In July 2009, filmmaker Gemma Atkinson was detained by police for filming a stop and search of her boyfriend (and fellow filmmaker), Fred Grace, on grounds set out in the Terrorism Act. The incident received coverage from the BBC and Guardian and provoked Gemma, along with other victims of fast and loose interpretation of the Terrorism Act, to fight to have the law amended to clarify the right of citizens to film the police.
Under the banner of their production company, Fat Rat Films, Gemma and Fred turned their story into the animated short, Act Of Terror, which they released in April of this year. But with a cause to fight for and a message to spread they weren’t content with letting it simply drip into the vast pool of other short-films online and quietly disperse, instead they constructed a whole launch campaign designed to get their film seen by as many people as possible.
A month on from the release Gorilla caught up with Gemma and Fred for a chat to find out how the launch went and to see if there were any pearls of wisdom about launching a short-film that he could cast our way.
Gorilla: So your most recent film Act of Terror launched on April 22nd. Give us some good stat porn; total views, most hits in one day, etc…
Fat Rat Films: Oh the stats, we do love the stats, the refresh button on our keyboard is almost worn down to the nub. As of May 26th, we racked up 331,990 views. That’s the Olympic stadium filled up 4 times, so the film was more popular than Mo Farah. Sort of.
On April 29th, The Guardian featured the film on its home page. It was most popular for almost all of the next 24 hours and that evening was Reddit’s top video and 13th on the Reddit board overall. In that 24 hour period it trended on Facebook, was tweeted about over 5,000 times, and was seen by over a quarter of a million people. We gained 400 new Facebook followers and about 150 new Twitter followers and 67 new Vimeo followers.
But the problem with stats is that they’re very moreish. We couldn’t have imagined getting 280,184 hits in 24 hours, and when it happened, we partied like kings. But then a few hours later when the rush had worn off it became all about reaching the half million mark. And as the days have gone by, our failure to reach the big 500,000 has niggled. Satisfaction is a temporary state, the hunger is never abated.
G: In your video blog you said you wanted to keep everything on Vimeo, but ended up uploading to YouTube too. Were there any other sites you ended up uploading to and which one brought the most hits?
The choice of platform comes down to what you know how to work with. Much like the way you can do the same edit with Final Cut or with Avid, but when you work on the one you understand and know how to use. With all the tools for promoting your film online it’s important to really understand how they work before you go about this.
We started by uploading to Vimeo for that reason, but we knew there was an audience on YouTube for the film (news footage of Gemma’s case in 2009 had been seen by over 150,000 people) and it seemed silly to let our snobbishness prevent the film being seen. So about 5 days in we uploaded to YouTube and even gave the film to others to host on their own pages. YouTube added about 6,000 to the total versus Vimeo’s 42,000.
This was a sacrifice, as it meant we wouldn’t get all the view statistics on one page, but we made sure we had our Facebook page and our web page links prominent so people could find us afterwards.
On the first day the film was embedded on Boing Boing; they have a huge readership and in the 12 hours after they put it up the film’s embed loads– so loading a page with our film embedded on it – were 139,139 and the plays were 2,008. It was really crucial to its success that on the first day it was picked up by these guys, because on the back of that Peta Pixel (overall 55,169 loads 1,214 plays) picked it up the next day and in the first 3 days it was seen by 10,000 people.
So this was great for the campaign – because it had already had some success we could use that to tempt more people to watch it. We had lists of people to contact that we had ready for this kind of eventuality, and so at the top of the email we’d write “6,000 views in 24 hours” and that obviously stands out.
After the first few days, it all went a bit ominously quiet. The views fell off quite drastically and on Friday we only had 543 views (a figure we had only previously dreamed about for one of our films, but after the heady sugar rush of the first few days, it tasted pretty sour). Then David Icke picked it up and put it on his blog, we’re not sure where he found it, but the words awesome sauce came rapidly to mind, and over the weekend we had 5,000 more views, largely from him.
Although we had been worried about the fact that it was losing momentum, we also knew that it was going to be on The Guardian website on the Monday. We didn’t know how prominent it would be, but when it came to it, it was the main feature on their homepage and did better than we could have ever hoped for.
G: Overall, how did the launch stack up against your expectations? Any big surprises from it all?
David Icke was pretty surprising, not only that he featured it but also that he has such an extensive influence in terms of engaged readers/viewers on his site. As we said, the fact that it was seen by so many more people than we thought was pretty damn good, but beyond that, the way people responded to it was really touching. The comments on The Guardian were almost all positive, which, if you’ve ever delved below the line before, you’ll know is not always the case.
The main disappointment from this was that it wasn’t featured on Vimeo Staff Picks. For us that’s the holy grail of online distribution and where we want all our films to go, but sadly it didn’t happen. Hopefully the next film will…
G: You were running the video blog too, charting the success of the launch. How did that go down? Would you do it for another project?
There was definitely a fear of falling on our asses in public and people pointing and laughing, but then we’d also read something recently about the debilitating nature of this fear. Great things come from failure, not least the ability to do it better next time. We hoped that it would make us think more clearly about what we were doing and why, but also that it might help out others in the same way we’ve been helped before.
This online distribution campaign is also about promoting Fat Rat Films; building an audience for our future work. Doing the blog felt like a good way of introducing ourselves as the people behind Fat Rat Films, making it a bit less impersonal. Hopefully people will respond to that.
Overall it’s been really helpful for us in terms of analysing our mistakes and successes. If other people like it and find it helpful then we’d happily do it again. One of the key resources that we used in preparation, was this blog written by Andrew S Allen and Jason Sondhi, which we can’t recommend enough.
G: Over the course of the launch, what would you say were your best and worst moves?
Worst Move? Our inept handling of Twitter – We should have made a hashtag and we should have put it on The Guardian website and we should have asked them to tweet with the hastag. We now realise that where Twitter is useful in this kind of situation is when something has already taken off, then it can reach an enormous amount of people if you can keep them in one place. Because everyone was dispersed and there was no unifying hashtag, it undermined its impact and it didn’t trend.
Best move – The amount of time we put into preparation for this, the email lists, the artwork, the website – essentially the whole strategy.
If we had to recommend one thing it would be to plan for every eventuality. There is no guarantee what will work and what won’t work, you could email the same person with the same thing on two separate days and their reaction to it could be completely different. Have a clear strategy for what you’re going to do in every conceivable eventuality, because it’s all about momentum and you don’t want to have an initial success curtailed because you’re wondering how to follow it up. If your video’s popular now, it probably won’t be tomorrow, unless you can find some new way to push it.
G: Any gold-plated tips you can give out to other filmmakers launching their films?
Think like Hollywood. Why do you go and watch a specific film in the cinema? Because its been recommended to you? Because you saw the poster?
Often the budget for distribution is as big as the budget for production of Hollywood movies, so as independent filmmakers trying to get your film seen in a ridiculously crowded field, you’ve got to do the same thing. Your film is not going to get picked up out of thin air.
Have time set aside to do this, ideally pick a release date when your film’s subject matter might coincide with a newsworthy event, have a list of all the places who might be interested in your films subject matter (for this film we hit up film and photography clubs, civil liberty organisations, animation forums, distribution blogs).
This one deserves its own paragraph – Artwork – and in particular the poster frame. This is the first image people are going to see of your film, so make it stand out. Add laurels for your film, if it has any. Look on a Vimeo channel, like ‘Staff Picks’, see which ones catch your eye and then work out why they do that. Then adapt it for your film. When you’re posting on Facebook, photos get 3 or 4 times as many hits as plain text or just links.
The final one is persistence in contacting people. We got in touch with all of the contacts that we’ve built up over the last ten years of filmmaking. The responses ranged from incredibly helpful to no reply at all, but who was interested and who wasn’t was surprising and unpredictable, so contact them all (but it is important to personalise every email you send). Getting the film on The Guardian took four days of emailing different people there and it was very worthwhile.
We’re not natural self-publicists, but when you’re doing this you need to push aside all those arty feelings of self-loathing. You made this film, you spent a lot of time on it, so make sure people see it. Those sections that you’ve obsessed over, that were never quite right- most people won’t notice and if they do, so what? It’s better they saw it than it sitting on the shelf somewhere.
G: So now the craze of the launch is winding down, do you have anything else planned for Act of Terror? Any plans to take it to festivals?
We’re submitting to festivals now, I think that the fact it’s gone online and been seen pretty far and wide is going to undermine its festival run somewhat. There have been a few invitations to submit it to festivals that have come out of this and they waive the fee so that’s pretty good.
So far, the film was screened in Hong Kong last week and is playing in Las Vegas at the Anthem Libertarian Festival in a month’s time. There is something magical about festivals that online distribution can’t match, watching your film play in a cinema in front of people is what you dream about as a kid.
From the beginning we’d planned to screen Act of Terror in schools and youth clubs, which has now led to us doing possible workshops with young people, showing the film and discussing the issues brought up by it. We think on a more general level this film is a good introduction to the importance of knowing your rights.
G: Now that you’re experts in short film launches, what’s next for Fat Rat Films? Launching an extortionately priced consultancy for filmmakers trying to launch independent films? More shorts? A bit of both?
If someone wants to pay us to look at stats we will hug them for an inappropriate amount of time. So if that sounds like something your readers would enjoy, please do get in touch.
If you would actually like to see us talk about this in some more depth we’re doing a panel at BAFTA about short film distribution in about a months time. There are some awesome people speaking there.
In terms of Fat Rat Films, we’ve got another short, Shooting the Tribe, on the festival circuit right now and many more in various stages of production and we’re at early stages with a couple of features.
We co–direct a short documentary screening and funding organisation called Doc Heads, and in doing that we’re sent a lot of awesome films. The quality of shorts in the last few years has really rocketed and it’s great to be around all these talented people.
So come to Doc Heads, come to BAFTA, email us if you have any questions about online distribution. One of the best things about this film being seen by so many people is all the new connections we’ve made. We do like a nice connection, it’s kinda what this whole film making thing is all about.
Find out more about Act of Terror and Fat Rat Films here.