What We Can Learn From P*Star

When I say “rapper”, what do you think of? Probably not a preteen girl spittin’ rhymes about how she isn’t ready for a boyfriend yet. This documentary might change that.

PStar (Photo Credit: ewphoto on Flickr)

PStar (Credit: ewphoto on Flickr)

P*Star Rising is a documentary by Gabriel Noble that follows the growth (literally) of a 9-year-old female rapper from Harlem named Priscilla Diaz, stage name: P*Star.  While I don’t know if I would have picked a name for a 9-year-old that produces google searches about the adult entertainment industry, I was instantly won over by this little girl’s wittiness and extremely apparent charisma.  The film recently premiered at Tribeca Film Festival.  Check out the trailer.

We can all learn a few things from P*Star, the artist, and Priscilla Diaz, the girl.

Connections make you or break you. P*Star wasn’t born rapping (although that would be pretty sick).  She didn’t get signed by a record label because of her musical genius.  She got signed because her father, an ex-rapper from the 80s, knew the right people.

While most of us aren’t lucky enough to be born into families with connections in the field of our choice, we can use social media to forge connections with people that will help advance our career.  Start seeking out people on Linkedin, Facebook, and Twitter that will provide you with an outlet for your work.  Maybe it is a museum curator, or a record producer, or an employer.  Join the communities that these people are part of and start a conversation.  Make a connection by asking questions or establish yourself as competent by answering other people’s questions.  The questions can lead to an email, the email to an interview or audition.  Most successes don’t come from luck; they come from someone saying “Hey, I know this great person you should hear about.”

You can’t do it alone. There are going to be hard times.  Really hard times.  I don’t care how strong you are, you can’t believe that you are going to make it without some support system.  Whether it is monetary or emotional support, you need someone that will always be stable, because there will be times when everything else is not.

Have an interesting story. The thing I like most about P*Star is that she has a story.  She grew up in poverty with a heroine-addicted mother and cocaine-selling father.  Her father cleaned up his act and took her in, teaching her how to rap.  She had her first gig when she was 6, was signed to a record contract at 10, and now has a leading role on PBS’s revival of The Electric CompanyFind some things, or a series of things that make people go, “Cool!

5 Rules for Artists Using Social Media

In my last post, you learned that no one cares how good you are if they don’t know who you are.   Social media literacy is an essential skill for all artists to master.  And by social media literacy, I don’t mean being able to create a facebook event, or tweet about your breakfast, or add friends on Myspace.  My 10-year-old cousin can do that.  I mean being able to effectively use social media to self-promote and create a lasting, active community that will continue to support you.

When using any social media tool, there are 5 important rules to follow:

  1. Don’t lead with tools, lead with relationships. You aren’t going to get anywhere by blindly twittering promotional material 20 times a day.  In fact, that’s probably a pretty good way to annoy your fans.  Instead of looking at these tools as a platform solely for spewing content, think of them as a way to get involved in the conversation of your community.  Amanda Palmer, lead singer for the Dresden Dolls, is a great example of what an artist should strive for.  In May, she made $11,000 in one night. She twittered her fellow “Losers of Friday Night” (fans who had decided not to go out on a friday), got together a group of people to hang out on the internet, chatted about stuff, made a t-shirt on the spot about the stuff they were chatting about, and sold over 400 shirts in the next few days.  That is how you harness the power of a community.
  2. Great Big Sea (Photo Credit: Cindy Funk on Flickr)

    Great Big Sea (Photo Credit: Cindy Funk on Flickr)

  3. Use tools as an aide to build community. When you are an artist, community is everything.  It is your bread and butter and if your fans are not strong and loyal, you will not survive.  You do not have to be a household name to be successful if you have a strong community.  Have you heard about Great Big Sea?  Probably not.  They are a Canadian celtic-rock band.  Last summer I went to one of their concerts and then saw the Backstreet Boys the following weekend at the same venue (don’t judge!).  Can you guess which concert was sold out and which one wasn’t?   It’s hard to believe, but a Canadian celtic-rock band actually beat the Backstreet Boys in ticket sales. Great Big Sea enjoys consistently sold out concerts because they have an active fan base that will travel thousands of miles to see them and they recognize the power of having this community.  An example: their website is titled “The Community of Great Big Sea.”
  4. Tell your story. You want to use social media to connect and engage with your audience on a personal level.  There’s an Indian Proverb that goes: “Tell me a fact, I’ll learn.  Tell me the truth and I’ll believe.  Tell me a story and it’ll live in my heart forever.”  People remember stories, so why not tell yours?  And I don’t mean a stale bio that you find on all these artists’ websites.  I mean something personal, written by you, about you, that readers will want to tell other people.  One interesting and memorable anecdote or fact makes it easier for your fans to promote you.  I can’t count how many times I’ve bragged that Lady Gaga was one of 20 applicants accepted into Tisch early decision ever.
  5. Create an incentive for users to come back. There was a Mashable post a few weeks ago about 5 great Facebook fan pages.  They all had one thing in common:  original content.  You want to make content that is not available elsewhere.  We yearn to be on the inside, getting the “exclusive sneak peek”. Make your fans feel special and give them something they can’t get anywhere else.
  6. Don’t sign yourself up for more than you can maintain. Having 8 different profiles on various media platforms won’t do any good for you unless they are all well developed and updated frequently.  If you have enough time to maintain 8 accounts, then that’s great.  However, if you are an artist, you probably are busy working on your, you know, art.  Focus your time on one or two platforms (using points 1-4).  And don’t ever hire someone to maintain your profiles.  There is nothing that will make you look more out of touch with social media.  Your fans want to connect with you, not your 20-year-old intern.  The whole point is to engage people, and you can’t do that if you are spread across eight different platforms or aren’t even using the tools.

Building community, making a personal connection, and actively engaging your audience is not only important, it is necessary to set yourself apart from everybody else. Be authentic and be yourself.

Joss Whedon at the Shasha Seminar, Part II

Last time, I gave a recap of Joss Whedon and Mark Harris’s thoughts on where the media industry is going, but much of our time at the Shasha Seminar was spent talking about the nuts and bolts of actually getting work produced.

Photo Credit: Malenkov in Exile

Photo Credit: Malenkov in Exile

Whedon talked about his own career, and how he got his stories up on screen. He started with Buffy, who he described like so: “This is my voice. This is my avatar. This is my girl.” Buffy, the story of a “bimbo” getting her revenge on big scary monsters, was the story he needed to tell. Being a script doctor was not enough for him – because it didn’t involve creating anything. Lucky for him, as he creates, he sees the title, the trailer, the one sheet and the marketing campaign all in his head. That probably goes a long way to explain why Whedon’s incredibly off-beat concepts worm their way into the pop culture landscape – he understands that media doesn’t just live up on screen, it lives in advertising, it lives in conversations online and in person. He claims it’s not cynical to think of these things as you’re doing creative work – because “It’s going to be a dialog between the audience and us.” In other words, he’s reaching out to his audience any way he can.

For Buffy, reaching out to the audience also meant a huge amount of multi-platform content – some of which he controlled creatively, and some of which he didn’t. In the case of the books, Whedon said, “Please don’t have Buffy deny the Holocaust in any of them, I’ll be over here.” In the case of the video game, he voiced an avatar of himself. Whedon put a lot of creative effort into the comic book series, because that platform interested him. However, he also addressed the announcement that Fran Rubel Kuzui, producer of the original (and failed) Buffy the Vampire Slayer film, intends to revive the series without Whedon’s creative input. Whedon said that Buffy “would not have happened” without Kuzui, and that the party who would have legal difficulty creating a new Buffy TV series is, in fact, him. When someone asked if he regretted not telling more television stories in the Buffy universe, he said “I’m not long on regret.”

Whedon’s shows are widely given credit as some of the first to have massive (and well-organized) online followings, Firefly was one of the first shows without a fully aired season to come out on DVD, and now his show Dollhouse is being renewed in part due to a strong web-based viewing audience. As I noted in my last post, Whedon started shooting the second season of Dollhouse on Monday. Budgets have been cut, and he’ll be shooting in HD video instead of film. Whedon actually seemed pleased about this, saying that “When they take money away from me – I get better.” (Fox executives, if you’re reading this, please don’t take it to heart). Whedon talked about the challenge of writing a show with six act breaks instead of four (which I understand is at Fox’s request, since there are more ad breaks online than on TV). He said it was challenging not to take the audience “out of the story” with so many cuts.

When you watch Joss Whedon speak in person, what comes across most readily is that he genuinely loves his job, and believes in his own work. Much of the weekend (which I’ll get to in a third, and possibly final post) was very tied up in justifying the artistic compromises that everyone makes in order to get art to make money. Whedon still believes that storytelling can, should, and must stand for something – even when it’s happening in a staunchly commercial enterprise. Whether regular folks can do what he does – create their own Dr. Horribles without the backing of experience, prestige and lots of famous friends – remains to be seen. But it’s nice to know that there are powerful people who are still in our corner.

Movies, TV and Finding Your “Strange”

I’m about to go get a good night of sleep before the last day of the Shasha Seminar for Human Concerns, a weekend seminar at Wesleyan University that has a completely different theme every year, and draws a wide variety of speakers to the campus. This year the theme is “Defining American Culture: How Movies and TV Get Made.”

The conference has given me a lot to think about. Last night, Mark Harris, film and pop culture critic, spoke eloquently about the future of media, art and commerce. Tonight, Joss Whedon addressed his own career trajectory as a guy trying to tell stories by any means necessary. Great words of advice for writers from the very quotable Mr. Whedon: “Find your strange.” and “Finish it.”

Stay tuned, folks! More commentary to come.

Introduction to Getting Your Own Website

Several people have asked me recently about setting up their own website, so I though I would consolidate my explanations here.  When you set up a website, there are several different parts to getting it up and running.  We can think of these in terms of their analogs for setting up a physical place of business.

Address

On the web, unlike in real life, your address is not tied to the physical place where you (or your files) reside.  A domain name is your address on the web.  Our domain name is stillindie.com.  You can purchase a domain name from a domain name registrar, like GoDaddy or NetFirms.  Domain names are unique, like addresses.  Only one person can own a given domain.  A domain should cost around $7/year.

There are typically three parts to a URL, the subdomain (e.g. www), the domain name itself (e.g. stillindie), and the TLD, or top-level domain (e.g com).  These three pieces are separated by periods and make up a URL (e.g. www.stillindie.com).  You can think of these as your apartment number, your street address, your city, respectively.  You chose what city to live in, then buy a unique street address, and manage the apartment numbers in your building any way you want.

A TLD is the universe from which you pick your domain name.  The most common three TLDs in the United States are .com, .net, and .org.  Generally these are thought of as commercial, network, and organizations, but there are no rules governing which one you can use.  Generally, if the domain you want is available in the .com TLD, you should pick that one.  There are many other TLDs available, if you want to go exploring, but remember that most internet users assume a website ends in .com unless you tell them otherwise.

Subdomains are governed by the owner of the domain name, so you can create any number of subdomains and point them to different places if you choose.  www.yourdomain.com might point to your website, while mail.yourdomain.com might point to your webmail interface.  Some websites will also give you a subdomain on their domain for free (e.g. http://www.webs.com/).  Be aware however, that having your own domain name is generally viewed as more professional.

To explore what domain names are available, I recommend DomainTyper, where you can see whether a domain name is available as you type it in.

Plot of Land

Just like you need a plot of land to build a house on, the physical space where you store the files that make up your website is your web host.  Some domain registrars also offer web hosting, and while the integration may be appealing, it can make it more difficult to switch if you should have problems with either in the future.  Web hosts come in a variety of flavors, but most small sites just getting started will choose shared hosting.  Shared hosting simply means the web host is using one server to host multiple sites.  This makes it less expensive.

Other options are VPS (virtual private server) or dedicated hosting (your very own private physical server).  If you don’t have a specific reason to need VPS or dedicated hosting, you should stick to shared hosting, as it will be much cheaper, and unlike in the physical world where your house is pretty much tied to its plot of land, it is very easy to move your files from one web host to another, should you decide to switch.

A couple of businesses that offer shared hosting are BlueHost and DreamHost.  Shared hosting for either of these runs about $6/month, and may require a one- or two-year contract.  While both of these companies offer unlimited bandwidth and storage space, you should check these two numbers if you choose to find a different host.  Storage  or hosting space is the equivalent of our square footage, and simply governs the amount of stuff that you can put on your web host.

Bandwidth doesn’t have a direct analog in our physical building analogy, but in talking about web hosts it is a measure of the amount of data transferred to and from your web host in a given month.  A large number of people downloading large files from your website will use a lot of bandwidth.

Once you have both a host and a domain name, you can log into your registrar’s control panel to point your domain to your new host.

Building Architecture

Now that you have an address and a plot of land, the next step is to build the house to hold your belongings.  In web terms, the architecture that holds your information is usually a CMS (content management system).  Just as different types of buildings are suitable for different kinds of businesses, different CMSs are better suited to different types of websites.

Many CMSs are open-source, which means they are free, both in the sense that your don’t pay for them, and in the sense that the way they are built (source code, or blueprints, if you will) is available publically.

There are commercial CMSs available too, but they are not necessarily better than the open-source options.  Some of the largest companies in the world use open-source CMSs to run their websites, so don’t worry about using an inferior product.  Celebrate the fact that some generous programmers volunteered their time to create great free tools for you to use.

For most small sites and blogs, I recommend WordPress.  Some web hosts can automatically install WordPress for you, and if not, it is still a fairly simple process to do in only a few minutes.  In my opinion, WordPress is one of the easiest CMSs to use.  There are numerous free plugins available to add additional functionality and free themes to change the appearance of your site.

Other open-source CMSs you might use include Joomla or Drupal.  Also, the more technically-savvy may build their own CMS using a framework such as Ruby on Rails or Django.

Merchandise

Once your building (CMS) is up and running, the last step is to move in.  Add content to your site through your CMS and check out your new website!  Tell all your friends.  Add links to your website to your profiles on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter.

There are limitless possibilites for what to do next, but this is the extent of this primer.  If you have questions about anything you read here, please leave a comment and we’ll try to answer it or point you to some more comprehensive resources.  I hope you found this introduction helpful and wish you the best of luck in creating your own home on the internet.

Interview with Jasmine Bulin

Last weekend was the 48 Hour Film Project in DC.  This weekend we’re bringing you interviews from several team leaders who participated last weekend.  Our first interview is with first time 48 Hour participant Jasmine Bulin.

Jasmine Bulin

Jasmine Bulin, 48HFP-DC "Hugs Productions" Team Leader

Still Indie: So, how did you get involved in the 48 Hour Film Project?

Jasmine Bulin: I heard about the project about three years ago and have been pining to do it ever since. Finally this year I signed myself up as a team leader and just hoped I could get my friends to help me out in time.

SI: What genre were you hoping for and which one did your team draw?

JB: I was crossing my fingers for “buddy film” or “mockumentary.”  Since our team’s mission was to have a good time during the 48 hours, not to win, we were hoping for a genre we could easily inject our comedic spirit into. I drew “holiday film” out of the hat as our genre, but we still had some great ideas, and it wasn’t hard to incorporate the 3 common elements; Eve or Ivan Pagoda, Coach (the character), ID Card (prop), and “We’re hoping things will change.” (the line of dialogue).

SI: What story did you tell?

JB: After the Kickoff, where we recieved all the elements, my entire group met to brainstorm and vote on the story we felt the strongest about telling. An obscure holiday, Make a Difference Day, won out, so we told the story of a man at a low point in his life trying to do good on that day while incorporating some slapstick moments where his good intentions go wrong.

SI: What was the biggest challenge your team faced?

JB: The biggest challenge was not time. It was definitely maintaining focus. There was plenty of time for drama in the 48 hours and I learned a lot about how I should do it next time. My advice to any 48hfp newbies out there is to set specific jobs/responsibilities for everyone, maintain a simple schedule, and choose the direction you want for the film.  I heard several comments from other team leaders about how they should have been more involved in the writing process.

SI: What was the best moment of the weekend?

JB: The best moment, hands down, was when we got to film the scene we were all anticipating: rolling one of our characters down a big hill in a wheelchair. I think we did 20 takes just because it was so much fun and after finishing the film I think it is the best scene. I still laugh at it.

SI: Will you be participating again next year?

JB:  When I was turning the film in, I wasn’t sure whether I would ever participate again. I had fun, but the drama… oh the drama! With a new strategy I think I will do it again next year and you may see one of my films in another 48hfp city this year.

Thanks Jasmine for giving us a view into your team’s process!  To see photos of Jasmine’s team at work, check out their Facebook photo album.  Be sure to check back with us tomorrow when we’ll hear from a 48HFP veteran. If you’ve got questions for Jasmine or her team, please submit them in the comments section below.

Happy Earth Day 2009

In honor of Earth Day, we’d like to point you to a couple of our previous articles about green film.  If you know of other resources for decreasing your environmental impact as a filmmaker, let us know in the comments.

Green Film

Image from Cayusa

Image from Cayusa

Slow Food, Slow Film?
Media-making requires a lot of resources.  What can you can do to reduce your impact?
ABC’s Earth 2100: You, too, can be Al Gore!
ABC News asks you to submit videos about what our planet could look like over the next hundred years if we don’t act now to save it.
Chris Carter’s Green Set for X Files Sequel
A concrete example of how a major film production reduced its impact on the environment.

More Earth Day Resources

For a great collection of Earth Day related videos, head over to the Earth Day collection at the brand new PBS Video Portal.

Funding an Independent Film

How do you get the money to make a film about dying languages?
How would you convince funders to back your film when it doesn’t have a clear audience?

The Linguists Theatrical Poster

The Linguists Theatrical Poster

The Linguists

Last October, the Independent published an article about funding independent films and examined Ironbound Films‘ documentary, The Linguists, as one case study.

The film’s creator, Seth Kramer, upon facing resistance from foundations and grants, self-funded a $10,000 expedition to Siberia with scientists David Harrison and Gregory Anderson, to film the first 20% of the film. With a reel to show, they were able to attract an additional $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to finish the film.

Success?

The Linguists recently aired on PBS after showing at Sundance last year. A DVD is available directly from Ironbound Films, and the film has been well reviewed by Vanity Fair, the Washington Post, the LA Times and even Noam Chomsky.

The Independent’s article also includes case studies of two lower budget films, the $60,000 USC student short, The Abattoir, and the $100,000 feature A Good Day To Be Black and Sexy.

48 Hour Film Project, 2009: Washington, DC

Early bird registration for the 48 Hour Film Project has closed in DC, but regular registration is still open.

Team Gefilte Fish Eye shoots Damned Love in Tel Aviv in 2008.

Team Gefilte Fish Eye shoots 'Damned Love' in Tel Aviv in 2008.

This year, 48 Hour Film DC, takes place on the weekend on May 1st.  Yet again, I have a conflict that weekend, but I know of several people with teams in the mix this year and I might still find some way to get involved.  (Of note, 48 Hour Film Boston, is the same weekend and has already filled up, but you can get on the waiting list.)

Your Mission

For the uninitiated, 48 Hour Film Project is competition where you a write, shoot, edit and score a short film in 48 hours.

  • On the Friday evening at the beginning of the 48 hours you are given a genre for your film as well as a character, a prop, and a line to include in your movie.
  • On Sunday, the film is due, in completed form, to be screened in a local theater in the following week.
  • According to the 48 Hour Film Project site, last year there were 30,000 participants in 70 cities.  The Project has been around since 2001, and looks to be going strong.

This all makes for a crazy weekend of filmmaking fun and I highly recommend it to anyone with a weekend to spare.  Oh, right, and there are prizes for those of you who go for that.

Other Cities

If you’re not in the DC or Boston areas, other upcoming cities in May are all open for early bird registration now:

How to Make a Good First Impression

Conversation (Photo by Thomas Hawk)

Conversation (Photo by Thomas Hawk)

According to Prospects, the UK’s Official Graduate Careers Website, research shows that first impressions are made up of the following (via Interviews: How to impress):

  • 55% visual impact, i.e. dress, facial expressions and body language;
  • 38% tone of voice;
  • 7% from what you actually say.

What does this say for how you present yourself?  Whether meeting with an agent, a venture capitalist, or even just making new friends, your appearance and tone have a lot to do with how you are perceived.

If you have time to overcome a first impression, then what you say will have a larger impact in how you are remembered, but it will be much easier if the image your are projecting is consistent with how you want to be seen.