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The Facebook documentary

One of the big laments of placing content online is the difficulty of getting an audience to find it. With almost infinite online space yet limited time and attention of viewers, great material can sink without a trace in an ocean of middling websites and videos, writes Julia Scott-Stevenson.

The question hits web content a little harder than traditional-screen docs, which often have a broadcaster or distributor site from which to launch, but unattached traditional-screen docs still have a hard time looking for cross-promotion opportunities online.

YouTube might offer the tantalising prospect of thousands of eyeballs for audio-visual material, yet in reality those thousands of eyeballs are watching cat videos and re-posted music videos and have no idea that your lovingly created work is even there. And unless you’re prepared to exploit some vulnerable children and run naked through the streets, Kony 2012 is perhaps not quite the model you’re after. YouTube also leaves a lot to be desired in its level of community building around content, which is vital for filmmakers wanting to develop an audience.

Yet all the distribution gurus are saying that now in the era of social media, promotion of a film starts with the production, not after the final version is locked off. So in the mission to find the right platform, a number of filmmakers are experimenting with Facebook as a central tool for their films. Some traditional-screen docmakers are using it to post work-in-progress, while others more solidly inhabiting the online world are creating what we could almost call Facebook documentaries.

Maya Newell is a filmmaker whose latest project, feature doc Gayby Baby, is in production. Gayby Baby, about the children of gay parents, is a dream project for building a Facebook following – there’s a clearly identified community of people who care about the issue and are likely to participate in both info-gathering and spreading the word (the same community that supported the project’s first successful crowdfunding campaign). Newell sees Facebook as a way of getting and keeping the community interested over the long process of creating a feature doc. She says, “we want to build a community around it, there are lots of mothers, kids with gay parents (who would be interested). Eventually we want the website for the film to be a place where people can come and communicate.”

Newell released clips from the ongoing production of the film gradually over Facebook, and will ramp this up again during the project’s next crowdfunding campaign set to launch at the beginning of November. She has also used the site for other purposes around the film, such as calling for suggestions of content or participants, and also to invite and respond to queries from the subject community. “So we’re crowd-sourcing as well as crowd-funding,” she says. “When you’re making something you want to represent people correctly, you want people’s ideas, to know what people want to see made. I love the idea of bringing people in, we’ve even had people uploading their kids’ drawings.”

Goa Hippy Tribe
is an example of a webdoc that started life on Facebook, developing a community of followers and bringing that community across to the final separate website for the project. Darius Devas, filmmaker behind Goa Hippy Tribe, is currently releasing elements of his latest work, This City Speaks, over Facebook. It’s later set to become an interactive webdoc on an independent site.

The benefits of using Facebook as a platform over developing, say, a YouTube channel and posting a series of videos there in the hope of collecting followers, are many. Facebook has more sophisticated community networks, which makes it easier to target groups of people and invite them to ‘like’ your project. In the first instance, this is as simple as hitting up family and friends, but also extends to finding common interest groups and cross-posting links on their pages. Once someone ‘likes’ a page, each new update will appear in their feed so for a small action you’ve now got a sort-of-committed follower.

These groups can be relied on to help champion a project, particularly if the doco has social or activist intentions. Updates don’t have to be limited to film-specific content; they can include links to relevant items in the news, updates on funding targets and call-outs for other forms of support.

In an industry that’s finding it harder and harder to get projects off the ground that don’t conform to strict broadcaster formats and factual/reality approaches, developing a community and a production on Facebook can be a great way to drum up some support and audience reach. Facebook may be a painful time-suck and sea of baby photos in another sense, but when looked at as a distribution channel, documentary filmmakers almost can’t afford not to be on it.

By Julia Scott-Stevenson

This article was first published on Australia’s SBS website and featured on the broadcaster’s documentary blog – click here to read more interesting content currently featuring on the blog.


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Alexandra Zeevalkink is a Dutch-born journalist living in London who founded DocGeeks in August 2011 in order to have a legitimate excuse to watch every documentary under the sun. She freelances for various publications and writes mainly about documentaries and the film production industry. When she is not blogging or watching films, she enjoys theater, photography and reading loads of books. She is always on the look out for potential partnerships with other creative minds.

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