Fame and Fortune

This has been a very intense, but positive, week on a number of fronts.

For the past couple of years we have been struggling with our direction as filmmakers. We’ve spent a lot of energy developing TV projects, not out of a love for TV, but instead because it is nearly impossible to raise funds for the kind of films that we really want to make. While continuing to work on the films we love, we have come very close to getting a few of the TV projects sold. However, in the end, each one of these has fallen apart. Our efforts on the film front, however, have been paying off and we are almost done with a film that we think will be explosively good.

On Monday at rumur we had a long productive discussion about how to move forward with our work. One thing that was clear to us is that we haven’t been very effective at capturing our own audience. Several film blogs have picked up on a recent article that discusses the idea that if a filmmaker develops a base of 1000 true fans, he can survive making his work. While I don’t know if 1000 true fans is enough, it has become increasingly clear that if we want to create the work we care about, we need to move past gatekeepers and build our own audience.

The good news is that we have a strong foundation to start from. We’ve developed a robust body of work that we are extremely proud of (Half-Cocked, Radiation, Horns and Halos, Code 33, August in the Empire State, etc etc). We just haven’t done a good enough job of letting people know about it. What we have to figure out is why we haven’t, and what we can do about it going forward.

In the independent music world (I was in an indie band for a decade) a band often works with a record label to build up a larger audience with each record. The same model has never really existed in a robust way in the film world. While music and film are both components of youth culture there are a number of reasons that kids have a different relationship to musicians than filmmakers. In simple distribution terms, film has nothing like college radio to get out the message about new work. In the past especially, college radio was one of the biggest parts of a band’s climb up the ladder of success. A band would go on tour, play shows, visit college radio stations and spread their gospel. Now they also have myspace and pitchfork and facebook.

In reality, we should have a strong network of fans. Our films have gotten out in the world and have been seen by millions of people via TV, movie theaters, rock clubs, and the internet. At least once a month when I meet someone new I find that they have seen our films, but don’t know much about us or how they got made. Clearly we haven’t been good about building up a “brand” in the way that a band does. I think that part of this comes from a reticence to be self-promotional. I come from a music scene that was extremely disdainful of consumerist culture. Our first film, “Half-Cocked” was largely about a group of people/musicians who existed outside of the larger culture. They were interested in art and expression, not fame. So were we. However, in the era of “The Long Tail”, if the artist is not interested in fame on some level, it becomes nearly impossible to exist as a working artist.

I have been thinking about this issue of “fame” a lot recently. A few months ago I started a kickstarter project with my daughter. We first used kickstarter about 8 months ago to raise funds for the film that we are now finishing. Until now, we hadn’t made great use of social media. Over the last week we’ve been thinking about it a lot, both in relation to our own work, but also in relation to Fiona’s project.

Ever since she was a year old it was clear that Fiona had a certain connection to music. When she was two years old and we got the first Arcade Fire album, she immediately picked out the three best songs and would only listen to them (her “hot ear” was confirmed when I watched their live concert stream on Thursday and they played all three of these original songs). By the time she was three she was making up songs. Now that she’s a little older, her tastes have become a lot more mainstream, and her songs have started to sound like Taylor Swift or whatever else she’s listening to on the pop music station. A few years ago she was focused on music, now she’s focused on popular music and “famous” singers.

I was ambivalent about starting a kickstarter campaign with her because I didn’t want her to focus too much on the money or the “fame” aspect. I saw the kickstarter campaign as a fun, goal-oriented, productive way to get her to focus her thoughts and her talents. When we set out to do the kickstarter campaign I was very clear (especially to myself) that we wouldn’t make a big deal out of it. I never sent out and email to friends or family, but I did occasionally post her updates to facebook. I encouraged her to make up songs with me, but I made sure that I didn’t pressure her. While a few people that we knew pledged to her project, the vast majority of people simply found her on kickstarter. It’s been exciting for us to make connections with new people through her work, and it’s been especially interesting to me to think about how people connect with each other.

Again, when we started, it was a totally different universe. We shot our first movies on film, edited without a computer, and almost no one had email or cell phones. Now, in order for us to stay relevant, we need to re-think how we make and promote/distribute our work. In some ways, the kickstarter project for Fiona was about encouraging her to follow her passion. It was also about giving her an opportunity to explore new media. If she is going to be a musician, I want to help her to understand the different aspects of fame, friendship, and artistic support.

1 Comment
  • Michelle M
    Posted at 13:46h, 08 August Reply

    Thanks for the insight. I’m going to send this on to Billy, he’s wrestling with the self-promotion/new media minefield right now.

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