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Tropfest: Sheri Candler looks backwards and forwards

A whizz at what used to be called new media, American Sheri Candler shared a little of her enormous breadth and depth of knowledge and information at Tropfest’s Roughcut event in Auckland.

Despite the high-tech nature of much of the material she discussed, much of the advice and recommendations dated back to a time when people had conversations in person without needing the the help of technology.

In the US, Candler works with The Film Collaborative (TFC), a non-profit organisation “committed to distribution education and facilitation of independent film”. In plainer English, TFC helps filmmakers get themselves and their work in front of audiences.

The distinction between people and product was one Candler focused on for a while in her Roughcut presentation, noting that there was a fair amount of reinventing the wheel online when promoting new content.

“The audience,” she said, “is not a disposable resource to be rebuilt around every new project.”

Obscurity is not your friend, she suggested, claiming it affected independent filmmakers and billion dollar studio corporations alike. With the arguable exception of Disney or Pixar, consumers don’t seek out content through the creator’s brand. When was the last time you chose to see a film because it was made by Warners or Fox or Universal?

It’s important for content creators to build communities around themselves rather than their projects to avoid that repetition of effort to generate interest in every new project.

On the issue of monetisation, Candler suggested NZ was leading the way with equity crowdfunding, noting the announcement of The Patriarch’s Snowball Effect campaign to raise $500,000. It is too soon to know whether that will be successful, either in raising its funds or in delivering a return to investors.

Crowdfunding is now an accepted and respectable part of the fund-raising process, although Candler offered a couple of warnings. She noted the importance of having a good network in place before commencing a fundraising campaign, rather than building a network via one. In conversation, she admitted that on average half the requests for assistance she received came from people trying to mount a crowd-funding campaign before they’d done the hard yards of building a solid social media presence through which to promote the campaign.

Having said that social media was an important part of a crowdfunding campaign, Candler was also of the opinion that most of the time social media does a much better job of delivering awareness than dollars.

While the benefits of the internet in general, digital distribution and the democratisation of content creation and distribution might be welcomed by many, they also exponentially increase the amount of competition your next project faces, whether it’s seeking funds or an audience.

Every month 6 million years’ worth of video is uploaded to sites such as YouTube and Vimeo, Candler claimed. Competing with that volume of clutter is not an option, unless you happened to be a Hollywood studio with a few tens of millions to direct towards a marketing campaign.

“If you’re battling against technology, you’re going to fail,” Candler said.

Change is a constant online, and even the new models can quickly start to resemble the old ones they replaced. In the US Netflix has done a lot to break down the dominance of the content consumption model which limits choice to the content of the broadcaster’s choice at the time of the broadcaster’s choice.

In an age where people want everything available wherever and whenever they want it, that might seem desirable. It certainly seems to have appeal in NZ, where Netflix has yet to arrive other than via a VPN.

In the US, Netflix built its service initially on the ever-expanding breadth and depth of its offer. However, now that it’s established, the company isn’t interested in maintaining that model. It wants to become more exclusive, to acquire, produce and curate content that fits its brand – to be a broadcaster without the inconvenience of actually broadcasting. The result of this is that it’s harder for independent titles to get accepted by Netflix and to find an audience if they are accepted.

Hence the ‘collaborative’ part of the Film Collaborative ethos, to try to include rather than exclude. When it comes to building an online presence, whether that presence hopes to attract awareness, involvement, ticket sales, or funding. Time-honoured wisdom still holds good in the internet age: two heads are better than one, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and it’s still a long way to Tipperary, if you’re walking alone.

In brief, if you want an audience for your content, people need to be able to find it. They’re more likely to do that through networks, the degrees of separation between their existing connections and yours. The smaller the number of those degrees, the quicker and more easily your material will be found. The more you participate in such networks, the more easily you’ll be found. Or, the more you give the more you get.

“You have to have a generous spirit to succeed here,” Candler said.

In the spirit of promoting others’ work, Candler recommended a number of good sources of advice and information, including Austin Kleon’s Show Your Work.

The Film Collaborative offers some of its own publications for free, including Selling Your Film Without Selling Your Soul and Selling Your Film Outside the U.S..

Candler presented at Tropfest Roughcut. Entries for Tropfest 2015 close 1 December. Tropfest runs in New Plymouth on 14 February 2015.

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