The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has, of course, altered the way filmmakers create and find audiences across every level of production. For this special guest post, we asked the director of microbudget indie Panda Bear It how the pandemic changed things.
I miss the community that accompanies sitting in a dark room for an hour or two surrounded by complete strangers. Strangers who embark on the uniquely shared but silent conversation that is watching storytelling unfold in the cinema. Every filmmaker wants to see their work on the big screen with an engaged audience. It doesn’t matter if it’s a crowd of five or five hundred. Putting your work (yourself) out there and having a dialogue about the message behind the medium makes the trials and tribulations of this industry melt away.
Panda Bear It was that next conversation I wanted to have with the world. It’s a universal story about one local rapper’s grief and the impact it has on his creative process and relationship with his family. And there is a literal (or perhaps very imaginary) panda bear in a mascot costume that he can’t stop manifesting. I found the idea of a slice-of-life movie with a side of surrealism interesting. Not too different, in fact, from what has become our new normal during almost an entire year of lockdown due to COVID-19. Our slices of life, interrupted.
When I finished post production on Panda Bear It—my second feature—I knew the world was getting weird. March of 2020. Need I say more? As a microbudget filmmaker, I’ve grown accustomed to a do-it-yourself approach over the years. It’s often the only way I can create new work. However, film festivals, screenings and promotion typically involved many other people and a lot of marketing: shaking hands (RIP), traveling with your project to festival screenings big and small and being an ambassador for your own film. That slow burn approach allows you to meet your audience. And obviously we needed a new approach for Panda Bear It after all that became impossible.
Seemingly overnight, social media and online distribution literally became the only way for our audience to experience Panda Bear It. We did a virtual screening as part of the 2020 Charlotte Film Festival for our premiere. This helped us get that first bit of buzz that we could run with once festivals were over.
Alas, our budget to submit for virtual only screenings wasn’t as justifiable as in years past where we could have gone to screenings and fully networked. I pulled back and invested that money into producing a podcast and fleshing out a social media marketing plan for our eventual Amazon Prime release. We did a season on my podcast Convincing Creatives to supplement our virtual festival screenings. Talking to a different member of our cast and crew of every episode. The types of conversations we would have with an audience at a film festival Q&A just put into podcast form. People connected with that. They missed it.
Reinvesting into my YouTube channel was also vital for the behind-the-scenes marketing strategy leading up to our film’s VOD release on Amazon Prime this past October. I filmed a series of videos shot in my home office during lockdown talking about every aspect of production on Panda Bear It for a few hundred dollars in North Carolina. It grew into a series about indie filmmaking now spanning over 35 videos and counting. They’re essentially the DVD bonus features no one asked for.
After several months of uploading I’d reached a few hundred folks who had an interest in the film and this wacky way I was trying to get it out there during quarantine. When we pushed our VOD release ahead by nearly a year from the original plan this audience was that engaged community that was ready to watch the movie. The twists of this year molded me more as a filmmaker. I was truly and fully involved in every aspect of production and promotion like it or not. Perhaps this is a roadmap for future works?
I still hope that the near future holds our shared theatrical experience for the film. A better late than never “premiere” screening Panda Bear It in a movie theater or in person film festival. But I look forward most to catching folks in the lobby afterward for Q&As. And to talk what other films they can’t wait to catch next. Those conversations you can’t have when Netflix asks if you’re still watching. Filmmaking is a celebration of the human condition that I didn’t know was as resilient as my fellow filmmakers and film goers proved to me this past year. We’ll always find a way to have these needed conversations.
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