Monday, November 15, 2010

How the Internet (Well Social Networking Really) Saved the Cinematheque

By Sid Grauman with additional reporting in the real world by Margot Gerber

As a general rule, non-profit arts organizations have no money for advertising. They may have tremendously inventive, even innovative programming, but if no one knows about it, it’s like the proverbial tree falling in the forest when Paul Bunyan goes on a coffee break and no one is around the hear it. Making noise in the community about our programs had become something of a problem. A few years ago, we couldn’t justify high-priced advertising in print publications that had no track back (we didn’t know if the ads were being seen, but no one cared about our programs, or if people had just stopped reading print altogether). Our audiences for films on the big screen as they were meant to be seen at the American Cinematheque’s gorgeous, state-of-the-art theatres (especially Sid Grauman's legendary Egyptian Theatre - home of the first Hollywood movie premiere), were dwindling.

There is no doubt, that the Internet killed the centuries old institution of the printed newspaper. As the ad pages shrunk, so did the editorial. The Los Angeles Times, our remaining local daily paper of record, that once devoted a whole column to repertory cinema around LA, reduced editorial in proportion with ad pages. Before the demise of print, cable television started the wave of change, offering more choices than the original three networks everyone watched and it split the audience into too many pieces to go to one source to mount a campaign targeted at the vast majority. The Internet cut audiences again, this time, a thousand-fold and the days of there being one or two sources that every person in America consulted (and spoke about around the water cooler), were gone forever. Around 2007, the cry went out, “Nobody is reading the LA Weekly anymore” and “All entertainment news has gone online.” The LA Weekly had always been the source to advertise entertainment. You picked it up to see what was happening in LA in film and music even if you didn't read the news section. In a year or two when Facebook peaked, it became a much friendlier advertising climate for companies with no money who were actually looking for a very specific audience. You could drill down to find people who liked a certain movie. You didn't have to hope they might happen to see the small ad you could afford in the LA Weekly that week. I should add that I came across a box of LA Weekly's from the 90s around this time and was reminded that the Weekly often reviewed our one night, one off events including short film showcases and highlighted listings from the world of repertory cinema! The paper was fat and there were no URL's. All the information was contained within those pages.

But before Mark Zuckerberg's revolutionary concept reached critical mass, I was faced with the question, "so where does a non-profit movie marketer go from here?" We couldn’t afford to buy one million impressions on a national website and that strategy made no sense since we only operate in Los Angeles, but we did have our own e-mail list of opt in subscribers that we had been cultivating since 1996. We had been sending out our calendar in a text format for awhile, but we were starting to get labeled as a “spam server.” Then around 2007 Icontact and Constant Contact and other web-based e-mail programs came onto the scene. What a concept! A service you pay for that maintains “white list status” with all the big e-mail service providers like aol and yahoo for example. Suddenly the Cinematheque’s e-mails were getting through to our customers, were now more eye-catching html based emails with pictures and color AND we were spending less time managing our own database because people could unsubscribe or change their e-mail addresses themselves! There is nothing more appealing to a company with a small staff than automation.

In 2007, my assistant at the time came in one day all hopped up about something called MySpace. She wanted to build a page for the Cinematheque. “Give it a try,” I encouraged her. It was free and supposedly young people were on Myspace. Number one on the wish list of all of us museums, performing arts and heritage type institutions, is connecting with and building a new generation of patrons, before our customer base literally dies off.

My assistant would give me daily updates on friend requests and shared people’s comments on Myspace around the office. It seemed to be working. People joined our page. It wasn’t long before we had our 10,000th friend. Still, I didn’t feel like there was a lot of engagement. People joined the page, but then what? Most of the messages seemed designed to get me to listen to a band. Still, my assistant was enthusiastic that her job required her to spend several hours a day on MySpace, updating our calendar of films and posting soundtrack selections as background music for the page.

Maybe a year later, a volunteer came in and told me about something called Facebook. “Yeah, people start pages for everything," she said. "There is even a fan page for Spaghetti,” she confided. “Go for it,” I told her. “Start a fan page for the Aero and one for the Egyptian.” At this point, I was of the mindset that all of these sites were just designed for people who had way too much time on their hands, but hey, if hey were movie fans with idle evenings, maybe they would come out to the theatres! At the time, I put these social network site users in the same category as those friends and colleagues who were compelled to pass on chain e-mails of jokes that went were cc’ed to a million people you didn't know, who would then reply all, cluttering your inbox with "LOL’s" and emoticons to the point of nausea. If nothing else, Facebook seems to have rid cyberspace of that disease. Now people can post that garbage on their own pages to their heart’s delight and the comments stay on their OWN PAGE.

As we got into Facebook at the Cinematheque - and eventually Twitter, the thought of having my own Facebook page made me nervous. I chose who I invited into my life. I was fine promoting someone else's film, but not my own life. I didn’t want to be judged or challenged in a public forum. But, as it turned out, it was necessary to have a profile in order to interact on Facebook. So first, I tried to have one that was sort of a hybrid of my name and business, but ultimately I changed it to my own name and posted a photo of myself so that people could find me. I’ve been on Facebook for about three years now and outside of an ex-boyfriend recently appearing out of the past to send me a private message to let me know I had used the contraction it’s without an apostrophe (never heard from him again after that), I haven’t suffered too much anxiety from having a profile. I was even disappointed when I realized I had hid by birthday and since no one knew, I didn’t end up with a page full of birthday wishes from people I barely know. And then, there is that sense of being left out, tinged with jealousy, when you see all the fabulous things everyone else is doing.

Back to the CINEMATHEQUE... So, we started to accumulate fans as Facebook began to rule the Internet and the demographic went much wider than MySpace. Grandparents got on to see photos of the grandkids, post-college kids making their way in a new city stayed in touch with school friends, business people got on to gain leads and people WERE (for the most part) , who they said they WERE. The Cinematheque used Fan Pages, never groups. Our website (soon to be re-launched) sufficed for presenting information, but it would have been too expensive for us to build in a proprietary chat room to provide a way for audience members to interact and isn’t it better to be part of a much, much larger platform that is being marketed every day to new people who we don’t already know? The fan page allowed us to get updates out at a rapid fire pace and to make sure people saw them. We could tease programs and get a barometer reading on interest, we could post events and people could RSVP to them and pass them around to friends and we could answer questions quickly and easily to one person, but all could see in case they wanted to know too.

With Facebook, people who had already been indoctrinated into the thrill of being immersed in a film on the big screen at the Cinematheque, could easily share their passion with friends on Facebook with the tap of a key. One of our biggest recruitment methods has long been word of mouth and by extension, this IS word of mouth. People are more likely to try something if someone they know recommends it. That goes for books, diets, plastic surgeons, movies and movie theatres.

Once we hit that 1000th fan the viral part of the equation kicked in. It is like that story about the monkeys on the island with nuclear fall out. Scientists started teaching some monkeys to wash the coconut before eating it. Once the 100h monkey adopted this practice, all the monkeys were washing their coconuts.

From September of 2009 and September of 2010, audiences returned to the Egyptian. Our message had gone viral. All those people sitting around at home typing movie titles - ERASERHEAD, ROBOCOP, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, GONE WITH THE WIND, into their Facebook profiles - did we suddenly get on their radar?

The economy was down and movies were still amongst the cheapest forms of entertainment you could buy. Now selling out at least one show a month in a 616-seat theatre, our demographic was all over the place. We literally had patrons that ranged from infants to people in their 90s. Every night we might have a different audience, depending on the theme of the show. News Film from Italy, a genre film 30 years in the making, finally making its premiere, an old classic with a Golden Age star in person...

Another goal Facebook, as well as Twitter helped us meet, was to build a community. People came to our facility to do something non-social by definition. To sit in the dark and watch a film even if at the Cinematheque it is an altogether different experience than going to the usual movie theatre. Not only have patrons been stoned by fellow patrons for deigning to extract a cell phone from their pocket during a movie, but the audience is whip smart about film and will applaud a popular 1930s movie star's entrance onscreen or laugh at the inside jokes in a movie. Our Facebook page began to literally put a face with a name and a personality. For the first time we were really interacting with our audience and when I would post something especially clever (like a Tweet on 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY that was “sent from my HAL9000), I couldn’t wait until our audience started to comment. And yes, they challenge us, argue with us and flat out get nasty sometimes, but we remember it is all for the love of film, so we forgive them time and again. At least they care enough to argue right?

People love to talk about the movies and we’ve given them a platform, but it has gone beyond the arena of when people loved to read our expensive printed newsletter and then RENT the films they had just read about to watch at home, instead of coming to the theatre to see them. No, the new fans of Aero Theatre and Egyptian Theatre DO show up for events at the theatre. They are part of the dialog, so how could they not show up for their events.

For more information on how these and other tools are used on a daily basis to keep the Cinematheque relevant in a changing world, come to the panel discussion SOCIAL NETWORKING FOR THE FILM COMMUNITY on Tuesday, November 19, 2010 at 7:30 PM at the historic 1922 Egyptian Theatre (built by theatre impresario and darn fine promoter, Sid Grauman).