Senna and Social Media

F1 documentary Senna has used the web in interesting ways as it continues to impress audiences around the world.

Like many modern day organisations with something to sell, film companies have embraced websites such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

After early doubts, the major studios seem particularly in love with it as the feedback on these platforms helps them build buzz and gauge feedback from audiences.

Big Hollywood stars like Russell Crowe, major producers such as Jerry Bruckheimer and directors like Jon Favreau regularly use and communicate via the service.

But whilst big studio releases still largely rely on traditional marketing techniques like TV advertising and outdoor posters, how can social media help out smaller releases?

Senna offers a particularly interesting case study.

A documentary about the life of legendary Brazilian motor-racing champion Ayrton Senna, it faced considerable commercial challenges.

After getting permission from Senna’s family, director Asif Kapadia faced the prospect of sifting through hours and hours of archive footage.

He had access to the F1 archives but also used the biggest video library on the planet: YouTube.

Much of the film consists of TV footage of Senna’s races from broadcasters like Brazil’s Globo or Japan’s Fuji TV.

Obviously, the production had to eventually get official clearances from those channels, but Kapadia has admitted that the concept for the documentary came as he researched YouTube footage in pre-production.

Speaking to David Poland in a recent interview he says:

“I had eight months to look at footage on YouTube and that’s when the idea came about, well, I don’t think we need to shoot talking head interviews – I don’t think we need to see them – we may well do research, we may well talk to people and hear their voices but actually it’s all there. The rushes, the dailies, are so amazing, I don’t know if there is anything I could shoot that would improve what’s already in existence”

YouTube was not only an invaluable research tool that helped shape the aesthetic of the film, it also helped it get greenlit:

“We cut a short film that came purely from YouTube material, which was 12 minutes long, to show this is how the movie could work. And that’s was how we got greenlit by Working Title and Universal”

The film benefits enormously from consisting entirely of found footage, as it makes it stand out from more conventional ‘talking head’ documentaries.

There is also the neat effect of seeing video technology progress as Senna ages, from the grainy 16mm footage of his early days to the sharper video images of the early 1990s.

Once the film was finished, the filmmakers and distributors faced the challenge of opening it around the world.

The F1 hotbeds of Japan and Brazil were obvious places to start and it premiered in October 2010 at the Japanese Grand Prix before opening in Brazil a month later.

Next stop was the festival circuit and the film played to rave reviews and awards at Sundance, SXSW, Los Angeles and Adelaide.

When it opened in the UK, it achieved a terrific screen average of £5,600 from 67 cinemas and an opening weekend of £375,000.

Over that weekend it was fascinating to watch Kapadia use Twitter to communicate with people who had seen or were thinking of seeing his film.

Before he appeared on a national radio station, he was already fielding questions and interacting with other users.

When you think of the tweets under the official movie account (@SennaMovie) and Kapadia’s own account (@asifkapadia), it provided the filmmakers and distributors with an amazing amount of direct feedback.

This was augmented by a Facebook page and an amazing YouTube channel which is a terrific video archive of interviews and other related material.

After a month on release – including a special day where it screened at multiplexes across the land – it had outgrossed the Justin Bieber film Never Say Never, and is currently the third highest grossing documentary ever at UK cinemas, behind Fahrenheit 9/11 and March of the Penguins.

For the US release, the movie faced the challenge of opening in a country where F1 is nowhere near as popular.

Given that Universal acted as the UK distributor, one might have expected their indie arm Focus Features to have picked it up at Sundance.

Cinetic Media were the film’s sales agent at the festival and decided to opt for the same approach they took with last year’s Exit Through The Gift Shop.

Released through upstart distributor PDA (Producers Distribution Agency), which Cinetic boss John Sloss co-founded with his partner Bart Walker, the Banksy documentary had surfed the buzz from a Sundance premiere, to gross $3.3m and get nominated for an Academy Award.

The innovative faux-documentary even outgrossed Kick Ass at the Arclight cinema in Los Angeles on its opening weekend.

Senna producer James Gay Rees had also worked on the Banksy film and seen the grass roots approach reap rich rewards.

Last weekend in the US it achieved the best opening this year for a documentary with a pre-screen average of $36,749 and rave reviews.

So far it has scored 80 on Metacritic, 93 on Rotten Tomatoes, and a 8.8/10 user rating on IMDb.

It will be fascinating to see how much it ends up making in America as word of mouth spreads.

But what lessons can be learnt from Senna and its clever use of social media?

Here are a few:

  1. A great movie is the best marketing tool: Ultimately the movie has to be good, but if it plays with an audience (and Senna really does) then social media can be a great amplifier for positive feedback.
  2. Direct, passionate engagement works: Seeing a passionate director communicating with any audience member on Twitter is kind of infectious. Kapadia didn’t just tweet ‘go see my movie’, he really embraced the platform and interacted with users, which is often what some people fail to do. I saw one tweeter complain about a cinema’s projection and Kapadia wanted to know details and also answered all sorts of questions about the film. At times watching his feed was like a permanent online press conference. His genuine passion for the film was evident and if anyone sees that on Twitter, the infectious enthusiasm transmits to other users. They in turn pass that on to their followers, and so it goes.
  3. Efficient screening information: With an indie release like Senna, the biggest question is usually ‘where can I see this film?’. Mainstream media often overlooks people who don’t inhabit large cities like London, New York or Los Angeles. So a rave review of a film in limited release is no good to someone in the provinces who can’t actually see it. However, the @SennaMovie twitter feed and Facebook page provided a wealth of detailed screening information that traditional media can’t or won’t supply. As social media grows, perhaps traditional movie listings may morph into specialised feeds which, thanks to modern smartphones, can be personalised to local areas.
  4. Think global: F1 truly is a truly global sport, only surpassed by football (a.k.a soccer) in terms of its reach around the world. Senna is not a blockbuster by any means but when the final grosses and ancillary profits are added up, it looks like there will be a nice spread of box office from around the world. Partly this comes from the hero at the heart of the film, but also because inspirational figures translate into any language be it Japan, Brazil or Europe. Its success in the US also disproves the doubters who felt Americans just wouldn’t get it. Not all subjects can be as popular as the F1 legend, but certain figures can translate into more cultures than we might initially think.
  5. The drama of documentary: Some of the raw footage in Senna is truly remarkable and reminds you of the challenges faced by biopics. Will Smith is really good in Ali (2001) but is not a patch on the real fighter in When We Were Kings (1996). Even if a crack team of Hollywood A-listers wanted to make a drama of this, they just can’t compete with the raw materials. The drama is embedded in the documentary form.
  6. The power of YouTube: Many traditional Hollywood types curse YouTube for the way it has essentially reshaped copyrighted material. Google (who own the site) remove copyrighted material on request, but the sheer amount that is uploaded means that it is still a haven for illegal sourced video, which studios don’t see any money from. But whilst they should bite the bullet and cut deals with Google for legal streaming of their movies, it remains an incredible research tool for filmmakers. Not only is it the biggest video library in the history of the world, it can lead to ideas, inspiration and – as the Senna team have shown with their dedicated channel – can be an effective way of spreading the word about the movie.
  7. Small can be beautiful: There is something fantastic about what PDA have done with Exit Through The Gift Shop and Senna. By adopting a grass roots approach they have shown that there is an alternative to the big ad spends of the major studios and the kind of distorted thinking that inflated the indie bubble which popped loudly in 2008. The marketing and release is truly driven by the actual films and the social media tools have connected the filmmakers with audiences in new and exciting ways. In a terrible financial climate for independent filmmaking maybe PDA have shone a light which others can follow.

> Official site and the film on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube
> More on Ayrton Senna at Wikipedia

Awards Season Interesting

Banksy in Hollywood

In what is the most unusual awards campaign in years, if not ever, more Banksy murals have cropped up in Hollywood as the renegade street artist hopes to get Oscar attention for his documentary Exit Through The Gift Shop.

> The bizarre viral video ‘Exit Through The Pet Shop’
> Buy Exit Through The Gift Shop on Blu-ray or DVD

Awards Season Documentaries Interesting

Exit Through the Pet Shop

A new video has surfaced, appearing to be some kind of viral spoof of the Banksy documentary Exit Through The Gift Shop.

After the raves at Sundancewidespread critical acclaim and a truly maverick indie release, the debut film of renegade street artist Banksy recently got nominated for a Best Documentary Oscar.

The big question was whether or not the reclusive man himself would turn up at the ceremony on February 27th, so when a mysterious Oscar-themed mural appeared in Los Angeles, it seemed his own renegade Oscar campaign had begin.

Now, there is this bizarre spoof trailer titled ‘Exit Through The Pet Shop‘ which plays on the internet meme of a keyboard-playing cat:

There is also a livestream of a gallery which appears to be littered with Keyboard cat art in the style of Mr Brainwash:

Watch live streaming video from petshop at

For those unfamiliar with the film (and if you haven’t seen it, you really should), it features a filmmaker named Thierry Guetta who documents Banksy and then later becomes an artist himself, using the moniker of Mr. Brainwash.

This new cat-themed site purports to be that of a performance artist and ‘professional nose dancer’ Charlie Schmidt, the originator of the Keyboard Cat meme from a couple of years ago.

But it looks to me like this is the work of Banksy and his cohorts as they mount what is the most unusual campaign in Oscar history.

> The recent Banksy Oscar mural
> The history of the Keyboard Cat meme
Buy Exit Through The Gift Shop on Blu-ray or DVD
> Official site for the film

Amusing Awards Season News

Banksy Oscar Campaign

A recent Banksy mural in L.A. suggests that the Oscar campaign for Exit Through The Gift Shop has begun.

After being nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar last week, Banksy issued the following statement:

“This is a big surprise. I don’t agree with the concept of award ceremonies, but I’m prepared to make an exception for the ones I’m nominated for. The last time there was a naked man covered in gold paint in my house, it was me.”

It seemed only a matter of time before some relevant street art appeared, but unlike the major studios it seems the people behind the low-budget film are relying on a more grass roots approach.

> Exit Through the Gift Shop
> Banksy at Wikipedia

Awards Season Documentaries News

Will Banksy show up at the Oscars?

After his his film Exit Through the Gift Shop was nominated for Best Documentary, will the reclusive street artist Banksy turn up at the Oscars?

Whilst Hollywood and Oscar pundits digested the Oscar nominations yesterday, in the documentary category a small bombshell went off when Banksy’s debut film made it on to the final list.

A year after it premièred at Sundance 2010, where Banksy left this commemorative mural in Park City, it has reaped huge acclaim (98% on Rotten Tomatoes and 85 on Metacritic) and extensive speculation as to whether it is all some kind of elaborate hoax.

It purports to be the story of Thierry Guetta, a Frenchman who films street artist in Los Angeles, who comes across the reclusive Banksy and also starts making his own art under the name ‘Mr. Brainwash’.

An intriguingly constructed film-within-a-film, it is also a gleefully anarchic film with plenty of intelligence underneath the frequently hilarious exterior.

At Sundance Banksy opted not to introduce the film but got festival director John Cooper to read a statement at the premiere:

“Ladies and gentlemen, and publicists.Trying to make a movie which truly conveys the raw thrill and expressive power of art is very difficult. So we haven’t bothered.

Instead, this is simply an everyday tale of life, longing, and mindless vandalism. Everything you are about to see is true, especially the bit where we all lie.

Thanks for coming, please don’t give away the ending on Twitter. And please, don’t try copying any of this stuff at home, wait until you get to work.”

The relatively low budget nature of the film, plus its unlikely subject matter, meant that the films backers (Cinetic Media) opted to bypass the traditional indie route of trying to attract a distributor.

IndieWire explained the strategy back in April:

John Sloss – who represented rights to the film at Sundance (and then Berlin) – co-founded a distribution entity called the Producers Distribution Agency with his Cinetic partner Bart Walker.

With a team including Richard Abramowitz, Donna Daniels and Marc Schiller, the company decided that despite offers coming in the wake of “Exit”‘s acclaimed screenings in Sundance and Berlin, it was a highly unlikely project for a traditional distributor.

Sloss explained last week that this was due to the fact that not only is Banksy very controlling, but you can’t talk to him (Sloss himself never expects to meet the elusive man).

With this in mind Sloss raised a ‘sizeable chunk’ of money and created a specific distributor called the Producers Distribution Agency in order to give it a platform release.

To call this unconventional is an understatement (or is it all part of the ingenious marketing?), but the grass roots campaign worked with strong showings in April at cinemas in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

The enigma of Banksy helped build buzz and once people saw the film as it rolled out to other cities, it ended up grossing a highly respectable $3.3m in the US and $4.9m worldwide.

As Sloss explained:

“We very little P&A to work with in buying traditional awareness,” he said. “We did not have a ‘money’ New York Times review. So I think this is close to unprecedented to make this kind of film work with very limited resources.”

By November it featured on the Oscar longlist for Best Documentary and its reputation was further enhanced when it cropped up on many end-of-year films lists (including mine).

Some didn’t expect it to make the final nominations, but yesterday it did and Banksy issued this statement:

“This is a big surprise, I don’t agree with the concept of award ceremonies, but I’m prepared to make an exception for the ones I’m nominated for. The last time there was a naked man covered in gold paint in my house, it was me.”

But will he show up at the Kodak Theatre on February 27th?

I’m expecting that another Banksy mural might be seen outside the morning after.

> Official site for Exit Through The Gift Shop
> IndieWire on the release strategy for the film
> More on Banksy and the debate surrounding the film at Wikipedia
> Buy Exit Through The Gift Shop on Blu-ray or DVD

Cinema Reviews Thoughts

The Way Back

An epic escape from a Russian gulag during World War II forms the backdrop for Peter Weir’s first film in seven years.

Loosely based on Slavomir Rawicz’s book “The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom” (more of which later), The Way Back begins with an soldier named Janusz (Jim Sturgess) being sent to a remote Siberian prison camp on trumped up charges of spying.

After enlisting the help of inmates to escape, including an ex-pat American (Ed Harris) and a tough gang member (Colin Farrell), the group venture on a massive trek across Asia where they meet an orphan (Saoirse Ronan), struggle to survive and attempt to reach the safety of India.

Weir shoots everything with convincing detail: the prison camp is believably hellish and the landscapes form a frequently stunning backdrop as the prisoners venture across sub-zero Russia, the Gobi Desert and the Himalayas on their way to India.

Visually, the film feels grittier than one might expect, with D.P. Russell Boyd appearing to use a lot of natural light and the splendour of the landscapes are frequently intercut with shots of blisters and the physical cost of the journey.

The performances all round are solid: Sturgess and Harris stand out as the two lynchpins of the group; Farrell is charmingly gruff; Ronan has presence and depth and Mark Strong is believably seductive as a prison camp veteran with his own agenda.

As a narrative experience, the initial tension of the prison break quickly becomes a fight for survival as the group struggle to eat, stay warm and avoid all manner of hardships involving the harsh landscape.

This means that it lacks conventional tension, but there is a certain pleasure in the gruelling sprawl of the story as they keep moving across a bewildering variety of landscapes and adverse weather conditions on their 4,000-mile trek.

Sequences that particularly stand out are the initial prison break in a blizzard, a lake infested with mosquitoes, a harsh desert which drives them to the brink and the latter stages which involve some famous Asian landmarks.

For the most part it is absorbing and features well drawn characters, even though it occasionally suffers from the problem of mixing English and native dialogue, which in the modern era diminishes the overall authenticity of the film.

The film hinges on the central character’s desire to get back home (hence the title) to see his wife, which we see in a recurring vision, and it is hard not to be moved by the climactic depiction of the personal set against the historical.

But although The Way Back is an undeniably powerful experience, there is a problem at the very heart of the adaptation which directly relates to the original book that inspired it.

Although Rawicz’s account was acclaimed for a number of years, in 2006 the BBC discovered records that essentially debunked his version of events, even though there is evidence to suggest that the journey may have been undertaken by other people.

Peter Weir was fully aware of the controversy surrounding the book when he made the film, hence certain key changes, and overall it demonstrates the taste, tact and intelligence that has informed his career.

But given the extraordinary nature of the journey there is something dispiriting about finding out the truth about Rawicz, even if the actual trek may have been done by someone else.

It remains a powerful and handsomely constructed piece of cinema but also suffers from the shady origins of its source material.

> Official site
> The Way Back at the IMDb
> BBC News story on the controversy surrounding the book and its road to the screen

Cinema Lists

The Best Films of 2010

As usual these are my favourite films of the year in alphabetical order (just click on each title for more information).


Animal Kingdom (Dir. David Michôd): The outstanding debut feature from director David Michôd is a riveting depiction of a Melbourne crime family headed by a sinister matriarch.

Another Year (Dir. Mike Leigh): A moving, bitter-sweet drama about relationships, filled with great acting, is arguably the peak of Mike Leigh’s career.

Biutiful (Dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu): Searing exploration of life and death in a modern European city, featuring a tremendous central performance from Javier Bardem.

Black Swan (Dir. Darren Aronofsky): Swan Lake is retold with glorious intensity, channelling Polanski and Cronenberg whilst giving Natalie Portman the role of a lifetime.

Carlos (Dir. Olivier Assayas): Scintillating and immersive depiction of a 1970s terrorist with a tremendous performance by Edgar Ramirez.

Enter the Void (Dir. Gaspar Noé): Technically dazzling depiction of a dead drug dealer that also features what is possibly the greatest opening title sequence of all time.

Exit Through The Gift Shop (Dir. Banksy): An ingenious and hilarious hall of mirrors which is brilliantly executed and so much more than a ‘Banksy documentary’.

Inception (Dir. Christopher Nolan): The ingenious puzzles of Christopher Nolan’s early films were given the scale of his blockbusters in this hugely ambitious sci-fi actioner.

Inside Job (Dir. Charles Ferguson): Devastating documentary about the financial crisis which plays like a heist movie, only this time it is the banks robbing the people.

Tabloid (Dir. Errol Morris): The media feeding frenzy surrounding a bizarre 1970s sex scandal provided Errol Morris with the raw material for one of the most entertaining documentaries in years.

The Fighter (Dir. David O’Russell): A boxing story which follows a familiar path but remains energetic, inspirational and funny, with Christian Bale on career-best form.

The Kids Are Alright (Dir. Lisa Cholodenko): A perfectly pitched comedy-drama that explores modern family life with genuine heart and humour.

The King’s Speech (Dir. Tom Hooper): Wonderfully crafted period drama with two brilliant lead performances and a moving story filled with hilarious one liners.

The Social Network (Dir. David Fincher): The inside story of Facebook is a riveting tale of ambition and betrayal, which sees Fincher, Sorkin and a young cast firing on all cylinders.

Toy Story 3 (Dir. Lee Unkrich): The ground breaking animated series gets a worthy final chapter whilst maintaining Pixar’s impeccable standards of story and animation.


127 Hours (Dir. Danny Boyle)
Blue Valentine (Dir. Derek Cianfrance)
Catfish (Dir. Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost)
Four Lions (Dir. Chris Morris)
Let Me In (Dir. Matt Reeves)
Restrepo (Dir. Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger)
Somewhere (Dir. Sofia Coppola)
The American (Dir. Anton Corbijn)
The Ghost Writer (Dir. Roman Polanski)
The Illusionist (Dir. Sylvain Chomet)
Winter’s Bone (Dir. Debra Granik)

> Find out more about the films of 2010 at Wikipedia
> End of year lists at Metacritic
> The Best DVD and Blu-ray Releases of 2010

DVD & Blu-ray

UK DVD & Blu-ray Releases: Monday 6th September 2010


Kick-Ass (Universal): A post-modern superhero film based on the comic book by Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr. It is the story of teenager (Aaron Johnson) who decides to become a super-hero named Kick-Ass after purchasing a costume (even though he has no powers or training) and soon finds himself involved with a local gangster (Mark Strong); his son (Christopher Mintz-Plasse); and a highly trained father and daughter vigilante duo (Nicolas Cage and Chloe Moretz).

Directed by Matthew Vaughn, produced by Brad Pitt and written by Vaughn and Jane Goldman, the film was independently financed – at a budget of $28 million dollars – and gleefully subverts the superhero movie whilst also paying homage to it. It isn’t the awe-inspiring masterpiece that some would have you believe, but it is still a witty and interesting take on the comic-book genre.

The extras on the Blu-ray and DVD versions include:

  • Ass-Kicking Bonus View Mode (Blu-ray Disc Exclusive) – Synchronous with the feature film, this innovative multi-media presentation incorporates video and audio commentary, behind-the-scenes clips and illustrative graphics with Co-Writer/Producer/Director Matthew Vaughn, plus cast and crew providing an all-access perspective on Kick-Ass
  • “A New Kind of Superhero: The Making of Kick-Ass “ documentary (Blu-ray Disc Exclusive)
  • “It’s On! The Comic Book Origin of Kick-Ass” featurette
  • Audio Commentary with Writer-Director Matthew Vaughn
  • “The Art of Kick-Ass” gallery
  • Marketing Archive
  • BD Touch and Metamenu Remote
  • Lionsgate Live™ enabled, featuring extra content for Internet-connected players
  • Enhanced for D-Box™ Motion Control Systems
  • Standard Definition DVD Copy of the feature film
  • Standard Definition Digital Copy of the feature film
  • Audio Commentary with Writer-Director Matthew Vaughn
  • It’s On! The Comic Book Origin of Kick-Ass” featurette
  • “The Art of Kick-Ass” gallery
  • Marketing Archive

> Buy Kick-Ass on Blu-ray / DVD / Special Edition Combi Pack

Exit Through the Gift Shop (Revolver Entertainment): The debut film from enigmatic graffiti artist Banksy is a documentary (or is it?) which tells the story of Thierry Guetta, a French immigrant in Los Angeles who is obsessed with street art. It shows Guetta’s constant filming of his own life and his attempts to capture Banksy on camera. It also features other artists including Invader and Shepard Fairey (the man famous for the Barack Obama ‘Hope’ poster).

Narrated by Rhys Ifans, the music is by Geoff Barrow and although there has been a continuous debate about the nature of the film since it debuted at Sundance in January, it has got very strong reviews and is likely to increase the mystique of Banksy even further.

Extra features include: stickers, art prints, the movie, and ‘limited edition 2D glasses’.

> Buy Exit Through The Gift Shop on Blu-ray or DVD


After.Life (Anchor Bay Entertainment UK) [Blu-ray / DVD]
Bent (Park Circus) [Blu-ray / with DVD]
Black Lightning (Universal Pictures) [Blu-ray / DVD]
Doctor Who – The New Series: 5 – Volume 4 (2 Entertain) [Blu-ray / DVD]
Entourage: Season 6 (Warner Home Video) [Blu-ray / DVD]
The African Queen: Restoration Edition (ITV DVD) [Buy it on Blu-ray]
The Brit Indie Collection (4DVD) [Blu-ray / DVD]
The Last Song (Walt Disney) [Blu-ray / DVD]
The Official 2010 World Cup South Africa Review (2 Entertain) [Blu-ray / DVD]
True Inspiration Collection (4DVD) [Blu-ray / DVD]

> The DVD and Blu-ray releases for September 2010
> The Best DVD and Blu-ray releases for 2009