Originally published at DocJournalism.com
Documentary filmmakers constantly search for stories and ideas that will connect with their intended audiences. When creating a personal brand, filmmakers have another challenge facing them: connect with not only their audiences, but also prospective clients, subjects, funding sources, distribution houses, and other entities in the documentary industry. Here is the story of two documentary filmmakers, Penny Lane and Nick Broomfield, who have established their identity to communicate their brand of storytelling online.
Filmmaker Penny Lane has that name. She is so aware of her connection to the Beatles’ hit song that she devotes an entire section of her website to it. “Is ‘Penny Lane’ some sort of stage name, or nom de plume?” reads the first line of her "Frequently Asked Questions" section on her website. Her succinct answer: no. Lane’s FAQ follows with several more questions, all regarding her name and the Beatles. Did she change her name legally? “No. Penny Lane is my given name. It’s on my birth certificate.” Lane has seized the opportunity to showcase her sense of humor, and to clear the air about her given name throughout her website. It is a sort of built-in brand, that she had to do nothing to achieve, because it was given to her at birth. She concludes her FAQ by answering this question: “Did your parents like the Beatles?” Her answer: “Clearly.”
Lane’s tongue in cheek approach demonstrates she knows herself. Filmmakers must understand their story when pitching a film, but experts agree they must first be fluent in communicating who they are as a filmmaker. Lane does this well right away, starting with her website’s domain name. Lane’s personality is evident throughout the site. If website readers had not already checked out the FAQ tab, she concludes her biography with: “And yes, Penny Lane is her real name (see FAQ).” At the bottom of each page on her website, Lane lists as a sort of tagline:
*Not to be confused with:
Pennie Lane, a groupie.
Penny Lane, a Beatles song.
Penny Lane, a street in England.
But Lane is not simply someone with a name that can be referenced with a famous piece of popular culture. She is an awardwinning filmmaker. Continuing on through her website, her accomplishments, awards, and other achievements are listed on a Bio page, written in the third person. She begins with her most recent film, NUTS! (2016), and lists her most noteworthy films first, such as Our Nixon ( 2013), followed by other projects and talents.
Lane uses a simple design with lots of useful white space to showcase not only herself but her work. Her Films page displays her films in a simple grid, and hovering over each film allows the website’s audience to read things like the film’s tagline, a brief description, watch a trailer, see a poster image or other movie art, and link to the film’s website. Each film’s festival entries, list of awards, and critical reviews are also included. Lane’s Films section can be sorted by all films, shorts or feature length films. Each film often has embedded videos from either the Vimeo or YouTube platform, allowing the audience to also connect with Lane on those websites.
Lane often pens articles on subjects related to the film industry. Her website’s Words section includes published writings, essays, and even interviews she has given to other people or organizations. This section allows her audience to hear her own voice about a variety of issues and topics. In keeping with the design and mood of her website, the Words page displays articles and essays with simple one-line explainers. Each article or essay includes a brief comment by Lane. These are often pithy, sometimes humorous, but all make use of brevity. The entries are listed chronologically, allowing Lane’s audience to peruse her voice at different points in her career.
Lane’s Contact page includes a brief form for people to sign up for her mailing list, but also includes her email spelled out in a sort of Internet phonetics, so that spam cannot easily be sent to her (Her email is also listed on the top left of every page on her website, but interestingly it is not listed phonetically). The Contact page also lists her distributor, Vtape, and includes a link to Lane’s biography on the distributor’s website. Lane’s website includes a Downloads page with high resolution stills from her films that can be saved, and a director photo of Lane herself.
Lane’s social media presence is prominent at the top of every page on her website. It includes icons that link to Vimeo, Twitter and Facebook. Lane’s Vimeo account includes trailers and clips for her films, and a brief biography. Some of her shorts are available to watch in their entirety, and the film she features as the centerpiece of her Vimeo landing page was a Vimeo Staff Pick, which gives it more weight.
On Lane’s Twitter page, her sense of humor shines in the header image, which features the text, “Penny Lane Charlatan, Carpetbagger, Humanoid Lobster Troll.” Her pinned tweet promotes her latest film. Lane is a prolific tweeter, posting many times a day. Many of her posts and links are about films, but others are about everyday life, which allow her audience to learn more about her, personally. One of these tweets in May 2016 was very relatable to anyone who has ever used social media: “Struggling to not Instagram my delicious Calvados cocktail in this beautiful late afternoon Brooklyn light.” Lane’s Facebook link directs the website’s audience to the social media presence for her latest film, NUTS! This is an interesting choice, because it does not point to a Facebook presence for Lane herself. The Facebook page includes the film’s trailer, as well as links to various reviews and other articles about the film. Often, the links include a brief snippet of critical acclaim, similar to what an audience might see on a movie poster.
Lane makes use of her website, social media presence and her film’s social media presence to showcase not only her work but also her personality. She does this with humor, clean design, use of white space, and brief commentary on myriad topics and issues.
Nick Broomfield made a name for himself with participatory documentary films that often include scenes of the filmmaker wandering around with what University of Missouri film professor Bradley Prager has called “his device,” a large microphone and sound recording gear. Broomfield seizes on this identity on the Bio page on his website. It features a black and white portrait of a smiling Broomfield posing with his sound recording equipment. Like Lane, Broomfield features his films prominently in a grid on his website’s landing page. One contrast with Broomfield’s site, however, is the grid of films follows the website’s audience no matter what page they are looking at, allowing his films to always be accessible. Clicking on any of these films will take the audience to the film’s dedicated page on Broomfield’s site, much like Lane’s. Sometimes trailers or clips are available, as well as film descriptions and logos for the film’s distribution, such as Tales of the Grim Sleeper (2014) on HBO. The film pages often include reviews production credits, and other film images. There is even a picture of a stoic Broomfield posing in front of a marquee for Kurt & Courtney (1998).
Broomfield’s Filmography page is a simple list of his work, while his Awards page is a simple list of his films’ awards. But on Broomfield’s Bio page, he includes a series of quotes about himself from various people throughout the industry. The comments he chooses to highlight demonstrate his tongue in cheek sense of humor, and even a bit of self-deprecation. “If Broomfield took up wedding photography, the divorce rate would be even higher,” Derek Malcolm, of The Guardian, is quoted as saying.
Broomfield’s Contact page includes information for Lafayette Films, which includes an interesting nugget of history. Lafayette Films, Broomfield’s production company was a the name shared by portrait company founded in 1870 to photograph Britons before they set off to become colonialists in other parts of the British Empire. “Lafayette stopped being a portrait business 20 years ago. lt now still records history, but in a different way,” the explainer reads. There are also links to Broomfield’s agent, commercial work, and his manager.
Broomfield has monetized his website to include distributors from which the audience can buy his films, including retailers like Amazon and Play.com. Since Broomfield has had a much longer career than Lane, he is able to list avenues in which the audience can locate much of his large library of work. Some of the links point to websites where a fan could buy boxed sets of multiple Broomfield films.
Finally, Broomfield has a News page that does not seem to have been updated in awhile. It includes coverage of his film Sarah Palin: You Betcha! (2012), and others.
Broomfield, like Lane, includes links to his social media presence (Facebook and Twitter). His Twitter feed includes much more recent press, comments and other information on his films. Both his Facebook and Twitter pages highlight Tales of the Grim Sleeper, as well as his HBO branding. His Facebook link from his website is to his personal Facebook page, and not a branded personality profile (although on it he incorporates many elements of personal branding). Because of this, a fan cannot follow his feed, but only attempt to add Broomfield as a friend.
Lane and Broomfield have saturated their online presence with their best and latest work, and have both allowed their personalities to shine. Lane’s presence is a bit more personal, while Broomfield, who has been making films for much longer than Lane, showcases his large body of work. While Lane lets a bit more of her personality come out, Broomfield leans on the length and depth of his career. Both filmmakers, however, utilize online branding to first get their movies out to their audience; their work is front and center. But also have allowed snippets of their personality to seep through not only in their work, but also via the digital platforms they use.