I recently did a short Q+A for Rachel Allen with the National Alliance for Media Art + Culture (NAMAC). NAMAC is an invaluable resource of independent film, video and multimedia organizations, and I recommend everyone checks them out.
Five Question Q+A with Jon Reiss by Rachel Allen
Meet Jon Reiss. Jon is a filmmaker (Bomb It, Better Living Through Circuitry), author (Think Outside the Box Office) and consultant whose most recent book is Selling Your Film Without Selling Your Soul which he co-wrote with The Film Collaborative and Sheri Candler. He works with numerous film organizations, film schools and festivals to bring a variety of distribution labs and workshops around the world. His upcoming books concern new models of artistic entrepreneurship and the concept Producer of Marketing and Distribution.
RA: What drew you to your work?
JR: I made a film called Bomb It, which is about graffiti all over the world. We frankly thought that we were going to sell the film in a traditional fashion and we didn’t. There’s a long story behind that. Basically, I ended up distributing the film mainly myself, but I had other distribution partners. I started writing about it and people liked the writing that I did. I realized that I enjoyed talking to filmmakers about this process and I decided to write a book about it. I enjoyed talking to people about new ideas and how filmmaking has changed in terms of engaging with audiences.
In addition to being a filmmaker now, I also do this other work to try to help filmmakers prepare for distribution. I don’t like to call it distribution marketing anymore. I like to call it connecting with audiences. For 95% of filmmakers these days, it’s their responsibility now to connect to the audience. They need to learn how to do that. Even if they don’t do it themselves, they need to know what is the path that they could have for themselves and for their film. And I also believe that they need to think of their film work as unique and what the unique path for their films are.
RA: What would be your advice for a filmmaker trying to balance the social media stuff with filmmaking?
JR: I understand how hard it can be, especially for people who didn’t grow up with social media, or who are kind of digital immigrants, instead of digital natives. The thing I would say, is that it’s not just social media. The process of connecting with audience is for me as important as making the film.
It does depend where you’re at in your career. If it’s your first film and you’re not expecting a ton out of it, that’s one level of work. If it’s your magnum opus and it’s the best film you’ve ever made and you’ve been making films for 15 years, you’re probably going to want to get that out and seen as widely as possible and you’re going to want it to have as long of a life as possible.
The biggest advice I can give is to start the process as early as possible. Almost start the process at inception for two reasons: one is because connecting with audiences takes time and it takes time to become facile with the usage of social media and other techniques of connecting with audience. The more time you give yourself to do that, the better. That doesn’t mean that you’re pushing, pushing, pushing, the film. What you’re doing is you’re expressing your voice in a different medium. By doing so, you’re attracting people who are attracted to your voice, thereby creating an audience for yourself.
The last thing I’ll say about that is that if you don’t feel that you can balance it, then you should find someone else who can help with the process. I call that person a Producer of Marketing and Distribution, which I think is as important as any other producer. A typical producer is busy making the film and helping the film go along and creating the film. A lot of those skills with audience engagement are skills that often directors or producers of films don’t have—some do, some don’t. I would partner with someone like that, especially if you’re starting out early in your career and you can’t afford to pay someone. Do it however you pay any other crew person and make that person a partner so they share in whatever you share, just like any other member of your crew.
RA: If a filmmaker is looking to hire this Producer of Marketing and Distribution (PMD), what kinds of skills should that person have?
JR: That person should definitely be a people-person, outgoing. Even if they’re not doing a lot of that stuff in person, it’s the same kind of personality that can translate online. They should be facile with social media. They should also have some sort of marketing and business sense and be able to see the film from a different angle.
In the best of all possible worlds, they would have an understanding of crossmedia/transmedia. I know bigger films will have a transmedia producer, but on small film crews, people wear many hats. The PMD is the one that can help out doing the transmedia work , especially if the film crew is traditional. If the film crew is not traditional, then transmedia skills should be in collaboration. A lot of those producing elements of the transmedia element might fall to the PMD. I get in trouble with that a lot with transmedia people, but I understand how small independent film crews are and you’ve got to share the work somehow.
Someone who has a skill with words. Someone who is a self-starter. Similar to any independent producer, someone who is tenacious, die-hard, and is passionate about the project. The other thing that’s also helpful, especially if you’re just starting out, is to find someone who has an affinity for the subject matter and has a voice in that world. What I find is that there aren’t a lot of people who are trained in this.
On one film , Sheri Candler and I have started this process where we train PMD’s, so that people hire qualified assistant people who are included in networking and reaching out and working with organizations and partnerships, have a bit of writing, have a use of the English language, all of which I feel are important to this task. Then we train them in how to be a PMD. Little by little in that, we’re trying to train people who will then be able to lead this in the future as well.
RA: So you talk a lot about the importance of holding screenings that encourage live audience participation. Can you think of any examples of innovative live participatory events?
JR: Actually, I think participatory is great. That’s the harder stuff to do. I talk a lot about having a live component to events, for example what Peter Greenaway did where he remixed the film in front of the audience, so you create a sense of an event. So then as far as participation, that being the next level of this, there aren’t that many people who do that. There aren’t that many filmmakers who do that. There is this amazing theater piece that I have yet to write about that I saw in New York called Sleep No More. That kind of blew me away. The audience is there, not really affecting the story or part of the story, but living in the story.
Participatory live events are more like alternative reality games from the transmedia world. Lance Weiler has been able to do more of those on an indie budget. A lot of those involve a level of complexity, technology and logistics that generally it’s the studios that really spend the money on it. I’m excited to see how that will grow in the future. I think we’ll see more. That flash mob stuff has become fodder for TV commercials now, and there are still things that can be done in that regard, like flash mob cinema. I’m sure there’s much more interesting things that upcoming filmmakers can think of and when they do, let me know. I’ll be excited to see them and I’ll write about them and talk about them.
RA: Tell me a little bit about your new book.
JR: New book is called, Selling Your Film Without Selling Your Soul, and I wrote it with Sheri Candler and The Film Collaborative. The book is different case studies of films and filmmakers who have explored new techniques of distribution available to them over the last several years and really going into depth, into the, what works, what didn’t work, what their strategies were. In most cases we gave really hard numbers and data as to how successful films were or not successful in different areas. I encourage your readers to let us know what they think of it.
Find out more about Selling Your Film Without Selling Your Soul, the book that Jon Reiss cowrote with The Film Collaborative and Sheri Candler.