Note to Independent Producers: Be More Social!

By Jonathan Archer
Posted on May 19, 2011

As part of ITVS Programming's ongoing mission to serve the filmmaking community, Jonathan Archer has been seeking out filmmakers to provide their perspectives and experiences from the trenches. First up, The Weather Underground producer, Marc Smolowitz. He recently presented on a panel entitled The Power of Storytelling and was kind enough to share some of his thoughts and strategies with BTB.



Last month, I presented at the Netsquared Meetup in San Francisco on "The Power Of Storytelling." I decided to connect my remarks to two current labors of love — The Power Of Two — my feature documentary inspired by the life stories of twin double lung recipients; and The HIV Story Project — a new nonprofit that I co-founded in 2009.

Both projects are anchored by social issue filmmaking and wrapped around by global calls-to-action that are uniquely tied to story and character. Produced concurrently in less than two years, my starting point on both has always been a creative one: “What are the stories I am trying to tell?” and “Who are the characters I am trying to bring to the screen?” From there, a well-developed engagement campaign combined with a broad range of interactive, cross-platform components has fueled funding, capacity, and the ability to execute.



In fact, these projects — and the strategies that made them possible — have confirmed for me that there is no such thing as powerful storytelling without some or all of the following “non-story” strategies in the mix: 

Infrastructure & Partnerships 
Good storytelling strategy should include both online and offline community elements — and it’s the job of storytellers to build this sort of dual, effective infrastructure around projects from the start. Two ways I do this is to include the creation of engaged advisory boards and robust partnership programs, with a focus on experts and nonprofits that are vested in my film’s call-to-action. More often than not, nonprofits find great value from aligning with separately branded media programs, especially as they face growing challenges around how to use media to engage their own stakeholders. By designing partnership programs that offer real benefit to nonprofits, the storyteller will receive unexpected benefits in kind. Early on, the onus may be on the filmmaker to prove his or her commitment to prospective partners,  to make concessions, to work that much harder to win over trust. Over time, the terrain of partnerships shifts into equitable, two-way relationships that fuel mutual benefit, funding, story, capacity, and more. 

See The Power of Two partnerships page and check out how we structure our program here, which currently involves 40+ nonprofit organizations actively connected to our cause. 

Calendar & Events 
Many documentaries are tied to social movements that come with powerful calendar opportunities that pre-exist us as producers. It is our job to connect to that calendar of events in meaningful ways that add value. For example, April was National Donate Life Month for organ donation awareness; therefore, on The Power of Two, we put tremendous amounts of energy into pushing out our own and collaborative April initiatives — see details about “The Daily Gift,” our 1st of its kind organ donation iPad app, which features short-form video content recorded during the making of my film. On The HIV Story Project, we expressly launched a new nonprofit focused on HIV and storytelling back in 2009 because we were mindful that 2011 would mark the 30th anniversary of HIV/AIDS. Events like anniversaries drive opportunities, marketing, partnerships, engagement, funding, and story. We knew that the HIV/AIDS communities would be hungry for good content in conjunction with the 30th anniversary, and we’re now able to offer a range of compelling story telling programs to them, including: Generations HIV, an interactive video storytelling booth, and Still Around, an 82-minute compilation featuring 15 short films that can be repurposed in different settings across a range of distribution channels. 

Social Media & Real-Time Engagement 
While things are changing fast, in the second decade of the 21st century there are essentially four types of content that can be published and shared easily via online and mobile channels — text, photo, audio, and video. Powerful storytellers are able to originate and aggregate all four with some amount of frequency, with the goal of always being in front of some segment of your audience. Long before The HIV Story Project had a website, we had a very active presence on social media. We used monitoring, dashboards, and RSS aggregation to “appear” ubiquitous and engaged with our followers in real time. While it may be tough for independent filmmakers to be truly ubiquitous, social media done right can extend the sphere of influence of a powerful story in ways that create demand, awareness, change policy, etc. 

On my projects, our social media protocol is simple: always emphasize the creation of original quality content (text, photo, audio, video), and when we’re unable to, focus heavily on aggregating quality content from our partners, trusted third party sources, and like-minded storytellers. In this way, social media becomes a shared funnel of diverse storytelling, whereby all of our voices are amplified and our brand identities take on a life of their own. Although it some times feels like it, none of this is rocket science. In fact, every day filmmakers and storytellers are figuring out ways to innovate on the above by placing their unique storytelling handprint on these tools. In this age of shareability, the most important thing we can do is share our ideas. We’re all experts — and at the end of the day — there are no more secrets. 

Marc Smolowitz is a director and producer based in San Francisco. His feature documentary producing credits include Trembling Before G-D and the Oscar-nominated The Weather Underground, which he brought to ITVS through the LINCS funding initiative. He currently teaches digital filmmaking at the Art Institute of California, San Francisco. Follow Marc on Twitter @marcsmolowitz.

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