The Indie Film World Needs 100 Amanda Palmers

The challenge presented to each indie filmmaker is the same.

How do I get my work discovered?

Typically, an indie film travels to success with the aid of a small group of usual suspects.  The 2012 version of that trip is laid out in Anne Thompson’s, $11 Billion Year: From Sundance to the Oscars, an Inside Look at the Changing Hollywood System.

Thompson covers the circus that is the film festival circuit, where distributors show their new films and filmmakers woo festival audiences, critics and distributors with their latest projects.  It is an insider game that moves from Sundance to Cannes to the Academy Awards.

Harvey Weinstein knows this game better than most.  He understands how to appeal to festival insiders at Cannes and woo the members of the Motion Picture Academy.  He knows that his success depends on his ability to shape the value of a movie by appealing to elites and through these elites find the masses. 

He serves as the filmmaker’s promoter, singing the film’s praises to all the right people.  Then he pushes the film into the marketplace positioned for box office success.

Mr. Weinstein and others like him extract a large amount of rent for their efforts.  If the film succeeds-the distributor succeeds financially, but not necessarily the filmmaker.  In some rare cases money trickles back to the filmmaker, but as they say, “don’t hold your breath”.

This is the classic middleman model within a classic insider industry.

Today, outside the confines of the traditional film industry a new model is emerging.  It is based on the premise that one does not “promote a film”.  Instead, one “builds an audience”. 

It relies more on building a bond with an audience than bonding with film festival insiders or prominent film critics.  Here there are no classic middlemen and no insiders.

This model uses Internet based tools and platforms. So you might crowd fund your movie on Kickstarter, sell your movie from your own web site with VHX, or organize a screening using tugg.

These platforms are free or charge a nominal fee. Money flows back to the filmmaker without the extravagant extraction of rent.

Austin Kleon identifies the attitude and approach that shapes this new model in his book, Show Your Work! : 10 Ways To Share Your Creativity And Get Discovered

He writes:

“If you want fans, you have to be a fan first.  If you want to be accepted by a community, you have to first be a good citizen of that community.  If you’re only pointing to your own stuff online, you’re doing it wrong.  You have to be a connector.  The writer Blake Butler calls this being an open node.  If you want to get, you have to give.  If you want to be noticed, your have to notice.  Shut up and listen once in a while.  Be thoughtful.  Be considerate.  Don’t turn into human spam.  Be an open node.”

A node exists on a distributed computer network where all nodes can connect directly with each other or route through other nodes to connect with an additional node. There is no central node through which all must pass.  This is the essential design of the Internet.

When human beings use this network, everyone can connect with everyone else. The mass media world does not operate on this network.  In that world of insiders, gatekeepers and middlemen one must seek permission to connect.  Rent is extracted at every possible turn.  

An open node world not only rides on this new network, it also creates new norms and new opportunities for human interaction.  As Kleon indicates in his book, these norms and opportunities are still being defined and explored.

If Harvey Weinstein is the poster child for the indie world of traditional gatekeepers and extractors of rent, Amanda Palmer is the poster child for the world where artists of all types work at “building an audience”.  Though she is a musician, indie filmmakers could do well to follow her example.

If you spend time following her on twitter, receive her emails or read her blog posts, you will see that she practices everything that Kleon preaches.  She deals directly with her audience and she points to others, (musicians and visual artists alike). She listens to her audience and responds to them.  She even connects members of her audience to each other.

One could argue that Amanda Palmer and Harvey Weinstein are very much alike. Each is larger than life, always ready to project him/herself upon the world like any classic promoter.

Yet Palmer follows the norms and expectations of an open Internet model and functions as an open node.  Weinstein follows the norms of a mass media architecture where the views of insiders matter and shape what the audience is allowed to see.

One exists in world of transparency, the other in a world of constant spin and PR.  One “builds an audience” while the other “promotes”.

Palmer speaks to anyone who wants to listen and listens to anyone who wants to speak to her. Weinstein speaks to an inner circle. Listening, not so much.

They are creatures of the world they choose to inhabit.

Weinstein’s world is very familiar and well defined.  Palmer’s world is new and its outlines are just beginning to emerge—it is changing every day—but it principles are not hard to grasp.  Austin Kleon lays them out for us and Amanda Palmer practices them for anyone to see.

It is often said that the indie film world is in a state of crisis.  People insist that there are too many movies and too little money. They argue that the audience for independent film is disappearing. 

All these explanations look in the wrong direction.

Filmmakers are too enamored with a world that is defined by a middleman, insider culture.  With every film, they hope to be among the lucky few that are discovered, are welcomed inside, get promoted and somehow-get saved.  

It is not their fault.  This is the world into which they were born.

They don’t see that something new is being born.

A world in which their work can be discovered.

Filmmakers need to see that they can create this new world. Not alone but in concert with each other. Each can be an open node.

Indie film has only one real Harvey Weinstein.  And that is OK.

But to solve its crisis it needs 100 Amanda Palmers. 

About Chris Dorr

I consult with companies on digital media strategy and business development. Clients include Samsung, MTV Networks, Tribeca Film Festival, Shaw Media and Canadian Film Center. I created the Future of Film blog for Tribeca. I have worked in the movie business for Disney Studios, Universal Pictures, Scott Free and in the digital media business for Intertainer, Sony and Nokia. Contact me at [email protected] or follow me at @chrisdorr
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  • Michael Walker

    The reason we have to build an audience is that, with studios spending 35 million per film on ads and taking up 95% of all the screens, there is no room for anything else. Harvey Weinstein is great at what he does, but even he can’t compete with the monopolistic grip of the studios.

    We can build a small indie world, like you say, but it’s still for the very few to make any money at all in this. In other words, it’s just as elite as the festivals. Films are saved by their audiences, and the audiences have to know about the films. That’s the real challenge.

    • chrisdorr

      Thanks Michael for your comments.

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  • Scott McMahon

    This was a clear, concise article that summed up the changing tides of not only the independent film industry, but for all independent artists. Thank you.

    Within the world of entrepreneurs, there is a belief that two worlds exist. Abundance and Scarcity. The old way of doing business in the indie film world relies on this scarcity mindset. This scarcity creates jealously and cynicism. Most indie filmmakers are cynical and self absorbed … and rarely do you see any large scale support from other filmmakers.

    In the entrepreneurial circles, the world of abundance creates innovation and collaboration. Rarely, does this new wave of entrepreneurs see others as competition, but rather as a healthy market in which to thrive. They partner up with one another, helping to reciprocate the growth of each other’s interests.

    Here’s to my friend, Jennifer Fischer, for saying, “Open Nodes Unite!”

    • chrisdorr

      Hi Scott, thanks for your comments. I think you are very right to talk about how the world of abundance breeds innovation and collaboration and the world of scarcity breeds the reverse. I am working on a post on this topic and how it might be fostered among indie filmmakers. You are right, it does not exist now. But it certainly needs to.

      • Scott McMahon

        Thanks for replying Chris! I can see how there will be a huge need for artists seeking out marketing assistance. Production and distribution are no longer a barrier now. Even for filmmaking, production is nothing. I just finished a feature film for $500 with no crew, and have tried to apply online marketing techniques taught by successful entrepreneurs for this project.

        Perhaps this is what professionals like yourself and Sheri Candler are building … marketing resources for filmmakers. Thanks again!

        • chrisdorr

          There is a huge need. And trust me, Sheri is much more a professional in this area than I.

          • Scott McMahon

            Haha. She’s pretty good for sure. Thanks so much for taking the time to converse. Look forward to your new blogs!

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  • dbarak

    Hehe… Amanda Palmer - she sure knows how to alienate people too.

    I once contacted her to find out what was needed to use some of her work, AND I contributed to her crowdfunding campaign (or some sort of tip jar, I can’t remember). I never heard back from her or anyone in her circle. Either she’s rude or she has no clue, and I’m betting on the former.

    • chrisdorr

      Thanks for your comment. I would suspect she is not perfect. But she seems to respond to many people on her twitter feed and blog. I contributed to her crowdfunding campaign and was amazed at how much she revealed about her process, how the money was spent and got a lot of value for my money. I don’t think she is rude-I would try to get in touch with her again.

  • Dennis Peters

    Ray William Johnson is another example for you. He started as a youtuber 5 years ago and has over 10 million subscribers on one channel plus millions more on his other channels with well over a billion views. He has built his following so whenever he launches paid content, he did an animation that sold over a million downloads on iTunes, he just has to promote from within his own audience. Now he’s moving into indie films and web series.

    • chrisdorr

      Dennis, thanks for the bringing up the Ray William Johnson example. I suspect we will see more like this in the near future.

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  • George Perantoni

    Thanks Chris. Your article gave me much needed insight, for I am not a Film Maker, instead I am a retired carpenter with a passion for Modern History, and family roots deeply entangled with the two World Wars of the 20th Century.

    The author Sam Ivey and I wrote “Arrivederci Leopolis. The Lion’s War” … we gave it to Thomas W. Gatus, the Screenwriter, and now we are preparing to crowd-fund a Film with Graphic Novel. However, all along I feared the huge “block-wall of distribution” … But not after reading your article, because over the past year I had been social networking with the descendants of entire populations who were made victims by Joseph Stalin’s irrational agreement with Adolf Hitler two weeks prior to the invasion of Poland (the Molotov - Ribbentrop non aggression pact). The descendants of those populations (mostly Polish) have not forgotten, rather they keep the flame burning by means of extensive and elaborate social networks, which I was privileged to join.

    All along I felt that I was developing an audience, but now after reading your article I am sure of it. I feel renewed courage to continue developing my audience, not only from those originating from Central Europe, but also among Italians worldwide who have traditionally shown much interest in the brave Polish 2nd Corps who helped liberate Italy and defeat the last stand of Fascism.
    So, thank you Chris. Your article has inspired me to make “Arrivederci Leopolis” a node for the audience I am developing.

    • chrisdorr

      George, thanks for your comment and good luck with your project.

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