Can Growing Your Fanbase Help You Gain More Freedom In Filmmaking?
Ondi Timoner is the only filmmaker to have won two Sundance Grand Jury prizes for documentary; her award-winning film, We Live In Public focused on the life of dot-com entrepreneur Josh Harris and our experiences as a culture sharing content in the digital age. She's no stranger to the relationship of the artist, for better or worse, with the internet.
In her new bundle called the Chief Executive Artist, she profiles musician and Kickstarter record-breaker Amanda Palmer, graphic artist Shepard Fairey, and actor extraordinaire Russell Brand. Each profile follows the artist and how they use technology to reach their fan bases to allow themselves greater creative freedom with their careers.
Read our interview with Ondi Timoner below, and check out their profiles directly through the CEA site and Vimeo On-Demand. (And if you download the whole CEA bundle, $3 is donated to three different charities.)
NFS: How did you get started being a filmmaker?
Ondi Timoner: I actually picked up a camera when I was 19 and I had no intention of becoming a filmmaker. I just fell in love with it really quickly because I could ask people just about anything and they would answer it because I had a camera in my hand. I started to realize that a camera was a bridge into people’s hearts and minds in a way that I usually would be having a more superficial experience. And now suddenly they’re sharing something much deeper and more interesting because of the camera.
So I took a break from Yale over spring break and drove to California with my brother and my college roommate. I brought a camera along, and I’d go into convenient stores and we’d stop on the road at truck stops and I’d ask people questions. I’d ask them what they feared most or what they thought of gays in the military, because in 1992 that was an issue and people would answer the question. I asked one guy what he feared the most and he said, "Women with video cameras," and that became my first movie. It was called 3000 miles and A Woman with a Video Camera.
If it wasn’t for the public access station in New Haven, Connecticut, I would have never become a Documentary Filmmaker, because I wouldn’t have had access to editing and I wouldn’t have been able to discover the joy of editing and storytelling. It probably would have been a random hobby for me, but who knows. I could get time in the public access stations on the editing machines. They were shuttling editing machines, where if you changed one thing you had to change everything after it. So that was tough, but I could go in there with my brother and we could cut stuff together and it just became my favorite thing to do, really.
NFS: Talk to us about "disruptive innovation". What does that mean, and why are you exploring it within the documentary form?
OT: Disruptive innovation, to me, means seeing a problem and figuring out a solution -- identifying something that can be done better or differently than it's being done currently. Being able to see outside of the current paradigm and take action to innovate a solution or invent a way to do something more efficiently.
The reason that I am documenting is because I made a film called We Live In Public in 2009 that really showed the dark side of the internet. It was really like a horror film starring all of us about the loss of privacy and intimacy in the age that we live in now. Where we share willingly online and really are addicted to those hits of dopamine that we get from sharing everything. But meanwhile, we are being counted, studied, bought and sold and it’s only the beginning. All of that remains true. We Live In Public is a prophecy that I believe will continue to prove itself as time unfolds.
However, this same technology and Internet is also the only hope we have of inventing our way out of a very, very dark reality we’ve created for ourselves -- climate change and the exploitation of the 99% for example, people who are in power, multinational corporations who have created monopolies, are controlling mainstream news.
But we have the Internet and we have ways of talking to each other and self-organizing. And discovering truth that before we could never access. This is very powerful and the people that are leading it are worth looking at -- making them relatable, and showing their origin story, I think, is a very useful contribution that I can make towards growing the leagues of innovators and entrepreneurs. Because at this time in history we have this opportunity to make our visions real -- find an audience or customer-base for whatever it is that we are coming up with. We can reach out and create alliances across time and space with the Internet.
And I feel like A Total Disruption is really my way of attempting to assist people on their journey towards self-realization and conscious innovation. Thinking about how can we make our world a better place? How can we save our planet? How can we push for equality by using the tools and the power that we all have at our fingertips like no other time in history? So I am actually taking all of my RAW footage and putting it on a platform that will be searchable. And you can subscribe to it, download the transcripts and get first person wisdom from many of the great founders and inventors and artists who are using technology to redefine the rules of engagement, as I like to put it. Chief Executive Artists like the ones that you are going to see in the three films in this CEA bundle we’re releasing.
NFS: What is the concept behind the Chief Executive Artist series? Is this short content "disruptive innovation"?
OT: I don’t know that our short films are disruptive innovation. I think that’s kind of you to suggest. Well, the concept behind the Chief Executive Artist series, is to shine a light on artists who are using technology and the internet to redefine the way that they go about making their work and forging a relationship with their fan-bases in order to facilitate more freedom in their creation and great changes in the world.
NFS: The Chief Executive Artist bundle profiles Shepard Fairey, Amanda Palmer, and Russell Brand. Why those three people, and do they relate to each other on any thematic levels within the bundle?
OT: Shepard Fairey, for example, has a very vital, very massive online store. His images are iconic and he is very, very talented at taking ideas and turning them into clever ironic phrases. This is something that translates very well into a clothing line that then allows people to purchase those items, which gives him the revenue to create his own gallery where he can book artists and have art shows and curate ideas and thoughtful evenings and discussions and concerts and really create a cultural hub of his own there in Echo Park, California. Meanwhile he also does a ton of gratis free work for many charity organizations and causes that he believes in.
So, we followed him in doing one of these works where he uses digital technology and translates it into physical art and puts it on a mural on the side of a building in Downtown Los Angeles. And then takes that work and feeds it back into the internet so that it can spread virally as his Obama Hope poster did. That film is called OBEY THE ARTIST and hopefully will inspire people as it comes out and reaches the public.
AMANDA F---ING PALMER ON THE ROCKS is really about Amanda Palmer who has over 1 million of the most dedicated followers and fans in the world. Who she treats with such love, who she acknowledges and stays in communication with to the average of 20 + tweets a day. She’s on Tumblr, she’s on Facebook and she can create Ninja Gigs where she shows up in a town and galvanizes an audience of hundreds of people if not thousands of people wherever she says.
I’ve even filmed her in a bookstore in Portland because she decided people should buy books and read poetry. So she told everyone to meet her at 3 o’clock at Powell’s Books in Portland and had a silent hugging. She would give them a book that she chose for them and then hug them and they would go buy the book. She sold hundreds of books that day then played her Ukulele out front. So she’s just this incredible spirit who has a very free and open exchange with her fan base and comes under a lot of criticism for crowdsourcing everything from lyrics to musicians. And yet that participation and that exchange with our fan bases today is one of the defining factors of the culture that we live in. It’s no longer, “We create under the shroud of secrecy and give the work then to a fan base we hope exists.” It's, “We allow them to participate in the financing, perhaps in the conception of the work. And we keep in touch with them along the way.”
This is how we need to be as artists. We need to be Chief Executive Artists. It’s daunting to a lot of people, but we have to really manage our work from start to finish. And that is something that Amanda does and you see her do it. And you follow her process in this film, even as she is playing this massive venue at beautiful Red Rocks, outside of Denver. She is also throwing Ninja Gigs. She’s also getting all the musicians down there with her iPhone.
And then we follow Russell Brand as he visits Twitter headquarters and performs there. Just seeing him dissect an internet company from the inside is worth the ride. He has used the internet to really do massively disruptive things lately, which I cover in my feature film BRAND: A Second Coming. Stay tuned for that, it’s opening at SXSW. But lately he did something with the New Era State, where he saved homes for women because he made so much noise and is able to use his massive number of dedicated Twitter followers to speak out. And he uses The Trews, his news channel on YouTube, to relate his opinion on the news and to turn Fox News on its head. He has more views than Fox News has at this point, so Russell is definitely someone to watch.
I think that all of us need to be Chief Executive Artists to be effective these days. And if you are going to put all of your love and your heart into your art, you might as well make sure it reaches the right audience in the way you intend. And that audience grows. Hopefully these three films will kick start your inspiration while entertaining you.
And then we will come out with a course Lean Content, which will be the first ever online course for content creators co-authored by myself and Eric Ries, best-selling author of the Lean Startup. It will feature some of these artists, as well as founders of some of the most disruptive companies -- all for the distribution marketing and production of film and music and all of the arts today. So -- kind of re-think the way we go about becoming a Chief Executive Artist.
NFS: Is bundling short content for release something you would recommend other filmmakers look into?
OT: I think bundling short films and bundling content in general is a great idea. It’s something that can be very effective. If you have content that relates across a theme, you are offering people an opportunity to experience that relationship for themselves -- to get more than just 15 minutes of entertainment. In this case 45 minutes to an hour of really great characters and stories.
NFS: What direction do you see documentary, or all film, heading?
OT: I think that people are watching more films at home and content, in general, in shorter bursts. I think that people are curating content for each other more instead of relying on some kind of big source to curate it for them. They figure out what to watch from their friends, people they trust, or blogs. So, I think the future of film is bright in that we can all find our niche audience for the content we are creating. And I think that short films are very powerful, because we don’t have a lot of time these days to consume media. There is so much information coming at us that if we can tune in to something for 2 and a half minutes to 12 minutes, to 17 minutes, even to 20 minutes and feel like we really experienced something enriching it’s very satisfying.
So, I think it’s very effective if you have social causes you want to shed light on, organizations you want to raise money for -- you want to just tell a story and keep it more of an ethereal experience. My film Library of Dust in 2011 was a perfect short film, because to make it into a feature I would have had to go into individual stories of some of the people in the hospital who were cremated, as well as their families. That would have taken it out of the realm of the ethereal and turned it into something more specific and narrative.
NFS: What does it take, in your opinion, to have a real career as a filmmaker? Is it possible to be a full time documentarian and pay your bills?
OT: To have a real career as a filmmaker is to generate income, because otherwise you have to have another job and do it on the side. And making documentaries is very, very demanding. If you are going to make a great doc you need to immerse yourself in it. A good way to do that is figuring out ways to create shorter pieces that are valuable to companies or organizations. You know a lot of doc filmmakers try to do commercials; they will do a few of those on the side -- and TV, more and more.
The good news is that there are a lot of online outlets now that need content. I think it’s all about figuring out what they want and making something for them and at the same time making whatever it is that’s your true passion. If the two of those things are the same then you are very lucky.
Then there are the lucky few who just get to make films all of the time. One a year, or in the case of someone like Alex Gibney or Morgan Spurlock, they are running a massive business and they are generating 3 or 4 films at a time. They're able to make a business out of it. But it is possible; I do it. I make films -- not that often. But in the mean time I host BYOD which is Bring Your Own Doc, which is a talk show series that profiles the greatest docs filmmakers of today and the best films coming out. I’ve shot that now for over 3 years and we are heading back to Sundance. We shot at SXSW, we have a studio in LA, and it’s really a lot of fun. I get to see all of the documentaries that are coming out and shed light on whatever I think is important. That’s a job that I have, as well as my new film Brand: A Second Coming, and then A Total Disruption does jobs here and there. So, some how I manage to make ends meet and live the dream.
NFS: What advice do you have for other artists trying to make films?
OT: Well, I have coined a new phrase -- Amanda Palmer and I kind of came up with it together, and that is, “doshitism”. Just go do it and start rolling. Once you start asking your first questions they will lead to more questions and more things that you need to go shoot. The next thing you know you will be involved in a whole story and your life will be richer for it. Go do it, but whatever your central question is, or whatever the issue is that you are most interested in exploring, you should make sure you are going to be interested in that for a long period of time. As I said, these are not easy endeavors, but you have to think it's important and relevant for other people to pay attention to and stay excited to keep learning for at least a couple years.
Thank you, Ondi!
You can check out the bundle now on the CEA site. The three charities that each film is donating to are HeadCount, The Teen Project's Freehab, and Honor The Treaties. Check out/follow award-winning filmmaker Ondi Timoner and A Total Disruption on Twitter.
What do you think about what these artists are doing to gain creative freedom, and about what Ondi has to say about what it takes to be a working filmmaker?