The rapid adoption of e-newsletters by documentary filmmakers is the latest example of resourcefulness and efficiency among contemporary independents. These communiques boast a remarkable clarity of focus, even as the goal shifts over time from donations to theatrical or TV viewers to DVD customers. "A newsletter is a key piece of outreach, in large part because it allows you to create a public identity to your film," says Ian Slattery, associate producer of the Emmy-nominated doc Soldiers of Conscience. "Your newsletter audience gets to follow the ‘story’ of your film: new awards, festivals, reviews, community partnerships, etc. This means that someone who had signed up for the newsletter on a whim on your website might realize that they are connected to a really important film that they now want to bring to screen at their school, community group, or place of worship."
Slattery is one of three Bay Area filmmakers at varying stages of the filmmaking cycle that described their e-newsletter experience for this article. Soldiers of Conscience, a thoughtful, balanced look at the morality of killing in the name of country directed by Gary Weimberg and Catherine Ryan, aired nationally on PBS last October and is in the home stretch of community screenings and DVD sales. Andy Abrahams Wilson’s Under Our Skin, a comprehensive investigation of Lyme disease and the medical establishment’s sorry response, is now reaching theaters (Sept. 18-24 at the Sundance Kabuki and Sept. 23-24 at the Smith Rafael Film Center) after a year of festival and community dates. Katherine Bruens and Sean Gillane just wrapped production on Corner Store a verité portrait of a Palestinian market owner who, after more than a decade apart from them, recently moved his family to San Francisco.
Wilson began sending out monthly e-newsletters after the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival premiere of Under Our Skin. His original list of 4,000 "followers" consisted of individual donors, a couple of hundred people he’d filmed for the doc’s "chorus of voices" and others touched by Lyme who’d heard about the project along the way. New contributors and DVD buyers are routinely added to the list, which has doubled since the original emailing.
"Early e-news blasts were focused on fundraising and the film’s premiere," Wilson recalls. "As it evolved, the tone has become less ‘movie’ and more ‘movement.’ Under Our Skin has thus become the centerpiece—or even anchor—of a larger movement. I think this is important because otherwise newsletters are just seen as promotional: i.e., our film is important because we say it’s important. The shift from ‘what we can get from you’ to ‘what we can give to you’ has not been inconsequential. One example is a column in every e-newsletter (that then links to our website) [that] honors an activist of the month who has been especially helpful with fundraising, promotion or outreach. Giving concrete ways that the film is helping people is another way to ‘give back’ and show that we’re engaged in something bigger than just self-promotion." Along those lines, Wilson noticed a higher rate of unsubscribes when the list was used to promote other partner organizations’ interests (in exchange for their promotion of Under Our Skin).
Slattery concurs that a common pitfall is failing to provide information that’s helpful to the recipient. "Don’t only use the newsletter as a sales tool—your community of recipients will lose interest and feel ‘sold to,'" he cautions. "Be sure to include well-written, exciting updates that share real news. And finally, make sure you find sincere ways to thank your newsletter audience and make them feel included in the film’s success as the important supporters and contributors that they truly are." He advises filmmakers to choose a frequency appropriate to the rate of new developments, noting that a weekly newsletter without news of substance will simply get deleted. The Soldiers of Conscience e-newsletter went out monthly with occasional special alerts around events such as the PBS broadcast.
The Corner Store filmmakers launched their communique about a month and a half after they began principal photography. E-newsletter updates have been relatively frequent, albeit irregularly scheduled, matching the real-life events driving the film. "Its purpose has been to keep the community [aware] of the progress of the production," Bruens explains. "Our followers have been excited to find out about the actual plot as it has been unfolding over the last nine months."
A first-time filmmaker with a nascent production company, Bruens adopted an e-newsletter early on as a way to inexpensively provide followers with production content. Slattery realized similar economies with the Soldiers of Conscience missives. "Once you set up your first newsletter, the staff, time and money needed to send out your second one is not significant," he reports. "Plus, you’re probably already updating key friends and contacts with news about the film—why not put those updates in an eye-catching newsletter that people will actually read?"
Bruens has strong opinions about exactly what catches readers’ eyes. "I would caution people about putting too much text in their newsletters," she says. "We are filmmakers, [so] use the newsletter to connect your audience to the images and sounds through simple sentences with hyperlinks. Run analytics on your site as well as your newsletters to keep track of what’s working and what isn’t. Each film and each audience is different, so keep changing to fit what you find is working and what is not."
Bruen’s implication is that e-newsletters are especially effective at driving traffic to the website. Wilson noted the same phenomenon with his newsletters for Under Our Skin. Of course, traffic can flow both ways, with the site generating new subscribers for the e-newsletter.
"You need to find ways to steadily build your list of newsletter recipients," Slattery asserts. "This can take various forms, from having an email signup box on your website, to collecting emails at events, to having a poll on your site that collects emails. Without list growth, you’ll saturate your community’s interest in the film and the newsletter’s usefulness will quickly diminish. And people should remember: Even if you have a really popular newsletter, only one in three readers is likely to even open it, let alone click on links to buy the DVD or take action on an issue. Factor in spam filters and other email hurdles, and the email you sent to 2,000 people is only actually reaching 1,800 and only being opened by 600. So grow that list!"
The filmmakers emphasized that new Internet tools are joining e-newsletters in the filmmakers’ arsenal, with symbiotic effects. "A newsletter is a good way to get highly engaged fans to join your film’s community on social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, etc.," Slattery says. "Those will be some of the more active supporters—people you want to interact with on a more regular, informal basis (via Facebook updates, etc.)."
Wilson’s experience has been quite similar, albeit perhaps more intense. "Email lists and regular e-news blasts have been very important, but so has Facebook (almost 4,000 fans), Twitter (500 followers) and YouTube (300,000 views). Facebook allows for interactivity, which generates more and more community (and e-news sign-ups). Twitter is a great tool for making announcements and calls to action, and even holding real-time community chats. All these platforms support and reinforce each other, with the ultimate goal of building a wider community and creating what I call a ‘movie movement.’"
The engine of this social-network spider web is unambiguous, Wilson says.
"Newsletters are the narrative thread that runs through it."
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