Filmmakers, Take Advantage of the New Virtual World!

I encourage film audiences to not only leave their phones on, but to tweet or update their Facebook pages while they are watching.

Last Updated: November 11, 2009 @ 4:06 PM

I first embarked on making my film, "We Live in Public," a little over 10 years ago. It was another era in 1999: a time when modems made ’80s synth screeches, many thought the internet was a passing fad and many major companies didn’t even have the most basic of websites.   

When I began documenting the social experiments of “Warhol of the Web," Internet bad boy, Josh Harris, I only knew I was documenting an eccentric innovator who spent his money in extraordinary ways — building bunkers instead of buying house and cars like most millionaires. Certainly the voyeur’s paradise that Josh created in boom-era, late-’90s NYC made for some colorful footage, but it took many years before I realized the greater significance of Josh’s work.  

I didn’t know if he was a buffoon or a visionary, an artist or a businessman trying to buy his way into the art world. And I certainly didn’t know how the cyber-bunker he built in lower Manhattan that ran for nearly 30 days over the Millenium, related to all of us in our lives, as it took years for society and technology to catch up to Josh’s vision of how our lives online would play out.

Very early on, Josh predicted that it would take over our lives and was driven to lay out several scenarios exploring what would happen as we lived as a society, and even in our most intimate relationships, in public. Indeed, the Internet has become such an integral part of our existence that it is almost impossible to imagine how we could function professionally, socially or perhaps for some of us, emotionally, without it.

The Internet gives us a new 24/7 way to satisfy the desire we all have as humans to connect, to avoid feeling we are alone, and further — to feel our lives matter in some way, that we are leaving a mark.

Just as people streamed into the bunker, answering 500 personal questions, and trading their privacy and eventually their freedom to be where it mattered, we accept terms and conditions online without reading them and increasingly reveal our personal lives for the feedback we are sure to receive through this new magic medium! 

When I saw first saw a trivial Facebook status update, “I’m driving west on the freeway” in late 2007, I realized that this movie had to come out as fast as possible. 

It is a crucial tipping point where the virtual world is now trumping the physical world, and it is affecting our identity and relationships in many ways. And as we connect out, through time and space, 50 times more daily than we did even last year, we are disconnecting 50 percent more from our physical lives to keep up this far more superficial communication. 

That’s only one of the potential pitfalls of this undeniable evolutionary process. 

I think the Internet is the most wonderful and powerful invention of our lifetime. It allows us to talk to our families over Skype across the world, know about atrocities in Iran and elsewhere, gather in the streets at a moments notice. It allows this film and others the ability to reach an audience directly, without a distributor, because it empowers everyone who sees it to have a voice that can influence others instantly anywhere. 
However with anything transformative, this powerful web has a dark side. Thanks to Josh Harris, I documented that dark side over the last decade, and ended up with access to 5,000 hours of riveting footage to deliver the cautionary tale about this complete societal transformation we are now experiencing.
It quickly dawned on me at Sundance, that it’s 2009, as all buyers prefaced their offers with that reminder.
I understood quickly that as an independent filmmaker today, if you care about your film and you want people to see it — you can’t just drop your baby off with a distributor these days, you’ve got to get your child off to college! This takes effort and love for at least a year after you have completed the work.
Even after "We Live in Public" won me my second Grand Jury Prize at Sundance 2009 (the first was for my doc DIG! in 2004), we had no offers that could even come close to allowing us to recoup our budget. We knew audiences and critics loved the film, so we decided to take advantage of the very tool the film is about and go renegade with it.
The Internet gives us extraordinary access to one another and we have worked very hard to figure out how to harness and maximize the impact of that access on a very limited budget. We knew we were looking to cultivate a far more personal relationship with our audience than would be typical of a normal release.
The first thing I did was to set up a Twitter account and begin "living in public." Wherever I go, whatever I do, my ever-expanding set of followers hears about it. One of my associate producers blogs about all of the latest news surrounding the film and then we periodically do e-blasts to our mailing list where we direct people to the blog posts and drive traffic to our site.  
Our webmaster, Nate DeNiro, built through WordPress, a free application, and it is auto-updated with my Twitter feed as well as any press, media or blogs that mentions our film. We’ve benefited greatly from the fact that many people see the film as a call-to-action for consciousness about something that is incredibly powerful, insidious, and affecting us all.
The support of fellow artists has been integral to the incredibly high-quality of the film, given its budget — which is below one million dollars. We have a soundtrack that includes such incredible artists as David Bowie, Sigur Ros, Spoon, Janes Addiction, NIN, the Jesus & Mary Chain, the Pixies, etc. This is because the artists saw the film and in many cases waived their fees or pushed their labels to work with us because they felt this film was so important.
Just as it has attracted the Museum of Modern Art in N.Y. to acquire it right off its N.Y. premiere as the closing night film at New Directors/New Films, it has attracted forward-thinking artists and tastemakers who have very visible online lives, including celebrities such as Trent Reznor, Demi Moore, Ashton Kutcher, Perry Farrell and Eric Avery from Jane’s Addiction, Brent Bolthouse and Eliza Dushku.  
All of the aforementioned people have been vocal on our behalf and helped us acquire many followers in short order, tweeting about the film as its traveled the country theatrically. When Ashton first tweeted about "We Live in Public," we got 40,000 hits to our trailer on YouTube in 24 hours!!!  
We have also used the Internet to give access to bloggers and press in a novel manner. We are submitting our film for Oscar consideration and consequently are beholden to the many prerequisites for qualification.
There is the restriction of not being able to show your film in any other format than in a theatrical setting for 60 days after the first day of your theatrical release in either N.Y. or LA.  We petitioned the Documentary Branch of the Academy for permission to do a password-protected private online streamings of the film, and received the go-ahead!  
So with the help of Livestream, we set up a private web page and have invited dozens of bloggers and journalists to watch our film at a pre-determined time. It’s a fresh and inexpensive way for us to allow the press to see the film, and has generated some nice hits for us.
We upload albums of photos from the worldwide adventure of releasing this film, and videos that the people that attend our various notorious parties record themselves courtesy of our "We Live in Public" Interrogation Booth.
We strive to let people peek behind the curtain and live this experience with us, so they can be inspired to voice their support of our film, and learn how to pull off their own independent revolutions — which the Internet is undoubtedly making possible.
With the help of iStrategyLabs, we created a proprietary widget that can be easily shared on a fan’s blog, a Facebook page or anywhere people spend time online.  
We release 15-second web exclusives daily that are only accessible through the widget to encourage people to interact with it.  
Of course, in addition to these extras, we have prominent widget links to the screening times, a trailer, and of course, our website. We have taken this film on a round-the-world festival tour and I’ve intro’d the film countless times.
People constantly hear that they are supposed to turn off their cell phone before a film. I encourage audiences to not only leave their phones on, but to tweet or update their Facebook pages while they are watching — and we set up a hatch tag (#wlip) to encourage trackable public dialogue about us. We also have played around with webcasting many of the post-screening Q+As and premiere parties.
We have partnered with Kyte, Livestream and at various points to enable live streaming of these events and we’ve had a great response. At our most recent Q+A stream in Los Angeles, we even took questions from people on-line. 
And finally, when we were revising the poster for our theatrical release, it struck me that in addition to including the traditional raves blurbs from high-profile publications like the N.Y. Times, etc, why not include some of our favorite twitter hits that have driven just as much momentum as traditional press?
Consequently, we were noted by slashfilm.comas the first film ever to include tweets on our official poster.

I’m a big believer in serendipity and the integrity of work, that form should follow content, and so the release of this film seems to me very natural. It is in the very DNA of "We Live in Public" to be released via the internet. The film wanted to be here right now and it challenged us to bring it to you in the most innovative ways we could. 

Just as it holds a light into the future by looking at the not-so-recent past, we hope that its release will blaze some trails into the wild west that is still our powerful Internet. 
Come follow me at @onditimoner and keep up with me through this process, or follow us through our RSS feed off or widget, accessible off the homepage of
 Onward! To the infinite possibilities!

Ondi Timoner is the only filmmaker to ever win the Sundance Grand Jury Prize twice -- first for the critically acclaimed "Dig!" (2004) and more recently in 2009 for "We Live in Public," which the New York Times called "riveting" and "a compelling cautionary tale." Timoner graduated from Yale University cum laude and founded Interloper Films in 1994. Her short film, "Recyle" (2005), was a winner at the ICG Awards and screened at both Sundance and Cannes. She is currently directing and producing "Cool It," which explores the issues of global warming from a socio-economic perspective as it relates to the immediate needs of the developing world.