IFC Banking on User-Made Films

Feb 6, 2006  •  Post A Comment

In a move designed to provide both programming and promotion, Independent Film Channel is soliciting short films from viewers.

IFC is commercial-free, but its project, called the Media Lab, is the latest for which the network has found a presenting sponsor-in this case Aquafina, the water brand marketed by PepsiCo.

The films will be streamed largely unedited on IFC’s Web site. Users will be able to view the films, vote on them and send them to friends. The films that get the most votes will be used in a show that will run monthly on IFC beginning in April.

User-generated content is becoming an industry catchphrase as video equipment becomes more available, more sophisticated and less expensive. IFC executives believe the trend is natural for IFC’s film-savvy viewers and that it reinforces the network’s “uncut” branding.

“User-generated content obviously is something our audience embraces, particularly people who have a passion for filmmaking,” said Jenny Caserta, senior VP of marketing for IFC. The site opened for contributions Jan. 26 and about 400 films have already been posted. Films have been streamed 36,000 times and the site has attracted 3,000 registered users.

“We’re amazed with the amount of community that’s already been built around it,” Ms. Caserta said.

Evan Fleischer, director of marketing and promotions for IFC, said the films are screened to filter out X-rated material and snuff films, but otherwise, anything goes. “One of our core missions is to provide filmmakers with a place where they can express themselves unedited and uncut. That’s the way we run it on the network and the way we run it online,” Mr. Fleischer said.

When a filmmaker submits a film to the site, IFC gets the right to run it, but its rights are non-exclusive, Mr. Fleischer said.

The site already gives users the ability to forward films to friends. Over the next few months, IFC plans to add filmmaker blogs, message boards and other community-building tools, Mr. Fleischer said.

Judging the films’ quality is left to the audience, rather than to network executives. In fact, Mr. Fleischer said, he’s already put films up on the site that he thinks are terrible.

“Not only is it user-generated content, but it’s also democratic programming in that we’re going to post what our audience likes the best,” he said. And that democracy will spill over onto IFC’s cable channel. “How cool is it to be able to turn on the network and you have this monthly short film festival that you had a hand in programming?”

In addition to the monthly special, IFC will use the best user-generated films as interstitials and promos on the network as a way to promote the Media Lab.

The network also expects filmmakers to promote the Media Lab by asking friends to log on and vote for their films. While they’re doing that they’ll find other films and get other people to register as well. “It’s incredibly viral and organic,” Ms. Caserta said.

Even though the user-generated content is cheap, she vows it will never take over IFC. “We’ll always have our films and we always have our originals,” Ms. Caserta said. “It will never be all Media Lab, I promise.”

Aquafina has been marketing its products at film festivals, starting with Sundance last year, to reach a “sophisticated upscale consumer,” said Michael Hammer, senior brand manager for Aquafina. “As it started to take hold, we said, ‘How can we extend this into media and bigger partnerships?’ and that’s when we started having conversations with IFC.”

Mr. Hammer declined to say how much Aquafina paid for the sponsorship but called the investment “substantial.”

While Pepsi is a traditional advertiser, “The fact that we couldn’t put our 30- or 60-second commercials on there didn’t scare us away,” he said. “We’re looking at more alternative or unique ways to complement the other media that we have.”

Aquafina will present some highlighted films on the IFC Web site, and when the specials run they will open and close with what Ms. Caserta called “a co-branded experience that will be quickly identified with Aquafina.”

IFC has created similar films to introduce features sponsored by advertisers such as Heineken. Those films are designed to fit with IFC’s noncommercial attitude. “It doesn’t get in the way. It only enhances the experience,” she said.

The Media Lab should also benefit cable operators that carry the channel.

“This is all about high speed and broadband,” Ms. Caserta said. At the same time, IFC is collecting information about filmmakers and film enthusiasts. One way that information could be used is to collect films from one area and create local film festivals on video-on-demand, she said.