Still from Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
We all know that the vast majority of folks make their film-viewing choices based on what they are hearing about a film — be it from friends, traditional media, the blogosphere, or social media. They’re not likely to go out of their way to proactively research a film, and if they haven’t heard anything about a film, they aren’t likely to see it. Whatever you want to call that…be it “buzz,” “word-of-mouth,” “going viral,” etc…it is the name of the game in contemporary grassroots marketing.
But how much can a filmmaker actually control that? We all know the ways they can try — by playing film festivals, hiring publicists, engaging their community via social media, reaching out to organizations, etc. Of course it helps if a film is actually good…really good, in fact….as the last thing today’s marketplace needs is another mediocre film. And the values of passion and hard work can’t be overlooked here either, as creating buzz and engagement for a film is often arduous and time-consuming…and for many filmmakers nearly as daunting as making the movie itself.
Often it feels like independent films are at the whim of the zeitgeist, and the most important aspect is timing, and the receptivity of the marketplace to the ideas in the film. Consider the cycle of elections, and the way political/environmental/social issue docs can explode into national consciousness around certain hot issues. Given the time it takes to make a film, it’s hard to know whether anyone can actually craft a film to hit at just the right time to capture a “trending” topic.
In the case of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Prize winner Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, all the factors mentioned above came together in the final months of post-production to land the film this January at Sundance as an unlikely “buzz” film of the Festival. On the surface, it’s a straightforward documentary by a first-time filmmaker about a Chinese artist/ political dissident completely unknown to the majority of U.S. filmgoers. Hardly a guaranteed formula for indie marketing success.
But just below the obvious, the twitterverse was ablaze promoting the film; the Kickstarter campaign was raising funds and attracting attention; art magazines were giving the film covers; and filmmaker Alison Klayman had already done numerous appearances on CNN, MSNBC, and The Colbert Report as well as print features in the likes of the Wall Street Journal, The Economist and The Hollywood Reporter. A few weeks later (by mid February), the trade publications were filled with the announcement of its purchase by Sundance Selects, and the New York Times was running a feature article about the film’s upcoming Summer 2012 release.
How does something like that happen for a debut filmmaker with no special access to funding, shortly after finishing a film about a Chinese artist?
Well, of course this wasn’t just any artist — Ai Weiwei is an internationally renowned art star and political provocateur whose unyielding criticism of the Chinese government has earned him legions of friends, enemies, and fans alike. And Weiwei isn’t just an average political dissent, he is a dissident for the digital age, who because of the rigors of Chinese censorship has taken his activism specifically to twitter through linked computers to the West, and therefore has mastered the art of social media all on his own.
This is the study of a modern documentary subject, who is just as likely to be able to spread his/her own message through the media on their own, through the accessibility of social media, even in free speech-challenged China. In this case, it becomes the story of the filmmaker that becomes the mouthpiece of the subject…which many might argue is the way that it should be.
Filmmaker Alison Klayman began her work with Weiwei in 2008, as a recent Brown University graduate living abroad in Bejing and working as a freelance journalist. Her housemate was curating a show of Weiwei’s photography, and Klayman was asked to make a video for the show. Klayman and Weiwei hit it off creatively, and Klayman began to follow Weiwei as his documentarian — capturing his daily life, his frequent battles with the Chinese authorities, and his travels abroad for major international art shows.
Weiwei’s daily use of blogs and videos to spread his artwork — especially his videos criticizing the government’s response to the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province — became a driving narrative in the film, as well as a grassroots vehicle for spreading Weiwei’s fame and fan base. When the Chinese government finally cut off his locally-sourced blog, Weiwei was able to migrate his work to an network of twitter-linked computers that China is unable to control. As such, his network was able to dramatically expand globally, while remaining accessible to tens of thousands of Chinese willing to access these quasi-legal networks.
From 2008 through 2010, Klayman’s documentary follows Weiwei through major international art shows, startlingly intimate private moments, and incredible courage in the face of political adversity. And whenever Weiwei had a run in with the Chinese authorities, the encounter went instantly viral, through a devoted staff who filmed his every move and posted it immediately to twitter.
In late 2010, Klayman returned to the States to begin editing, without the financial means to complete the project. As such, in addition to applying for grants, Sundance labs, and bringing well-connected executive producers onto the projects (largely through connections in the art world), Klayman strategized and launched a Kickstarter campaign, scheduled to go live on March 29th, 2011.
And that’s when the film caught lightning in a bottle.
Only four days after the Kickstarter launched, Ai Weiwei suddenly disappeared on April 3rd…apparently arrested by the Chinese Government but without any official announcement or confirmation of his whereabouts. A global outcry went up throughout his social networks, the art world, and then the international press caught on to the story as well.
As a journalist and Ai Weiwei’s documentarian, filmmaker Klayman quickly emerged as the “journalist of record” on the Weiwei story, and the international press began flocking in her direction. Suddenly, it was the twitter feeds that Weiwei’s staff and Klayman had been maintaining throughout the documentary filming periods that became the main source of worldwide news for Ai Weiwei updates. Klayman and her social media teams ramped up their efforts in the U.S. and China, and started working on a rotating schedule to provide 24-hour updates on the story for several months. For all of 81 days, as Weiwei’s secret detention continued without any official response from the Chinese government, the international press continued to feature Klayman’s twitter updates on the story, and interviewed her about the story for numerous high-profile news programs.
Of course, Klayman was careful not to try to turn the story into a shameless plug for her movie…after all, her friend and colleague was “disappeared” and detained, and concern for his well-being was the first priority. But inexorably, in today’s hyper-media culture, Klayman’s sudden thrust into the mainstream became completely entangled with the finishing of the film…and catapulted the project into a far larger spotlight.
The film’s Kickstarter soared above the original asking goal of $20,000 to a final tally of $52,175 from 793 backers…even though it was only originally expected to bring in money from friends and family. The film attracted additional producers and lab invitations that Klayman freely admits it probably wouldn’t have. All in all, the film became a “cause célèbre” for an issue in the news, a fact which filmmaker Klayman could hardly have counted on while making the film.
When Weiwei was finally released — with a dubious charge of more than 2.4 million dollars in tax evasion — support from the community-at-large continued to pour in, with donations to the cause ultimately exceeding the amount of the fine. And filmmaker Klayman was finally free to turn the enormous pouring of goodwill towards deliberate promotion of the film, helped in large part by the incredible networks built during the crisis on twitter, and to a lesser extent, on Kickstarter and Tumblr. It is also worth noting here: because the Kickstarter campaign included a number of incentives/prizes towards donation, the film now had a wonderful amount of merchandise it could also now leverage towards wider buzz about the film.
Given this backstory, we can demystify the process of how a small film sometimes gains “buzz” beyond expectations…as was clearly the case with Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry and its incredible fortune of timing combined with passion, hard work, technical savvy, and community networks. Sometimes a film that seems the most difficult to market actually has the most subtle niche communities that can be reached…whether they be political activists, art-world enthusiasts, devotees of Asian culture, social media junkies etc.
However, according to filmmaker Klayman, perhaps the greatest takeaway is this…. in today’s hyperlinked/hashtagged environment, it is critical to remember that today’s documentary subjects no longer solely rely on their documentarian to spread their message, and social media makes potential distributors and activists of us all. Sometimes, today’s filmmakers just need to choose their subjects wisely, and hold on tight for the ride.
This content appears courtesy of The Film Collaborative.