5 Things We Learned After Our Film Went Viral

5 Things We Learned After Our Film Went Viral

A few weeks ago I wrote about all the press Dolphin Lover was receiving (which for a quick backstory is a short documentary Kareem Tabsch and I made that premiered at the Slamdance Film Festival). The pinnacle was getting an entire riff on @midnight and Mazel of the Day from Andy Cohen.

But the buzz has slowed down, so here’s a look at the things Kareem and I learned, what could be done better, and how we totally messed up so you don’t have to make the same mistakes we did.

But first a preface. The doc obviously has a sensational logline ripe for tabloids – man has sexual love affair with dolphin. While the film is an unbiased look at Malcolm’s experience and zoophilia, it’s easy for the sensational aspect of it to get carried away, which is definitely what drove both the press and negative comments it received. It’s also a polarizing subject (another plus for virality) – Kareem and I couldn’t even get a publicist to take on the project (which obviously was unnecessary in the end).

So while the subject matter definitely stirred up the press, these are takeaways I’ll still be using on future projects.

Use YouTube

I first put the trailer up on Vimeo because Vimeo is for Cinema with a capital ‘C.’ While Vimeo is a great, clean player with excellent quality, it’s terrible for audience building. I realized this about 30,000 views in when I knew we had to switch gears to capture some of the traffic we were getting, both for future Dolphin Lover videos and to cross-promote other projects.

So I uploaded the trailer to YouTube (but forgot one crucial thing that I’ll mention later), swapped out the hosted trailer on the site, and pushed blogs to use the YouTube embed. It worked. Channel subscribes shot up from about 100 to nearly 1600. Thanks to annotations, when I posted new clips from the film, they got about 200k views combined (all the Dolphin media has gotten about 600k views).

Another thing I learned that YouTube added – you can now link directly to your website with annotations, as long as you get it authenticated with Google Webmaster Tools. You can put all the links and info you want in the description – no one is going to share that when they embed the film. It needs to all be self contained (more below). Annotations are key.

Another draw for switching players was monetization. I realized this could possibly be the only money we see from this project, so better capitalize on it while we can. I’d also been curious how much YouTube ad revenue will bring in. So what was the tally for over half a million views? About $200. Dinner’s on YouTube!

Point the traffic somewhere that brings in money

As traffic to the trailer and website shot up, there was somewhat of an end goal of where to funnel it – YouTube and newsletter subscribes. These were both successful in increasing numbers but they don’t guarantee revenue down the road.

Ideally we would have been set up with a distributor and had pre-sale links ready on YouTube, iTunes, and other VOD platforms. But if we couldn’t even hire a publicist it wasn’t like a distributor was going to talk to us. That was the point of Slamdance, to attract attention. So by the time the film started to take off and we were talking to sales agents, getting on VOD right away wasn’t an option because they require a few weeks lead time.

However we could have done our own pre-sales with VHX and captured the people that were really, really interested in seeing the film. Now we’ll have to hope they come back and buy or watch once the film is out.

Every piece of media associated with the project needs to stand on its own

Expect everything to be stolen, nothing to get linked to, and the film’s title changed to something else. Because it will happen.

WTFark was the first video to hit the web making fun of the trailer, but I realized that they’re talking about the film and using clips from the trailer but not linking to anything. Every frame of the trailer needs to promote the film. So I watermarked the hashtag I’d been using and the URL in the corners of the trailer. I was able to swap out the Vimeo file because they let you do that, however this was after I had already uploaded to YouTube and I couldn’t switch out that file. But all future video clips had the watermark bugs in the corners. The strategy worked – RT never cited a website but the clip they showed had it all over it:

Though it would have been nice if I could have gotten the URL out on @Midnight.

Now there were other times that were just frustrating in the lack of source attribution and I don’t see anything that could’ve been done about it except publicly vent. Some examples:

One of the most popular tweets about the film links to absolutely nothing

World Star Hip Hop totally ripped one of the clips (luckily watermarked) and hosted it on their own player. If their stats are to be believed, it has over 200k views and 16k comments. Would those 200k views have translated over to YouTube? Probably not. But still, WTF.

The UK’s The Mirror went a step further and pulled short excerpts I had posted on my Instagram, stitched them together, and put it on their own player as a Mirror exclusive.

While I’m thrilled to have a project on the always entertaining and extremely popular Florida Man Twitter, they tweeted one of the worst articles that links to absolutely nothing and has no videos.

Bottom line – every video, poster, picture should be able to stand on its own and not hope that a blog will link back or even mention the project’s name.

Think Internationally

There was no international strategy. When I noticed a Spanish blog picked up the story and was driving a lot of traffic, I had Kareem (who’s half Cuban) write out Spanish subtitles and I put them in the video. This should have been done from the start for all the videos.

A popular Hungarian site also picked up the story and Hungary became the third largest source of traffic (after US and UK). But sadly I don’t have any Hungarian friends so there’s no translation.

Websites are responsive

I was pretty aggressive in reaching out to websites and writers via contact forms and Twitter to correct links, spellings, and quotes, and surprisingly they were pretty responsive. While most of the websites are copying and pasting from a handful of sources, they’re still open to corrections, tweaking the story, and swapping out videos.

One more thought and I still don’t know where I land on this – I decided not to make a project specific Twitter or Facebook page. For Twitter I used the hashtag #DolphinLover and my own account and for Facebook I used the Coffee & Celluloid page. I’ve had project specific accounts in the past, and I’d probably still do it for a feature, but for a short I see the account getting some action but then things will slow down, it’ll get dormant, you stop posting, and now you’ve lost all those follows you gained.

My thought is it’s better to use these projects to build up an audience for a larger brand, say a filmmaker or production company. With each new film there’s a bigger platform to launch on. Content stays fresh and the audience stays engaged.

I’m sure there’s some other lessons learned but these are the main highlights. Open to thoughts on this or other things we could have done differently.

Wave of Buzz for Dolphin Lover

Wave of Buzz for Dolphin Lover

I’d say it’s been a hell of a week, but the week isn’t over yet. Last Thursday was the second and last screening of Dolphin Lover at Slamdance. Shortly after that we received an honorable mention for short documentary from the jury, which was awesome.

At Slamdance we had created a bit of buzz, mostly from our provocative poster, a great article by Arielle Castillo at Fusion, and an interview with The Miami New Times.

Nothing crazy. We flew back on Friday. When we landed, Kareem and I saw that WTFark had done a 4 minute sketch about the film.

Clearly this thing is getting some traction that a 4 minute parody video would be produced about it. It started snowballing from there. Over the weekend all the major British tabloids picked up the story (because how could they not). Now this wasn’t original reporting – it was just a mesh from the few original sources and interviews, plus oddly some of my videos pulled from Instagram merged into an ‘exclusive’ clip. Sometimes they didn’t even cite sources (*cough* Mirror). Quotes usually stay the same, but it sometimes becomes a game of blogger telephone.

From there things just kept picking up speed. On Monday I woke up to interview requests from the UK, Australia, and some US outlets. Online the game of telephone kept moving rapidly (with some original reporting). Here’s a sampling:

There’s still more press to come. There’s been a lot of lessons learned in viral strategy. We definitely weren’t prepared for this and have been adjusting the website, videos, YouTube channel, and other media as we go. I’m noting it down – will round it up in a future post.

Follow the updates of Dolphin Lover at the website www.dolphinlovermovie.com.


The Free Film Distribution Experiment of Bots High

Bots High at Dorkbot

Great film!
– Handwritten note on a festival rejection letter

The above note sums up the festival experience of my feature film Bots High quite well. A film that people who see, love, yet didn’t get much traction on the festival circuit. It played at some festivals, won some Best Documentary awards, got some good reviews, and I had some great experiences and am thankful for the festivals that took a chance on the film. But obviously not the Sundance, SXSW, TIFF festival run you imagine while making the film 1.

Below I’ll be outlining how I’m taking my film’s future solely in my own hands, and the ideas that led to this strategy.

What Can You Do That I Can’t?

Epic festival run or not, the next question is, “Now what?” This is a question most of us filmmakers face once we have a finished film. Even the top indie films with recognizable actors are having a hard time getting distribution deals with upfront money. Three Sundance films just posted Kickstarter campaigns to raise distribution money. Dying to Do Letterman has run a phenomenal campaign to raise money to do their own Oscar qualifying theatrical run.

Do you try to raise more money and do everything yourself? Do you tour the film around and hope to break even, like Total Badass? Hope a company comes along to pick it up? With so many digital outlets yet so few companies putting money into buying films, choosing the right path for your film reminds me of the stress of picking the “right” college.

I received some distribution offers, but nothing that paid anything upfront, just some backend percentage. This means I’m going to have to sign away broad definitions of certain rights for 20 years (essentially forever as far as the film is concerned), no guarantee that any money will be put into a marketing campaign, and hope that maybe I’ll see a couple of thousand in return.

The main question I asked for every offer is, “What can you do that I can’t do myself?” Let’s take the best offer, one from a company whose name I actually recognized. They wanted all digital rights and would get the film on iTunes, Netflix Instant, Amazon, Xbox, etc, and keep 25%. Not a terrible deal, but not many guarantees on marketing, prominent placement, etc. I can handle the online stuff through Distribber – pay a flat fee, keep everything, both money and rights. With a lot of new online-only companies out there, I feel like they’re all just trying to build their library instead of putting their time and money behind something because they believe in it.

Good deal for someone whose film has been sitting on a shelf, not for someone that just wrapped and still has some fight in them.

Check Out the Film…Possibly at a Festival Near You…Or Online…Soon

Packed theater at the Bots High World Premiere

Bear with me as I take you through three realizations I had that will soon merge into the mega-idea.

The bigger question wasn’t how to get it online, it was how do I launch. How do I build enough buzz so the online launch is relevant? How do I get the film on people’s radar? Previously, if I told someone about the film, or pitched a blog to write about it, it’s like, “Maybe the film will play at a festival near you…or sign up for the newsletter and I’ll let you know when it’s on iTunes.” There was no target date, no time to build towards, that people writing about the film could say, “Here is a cool film, you can watch it on this day.”

Around the same time of this brainstorming, when I was crashing SXSW with an underground screening, I found it was incredibly easy to set up a free screening (shocker!). I held a screening at the University of Texas. They donated a theater, I didn’t charge admission (but sold some DVDs), super easy – no worries about rental costs and breaking even.

Get Your Priorities Straight

If 2 you read Jon Reiss‘ great book Think Outside the Box Office, one of his key points when making your distribution plan is to figure out your goals. Do you want to make money, promote a cause, or use the film to market yourself? Going into this, as I’m sure most filmmakers do, I’m thinking, “All of the above! It’s going to make money, and because it’s making money that means it has enough buzz that I’m being promoted as a filmmaker.” Clearly, not the case. But one of the main reasons I made this movie instead of trying to work up the Hollywood ladder was to have a feature film to my name to lead to more, paid work.

So with a reworking of priorities, #1 now being to use the film to market myself as a filmmaker, that means getting the film out as wide and far as possible. Combine that with my previous two realizations, and the strategy is quite clear…

A Free Worldwide Screening Day

Yep, one day to direct everyone towards that launches the film. “Hey, Mr. Reporter, check out my film. Your readers can see it October 6, for free!” Using free tools, such as Meetup Everywhere, groups can organize based on their location and create their own screening. I want to empower people to create their own theatrical experience, which as Jon Reiss redescribes as “people watching ‘films’ with other people. Any place.” ‘Theatrical’ is not a 35mm print screening in a movie theater anymore. 3

Even if people don’t come out to a screening, here are my goals from the plan when someone mentions Bots High to someone else.

  • “Oh, I heard of that film.”
  • “I saw that.”
  • “I love Bots High, I own it!”

The more blogs that right about it, the more someone is aware of it, the more that will help when I need credibility for other projects.

Free Doesn’t Mean No Money

Let’s be clear, ‘Make Money’ is not off the list (to the comfort of the patient people I owe money to). From my screening experience at festivals and ones I organized, about 2-5% of the audience buys the DVD. My thinking is cast a really wide net and if 1%-3% buy, that’s still a decent amount of money.

But I can’t have a Bots High representative at every screening selling DVDs and counting money. So in the way that I’m empowering people to organize a screening, I figured I could empower them to be retailers as well.

I sell the DVD for $20 on the web site and at screenings. But I’d be totally happy selling a guaranteed 10 DVDs for $10 each, which is what I’m doing with the event organizers. They can buy a 10 pack for $100, and then sell them at their screening for $20 each and keep the profit. I’m happy, they’re happy, win-win!

I foresee a lot of groups hosting screenings being connected to robotics programs or robotics teams themselves. I would love for the film to be used to recruit new members, whether the team does combat robotics or task oriented. I feel like teams could also use this as a fundraiser. So I also setup a ridiculously low $100 fundraising license which lets any non-profit charge admission to the screening as a fundraiser. 10 tickets at $10 and they cover the fee, then everything else goes to their program.

Make it an Event

Q&A at Bots High World Premiere

I am all about Ted Hope’s and Jon Reiss‘ talk of making screenings an event. I want the film to be used as a platform for teams and schools to create an event around. Show off their robots, have mini battles (Google loves sumo-bots), get guest speakers – anything to go beyond just a movie screening and make it a unique night. Also, there needs to be something special about playing the movie on October 6 other than me saying you have to.

The one thing that’s great about festival or independent screenings is the Q&A. I didn’t want to lose that element, and with all the free streaming services out there it doesn’t have to be lost. I’ll be setting up a live webcast of myself and people from the film to answer questions that are tweeted to @botshigh. I figure most of the screenings will be in some sort of college auditorium that’s hooked up to a computer, so switching over to a webcast shouldn’t be a problem.

How You Can Help

And that’s the plan – a free, worldwide launch of my film. So far the press has been good (WIRED, Laughing Squid, IndieWire) and I’ve got screenings set up in India, Spain, South Korea, Bolivia, and 26 other cities. My goal is 100. With schools getting back in session, and constant emailing, I anticipate the numbers to pick up speed pretty quickly.

Of course you, independent film lover / maker who’s reading this, can play an important role and help set up a screening. Go here for all the details.

You can follow me on Twitter at @C47 or the film at @botshigh. I’m toying with an idea of running trailers for other independent films in similar positions before the screener disks of the movie, so if you’re a filmmaker with a movie and might be interested in this, email me.

I’ll be posting more about my experiences with this, including Distribber and getting the DVD on Amazon. Stay tuned!

  1. I don’t have a definitive answer for why this is, especially since festivals don’t really give feedback, just some theories from an attempted objective viewpoint, such as the film is light hearted, has a narrow focus, and doesn’t tackle a heavy issue. All the rejection letters cite record high submissions, thanks to the digital revolution which now creates a higher level of noise. I’d like to imagine my film was buried in a Raiders of the Lost Ark style pile and never watched. But who knows.

    Obviously this experience has left me a little bitter about festivals, which led to question their relevance at all. Especially after my short Space Miami got over 50,000 views and more online press than any festival could give a short. That’s another post, though check out this Fest vs. Online comparison.

    The thorough Filmmaker Magazine article on Blast! is a good example of what my film went through.

  2. ‘If’ shouldn’t be there; if you make movies and want them to have a life after creation you must have read Think Outside the Box Office.
  3. I’ll be writing in more detail about the online tools I’m using to organize this.

I’ve Got a Finished Movie, Got Rejected from SXSW, and Other Adventures From These Past Months

Damn, it’s been long since my last post. Too long. It’s not from forgetting – I have dry erase boards and notecards full of blog posts ideas. And Andrew and I have had countless conversations that end with, “This should be a Coffee and Celluloid Post.” They just never made it from the list or conversation to the computer screen. Until now.

This post is basically going to be a bulleted recap of the past few months. Hopefully I’ll go back and elaborate on certain points, but for now this’ll do to get us up to speed, so I can write about the many upcoming adventures that are planned.

We’ll start right after the last post, when I was stuck in an airport and ranted about Chris Gore’s book. About a month later I realized Chris Gore is on G4 now. I like G4, I think they should play my movie. So I’m sorry Chris Gore, I’ll just pretend the 4th Edition of your book doesn’t exist and continue to refer to your 3rd edition.

  • Traveled to Texas to get Bots High sound designed
  • Sent out the first batch of screeners to film festivals
  • Went to New York to get the film color timed. Escaped before the snow storms hit.
  • Bots High is officially a finished picture!
  • More festival submissions
  • In January I had a sneak peek screening of the film. This was because SXSW, which was the goal to premiere at, of course has premiere requirements. So I had a sneak peek / cast and crew / fundraiser screening, with pretty much no ability to market it due to fear of “getting caught.”
  • Turns out that was all for naught, since I got rejected from SXSW, True/False, and some other minor festivals
  • Accepted into Florida Film Festival (schedule posted soon)
  • Said, “Fuck festivals and their premiere bullshit, I’m going to have the premiere on my own terms.” So this Saturday I’m four-walling a movie theater and having the official world premiere of Bots High in conjunction with the BotsIQ National Robotics Competition, the same competition the film was shot at. While the screening is free, going to sell DVDs and posters at the door.
  • Lining up more screenings at alternative venues and planning different pricing experiments, from free to ticket sharing to flat screening rate.
  • Just today it was confirmed that I am going to SXSW, but for a completely different reason (going to SXSW Interactive). Seriously considering planning an underground screening of Bots High while I’m out there.

Plus there’s a lot of tech talk to write about, from DVD encoding (and making it look good) to Avid vs FCP to XML and Final Cut to Blu-ray burning.


Interactive Zombie Adventure – Very Clever

This is very clever – it’s a zombie adventure story that gives you choices along the way, using the YouTube annotations to link to another video that reveals the outcome of the path you choose. Does the adventure continue, or does your choice lead you to become zombie dinner?

Also, it’s not revealed until the very end that the whole thing is an ad for a New Zealand pizza chain (which now makes sense, since the plot was a guy who was determined to deliver his pizza despite the zombie mayhem).

Meetup Everywhere – Organize an Audience for Your Film

Meetup is a site and tool that allows you to create a group and organize real life meetups (remember those?). Usually these were location based (like Miami Movie Makers) so if you had a company or movement, you couldn’t really enable independent groups to organize and meet.

Well Meetup just fixed that and launched Meetup Everywhere, which allows anyone to organize a meeting around a company, group, or movement.

You’re probably already one step ahead (and are astute and read the headline). Meetup Everywhere could be a great way to determine where there’s an audience that wants to see your film.

When you list what you’re Meetups are about (your film) you could put something in the description like “Meetups with over 150 interested will get a screening,” or something to that effect.

I’m not sure if this has PayPal integration like the regular Meetup does for member dues, because if so you could self enable smaller groups that you couldn’t fly out to to have their own screening and have them buy tickets online.

There’s Eventful, which seems to do a similar thing. But I feel Meetup is really well established, and has a cleaner and simpler interface.

(I could have sworn there was a film specific site that did the same thing, but can’t find it anywhere. Does anyone remember the name?)

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