Filmmakers: Gather Your Audience Early and Often

Film festivals have long been powerful tools for indie filmmakers who seek audiences for their films. They serve as launching pads for that elusive big distribution deal that catapults an obscure filmmaker and unknown movie to fame and (sometimes) fortune.  The glare of the festival spotlight often creates magic for all concerned.

Last year’s Sundance festival certainly did that for Benh Zeitlin and his movie, Beasts of the Southern Wild.  A masterful film done on a low budget with unknown actors it has received richly deserved praise and box office success. It shows that the current system of indie development and funding can still support a worthy indie movie and help it reach a large audience.

Unfortunately, however, this kind of story is all too rare. Most of the indie films that go to film festivals do not get a distribution deal nor do they achieve anything close to this level of success.  This has always been the case. By and large,  films that go to Sundance and other well known film festivals never reach an audience beyond the festival.  They remain obscure–even after a major festival showing.

I assume that every film that makes it into a film festival has an audience beyond the festival itself. It just has to be found. And today, getting a distribution deal with a traditional distributor is not the only way to find that audience.

Another Way To Seek An Audience

There is another film that premiered at Sundance a year ago that won praise and found its audience.   And remarkably, this film, Indie Game: The Movie, did so without a traditional distribution deal.  As such, the example of Indie Game: The Movie provides a glimpse into how filmmakers can find an audience using a little bit of the old (getting into a film festival to gain attention) and a little bit of the new (reaching their audience before, during and after production).

Fortunately for the indie film business, Lijan Pajot and James Swirsky created a case study that lays out the details of the journey from the conception of their film through its release.  They have left a treasure trove of data that should inspire other filmmakers who might consider taking a similar path.  I will concentrate on just a couple of their many data points.

Usually a filmmaker uses a film festival to begin the process of gathering an audience.

Pajot and Swirsky did something markedly different.  They gathered an audience while they made their movie, long before they even applied to a festival.

A key vehicle for this gathering of fans was Kickstarter.  They did two campaigns on Kickstarter.  Through these two campaigns they gathered 2,893 supporters who contributed a total of $94,676 toward the film.  In addition to the monies raised, Pajot and Swirsky gathered a significant number of fans with whom they could regularly connect with over the course of the film’s production and release–with Kickstarter updates, tweets and email conversations.

Essentially they followed Kevin Kelly’s 1,000 True Fans Strategy.  By the time they were accepted by Sundance they had close to 3,000 fans in tow.  Importantly they had a fan base with whom they could share their major film festival experience.  You can imagine that their excited group of fans were more than happy to share their involvement with this film.  You can see the tweets: “The movie I supported on Kickstarter got into Sundance!” This in turn gathered a larger audience.

Pajot and Swirsky used the Sundance festival as their midpoint in gathering their audience–not their starting point.

As a result the normal amplification of buzz that festivals provide was even greater as they had a solid base to build on.

This is a scenario that will become increasingly common in the future as more independent filmmakers begin to use the 1,000 fans strategy early in the film making process.  And it will create another situation that Pajot and Swirsky  encountered at the festival.

Direct Distribution

Though they were offered several  traditional distribution deals, they said no to all of them. With their ever increasing fan base in their back pocket, another route was made possible.  They made deals that allowed them to directly distribute their film through a number of digital channels, ranging from Netflix, iTunes to downloads from their own website.  They were also able to get Adobe to underwrite a series of special theatrical screenings around the country.

One more thing to notice as well. As a result of their strategy, they held on to the ownership of their movie, which means that they alone control its future.

Much of their success can be directly traced to a decision they made early in their film making process– to gather their audience long before they entered their first festival.

It will be fascinating to observe which films come to Sundance this year with their fans in tow and take a similar route out.

About Chris Dorr

I consult with companies on digital media strategy and business development. Clients include Samsung, MTV Networks, Tribeca Film Festival, Shaw Media and Canadian Film Center. I created the Future of Film blog for Tribeca. I have worked in the movie business for Disney Studios, Universal Pictures, Scott Free and in the digital media business for Intertainer, Sony and Nokia. Contact me at chris@digitaldorr.com or follow me at @chrisdorr
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  • Miles Maker

    A film festival audience is an altogether different audience, which means it may have little or no impact on your premiere in terms of packing the house and/or exciting a deal. In that case your industry audience is immediately essential. It’s nonetheless important to build your true audience along the way, but your true audience may be nowhere near Park City Utah when your movie meets the public for the first time.

    • chrisdorr

      Hi Miles Maker, A very good point, film festival audiences are their own breed. However, if amplified through social networks and general buzz they can further build your base of true fans–some of whom you should already have on board before you even you have your first screening at the festival.

    • http://www.facebook.com/marcschiller Marc Schiller

      Miles – I completely agree with you. While i think there’s a time and a place when filmmakers should put an effort into building a community online for their film, the need of going into Sundance with a certain number of fans on your Facebook page is an undue pressure placed on them by marketers, not by the marketplace. Does it hurt to have 1,000 fans going into Sundance? Certainly not. But filmmakers are barely able to finish their films in time for Sundance. Their Facebook pages should not be a primary focus.

      • chrisdorr

        Marc, thanks for your comment. I don’t disagree that filmmakers should make sure that their film is done and done well before they launch it at a festival. However I would argue that building a fan base for yourself as a filmmaker and for your film should be seen as an ongoing activity that begins while you are making your film. It should never stop. Film makers have to continually interact with fans and potential fans. That is how they will build loyalty. This is why every filmmaker should do a Kickstarter campaign–not just for the money, but because it forces you to reach out to people and constantly message yourself to your real potential public. The problem is that film makers see themselves involved in a one off opportunity with each film that they do. They need to see themselves as involved in a continuous (and therefore not) a discontinuous activity. They are building an ongoing, persistent connection with fans, not here today and gone until their next movie. They need to borrow from the models of Amanda Palmer and Ed Burns, both artists who are continually connecting with their fans. Or as I say in the blog post, borrow from the model that Lijan Pijot and James Swirsky have created. They are working to build a sustainable business around their movies. Other film makers should take note and do the same. That is not just marketing–that is business.

        • http://www.facebook.com/marcschiller Marc Schiller

          I don’t disagree with a word you are saying other than the fact that it’s positioned as “one size fits all” and that every filmmaker going in Sundance needs to care about their Facebook page. The reality is that every film is different. What works for Ed Burns and Amanda Palmer might not work for Marc Schiller or Chris Dorr. Some films lend themselves to social communities, others don’t. There are a lot of filmmakers who, to be honest, shouldn’t be interacting with their fans. My problem is not with the intent of the recommendation. Who can argue with it? My problem is that it treats every filmmaker the same and every film the same.

          • chrisdorr

            I agree that one size does not fit all. I would only say that too many filmmakers don’t even bother to try social media on to see if it fits. They give up before they even start. For whatever reason, they see it as too much work, as beneath them, or they simply do not want to take the time to jump in and figure it out. That holds them back individually and collectively it holds independent film back.