Audience strategy from the start

March 20, 2011
posted by sheric

While attending SXSW conference this year, I met Patricia Aufderheide who introduced me to the Center for Social Media at the School of Communication at American University in Washington, DC.  I encourage you to check out what they are doing. A post on their blog I was reading today was a highlight of their recent Making Your Media Matter Conference. There is a video accompaniment that lasts about an hour and twenty minutes which covers social impact documentary films Not in Our Town, The Lioness and a film by Conscious Youth Media Crew called Why I Ride: Low and Slow. The CYMC is based in San Francisco and “provides the technology and training necessary for inner city youth to create quality media that represents their experiences, stimulates meaningful dialogue, and promotes social change.” The topic being discussed on the panel was building audience engagement and outreach strategies into the filmmaking process from the start in order to facilitate broader dialogues, reach wider audiences, and create distribution partnerships to be utilized during release.  Main takeaway being this must be decided from the start, not as an afterthought.

All three women (unusual for most film panels) talked about the different ways they went about forming partnerships which they considered key in reaching their target audience. I will synopsize the main points in case you don’t have time to watch the whole video:

-Their editorial decisions were influenced by the strategies. They structured the narrative so that it would be inviting to the multiple audiences they were trying to reach.  In the Lioness example, the filmmakers established early on that the film would not be a biased, agenda film commenting on the Iraq War, but on the women who served in combat which was against policy at the start of the war. To interject political bias would mean alienating certain segments of the audience and limiting its potential appeal. They knew at the start that their super core audience would be active military, military families, veterans, but by framing the film as a gender equality film, they were able to reach beyond the military audience to women’s groups in general (Women in Law, NOW). Had they not decided on a clear audience strategy for the film at the beginning, they may not have made the story editing decisions that would effectively enable them to attract the interest of these larger groups.

-In forming early partnerships with the Center for Women Veterans, Disabled American Veterans and ITVS, they were able to find subjects to interview for the film AND they were able to arrange screenings of the film through those organizations, both at the national and at the local level. Each of these organizations has state branches and without the support of the national group, the filmmakers would not have been able to easily reach the local representatives. Through ITVS, they were able to reach the Senate Armed Services Committee and do a screening on Capitol Hill.

-Lioness Director Megan McLagan also stressed the importance of face to face meetings with leaders and organizations. She brought along some of the female subjects to conferences and summits to speak to the representatives and bring a personal connection to the film’s story. While early connections were made via email or phone calls, it was the in person meetings that made an impact. Utilizing online tools is great, but we must not forget the profound impact of a face to face meeting to really connect with audience.

-Lioness’ partners became their distribution partners as well. The filmmakers sold DVDs and community screening licenses off of their site (licenses ran $195) and those partner organizations were some of their biggest customers. The organizations’ cause was helped by screening the film to their own community and the filmmakers were able to have a revenue stream for their work. The filmmakers also chopped up the film into modules to work with a pilot program in North Carolina to train primary care physicians on how to treat women returning from the Iraq War. They are now working on a structure that will take this program to other states and benefit not only the organization running the training but the filmmakers also. A win win all around.

-McLagan says you must embed yourself within the major organizations that service your target audience and to embed successfully you must establish trust and credibility with them. If you are seen as only exploitive, it won’t work. This work is time consuming and cannot be left until release. She also stressed being flexible in taking up new opportunities as they present themselves. A few times she had to go back to her funders to ask for money to go to speaking engagements that popped up. These were not originally planned in the budget and luckily her funders were able to accommodate. There will always be unforeseen opportunities that could pay really big audience and financial dividends so budget for these kinds of contingencies.

-Debra Koffler, who runs CYMC, said that the core of their audience building effort came from forming partnerships with local community leaders and from casting local talent whenever possible. Accessing a strong community audience first is enabling the film to move wider from there.

-As the script was in development (Why I Ride:Low and Slow is not a documentary, but a narrative feature), the filmmakers went into the community and interviewed many locals to find out what were their experiences, what would they respond to in characters of the film and then weaved those elements into the storyline and into the characters’ back stories. In doing this research work, they built up a strong base of local community support and attention to what they were making.

It cannot be emphasized enough that the task of audience building must start at the beginning of the filmmaking process. This is especially relevant to documentaries but it can also be relevant for narrative films. Filmmakers need to have a clear idea of who they are trying to reach with their stories and research where to find them and how to communicate with them effectively. This work will not go to waste when it comes time to distribute whether you are planning to sell the film to a distributor or sell it yourself.

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