Though we may all want to believe that our brilliant documentaries will play every important festival, break all box office records, have a high profile screening on television, and be the talk of the town, there are few films which make it without advance buzz. Rather than waiting to find the world's best publicist for Sundance, filmmakers need to realize the world's best publicist is pretty close at hand: You!
Whether your film will achieve all those accolades eventually or you will be reaching out to a niche audience, you will be marketing your film all the way. A website is an essential tool to start publicizing your film. At its most basic level, a website provides basic information on a film and helps reach out to potential crew-members, funders and supporters. If you use it to start a mailing list, you can start to build your audience beyond your friends and family. By the time some films are released, they may already have several thousand interested subscribers who will start the buzz going.
Ultimately your website will also serve as a resource for journalists, film festivals, distributors, students, and the general public who will be seeking out information on your film. At a minimum, a documentary website should contain a film synopsis, information on the director, and contact information for the production company and/or distributor. You may also want to include information on specific characters, bios for the rest of the crew, a director's statement, information on fundraising, and links to further resources. Further down the road, you will certainly want to include information on screenings, press about the film, ways to buy the film. Added bonuses are trailers for the film, educational materials, and an online press kit to make it easy for film festivals and journalists to download materials and stills from the film.
For an example of a basic but effective documentary website, take a look the site for Shelter Dogs, a 2004 film by Cynthia Wade about the ethics of euthanizing domestic animals. It does not have many of the bells and whistles of other documentary sites, but clearly conveys all the information about the film.
But what on earth do you put on a website, especially if you haven't filmed anything yet? How do you protect your idea if it is still just that -- an idea? The key is to think of the website in the same way you would a proposal or query to a potential broadcaster. Once it's out there, it's out there. Yes, ideas do get swiped and sometimes there may be several people working on a similar topic at the same time. But while you cannot copyright an idea, you shouldn't hold a project so close to your chest that nobody but you and your friends know about it. If you have a treatment, characters who trust you, some other unique connection to the story, and even some footage under your belt, the fear of "losing" your story to someone else does not outweigh the publicity benefits that come with a website. Unless you have a muckraking doc with a big surprise or a human rights story where you need to think about the access to and safety of your characters, a website is a must.
What should be on a website for a doc in pre-production or early production? A little about you, the background to the story, your intentions with the project, and how those visiting the site can help you get the film made. Even if you can't yet afford a website, you can even start a site as a blog and give your newly developing audience a reason to want to revisit the site to see your progress with the film. Lebanese-American filmmaker Basil Shadid is currently doing this with his work-in-progress, Writing Home about his impending journey to his family's homeland after a summer of war. The Director's Statement on his site tells us that Shadid does not need to worry about someone stealing his idea. Sure, there are probably lots of documentaries being made in Lebanon right now, but he has a unique angle that is likely to set his apart.
Just as your film develops, so too will your website. For some filmmakers, it's not just about the pride of announcing the world premiere of your finally finished film to your loyal and new website fanbase (though that is certainly a thrill). It's also about using the website as an entity of its own and making it something that people will want to make a destination site.
This is especially true of many social issue documentaries. Some may include links to partner organizations which are working on the issues outlined in the film. Megan Mylak and Jon Shenk's Lost Boys of Sudan includes links and suggestions of NGOs combatting the humanitarian crisis in Darfur. Spike Lee's latest documentary When the Levees Broke provides links for organizations helping to rebuild New Orleans and the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina. Political filmmaker Robert Greenwald has harnessed the power of the web not just to get out the word about films by his production company, Brave New Films, but to build whole "meet-up" movements around them. Reportedly he has raised more than $300,000 for his latest project entirely from small (but numerous) contributions through the web and at meet-ups.
Using a website for action does not have to be limited to providing links. Many films rely on interactive elements to help viewers relate to the film. These can be as simple as post-screening discussion groups or as complex as interactive "games" which mirror the themes of the film. The website for Shari Robertson and Michael Camerini's film Well-Founded Fear, for example, gives viewers the opportunity to decide on real-world asylum cases. Interactive elements can also build new connections. Filmmaker Grace Lee examines stereotypes of Asian-American women in The Grace Lee Project by seeking out other women with the same name as hers. Even after the film was complete, she included a survey on her website which could only be taken by those named Grace Lee.
These are just a few examples of documentary film websites. We could surely list many more. In fact, if you know of some additional doc websites which stand out from the crowd, please feel free to include links to them in the comments. (You can even mention your own website, but if you're going to shamelessly self-promote, tell us what makes your film's website so exceptional).