Building and monetizing fanbases can be done with simple tools and by thinking like a fan, said documentary filmmaker Gary Hustwit at the SXSW panel, “Friends, Fans and Followers.” The panel was moderated by Scott Kirsner of the blog CinemaTech.

Hustwit’s marketing is a synthesis of his decades of experience in various media worlds. He has worked in the music industry and online journalism. Later, he founded the DVD label Plexifilm and eventually turned to making documentaries. He has created two well received films, Helvetica and Objectified.

Like many independent artists, Hustwit subsists on inexpensive promotion. “It’s nothing revolutionary,” Hustwit said of his marketing toolkit. When promoting Objectified, he used Facebook, Twitter, his blog and YouTube. Other than targeted Facebook groups, only one small ad for an event in New York City.

Building a community

One way Hustwit builds his fanbase is by engaging like-minded people. Rather than just talk about his film, he will use his Web sites to share items of interest. Thus, his Web sites become resources and destinations. That is especially helpful for a long filmmaking process, he says, because he needs to find his audience well before the film comes out.

In many cases, Hustwit has relied on other people to spread the word. “Helvetica,” a film about the Hevetica font, benefited from the small yet devoted group font enthusiasts. Similarly, he has relied on others to spread the word by Twitter about things like upcoming screenings and ticket sales. “I would do nothing else,” he said. “Just from that tweet, enough people saw it, or re-tweeted it, or posted it on their own blog, that we would sell out the shows. I didn’t do any other advertising except for sending a tweet out.”

For Objectified’s blog, Hustwit got people he knew to write stories about objects they were obsessed with. Visitors to his Web site found a one-stop shop for information and community for the subject matter of industry design. “I like to try to make it more a hub of information than a promotional tool.”

E-commerce rules

Huswit’s e-commerce strategies are similar to some being tried in the music industry. For both films, Hustwit had multi-tiered offerings that offered fans more than just a DVD. For example, he creates limited edition prints and sells them online. For Ojbectified, he created a limited edition USB drive that sold for $75. He has two rules: offer things he would like to buy, and make it easy for people to buy them. He works with MusicToday to sell the DVDs and sells the limited edition items and posters himself. Objectified comes as a more expensive institutional version for schools and education. All those different versions take extra work but are needed. “That’s how you control your destiny, by self-releasing,” he said. “If one doesn’t come through that month, you’ve got to have another one does.”

But it’s the personal relationships these technologies allow that work well for an artist like Hustwit. “Having that direct relationship to the people who want to see the film is the key to it all. You can have all this (merchandise), but if you can’t reach people regularly and let them know it, it’s worthless.”

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