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 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.

Equation for Independent Film Financial Success

October 30, 2010
posted by sheric

photo credit Berkeley Repertory Theater

This is your new formula for financial success: Awareness+Engagement+Acquisition=Monetization.

You cannot skip any of these steps if you hope to make money from your films. This point was made crystal clear by a person who knows about making money from independently made art, Bob Moczydlowsky of Topspin Media. I interviewed Bob for the upcoming November issue of Microfilmmaker Magazine about how Topspin is being used by musicians and now filmmakers to build awareness of their art, engaging in conversations online, acquiring a relationship status with fans and using all of it to make money from their work using the software the company developed. Here is an excerpt from that interview:

“Filmmakers should be asking themselves: 1) What am I doing to make my audience aware of my work? 2) What have I provided to that audience that engages them, or inspires them to pay attention and then take action? 3) How am I acquiring direct connections with my audience? This generally means email addresses, mobile numbers, Facebook Likes, Twitter followers, MySpace Friends… etc. Connections that allow you to communicate with the audience directly. 4) What are my plans for monetizing this audience that is connected to me directly? What amazing, non-commodity product can I offer these fans who have gone on this journey with me?” said Moczydlowsky. The article goes on to point out that only offering DVDs as product on your site is NOT going to sustain you in future. Check it out on November 1.

I wanted to make more of a point about this because increasingly I am being asked about how to build “buzz” as if that is all that will be needed to make money from a film. Buzz is indeed needed, but it is only the first step. You can’t skip from awareness to money as the studios do. Hollywood studios do this effectively because they spend millions of dollars on spraying their message to the masses, mobilizing their press network to write about it everywhere and hoping for the best. They do not engage with that audience in conversation and they do nothing to acquire them for further releases of their films. Their process immediately starts over again for the next release. An independent production cannot afford to take this route; building an audience will take lots of time and lots of work but the idea is that you want to keep that audience loyal to you and your work so that you do not have to start over again when a new project comes out. The earlier you recognize this and can start on this work, the more likely you will have a sustainable career devoted to doing what you want to do, make films. I am not going to go into the need for producing superior work, that goes without saying (well, it is said many times in film courses so I think that point has been discussed repeatedly). No amount of marketing and advertising will save a poorly produced product or a film that has little to no audience.

Awareness is the part everyone gets; bringing the news of your film into the minds and hearts of its potential audience. It is the part that outside companies are hired to do and the thing that is always requested from a film’s creator. In the online world with its overabundance of noise, it is much more difficult to achieve without some big money to spend both on staff resources and media buys. Engagement and acquisition are much more labor intensive and it is not the work outside companies do best. Who besides yourself or the team involved in making your film will know the project intimately enough to accomplish engaging personally with its audience? If you are using social media and grassroots screenings as your marketing tools of choice, that is what you will have to do. Having written out advice for a filmmaker on how he could be doing this better and all of the work that will be involved, it turned out to be a 5 page document! Do you really want to do that every time you have a new project? Wouldn’t it be better to build an audience for all of your work over time?

Acquisition in this equation means collecting a way to communicate directly with your audience because they have given you permission to do it. You won’t be relying solely on a third party, like Facebook, Twitter, iTunes, to communicate with them and deliver your work to them. Why not? Because technically they own the permission to talk to your fans. When you speak through a platform, that site could change its rules, go offline, shut you out and you have no way of reconnecting with the base of supporters you built. In the case of iTunes or any third party distributor, they collect the personal details of your buyers and can use it to sell future products. That information isn’t available to you though. Really think through whether you want your buyers to go to outside services to buy your products especially when you have put in all the work of awareness and engagement.

Besides creating a dialog with your fans and connecting them with other like minded people, social media pages should really be used to drive them to your website where you collect information and sell to them directly. Both tools are very needed, but they function differently. A big Twitter or Facebook count looks good, but few of those people will actually buy; be mindful of that. Psychologically, those high counts do motivate people to join your page. Think about it, everyone wants to be in on something that looks popular, it is a human desire. Just don’t be fooled into thinking those are your sales numbers. Far more reliable numbers come from your monthly web traffic and the size of your email list so you must focus on growing those numbers too.

I go into how to do this in depth during the workshop I do with Jon Reiss for Think Outside the Box Office. We have another one coming up November 13-14 in Atlanta, Georgia hosted by PushPush Theater and Atlanta Film Festival. If you’re a filmmaker in the South, consider spending the weekend with us. This opportunity doesn’t come up often outside of the major cities and I assure you it is money well spent. Why make a film if you have no idea how to tell people about it and get it out into the market?

Getting a Local Screening Series Off the Ground

February 25, 2010
posted by sheric
Panama City Beach, FL a paradise for indie film?

Panama City Beach, FL a paradise for indie film?

Some of you may know that I am currently staying the the Northwest of Florida for a time. Personal family issues that require me to physically be here. While I am here in a beach resort town with limited big city entertainments, I want to try to do something that I think is the future for theatrical screenings of independent films.

I am not going to labor on about the state of independent film distribution. That ship has sailed in many a film festival panel discussion. I think the time is ripe for what Jon Reiss calls the live event/theatrical screening experience. A more grassroots approach to getting your film out in front of the public in more places than the traditional theater and doing more than just a film screening; creating an event out of your screening to entice the audience to actually want to come down to the venue and participate.

I had a wonderful meeting today with the local arts alliance. This group is responsible for bringing all of the touring companies for musical productions, bands, comedians etc. to town and they have a beautiful facility that holds 2,500 people. OMG!  I told them my idea. I want to create a local screening series for independent film and to tailor it to the interests of the local community. I think this last part, tailored, is key. Many screening series are founded by someone who thinks the community should be educated in some way by independent cinema. While it is an admirable goal, it also gives independent film that “genre” feel of being something you should like, but don’t. Like taking medicine; you know it should help you, but it is hard to digest (I know you know what I am saying). I want the audience to be entertained and enlightened and they will tell me what that means to them.

I would like to partner with local organizations who already have an audience and who can use an event like a film screening to bring awareness or further their cause or help to market their services. These may be charities, local businesses, resource organizations, Chamber of Commerce, senior living facilities etc. Maybe we can even involve clubs and find films that are tailored to their interests. I know there exists hundreds, if not thousands, of films that most people have never heard of but will resonate with these audiences. The trick is to find them and put the two together. I can do that. In a way, this is reverse engineering. Instead of having a film that needs an audience, I have an audience that needs a film!

Over the next few months, I will be recounting all that we go through to get this series off the ground, what films we choose, what kind of response we get, whether we are successful and this series will continue or even grow to surrounding communities. We have identified our first film and the partners we want to be involved with us for the first screening. I made the request today to the filmmaker and we’ll see if he is game. Our aim is to have the first screening in late April. We need enough time to properly market the series to the public. This arts organization as well as the local organizations have close ties to the local media, so that it is very useful too.

There is a caveat to this, dear filmmakers, and I want to you to take note. This change in the business model of distributing your films means that you must change your mindset as well. All of this snobbery about insisting your film screens in the theater and that bookers need to deal with your sales agent or distributor has to be reshaped. If more and more of these local screening series crop up and become successful (I predict that they will), it is much more beneficial (ie, money wise) to allow bookings to be made through you rather than your middlemen. If a small screening series provides the venue and the on the ground marketing, the cost to you is minimal upfront, maybe free. With a distrib, yeah they pay the P&A up front for you, but they take it all out of your backend and the theater gets a cut too. The accounting for that is not transparent either. And you can’t sell merch on site or interact with your audience in many cases. Booking with you is lots less hassle for the screening series too. When you are carving out your rights to sell DVD’s and downloads through your own channels, don’t forget to carve out a separate right to book screenings in local venues. Now, you can let the distribs handle a certain geographical area like NYC and LA and you can’t do local bookings there if you want less time hassle, that’s all they will usually do for you anyway. Reserve your right to book in smaller places where there are known series. As I chronicle our experiment, I will inform you of other successful series going on. I can tell you right now that you need to talk to Pericles Lewnes of Pretentious Film Society in Annapolis, Maryland and the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Austin, TX.  If you run a screening series and want to let filmmakers know about it, post it in comments here.

Watch this space and see how we do. As I get to know the tastes of the audience a bit more, I will be looking for screeners that can fill the need. Maybe for trailers as well. We are looking at a shorts program for families around June time. If you have a short that is suitable for all ages, let me know.