EXPERIMENTATION AND STRATEGY:
A SUCCESSFUL COMBINATION AT THE SUNDANCE INSTITUTE
The leading voice behind Sundance Institutes digital initiatives is not only ambitious and exceedingly intelligent, but he has his finger on the pulse of major trends.
That man, Joseph Beyer, has only brought success to Sundance. Beyer leads the institute’s social media and digital efforts, most notably the Artist Services Initiative that launched in 2011. Beyer is at the cornerstone of embedding ideas into the ever powerful and impactful forces for independent film, Sundance.
According to Beyer, “It’s a pretty simple story, I started here ten years ago in the programming department”. Prior, Beyer had worked as a freelance writer in film and television and co-created a web-series for Warner Brothers Television, which helped launched his career at Sundance.
With the initiation of social media platforms, Beyer and his team took the lead, formulating probable strategies for the individual platforms that they predicted would have the greatest impact and success in the world. In 2011 they were noted to be the #5 Most Popular Event Twitter Feed in the world, currently their Facebook page boasts several hundred thousand fans, while their Tumblr, Instagram, Google+ and YouTube accounts have similarly high numbers of subscribers.
By Roxana Vosough
Joseph Beyer | Image Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Beyer and his team gradually launched each of the platforms, but there was “a lot of early adoption and learning”, claims Beyer. Despite any missteps they made early on, “a lot was going on in the world and we were in the thick of it. It was a time to connect with audiences, experimenting in real time with what was happening”, says Beyer.
“The aim has always been”, Beyer emphasizes, “to try to remain extremely relevant to our audience”, It is about “giving them value” as
“people’s loyalty online is fairly fickle. We try hard to publish and promote things where they make sense, trying to be extremely thoughtful”.
One example of how Beyer and his team have thoughtfully and strategically utilized social media is their Tumblr account. With the emergence of Tumblr, they wanted to find a way to be different. “Photography was a clear winner. We used our photo archive, re-releasing archival and historical photography”, Beyer explains, which in turn serves as a tribute to great filmmakers, further memorializing their achievements or highlighting particular historical trends.
With Google+ Beyer, again took time to understand his audience and their needs. As a result Beyer claims “[we were very successful with an audience interested in crafts and technology, who was not as interested in the populist]”.
The logic behind Twitter, which Beyer explains simply, is about “breaking our own news, it is about the speed of information”, this is clearly exemplified in their many postings of upcoming premiers, events, awards, and workshops.
Instagram, is the “most interactive platform that we have”, says Beyer. This year alone nearly 6000 photos were hash tagged at the official festival in Park City. Beyer is very optimistic about the platform, explaining that while “we have people working all over the mountain. It is physically impossible for us to capture every single moment. The user generated content tells the larger story.” Beyer also mentioned that they created “a book of Instagram photography, telling the story that we would never tell ourself, a first person narrative, connecting it with themes”.
“Our audiences expect us to experiment”,
says Beyer, and despite their many successes, Sundance has also experienced their fair share of failure. Gowalla (an app that was part of Geo-Social), was an “example of a failure” according to Beyer, launched at the same time as Instagram and Foursquare. “We put a lot of effort in it, participation was low, our ideas were ahead of its time. I am super proud that we were in it, you have to be in it to learn about it.” This very notion is at the cornerstone of Sundance’s many digital initiatives and mission, which has thus led it to so many successes. Consequently, this experience was not for nothing, as Facebook inevitably adapted the GO concepts for the current timeline feature.
When we speak about the recent collaboration with Sundance and Vimeo, Beyer explains that the partnership enables filmmakers to develop opportunities to sell their films and merchandise directly to end users. This allows “direct to fan view, and to donate against the work” says Beyer, “they [Vimeo] have a huge network, and we have added them to our distribution platform”.
One of the most positive and long-standing partnerships has been with YouTube and Google. “We are blessed to have their support”, says Beyer, who mentioned Kevin MacDonald’s film, Life in a Day which premiered at the festival this year and simultaneously streamed live on YouTube. The film also embeds the concept of YouTube, as it asked people to submit a significant part of their life within a short timeframe. MacDonald then selected twenty from around the world and created a poignant film.
When discussing advice for using social media, Beyer emphasizes that
“on each and every platform there is a vernacular voice, we don’t cookie cut”.
The emphasis is placed on relaying the information in a colloquial way, and more importantly “taking the time and patience to nurture and understand the platform, be unafraid to bend the communication, to gain trust, and put the user above all else”.
The content team that composes and participates in postings in all these platforms is comprised of the “whole environment at the [Sundance] institute”, says Beyer. This includes everyone from program directors and alumni proficient users to volunteers. “Everyone feels comfortable sharing with us, and we are able to re-purpose that information. We have no formal social media policy, no restrictions, we believe that the institute hires brilliant people, some of the finest individuals”, says Beyer with great zeal. “At a non-profit you should depend on the staff to represent [the vision]”.
One would think that all these platforms are run by a large team at Sundance, however as Beyer put it, “there are two of us now” that maintain the day-to-day relations. “We are just as busy as everyone else”, explains Beyer. But they recognize that their followers and subscribers do not want to feel like they are being “sold” anything, and hence make every effort to embed great value in their posts and in turn receive loyalty.
When we speak about the role of the emerging artist and the presence social media has in their daily life, Beyer notes that “most artists are reclusive and shy to promote themselves [and their work]” via various platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, or Kickstarter. For Sundance however, Beyer explains that it is this very notion of the artist in which they are working hand in hand with, guiding them amidst this undefined path by setting up lectures with the founders of many of these social media companies to further clarify the vast resources available and how to best use the proper tools to their advantage. For Beyer it is about “looking for tools that bridge that reality” for artists, a group generally extremely hard pressed for time.
Beyer has gone to great heights to further create an avid resource for artists, with the launch of the Artists Services initiative program in 2011 (#ArtistServices), under the direction of the Executive Director, Keri Putman, and the Board of Trustees, with contributors such as Joseph Gordon-Levitt. The program provides artists who have been selected or recognized by Sundance the resources to connect with alumni for creative funding as well as distribution and marketing of their products. Since its launch and partnership with the fundraising platform Kickstarter, more than $3.2 million has been raised for nearly 100 institute artists’ projects, and more than 40 films are now accessible to the public on a variety of platforms.
Joseph Beyer, and his team at the Sundance Institute, exemplifies the ambition and experimentation necessary to not only succeed, but also blaze new trails and revolutionize the field.
Roxana Vosough, is the Founder & Publisher of Mode-Moderne Journal
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