve around digital distribution. But this emphasis often misses the point.
The Internet brought more changes to the business of making movies than merely the prospects of watching them online. The advent of social networking, the rise of the blogosphere and the public's growing comfort with online interactivity all contributed to strategies for getting movies made, period, no matter where they got shown.
Theories are quickly turning into practice.
The latest example came to my attention last week. IndieGoGo, a film-funding site that launched in January 2008, just passed $100,000 in member contributions. It operates under a unique concept: Filmmakers can directly interact with their fans, raise the profiles of their projects and ultimately turn to their future audiences to raise money.
The project appears to be working. Co-founder Slava Rubin cites several features that have succeeded after launching their production efforts on the site.
"Tapestries of Hope," a documentary about the spread of AIDS in Zimbabwe, raised $22,500 through its IndieGoGo page, which users can embed on other sites using a widget. The Liliput, which follows the survival tactics of a Jewish dwarf during the Holocaust, reached its goal of raising $10,000 on the site.
The web series “Gemini Rising” keeps raising money on the site -- and recently landed a Webby nomination. About half the funds have gone to a handful of projects while tidbits continue to trickle along for various others.
Although it diversifies the options for independent filmmakers, this progressive approach hardly simplifies the task at hand. An increasingly large number of people are making movies without the substantial financial support of Hollywood studios.
This means there's more content than ever before. Building an audience that has innumerable other projects vying for its attention requires serious dedication and skill. In the past few years, film distributors have struggled with an oversaturated marketplace.
Filmmakers, with even fewer financial resources, face an even greater challenge.
"The IndieGoGo tools are free and easy to use, but filmmakers need to be proactive," Rubin tells me. "Success has been happening on IndieGoGo and elsewhere on the Internet, so filmmakers need to be willing to experiment."
Some things never change. You think John Cassevetes just sat back and let his debut feature “Shadows” erupt into a worldwide sensation? Nope. He turned to radio listeners, film critics, curators and others who responded to his work. They spread the word, offered funding, set up screenings, and helped the movie become an underground phenomenon.
Today's alternative filmmakers also experiment, as Rubin encourages them to do, whether or not the whole world hears about it.
Some of the examples have been repeated ad infinitum to the point where it might seem like only a few minor case studies actually yielded promising results. You probably read about the remarkable online success of "Four Eyed Monsters" and may even know the detailed fan-building strategies of M Dot Strange with his amazing animated feature "We Are the Strange."
But I can name countless other features that rely on spectacularly effective crowd-sourcing strategies to reach their audiences.
Here's a quick list off the top of my head: "Nerdcore Rising," "The Cult of Sincerity," "RiP: A Remix Manifesto," "Lost Zombies," "Nation Undead," "In Search Of," "Sita Sings the Blues," "Steal This Film" and all the sweded mini-movies that helped raise the profile of Michel Gondry's "Be Kind Rewind."
These were not groundbreaking hits by Hollywood standards, but they managed to address the particular audiences that desired them.
That list keeps getting longer, and with good reason. Almost every day brings a new strategy for self-promotion and audience engagement. Even those who remain skeptical about the Long Tail theory should agree that -- at least most of the time -- a small crowd is better than none at all.