Filmmaking has changed. We started Epic Films three years ago, and finished our first two short films, L’Artiste! and Landscape Scene, a year later. Then we sent them off to festivals. After a year, each film had had five or six festival screenings – both local and international, had a few awards and nominations, and had been seen by an estimated 1500 people each.
In contrast, the Wastelander Panda Prologue was seen by 100,000 people in its first few days online. Yes, the context was different; it was a 3 minute Prologue instead of a full narrative film. Yes, it’s easier to “sell” the curiosity of a live-action panda in a Wasteland to an online audience than it could be for an 8 minute film about a mime going on an invisible shooting spree in a park. But there’s something to be said for the internet and its value in making content accessible to anyone who wants to see it, at anytime.
This isn’t a post about internet distribution though. It’s about the difference that the internet makes to the filmmaking process, in a time where filmmakers are using it to develop their work, not just show it. And the major difference is expectation.
For the last year, while developing Wastelander Panda, I’ve been keeping a close eye on The Underwater Realm, a project being made in the UK by an amazing group of independent filmmakers. I backed them on Kickstarter in the weeks before we released the Wastelander Panda Prologue, and have been inspired by (and learnt a lot from) their journey over the past year. Although there are a lot of differences between the two projects, the similarities are huge. The Underwater Realm has the closest resemblance to Wastelander Panda – in terms of process – of any film project I’ve come across online, which is why it captured my attention.
– Both are based around a story world or concept, rather than an individual plotline.
– Both built up an audience of people eagerly anticipating the release, based solely on the elements they had seen online.
– Both have audiences who contributed to getting the idea made through crowd-funding (they on Kickstarter; we on Pozible).
– Both are made by groups of independent filmmakers hoping to use the projects for skill development and exposure, potentially leading to career opportunities.
– Both are using the internet to share information about the project and keep backers and fans up to date through blogs and social media.
– Finally – and this is the major similarity – both hope to take the project to the next stage after its current incarnation as a web series – in their case, a trilogy of three feature films; in ours, a TV series.
(If anyone knows of other examples of projects following a similar process, I’d love to hear about them. Please let me know in the comments below!)
Making something online in full view of the audience it’s intended for is hard work. It has huge benefits, but it also has one massive downside: the inability to quietly make your work in a corner before releasing it to the world. Once some element is out there, people know about it, and want to see it. They have expectations about what it will be, and you no longer have the luxury of deciding whether it’s worthy of their attention before you you release it. That option was taken from you the minute you started the online journey.
The creators of The Underwater Realm spoke about this in an interview, “Dealing with putting your work out there,” on Philip Bloom’s blog last week. Speaking a week or two after releasing their finished episodes, it was interesting to hear their thoughts on the feedback they received, much of which came from the expectations they set up for the project during its creation. As Philip said,
“That is the biggest problem with things which are hyped. It sets expectations levels really high. It happens with Hollywood movies all the time. Sometimes the hype pays off. Very often it doesn’t. It’s always better in my opinion going into something knowing as little about it as possible. Of course for UWR, this was not possible due to their immense openness with the project from the very beginning.”
In the case of Wastelander Panda, this openness is what has allowed us to get the project made. The huge advantage in building a supporter base early is that they can then play a part in the process of making your films. We could not have shot the upcoming three episodes of Wastelander Panda without our fans. It would have been impossible. Not only did they donate towards the production costs through our crowd-funding campaign (in turn, proving that a paying audience was out there and enabling us to approach the South Australian Film Corporation for further funding), but they have been there every step of the way – offering props for production design, acting as extras, helping us find locations and giving feedback. Without them, the next three episodes of Wastelander Panda wouldn’t exist.
However, the fact that so many have people have contributed to Wastelander Panda off the back of a three-minute Prologue means that there is a huge level of expectation on us to deliver something they feel is ‘worthy’ – either of their time, their money, or, at a minimum, of the amount of ‘buzz’ they’ve been hearing about it. To many, simply the fact that we’ve filled their Facebook or Twitter feeds with noise about the project, or ‘talked it up,’ gives them an entitlement to criticise it the moment something isn’t exactly the way they expected.
There’s also a fine balance between how information you release to keep your audience interested and engaged, without being detrimental to the final viewing experience. In the case of The Underwater Realm, the production team created weekly video blogs, posters and marketing materials, without giving away the story of the episodes. However, the expectation from the audience was that there would be a strong narrative; leaving many disappointed when the five short ‘teaser’ films didn’t tell as much of the story as they had hoped. Said Mark Ruddick, Associate Producer,
I think some people in the audience were so caught up in the blogs, the posters, the trailer – they forgot that we were making five teasers, not five features!
Releasing a project online also plays a huge part in the way your feedback is received. The majority of filmmakers make their films away from the spotlight before screening them to a close group of crew, family and friends. I’ve been at premiere screenings for feature films with reasonable budgets where everyone pats each other on the back, talking up the good parts and shying away from the bad. For fear of upsetting a crew that’s worked hard, or in order to maintain friendships and future job prospects, I’ve seen audience members praise a film to the director’s face, only to tear it to pieces behind his back. The filmmakers keep their egos, and the failure of the film is then blamed on critics, the lack of a ‘proper’ budget for marketing, or unhelpful distributors.
The internet, on the other hand, is harsh. The anonymity of a YouTube username allows anyone, anywhere to comment on your film and tell you exactly what they think of it. They won’t hold back their brutally honest opinions, which – if you can toughen up and listen – generally serve only to be helpful, as you can learn from them and target weak areas for future projects. It just means having to hear the criticism and not let it stop you from moving forward.
There is also an expectation online that anything should be able to be done quickly and cheaply. Mentioning the words ‘web’ and ‘independent’ to industry financiers and general fans alike creates the expectation that a project will cost less. The Underwater Realm was criticised for not “doing more” with the $100,000 they raised on Kickstarter – despite the fact that the technical quality of their work is incredible, and would cost far beyond their meagre budget if made in a studio. There’s a reason that multi-million dollar films cost as much as they do, and even without paying cast and crew, every element adds up when creating a complex and engaging world underwater.
Creating a project like The Underwater Realm or Wastelander Panda also means finding the right balance between leveraging enough attention to get your project made, making something that meets the expectations of your audience, attracting the attention of potential future partners (e.g. funding bodies or studios) and still leaving a sense of mystery and intrigue around your story so that everyone is left wanting more. It’s a fine line. The more attention you create for your project, the more likely it is to go somewhere, but the higher the expectations become.
Looking at Wastelander Panda solely in terms of actual content creation, the only thing we’ve done so far is make a three-minute Prologue that a bunch of people on the internet liked. The amount of anticipation we’ve created for the next three episodes is almost ridiculous when you think about it in those terms. From the perspective of a general internet user, we could very well just be a bunch of hack filmmakers who, after all of this build-up, will put out three films that nobody likes.
When it comes down to it, no matter how much buzz anyone creates for a project, the level of technical skill and storytelling ability have to be there for it to truly go to the next level. They are what will make people share it, and we’re doing everything in our power to make each of our films reach the expectations that have been set for us.
But at the end of the day, I think that actually going through this process says something about the people who do it. Opening yourself up to the world, putting yourself in the spotlight and creating those expectations requires a certain amount of dedication and accountability. You have to be willing to share your future goals, and be judged on your ability to meet them. You have to show the world not only your successes, but your failures, and you don’t know which they’ll be until they’re done. You have to be willing to take criticism, and still turn up to work the next day. Not everyone is willing to put themselves through that.
Wastelander Panda is the first funded project that I’ve produced, and that Victoria has directed. We’ve been through a process of amazing challenges and come out on the other side of every one of them, having learnt more about ourselves and our abilities than we ever thought possible. And as much as we want to make something that everyone will love, the truth is that no matter how good our next three episodes are, someone’s going to hate them. But it’s the journey that counts. As Eve Hazelton, DOP & Editor of The Underwater Realm said,
“The first thing to remember with all of this is that it is never EVER for nothing. It doesn’t matter if everyone hates your work – nobody can take the experience and lessons away.”
Putting yourself in the spotlight may be hard, but it amplifies your opportunties to learn at the same time as it enhances your successes. Filmmaking has definitely changed, but in my opinion, it’s for the better.
For more on The Underwater Realm, go to http://theunderwaterrealm.com or watch the first episode below:
For more on Wastelander Panda, visit http:/www.wastelanderpanda.com or watch the Prologue: