These days, it’s a bit strange to find any sector of the entertainment industry that has not been completely carried away by the world wide web. And yet, this seems to be the case with the documentary production community. According to numbers culled from this year’s Price Guide survey, just over half of respondents said they have their own website. At docos.com, a documentary web portal, only 111 web links appear under the heading ‘documentary production company,’ a large number of which are merely one-page info-sheets with barely any attention to design. By typing the words ‘documentary production company’ into the Yahoo! internet search engine, only 33 matches pop up on the screen. Why don’t doc prodcos have a stronger web presence? Or perhaps a better question is, how useful is a website to a production company – relative to the trouble it takes to set one up?
‘I think that it’s critical [to have a website] – particularly for an American company,’ says Andrew Wardle, web director for Toronto-based internet developer Fireworks Creative. ‘I’ve heard it said that if your not in e-business, you’re not going to be in business. It’s very much in the forefront of marketing and branding efforts – especially for American companies.’
Dr. Elliott Haimoff of California-based Global Science Productions agrees. ‘I see that websites are becoming crucial and essential tools in getting a documentary production company’s name out into the universe.’ A producer of science, fitness and nature docs, GSP has had their site up and running for only three months but has already seen a fair amount of traffic. ‘We get about 50 to 100 hits per month,’ says Haimoff, adding that although the site itself is not a money-maker, it is as necessary to the company’s image as ‘having a fax machine, or an answering machine.’
According to Haimoff, a website’s usefulness is far less important than the image it presents. ‘The value of having a website is prestige, and pitching our reputations out there . . . If you’re a doer, then you’ve got a website, if you’re not a doer – what I would call a ‘whacker’ – then you don’t have a website.’ He adds, ‘When we are pitching to corporate sponsors, to companies and to investors to give us money, we say, ‘check our website.”
The site’s designer, Alain Durocher of California’s DuroCat Productions, agrees. ‘In these times, it is vital for a company to have a web presence,’ he says. ‘If not to offer the product, then for PR. We have approached a critical mass for businesses on the web and the general consumer now expects a company to have a site . . . People expect to see a web address and e-mail attached with a company product.’
But making people aware of your company’s website is just as important as having one. Explains Andrew Wardle, ‘A website that’s not being promoted is a waste of time and money. It’s like printing a billboard that’s facing the wrong way.’
Promotion can be as simple as printing your web URL on business cards and brochures to paying for banner ads (on other sites) and link services (like on docos.com). It also helps if your company is listed on major internet search engines, like Yahoo!, where registration is generally free.
For Reykajvik, Iceland-based prodco Saga Film, promotion is necessary to attract visitors to the site. Says Anna Dis Olafsdottir, executive producer at Saga, ‘Some of our clients have found us through search engines but more often they have seen our advertisements in trade magazines or we have been recommended to them by our previous clients. We bring our website to the attention of our first-time clients – especially our foreign clients – if they haven’t already discovered it. It gives them a good idea of how we operate and what we have to offer them.’
Olafsdottir contends that geography was a significant factor in Saga’s decision to create their site. ‘It’s extremely important for our business to stay in good contact with the rest of the world and that’s why we created our website three years ago . . . Saga Film is based in Reykjavik, Iceland and we absolutely believe that it widens our client base and makes us more noticeable in the international arena.’ She adds, ‘Our foreign clients are the most frequent visitors at our website.’
As for the future of the site, an online video sales component is in the works. ‘E-commerce is something we are developing right now and are planning to incorporate into our website in the near future,’ says Olafsdottir.
E-commerce would seem a logical step for production companies, who, according to the Price Guide survey, often own home video rights to their films. Of the production companies surveyed, 57% said their programs are available on home video – half of which handle their own video rights. Of those rights holders, 61% offer their videos for sale on the internet. But the revenue figures are not overwhelming – an average of 13% of companies’ total home video sales are done through their websites.
Elliott Haimoff would concur. Although the Global Science site does have a sales component – shoppers can print out an order form and fax or mail it in – e-commerce has not proven to be a significant source of revenue for the company. Then again, says Haimoff, neither are video sales in general. ‘Since we don’t depend on video sales for our ‘living’ we don’t really push that end of the site, but I figure [we make] about $100 to $200 per month – and growing.’ Haimoff says that the revenue is about enough to pay for the maintenance of the site.
While the day to day maintenance costs of a website can be fairly low, the initial cost of setting up a website can be very high. Explains Andrew Wardle, ‘A typical first generation website – we call it brochure ware – would cost around CDN$5,000 to $15,000 [US$3500 to $10,400].’ For that price a person can expect to get a very basic package: the company logo, background, contact information and some very light product information. He adds, ‘The sacrifice [for spending less money] really comes in the presentation of your company identity.’
For a mid-range site, one can expect to shell out somewhere between CDN$25,000 to $50,000 [US$17,300 to $34,400]. ‘This is basically a site that’s gone beyond brochure ware – it may include a more developed catalog, significant marketing materials, discussion groups, contact forums etc. More time is spent on strategy, consultation and on the overall design. In general, more functionality, more programming in the back-end, more attention paid to the process – basically just more.’
High-end sites can go from $50,000 to astronomical levels – well beyond the scope of most indie doc producers in both price and usefulness.