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BSS 2014: on the digital soapbox

The NZ Herald’s Dominic Corry wrangled the considerable talents of NZ On Air’s Brenda Leeuwenberg, creator Jessica Hansell (aka Coco Solid) and producers Kerry Warkia and Julia Parnell to explore compelling online content.

Hansell’s motives for creating online content were as political (with a small ‘p’) as artistic, since she viewd online as a natural space for counter-culture activity. Noting that there were “not enough reflections of me in the media”, she set Hook Ups in a fictionalised version of the suburb where she grew up, Mangere Bridge, and noted it was one of the first YA cartoons made in NZ.

“I’m an internet baby,” she said. “What I watch and where I put my music is online.”

On the dilemma of approached to reach broad audiences, she noted that during Hook Ups (episodes of which were released via The Herald) she’d had run-ins because “We’re not on the same page editorially”. At the same time, she acknowledged that because of that platform, the webseries reached people it never would have otherwise, and suggested it “needed” to reach those people.

“I shed as much tears and blood over the distribution as the making and content. I was so grateful The Herald ran the series, but I learned a lot about what I would do again.”

“Yeah. It’s much more of an NBR show,” deadpanned Corry.

“I’ll take money from anyone, mate,” joked Warkia, also focusing on the challenges of being in bed with a big media organisation, TVNZ in the case of Auckland Daze.

After a very successful first season (online) of Auckland Daze, TVNZ commissioned the second series for TV broadcast. The actual broadcast was delayed (and delayed) which didn’t suit the topical nature of the content. It ended up running over the Christmas/New Year break.

Auckland Daze was knocked back for NZOA support at its first attempt, because of having insufficient interactive elements. Leeuwenberg clarified that interactivity was a requirement to achieve NZ On Air DMF Kickstarter and transmedia support, but not for webseries.

Getting the show in front of an audience was helped considerably by TVNZ promoting it on TV. It didn’t hurt that TVNZ’s previous foray into the area (KHF Media’s Reservoir Hill) had done very well, although it also set the bar impossibly high.

“They won an Emmy,” Warkia noted. “We didn’t.”

Auckland Daze set up conversations with its audience, challenging them to contribute to to the next episode, in much the same way as Reservoir Hill had done, albeit with more adult interaction. “Send us your best pick up lines” was one request.

One challenge with interaction is that people come to expect it. Auckland Daze had to “feed the beast”, Warkia noted, adding that it was important to get someone on your team who loves doing publicity and social media.

The team also made Thailand Daze, conceived to be distributed on Vine, but ending up with Instagram after that platform introduced video capability at a timely moment during Thailand Daze’s development. Grabaseat and Vodafone both came to the party to support the production.

Given the delays in getting series 2 of Auckland Daze in front of viewers, the team also made End of Daze outside of the arrangement with TVNZ.

Parnell operates in a slightly more serious range of the content spectrum. With Transmedia NZ’s Anna Jackson she created and ran Loading Docs earlier this year. The scheme saw 10 three-minute docos made (although one was later withdrawn) and the teams making them given support in various non-filmmaking skills: crowdfunding, social media campaigns, etc.

As with both Hook Ups and Auckland Daze, Loading Docs benefitted from an aggregated audience, by positioning all the titles on one host site. It also got considerable boosts to viewing figures with a couple of the titles selected as staff picks on Vimeo, whose Jason Sondhi participated in the launch.

Parnell noted she’d felt proud earlier in the day to see Loading Docs named one of the stepping stones NZFC CEO Dave Gibson had cited in his presentation when addressing the routes to feature filmmaking.

“Are you comfortable with people using those films as pitches for longer form content?” asked Corry, referring to Alex Sutherland’s The Jump. Sutherland’s film had been one of those picked up by Sondhi for promotion on Vimeo, leading to its 135,000+ views – although there was spin-off benefit for other titles as people came through The Jump to Loading Docs.

“The films have to stand on their own merit,” Parnell said, but admitted, “It would be great if even one became a longer form project.”

Leeuwenberg noted that as Loading Docs had required each film to raise $2000 of its budget through a crowdfunding campaign, social media compaigns to build and engage audiences early in the process had been important.

The benefits of taking that approach, of building a brand early, were among the recommendations Sheri Candler also made at Tropfest’s Roughcut Symposium last month. Parnell added that even if you aspired to a feature down the track, having placed half a dozen pieces of short content with hundreds of thousands of views did absolutely no harm at all when it came to persuading potential financiers that there would be an audience for your work.

Leeuwenberg came at that point from the other side, noting that it was a common misconception, especially among aspiring filmmakers, that “if you build it they will come”.

“They won’t,” said Leeuwenberg. “ If you build it, market it and publicise it really, really well … they will probably come.”

How to attract, retain, remind and engage audiences was an art form (not to mention a very demanding job) in and of itself.

“It requires skill. You need the skills and you need to budget for them. It’s not a job for the intern,” Leeuwenberg noted, claiming that Facebook and twitter were both “very hard work – even visibility is difficult to achieve”. Those platforms also delivered very skewed demographics, and it’s now generally acknowledged that most of the time the only people making money from Facebook and twitter are Facebook and twitter.

The good news, Leeuwenberg suggested, was that there was growing awareness of online content and a number of aggregators, although “they’re not consistent yet”.

Warkia concurred with Leeuwenberg on the amount of effort and skill required to do it well.

Hansell said she found the authenticity of online attractive, the immediacy and unfiltered nature of response and reaction – although others also noted that the anonymity of online participation allowed some people just to behave like total dicks.

“I’m trying to find my family is why I do it online,” Hansell said. “It’s the true fluid way for me to reach people.”

In general, all the speakers liked the potential of creating content for use online, although there was agreement that – other than receiving NZ On Air support – there were no formulas for creating content independently that worked reliably.

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