The Internet is a powerful tool for filmmakers, one that opens a range distribution prospects, provides means to get a project in front of an enormous audience, and helps build a loyal fan base in the process. The feature film “Fat Kid Rules the World” and the web series “JourneyQuest” are examples of productions that are made in Washington and heavily rely on the Internet to reach audiences. Both projects serve as case studies on how the World Wide Web can broaden horizons for distribution and access, on the small screen and the big screen. Still, the question presents itself… Do all projects have the same potential for success?
Fat Kid Rules the World
Washington incentive film “Fat Kid Rules the World” (FKRTW) has been pounding the virtual pavement to ensure that this labor of love is seen in theaters and beyond. In 2011 FKRTW filmed in the Seattle area, putting over a hundred Washington-based cast and crew to work. The film quickly became a crowd favorite on the North American film festival circuit, taking home the audience award for best narrative feature at South by Southwest. FKRTW screened at the 2012 Seattle International Film Festival and was a banner presentation at the Toronto International Film Festival’s Next Wave event, a new endeavor aimed at moviegoers ages 14-18. Despite the film’s success at festivals, and a bevy of stars attached to the feature, it wasn’t guaranteed a distribution deal. The movie is about a depressed teenager who finds a sense of optimism through punk rock, and as a result, doesn’t quite fit the mold for the type of stories Hollywood generally throws its weight behind.
The FKRTW producers decided to turn to the Internet to get their project in front of the masses and cleverly seized a number of opportunities to spread the word. The film’s Director, Matthew Lillard, engaged the online community Reddit in a forum known as an AMA, or “Ask Me Anything.” Lillard’s candidness with fans about his personal life and professional acting career lent him a platform to discuss the film, which, in turn, helped drive attention to a Kickstarter campaign to build distribution funds for the movie. FKRTW raised more than $150,000 to promote the feature in conjunction with the Vans Warped Tour, to help with advertizing, and to hire publicity and distribution consultants to make certain the film became available across all markets, from movie theaters to Netflix.
FKRTW eventually partnered with the website Tugg.com, a platform that allows audiences to bring the films they want to see to local theaters. Fans guarantee screenings through social media promotion and online networking. By sending their friends to Tugg and advocating for the movies they want to see, audiences can access less mainstream films in their hometown theaters. Fans RSVP to attend and once audience minimums are met, those screenings are confirmed, but less visible projects might not have the same sway with fans, and producers have to work even harder, or create unique partnerships, to convince local audiences to come out.
The Internet offers a wealth of innovative platforms that allow filmmakers and fans take ownership of their relationship via the power of the crowd. Through avenues such as Reddit, Tugg, and Kickstarter, the producers of FKRTW and audiences have worked together to distribute the feature and guarantee screenings around the country on the big screen. Once the film becomes available online, Washington Filmworks is excited to see how this developing relationship helps continue the film’s momentum. But can a project gain this kind of attention without a visible celebrity presence?
“JourneyQuest” is a fan supported web series, distributed by Zombie Orpheus Entertainment and filmed in Western Washington. The series is released free online and raises production costs primarily through fan support by way of Kickstarter. “JourneyQuest” is released under Creative Commons, and fans face no legal repercussions for downloading, sharing and transmitting the series. In fact, they are encouraged to do so, and to create their own artwork and collateral related to the series. This “share and share alike” mentality not only helps develop audiences, but allows the series to create a strong sense of community and fan investment in its continuing success.
“JourneyQuest: Season One” is available for free on multiple web distribution platforms. Examples include the series website, Hulu and YouTube. Places where audiences are directly charged are when they purchase “JourneyQuest” on DVD, or buy related merchandising. “JourneyQuest: Season Two” was supported through a Kickstarter campaign, but not until the cost of producing the first season was recovered. While the pilot season was a passion project, Executive Producers, Ben Dobyns and Matt Vancil, pledged they would not move forward with another season until they could guarantee cast and crew would be paid. Their campaign was so successful, it obliterated the producers’ fundraising goals for the second season – having initially asked for $60,000, fans of “JourneyQuest” contributed more than $113,000.
Zombie Orpheus values the interdependent relationship between audiences and creators. The greater support artists receive from the community, the more those artists are able to develop content their fans truly want to see. They revere all involved parties and see their distribution model as emerging from the center, rather than the top-down model Hollywood traditionally relies on. The entertainment company is also highly reliant on digital distribution and the audience they build online. “We are no longer in the business of selling units, we are in the business of building a fan base,” said Ben Dobyns. “If a DVD costs me $1 to manufacture and I can give it away to gain a fan, and that fan becomes emotionally and creatively invested in the project and contributes $20 every six months, all the better. This is a very intentional strategy. It’s about creating a fan base that is empowered and active, not passive. We’re trying to build a model where fans can directly support and sustain the shows that they love.”
Are These Models For Everyone?
Projects like “Fat Kid Rules the World” and “JourneyQuest” are two locally created parts of a larger distribution paradigm shift that is happening across entertainment industries. By consciously cultivating community, productions can naturally build audiences with a sense of allegiance to the success of their project. This is an exciting model that provides paying work for cast and crew in the filmmaking industry, and Washington Filmworks is elated that projects made in our state are setting the bar so high, but filmmakers should ask themselves whether these methods are relevant for everyone.
Without a seasoned motion picture star like Lillard in the director’s chair, would FKRTW have found the same access to fans, publicity, and distribution partnership opportunities? It is definitely questionable. In the case of “JourneyQuest,” Dobyns and Vancil are gamers themselves, and have spent more then a decade producing videos about things that happened during their own experiences playing Role Playing Games. Those videos resonated with other gamers and went viral, allowing them to build an online audience over time to showcase future projects to. In the absence of an existing fan base, would “JourneyQuest” have begun to sustain itself so quickly?
Movies and web series can generate a tremendous amount of attention online, and reach large audiences, but attached celebrities and existing fan bases significantly increase those odds. Certainly Lillard, Dobyns, and Vancil have earned their access to fans and the support those communities lend their projects, but is this a model that all up-and-coming filmmakers can employ? How much time should filmmakers spend growing a fan base, as opposed to mastering their craft? And how can digital distribution models be used in other ways, especially when an audience or community may not already exist? We’d love to get this conversation started and are curious to hear from the Washington film community on the topic.