Finding your audience even when you have a niche

May 14, 2012
posted by sheric

Much is said about the need to find your audience and present your project to them, but how does one go about it? I think the first thing that must be done is boil down the exact characteristics of the people who will be the MOST engaged, or what my friend Jon Reiss would call the Super Core and find them and start communicating with them. I want to share the information about how we accomplished this for my most recent project, a documentary film about the Joffrey Ballet entitled Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance that I am working on with Jon Reiss’ Hybrid Cinema. We started work in October 2011 for our premiere as the opening night film of the Dance on Camera Festival at Lincoln Center in January 2012.

Obviously, this film is for ballet fans, right? We could even go wider and say those interested in dance, or performing arts, or fine arts, or classical music and theater. Maybe even a gay niche, or luxury products or wine aficionados. It is typical thinking for most filmmakers I encounter and definitely it is for distributors, let’s go for the widest audience possible! But we are dealing with a modest marketing and distribution budget, a very sparse crew (4-6 people)and reaching a wider audience was not realistically going to happen out of the gate. We needed to get more targeted, laser targeted, and then spread from there slowly.

It is my firm belief that if you are working with limited resources, you must “catch fire” with some small group first. Your “fire” will not be able to spread if there is no passionate group helping you do it. There is simply too much competition for an audience’s time and attention and trying to reach wide from the start usually results in not much traction. Your few sparks will fizzle.

I could have started with the “ballet audience.” But even that is fairly wide. Every city and town in America has a ballet school, maybe even a company. There are patrons of these ballet companies who attend performances. Many are former dancers or had dance training at some point in their lives. How can I reduce the target even further without being so narrow that the super core would only result in  2 people or so wide that I can’t easily reach them?

The laser targeted group I settled on was the alumni of the Joffrey Ballet. They are numerous (at least several hundred),  they are spread out all over the country, many are in high level positions at other dance companies, and they have a deep, vested interest in seeing this film.  Every Joffrey alumnus that I have forged a relationship with is a very passionate supporter of Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino, the founders of the company and the main subjects of the film, and they want to see this film succeed. After all, it is also their story; a story about a very sacred and special time in their lives. Who can be more passionate than that? Now, who are they and where to find them? 20 or so of them are in the film, but what about the rest?

Luckily, a book was written by Sasha Anawaltin 1997 that had been meticulously researched. It included many names of dancers in the company as well as other associates. I read this book from cover to cover, underlining names, dates, footnotes about side stories etc. Also, the Gerald Arpino and Robert Joffrey Foundation had a list of names of alumni and some contact details. I also read 2 other books written by and about Joffrey dancers and made more notes. I started with these, making lists of years, who was in the company when, what happened to them if it was known and then got started on Google for more research.

With some names, I came up empty and some alumni are no longer with us, but in the end I did get a nice contact list together. It was also important to research who was connected to whom so I could plan for my circle to widen. Some Joffrey alumni went on to work with other choreographers, other dance companies and those connections could be useful to know for later help as we went into theatrical release in cities across America.

Next post: Preparing for contact.

I think those 2 words are starting to lose their meaning when talking about using social media to reach audiences. I am not offering another word because at the end of the day a word should only describe an idea of what you are truly doing and maybe THAT is the thing that is becoming lost in all of this talk. What are we truly saying when we use those words?

What is "engagement" really?

Engagement isn’t a measurement from your Facebook or Youtube Insights, it isn’t how many retweets you receive on Twitter. Connections aren’t simply a number of followers and likes. In thinking about the traditional use of this word, your “connection” was someone who was willing to help you, someone who knew you, trusted you and vice versa.

Audiences are now delighted by communicating not with a “brand,” but with a “face” or a person. This mindset shift in corporate America is very hard to make when they really never thought about the audiences actually being people…with faces beyond eyeballs. If they did think this way, would they really keep hitting that face with ads over and over again? Would the conversation be constantly one sided, “buy my stuff” ” buy my stuff” “click here, and buy my stuff.” That is the extent of the brand relationship with customers that the typical movie studio or distributor has now.

When I talk to you about creating a relationship with your audience that is long term, not just for one project, I really want you to think about what this means. The investment of time and creativity and energy this is going to take, not to boost “likes” on Facebook and follower numbers on Twitter, but to really draw people to what you are doing and hold them there willingly. Using these great new tools is just a newer way of communicating, but the communication itself isn’t new. We as humans have always communicated with each other and naturally gravitated to those with similar interests and it is the same now.

That is also an important distinction. Audiences may not only want to communicate with you, but also with like minded people AROUND you and your work. In this way, brands can benefit from heavily using social tools. They don’t have to be the sole source of communication, they can provide a place and content that enables “fans” to speak to each other about the brand. Be careful when you are using these tools only to speak about yourself, but also don’t  become so enamored of people “buzzing” about you and your work that you never step into the conversation. I see this a lot with brands that happily RT positive tweets but almost never get into conversations.

Main thing to takeaway here is not the fact that you are trying to pump up “scores” or numbers on your channels. You are trying to touch people using electronic means and this will take time, effort, energy and a lot of patience. There’s no quick fix, no magic solutions, no one  ”engagement tool” that is going to make these relationships last. For those who don’t have these attributes (time, energy etc), this isn’t going to work and you will have an increasingly difficult time gaining an audience in the future.

Calling all Los Angeles based independent filmmakers

December 13, 2011
posted by sheric

Event this Thursday December 15 in LA

I am scheduled to virtually appear at an event in LA on Thursday December 15 to talk about online distribution of independent films. I know what you’re thinking…you’re confused enough about all this talk. You just want to make your movie and let someone take it from there. Boy, are you on the wrong site!

This event is going to be for those entrepreneurial filmmakers who understand that making the film is less than half the war. The first battle started with the idea and the funding, continued through to the making of the film, but now how to get it into the market so people will see it? And what about festivals, are they the way to go? And putting your film online? And say you do get a distributor interested, then what? How about working with a publicist, a web designer, a trailer editor, a social media guru? Do you really need all of that? We’re going to talk about it all and more in this short 2 hours. I am going to try and convince you to be thinking about all of it before you even pick up a camera!

I’ll be joining my friend Rob Millis from Dynamo Player which is a great online distribution tool you control so that your film can be streamed on your website or Facebook in exchange for money (which is better than streamed via Youtube or BitTorrent for free, yeah?) and Jerome Courshon who regularly speaks on the secrets of distribution. The name of this great event is

Online Distribution: A new hope for filmmakers

And it is presented by Genevieve Jolliffe and Andrew Zinnes who, along with my friend Chris Jones, co wrote the Guerilla Filmmaker Handbook series. I’ll specifically be talking about low and micro budget films and the things you can do yourself to ensure there is an audience for your work and you can reach them. The new hope is you don’t have to depend on finding outside distribution deals to get your film to its audience, but you will need skills that you probably haven’t needed before and we’re all here to help you get them.

Join us!

Date: Thursday, 15th December, 2011.

Where: Sacred Fools Theater, 660 North Heliotrope Drive, Los Angeles, CA 90004. Free parking in lot next to theater.

Tel: (310) 281-8337

Time: 7.00pm – 9.00pm.

Price: $35 (seating is limited. Discount code is SHERI for $15 discount which makes the night only $20. Just click Enter Discount Code  and put it in).

I recently answered a few questions for the kind folks over at Fanbridge for their blog. Below is an excerpt from that post…more to come.

First, filmmakers should start by knowing for whom their story is. NO, it isn’t for everyone. You can’t reach “everyone” so really narrow it down, even beyond demographic characteristics, to interest levels. What would this person wear to your screening? Really get down into that kind of detail. Start with yourself: why do you like this story, what draws you to tell it? From there you will know where to find people similar to yourself and how to speak to them.

Social media is about authentic voice and speaking to real people, not faceless masses. If you only have a vague idea of who your audience is at the beginning, it will stay vague and you won’t effectively be able to reach them or anyone. This work cannot be done from the outside; you can’t just hire a marketing company to tweet for your film. They have no idea what to say to someone who actually starts a dialog. This work needs to be done by someone embedded both within the production and within the audience community of your film. This doesn’t mean you as a director or producer are totally off the hook to connect with people, and you shouldn’t want that anyway, but having what Jon Reiss would call a PMD (Producer of Marketing and Distribution) to help alleviate the total burden of connecting with an audience [burden in the context of generating content that keeps them engaged] and determining the most lucrative and efficient method to release the film is a smart idea.

This work cannot wait until the film is in post because social relationships take time to build and only giving it a month or two of attention isn’t going to result in much awareness. It also takes time to prepare for distribution outlets whether you are going to use the festival circuit as your theatrical or book community screenings, or book traditional theaters. Whether you will release online at the same time, or soon after and which outlets will you use? How much will you charge? What publications do you need to develop relationships with to get great coverage, what is the website going to look like and how will it change during the production process (yes, it will change)? There will be a need for extra content, more than one trailer or a series of clips, sourcing other content or creating it. These are all jobs that cannot be done in a hurry and someone needs to be on it. What about sponsorship? Who will handle the sponsorship proposals and logistics?

These are not the skills of typical film producers but someone now needs to be overseeing it and not involved with the filmmaking process. It isn’t work that falls within the realm of traditional publicist, unit publicist or the average distribution company, so someone needs to be handling this from very early on and that someone is a member of the film team. Also, taking on the responsibility gives you more leverage. You know who your audience is, how they will consume what you make, you are in contact with them every day and you don’t need to give up rights or revenue in order to sell to them, so why would you sign away your rights to do this? It doesn’t make sense.

To read the entire piece, click here.

In defense of film distributors

July 23, 2011
posted by sheric

It’s a shocking title coming from me, I know and I had a hard time typing it. It isn’t as though I hate distributors, it is just that I see them largely as exploiting filmmakers’ work where the filmmaker receives very little in the process. A post yesterday from Seth Godin’s Domino Project made me stop and think about it from their side. His post takes the publishers’ view but that is the distributors’ view in the book world. The situations are the same.

In his post, Godin explains that publishers (distributors) take on the financial risk of bringing work to an unknown audience which is a huge risk and why they take the lion’s share of the profit. They don’t know if their risk will pay off until these unknown people buy and, to mitigate the risk, they have to spend even more money on getting lots of attention from strangers over and over again, which puts them even deeper into the hole.

Next time you are wondering why you can’t get a distributor to take your film, think about what you would do in their situation? Whenever you make a film with no identifiable audience, no connection to an audience, no identifiable marketing hooks (like genre or star quality actors), no festival wins from pedigree fests, you are drastically reducing your chances of being picked up. I know you’ve heard this, but every week I am contacted by filmmakers who ignore all of this so the message isn’t sinking in. If you don’t have the previous situations for your film, you can’t get attention unless 1)your film is exceptional AND 2) you have a ton of money to spend on getting attention in the form of advertising and publicity and then you are taking on the risk of the distributor, trying to get attention from strangers and hoping it will pay off. For distributors, they can better afford the risk because they have lots of titles in the arsenal. You don’t. So you are left with the choice of “giving up more and more freedom and cash to [distributors] in exchange for their taking the risk of finding, alerting and selling to strangers,” hoping to be picked, taking whatever deal they offer and having no say in what is subsequently done with your work


doing the hard work upfront by building an interested group of supporters for your work, to gain their trust and permission for communication, to regularly speak to them and to get their buy in BEFORE the work exists. It is much more efficient than selling to strangers after the fact. “The speed, freedom and control will transform the way you [work] as well as how you engage with your audience.”



I hear a lot from artists and art critics who say you shouldn’t promote until you have work worth promoting. I completely agree. Please don’t use this as advice for how to “promote” because building a relationship with an engaged audience is separate from promotion. Promotion is one way communication. It is the thing that advertising was made for. It isn’t the thing that is best accomplished through using social media, contrary to what corporations and “digital agencies” think.

What I am saying is genuinely become interested in who your work would touch, delight and become emotionally connected to them. Start thinking about who “they” are while you are in the process of shaping your work. Start building up the relationship with them because you truly want to reach them. I think this is what expressing yourself is all about right? Reaching others? Chances are they are a lot like you so this shouldn’t be a difficult thing. You may not even do it online, choosing real life instead. The thing online allows for is finding your kindreds all over the world rather than the limited circle in your immediate vicinity. Those friends will become your base of support and won’t be able to stop themselves from telling others and online tools are a great free carrier for word of mouth, the most authentic advertising there is. When you have that support, the financial burden becomes lighter in that you can crowdfund to make work, you can spend little to reach the audience, and you will attract partners who want to help you service those you haven’t been able to reach yet without the absolute need for you to give up rights and control over your work.

This group isn’t built overnight, or even over six months. Get started right now. You need this, they need this connection.

When we reach out, do they reach back?

April 27, 2011
posted by sheric

This is an excerpt from a piece I wrote for the Tribeca Future of Film blog due to be published this week.

Are passive viewers passé? We are in the in between times where the audience’s old mindset expects to receive whatever information is offered and the new mindset actively goes and finds what they are interested in. Younger audiences are not passive, but they aren’t totally aware of the ways in which they can reach back to us.  And when they do, is there an ebb and flow or is this just a drive by and drop off conversation? Too many times , it is. If we want to be able to build a community around our work, we have to be willing to stay around for the conversations. This will be a learning process for us all.

Check out all of the inspiring and thought provoking content on the Future of Film blog during the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival.

Gimmee Me Some Buzz

April 14, 2011
posted by sheric

A statement I hear a lot in work requests. Usually the filmmaker wants it to happen tomorrow. First question that pops into my mind is what’s buzz worthy about your film? Does it have a celebrity? A notable name with their own following? Do you as a filmmaker have your own following? Did it just get into a major festival or win one? These are things the press would be interested in for coverage and things that will get people talking. Or do you have a very large budget to partake in saturation marketing (otherwise known as excessive media buys intended to make people think there is a buzz going on and in turn leads to a buzz going on)? There’s no magic pixie dust that can be sprinkled on a project and instantly give it hype.

What does buzz building really mean? Buzz is an intense and short lived public interest in a person, topic or product. It is very rarely the result of a last minute campaign but a well organized and an effort planned well in advance to garner maximum attention around an event. This attention is ideally used to help sell something though there are cases where unplanned viral videos have gained massive interest, were not planned around an event and didn’t sell anything. I realize this is not your goal. Also, whereas Hollywood might do all this buzz building just before releasing a film to the theater, and then do it again (usually to a lesser degree) when it releases to home video, this is probably not the best course of action for your film if you have an extremely limited budget. You need a sustained effort that keeps paying off for a while. A gradual trickle of  interest over a sustained length of time rather than a total bombardment and then silence.

Here are a few tips you might think about when trying to build buzz around your film:

1)A publicity stunt-not my favorite but one used by many high profile celebrities. Think Lady Gaga and the meat dress. If you are largely unknown, this will probably mean doing something illegal or close to it for maximum media exposure or something very altruistic if local exposure will do. Plan to glom onto a major holiday and personify it with an action (Easter is coming up!) that will get a photographer interested or find a local charity you can partner with to make a grand gesture. The more you can tie it in to the subject of your film, the more it will benefit your sales.

Lady Gaga and the widely publicized meat dress

2)Smaller outlets to larger ones-a good campaign will be a sustained effort. If you have started your promotion efforts from the beginning (don’t get me started), there will be a gradual increase in coverage starting with small community coverage (forums, individual blog sites)usually taking place in the production phase through to coverage on sites that reach a large percentage of your target audience. In order to get repeat coverage, plan to have many different story angles to cover and if given enough notice (and a relationship) many writers will be open to multi story coverage.

3)Buzz is word of mouth-and it needs to be authentic. Barring a budget where you can buy bloggers to write about your film (and what kind of audience do they really have long term?), the best thing you can do is find and connect with influential people who really do love your work. Yes, reviews help and the more influential the writer/publication, the more it helps if they give you a good one. However, try to solicit reviews from sites that understand your film. Since almost all writing is published to the internet, potential audience will come across all kinds of reviews about your film. Be careful about who you invite to review it. Bear in mind, anyone these days is a reviewer, you can’t control what someone writes but you can minimize bad reviews by gauging the right fit.

4)Be ready for the onslaught-I continue to be appalled by filmmakers who want publicity, but don’t even have a website or social media pages set up. Where do you think people will go to find out more info after they hear about you? Yeah, a website and a damn good one. Let’s look professional here. Still this year, there were films who had submitted and were accepted into Sundance who did not have a website up. Seriously? The biggest break your film will probably ever get publicity-wise and you didn’t think about a website? Or you just have a placeholder page? C’mon guys, no more last century thinking. Websites take time to build (good ones do anyway) so get cracking early.

5)Releasing a film is NOT news-unless you are JJ Abrams or some other industry celeb. You actually have to have something or do something newsworthy. Think impact, prominence, timeliness and oddity. If you can think of story angles around these, the more likely you are to be covered.

And finally, “buzz” (or what I like to call awareness) is not built only using one tool and no budget. It is a combination of long term social media commitment, publicity, smart media buys and live events (screenings and speaking opportunities) that all get people talking and then buying.