Okay, your ten-minute parody, Terminator XXXIV is a truly fine video. Your spouse is impressed; your parents and in-laws have lavished praise; your kids sat through it four times.
Now what? Fact is, you’ve plumb run out of audience. You can enter your show in contests and festivals, but you have to wait weeks or months for feedback and those events are, well, kind of remote. What you want is home-town appreciation. What you want is a public screening.
Wait a minute: a ten minute public screening? Way too short to draw an audience, even with free punch and cookies. The solution is to make your epic the centerpiece of a whole program of short videos gleaned from your video-making friends, your local user group or just an informal network of video producers. (If you don’t belong to a user group, check the sidebar for hints on finding or forming one.)
Why host a screening?
The obvious reason for a public screening is to show off your pride and joy. But public screenings can deliver other benefits, too, because they serve as magnets for everyone in the area with a more than casual interest in this intriguing medium.
Public screenings provide a potential venue for you and your friends who produce videos, and an advertised screening can attract other media mavens who have not yet connected with your group. This gives them a chance to show their work, too, and it also serves as a recruiting office to enlist helpers. As you know: serious video requires collaboration among several people, and what better way to locate potential crew members with the skills and interests you need?
Finally, there’s a synergy about these events that increases public awareness of video as a serious medium and community resource. You may even find new clients who want to pay you to produce their video.
Step 1: Secure a Venue
Of course you need a venue. You could rent the local Knights of Excalibur clubhouse, but you’ll do better with a restaurant, coffee house or a local pub. They’ll sell food and drinks to your audience, relieving you of that hassle. Additionally, they often have a layout ready-made for a screening, such as chairs and maybe even a stage or a big screen TV.
Carefully consider the establishment’s location. Who wants to drive all the way out to West Beanbag to watch videos? Hunt for a popular, central location where people typically come for some dining and casual recreation.
To sell a restaurant or coffee house manager on your plan, use these tips:
- Ask about slow nights and times. Many a joint would rather have 100 videophiles at 8:30 PM on Tuesday than the 15 customers they normally average in that time slot. Alternatively, shoot for, say, Saturday at 3 p.m., when they’d ordinarily be closed anyway.
- Advertise sales by your host. You don’t have to announce a Video Dinner at $50 a plate, but your publicity should stress that attendees can eat and drink. Show the prospective host suggested lines in your publicity, e.g. "Watch exciting videos while drinking the best latte in the Tri-state area."
Step 2: Procure a Projection System
If the venue doesn’t provide them, you can rent a video projector and screen in most towns – or ask a local industry for a loaner (with generous credit of course). Until recently, a good VHS deck was all you needed; but with the rise of DVDs, you may want to include a good player – meaning one that accepts a variety of home-recorded formats. As for audio, your venue may already have a system. If you bring one yourself, try to set it up so it can be controlled from the house. It is difficult to ride the gain on shifting audio levels if you aren’t hearing the show the way your audience does.
Step 3: Advertise the Event
How do you bring in the customers? Small university towns are always plastered with handbills, but this may not work in Manhattan. One trick is to pledge every participating party to round up four live bodies to attend. Also, consider an ad in the free weekly tabloids that specialize in community happenings. If you belong to a professional, service, cultural or worship group, get the word out within your community.
Step 4: Set Ground Rules for Submissions
The late, great A. J. Liebling said, approximately, "Freedom of the press means the guy who owns the press has the freedom." You have every right (and responsibility) to set ground rules for the videos submitted. These rules should be clear to every would-be entrant and they should include:
- Length. At ten minutes a pop, a two-hour program cannot screen more than 12 productions and that doesn’t include down time for any comments or applicable reel changes.
- Rating. The Hollywood rating system offers good guidelines. To avoid offense, stick to PG-13, unless you plan to exclude kids entirely.
- Opinion. To avoid a moral swamp of decision making, determine in advance whether advocacy of any kind belongs in your show. If no, then keep it non-controversial with a clear conscience. If, yes – well, you’re on your own.
- Copyright. Don’t forget: any screening for viewers other than personal friends and family is a public performance, and that involves legal stuff. Here’s a checklist to keep your entrants honor-bright. Participants should stand ready to show proof that they have:
- Obtained music rights (even "Happy Birthday" is copyrighted) or composed their own score. Software like SoundForge and Cool Edit Pro is amazingly easy and effective.
- Acquired signed talent releases for performers and property releases when not shooting on public streets or land.
- Not used copyrighted graphics (e.g. ads, postcards, posters, book covers), again, unless they’ve obtained the rights.
Above all else, be sure to protect yourself. It might not be a bad idea to include: "We reserve the right to refuse screening to anyone."
Step 5: Host the Program
Okay, the joint is packed, the audience is scarfing onion rings and soda and the houselights dim. Now what? Do you just roll the first program, or what? As any chef knows, the food is only half of it: the rest is presentation.
Recruit a master of ceremonies to introduce each show, get a big hand for its creator (who is doing an awww, gawsh! number at a table) and position the program. That means letting the audience know in advance what kind of show to expect. Nothing kills a video quicker than having the audience laugh louder and louder at a seemingly funny opening that is really an ironic introduction to a serious subject.
Next, decide whether to let people talk about the programs. You could let the creators explain what they were up to, but (usually) if a video doesn’t deliver its message unassisted, it doesn’t belong in your show.
Audience critiques are a different matter. First, they often deliver valuable feedback to the video producer. Perhaps more importantly, they help the audience buy into the process and feel ownership of the event. It is essential that the MC moderate this feedback. We all know the crank, the fanatic and the guy who just happens to have an important insight on absolutely everything. Without a discussion manager, these tyrants will take over, to the disgust of everyone else.
Finally, try to budget some mingle and network time in your show, most likely during an intermission. This will help make your event a magnet for everyone around who’s interested in video. And building that video community is the most important thing you can achieve – even more important than screening Terminator XXXIV.
[Sidebar: In the Real World: Electric Eye Cinema]
Electric Eye Cinema is a wonderful real-world example of a monthly public mini-festival. Entering its 3rd season, this standing room only event in the large main room at the Electric Earth Café in Madison, Wisconsin has an innovative approach. Admission is $5 to the not-for-profit event, but folks who bring a submission get in free, so the open slots usually fill up early. Once a month, from 8-9pm, the show screens anything and everything brought in by the audience. Like an open microphone poetry night, the quality of the submissions range from quite good to embarrassing, but the audience is always very supportive. After Open Reel Hour, the show has a brief intermission and then at 9ish (but usually later), the feature presentation rolls. The feature is typically a professional-quality piece from a serious independent producer who is also sometimes in attendance. The Electric Eye event also serves as a popular venue for screening the work of the passionate organizer, Prolefeed Studios: www.prolefeedstudios.com/events/electric_eye/eleceye.htm.
[Sidebar: 3 Ways to Find Fellow Makers of Video]
1) Videomaker maintains a list of local video clubs and user groups. To learn about user groups in your area go to the Club Vid section of Videomaker.com and click on "Search for User Groups by Region." For other sources, check local colleges and community colleges for communications courses that focus on video production. These groups are becoming increasingly common in high schools as well.
2) Put a classified in The Weekly Freebie, the community newspaper. It’s amazing how many people read those ads.
3) Google. Try searching strings like "video clubs organizations user groups" and your home town. A little verbal ingenuity is sure to round up listings of fellow video mavens.