Written by Shannon Roe-Butler
This article is part of a series on how to make films on a small budget, based on the documentary Vanishing Borders. Please check out Alexandra Hidalgo’s article on how to produce a micro-budget feature, Becky Harris’s article on how to make a micro-budget poster, and Carly Mangus’s article on how to create a micro-budget movie trailer.
An office building. A big long table. Stale Coffee. Ten laptops. Ten people.
A Midwestern abode. A plush white couch. Loose-leaf tea. Dark chocolate. Four laptops. Two people.
Both of these places were built for web development.
This past May, I teamed up with filmmaker Alexandra Hidalgo to develop a website for her feature documentary Vanishing Borders. As a Professional Writing student looking for experience, I was excited to get involved and make a website for the documentary. We cranked out the site in a not-very-glamorous-but-totally-real location of a couch in her living room, and I’m here to tell you how you can do the same. Whether you’re a filmmaker with little to no experience in web development or a web designer/developer who knows very little about filmmaking and whose favorite film is [redacted for dignity purposes], this list will help you get started.
If you’re involved in the making of the film and know what you’re dealing with already, skip ahead to tip number two.
1. Watch the film.
Undoubtedly, if you made it, you will have seen the film many, many times. However, if you’ve been contracted to make a site for a film, you really should see it. The character of the film needs to be represented in the site’s aesthetic. So watch it and keep an open mind. You might not like it (and that’s okay!), but it will give you a feel of what you’re working with. After seeing an early screening of Vanishing Borders, I knew immediately that the film was something I wanted to be a part of. I mean, I probably still would have made the site if I didn’t like the film. But I did like it, and I’m glad because I’ve spent hours looking at the faces of the women it is about and thinking about their unique and compelling stories, and I couldn’t have been happier to do so. Ultimately, understanding the feel of the film is crucial in developing an engaging partner site.
2. Research other sites.
In a professional setting, we call this a landscape or comparative analysis. Basically, what is everyone else doing? As a filmmaker, no doubt there are many films big and small that you admire. Narrow your scope to films that are around the reach that you’re hoping your film will attain and study those. What do you like? What do you hate? Take some notes and think about what makes those elements stand out, for good or for bad. Having an idea of what the norm is will help you create a site map and develop content. This research should also help you decide what you want to emulate on your site and what you may want to steer clear of.
3. Use a CMS.
That’s content management system, if you’re unfamiliar. But it’s not the name that matters so much as what it can do for you: simplify everything. The most common, and the one I suggest for anyone—be it beginner or seasoned pro—is WordPress. Even if you’re a filmmaker having someone else make the site for you, you’ll still need to add new content as your film’s trajectory evolves, and there’s no easier CMS to learn than the ol’ WP. If you want to go big, you or an experienced coder can create an exclusive template just for your film site. If that sounds like too much hassle for you, as it was for us and many others, there are thousands of WordPress templates to choose from with a simple Google search. You can modify these templates to suit the look of your film and your poster. Now, what do you want it to look like exactly?
4. Pick a color scheme reminiscent of your film.
Classic black and white websites will never go out of style (hopefully), but I’m willing to bet your film has too much personality for that. Don’t be scared to use a color or two. No doubt, a prominent color scheme has emerged from your film that reflects its spirit and mood. This extends to other materials as well, such as the poster(s). All promotional materials and the website should be cohesive and work together to strongly demonstrate the meaning of the film.
5. Embrace minimalism.
I know I just said to throw black and white out the window, but hear me out on this. Content is key on any website. When your content is the film you’ve poured your heart into, you want the content to shine. Think about the most cringe-worthy PowerPoint presentation you’ve sat through. You know what I’m talking about: spinning images, crazy slide transitions, the token applause sound. It’s distracting, if not downright lame. Do you remember what that presentation was about. Ironically, my bad presentation example was a PowerPoint on PowerPoint by my 7th grade computer teacher, and I was so distracted I actually don’t remember how to do any of those things. You want whoever goes to your site to leave with a great understanding of the film and an even greater desire to watch it. Leave the musical slideshow intro on the drawing table.
6. Don’t make the user work for anything.
Make sure that someone viewing your site can learn something about the film in less than five seconds. If there is no clear way to find the “About” section, visitors will move on no matter how beautiful the design is. This rings true for other elements too, like basic information about the film and your press kit. You’ll want the press to download the press kit, but if someone just wants to know who produced the film, they should be able to quickly find it. Have key information available on the press page, plus a link to the entire press kit for those who need it. Also, make sure to have a specific press page. Don’t slot the press section under “About” or whatever else makes sense to you, because it probably won’t make sense to the press. You want them to like you! So help them out.
7. Be user-friendly.
There was one big usability issue we noticed in our research: photo access. Just about every documentary website we looked at dealt with photos in a different way—some better than others. For average site visitors, you’ll want a slideshow of some kind so they can look at the photos easily. These will need to be lower resolution to speed up loading times, so those photos will not be the ones you want the press to use. A good idea is to upload a zip file of high-resolution photos for the press to download.
If you’re unfamiliar with SEO, or search engine optimization, just know that good SEO practice makes your site easier to find in a web search. One way to increase SEO is by linking. You’ll want to make sure that your web site has links to all other digital spaces your site occupies, such as social media; and that those, in turn, link back to your main site. This will bring your film up higher in a Google search, so make sure to make those links prominent: put the social media sites on the first half of the page so they’re impossible to miss.
9. Test it out with people you know.
Before you share your site with the world, share it with people you know who have good taste: your friends. Friends, colleagues, possibly even family members will (hopefully) be good critics without harsh judgment or humiliation. They can spot anything from usability bloopers to spelling errors, and they will be fundamental in helping make sure you have a site you can be proud of, just like your film.
Good luck on your site! If you’re reading this and other advice on how to make a great site for your film, then I have no doubt that you will. Your initiative and drive is key. It’s how you got the film made, and it will serve you well here too.
To learn more about Vanishing Borders, visit their website, like them on Facebook or follow them on Twitter. Also, check out Becky Harris’s article on how to make a micro-budget poster, Alexandra Hidalgo’s article on how to produce a micro-budget feature, and and Carly Mangus’s article on how to create a micro-budget movie trailer. You can visit Shannon’s profile here.