On January 24th, 2011, Jason Sondhi and I released our festival-winning short film, The Thomas Beale Cipher, out onto the great wild web. Like many filmmakers, I wrestled with the decisions of when and how to put my film online. But after 8 months on the festival circuit, I decided it was time. What happened? What did we learn? Quite a bit it turns out.

First, Background

The Thomas Beale Cipher isn’t my first film, but at 11 minutes, it is by far my most ambitious. The production on the animated action-adventure film ran 18 months, with a crew and cast of about 15. Last Spring, the film premiered in front of a large 300+ hometown crowd at the Seattle International Film Festival. Over the following 8 months, the film continued to screen at a variety of festivals (large and small) picking up a few awards along the way.

All the while I felt a twinge of guilt. I praise the courage of online films here on Short of the Week, yet I was reluctant to post my own film online. Honestly, I didn’t know the best way to do it, and deep down I was afraid that a misstep would spell disaster for a project that I, and others, gave so much to. I knew we couldn’t just toss it up on YouTube and say our prayers. We needed a plan. And so, Jason and I knuckled down to plan the launch.

The Launch Plan

Simple. Get as many people to see the film as quickly as possible to build up momentum. This meant doing a few things:

  1. Go Vimeo. It has a stronger filmmaking community than YouTube which may hit more viewers, but Vimeo will attract the right viewers—those more likely to pass it on to others.
  2. Post early. Upload the film early in the morning (12AM EST) to give the film a full 24 hours to rack up views and keep it relevant.
  3. Use Short of the Week as a springboard. Feature the film on our site and use our social media outlets to get the word out.
  4. Harness the crew. Make sure everyone associated with the film knows the plan, and shares it with their social networks. With even 8-10 people sharing on Twitter and Facebook (even if no one individually is Mr. Popular) its not hard to get over 1000 impressions which can be enough to reach a critical mass.
  5. Target key influencers. Email a few major blogs and news sites that share an interest in the film’s topic or technique. A key consideration is crafting a good email. As curators of a site  w/ a submit button, we know it is important to look pro. Have a well-designed email with well-written teaser description, something about the context of the making of the film, a blurb about the filmmaker and a hi-quality image. Make it easy for a blogger to turn around and publish without any further follow-up with you.
  6. Keep at it. All day, all week if needed— continue reaching out to new people.

The Release

We launched the film on Monday morning and continued to promote it all week. We started with what we felt was the film’s strongest asset—the visual aesthetic—and began by targeting the people we knew—Motionographer, Vimeo Staff Picks, and a few dozen others. Beaming from that initial success, we continued to ask ourselves, “what is interesting about the film and to whom might we target it to?” We approached different technology blogs and earned mentions on Gizmodo, BoingBoing, and others. As more took notice, I began to take interviews with larger publishers like Fast Company and Wired. Here’s the rundown of who took notice when and how it affected the numbers:

  • Monday 24th, 12AM: Posted the film on Vimeo
  • Monday 24th, 12noon: Motionographer, Vimeo Staff Picks
  • Wednesday 26th: BoingBoing, Gizmodo, MetaFilter
  • Thursday 27th: The Daily What
  • Friday 28th: Fast Co. Interview, Fubiz
  • Next Monday 31st: Wired article

Traffic over the first 2 weeks (yellow = Loads, green = Plays)

The Results

Jason and I have been following the world of online films for the last 4 years. We know that great films don’t always get great numbers, but we were happily surprised with our results.

  • 170,000 views on Vimeo
  • 1300+ blog reviews/mentions
  • Shared over 5000 times on Facebook
  • 2000 Tweets
  • +500 Facebook fans

So, How Does That Compare to Our Festival Run?

What we learned

  • It’s a lot of work. Next time I might think about engaging someone early in the project as PMD— (Producer of Marketing and Distribution). This is a newish position that many in the indie-world are getting behind, folks like Jon Reiss, Sheri Candler and Ted Hope. We did it ourselves, but it was tough.
  • Facebook reigns. Perhaps most surprising is that although we had articles in Fast Company & Wired and mentions on big sites like Gizmodo, BoingBoing, and Motionographer, Facebook topped them all with the most number of views.
  • The online video world is not a meritocracy. If we thought this going in, we most definitely know it now. You can’t just put a film online and expect people to find it just because it’s a good film. You need a surge of traffic to get noticed.
  • The industry is now watching. The online premiere generated a fair amount of industry interest, far more than I ever expected. I was soon taking calls from studio execs, production houses, and others interested in collaborating on future projects.
  • Capture your fans. Ultimately, you want to make use of the views you get. I set up a website with additional info on the film and a Facebook page for news updates. The Vimeo page linked to the film website which linked to the Facebook page. After the surge of traffic to the website, I moved the FB Like button to right smack on the homepage. I now have a fan base! Who knew!? And one that I can easily contact, so they can be advocates for my next project.
  • Have something ready to promote or pitch. This is the one area where I could have done more preparation. The success of the online launch caught me by surprise. Fans of the film wanted more, but we had nothing to offer. If I did it again, I’d take a cue from Kirby Ferguson (Everything is a Remix) and ask for some support for future content/projects.

Final Thoughts

My experience with The Thomas Beale Cipher has changed how I think about a successful short film release. Next time I’ll likely aim for just one or two big festival premieres and then go directly online (David O’Reilly did this well with The External World). The extended, year-long festival run doesn’t make sense to me anymore. Medium and smaller festivals just can’t compete with the reach and impact of what you can do online. Next time I’ll keep the entrance fee money and put it toward online marketing. I’ve come to think of a festival run as more of a preview screening—a fun experience with a large audience to share with your cast & crew. The wide release—where a short film can make its biggest impact—happens online.

Editor’s note: We’d like to hear your story too! Have you put your film online? Why? Or maybe you’ve tried other approaches such as: self-marketing your DVD, joining a DVD compilation or signing up with a large distributor? What were your experiences?  We’d love to hear about it. Email us at info@shortoftheweek.com, and of course follow our discussions on Facebook and Twitter @shortoftheweek