Finding your documentary’s audience, Part IV
For documentary film, these days, I’d argue that “success” is a real possibility, due to less-expensive equipment, the ability to shoot with very small crews, and the willingness of the “talent” to participate for no compensation. If you choose carefully, and execute well, you can make your money back, and make some viewers really happy. My view is that you should always nurture a core audience of people truly interested in your topic, and not move outward until you’ve served them well.
But the question of how general an audience to seek is one that involves rising costs and often a shift to expensive diffusion instead of profitable concentration.
There’s a history to all that. At one time, film was so prohibitively expensive, you simply had to go wide. Making a film for $1 million begs a different approach than one you made for $10,000.
In the old environment, getting that broader audience was usually when you secured a distribution deal – when you were acquired by some gatekeeper who had the means to get your film to theaters. That, to a degree, was what allowed some of these gatekeepers to commit what was nearly highway robbery. To get your film out, you had to go through them. Part of that was because theatrical distribution required 35mm film prints, which goes back to “prohibitively expensive.” And getting your film on television was equally daunting – television, with its high productions costs, could not afford to air something they didn’t think would draw mass audiences.
Now, that’s changed. Any of us can “release worldwide,” and make our film available to everyone on the planet, simply by setting up a website from which to sell DVDs. We can sell off Amazon, and potentially through Netflix, or stream for pay off an array of sites.
So the name of the game now is not a method of distribution, it’s a matter of making people aware it exists, and making a case for why they should see it.
That’s where, beyond the obvious quality needed for a film to be a success, effective publicity and marketing are really the keys to success. “Effective” means targeting not the audience, which is economically difficult, but the limited number of influential gatekeepers who can move your work in front of that audience.
In earlier parts of the series, I made a case for the relative clarity with which you can find the “core audience” for the subject your documentary explores (unless your documentary only explores yourself). Those come through associations, Facebook groups and other such self-organizing groups of people.
But when you seek general audiences, you’re going to need both the stamp of approval and the visibility of that stamp to move forward. That generally comes through film festivals (but not only), the interest of an influential distribution gatekeeper, media reviews, articles in large publications, or through mass advertising. You’ll find that all of these are connected. The more you want an audience not directly related to the topic you explore, the more you will spend to get there.
In the graphic I’ve used in this series, the widest audience is also the least connected to your work. This group therefore has the least momentum toward your work: They don’t watch many documentaries, they have no built-in interest in your subject, and they don’t want to pay much. They’ll possibly see it because it’s on TV and nothing else is on, or it’s at their local theater, or it’s all over the news. But finding general audience goes back to finding a narrow one: the gatekeepers who get you to that audience. When you’re trying to break out widely, it’s a given that the work has to be damned good. But beyond that, people understanding how your work goes beyond its topic is really what we’re talking about here.
Why, for example, did “Helvetica,” a film about a typeface, have such success? Because as much as it was about typography (a narrow-interest subject with a deep audience of graphic designers and artists), critics such as the Village Voice’s Julia Wallace understood her own “unsettling awareness of just how much Helvetica surrounds me” – and in that helped the film to reach a wide-but-shallower audience. In essence, the appeal was re-framed by an influential gatekeeper. Non-designers and non-artists were being asked to consider for 90 minutes the way the environment around them, which they take for granted, was carefully designed. Helvetica for them wasn’t the subject, it was the specific example of a more abstract subject: to general audiences, the film’s proposition (clarified by Wallace) was that it might get us thinking about everything from our door hinges to our steering wheel – there’s little we touch anymore that wasn’t designed by somebody.
So, to find a general audience, you fall back to the old methods. You try to squeeze through the narrow hole. And none of it is easy:
1) Get into a great film festival. Toronto, Sundance and Cannes are good places to start. Good luck! Every year a certain number of films are culled from the thousands upon thousands submitted, and therefore have a lottery-prize feel to acceptance. Getting into the festival is that stamp of approval that does further the interest of wider audiences, but the greater advantage is that a select few people capable of changing your film’s fortunes are there looking for product – distributors, television executives, major critics. Just being in such festivals is not a guarantee, sadly. Most films reach their pinnacle there and never find wide audience. And outside of a handful of such prestige festivals, few have that influence. Being in one of the other 5,000 festivals outside of the top 25 is just for fun, mostly.
2) Gain the attention of an influential media gatekeeper. See #1. Top film critics have the ability to put a film on a distributor’s map with a solid review; the best way to get reviewed by someone with influence is to be in a festival, but by the same token, critics are understanding more films are not coming through that traditional gap. Remember you also don’t have to be focusing specifically on film critics. Bob Bowden’s “The Cartel,” about the flaws of the public-education system, probably depended more on getting the attention of education writers and columnists than film critics. If you target people who care about what you’ve done and they can reach large groups of people, it really doesn’t matter.
3) Market yourself to people who have media time and space to fill well. I remember how, when I was a newspaper reporter and columnist in Colorado in the 1980s, I spent my days paradoxically both hoping for a call from someone with a good tip, while simultaneously turning down an awful lot of tips. Why? Because my job was to deliver a certain type of product – to justify my my own position and pay – and most tips I got only justified their own. Think about everything from radio talk shows to newspaper and magazine writers and editors who would cover you, if you didn’t have an intern calling them and throwing ill-formed ideas that waste their time. These people have a product they need to deliver; if you can help them make their product better while helping your own, you’re in.
4) Build wide one day at a time. Another thing I learned in the newspaper phase of my life is that writers, ironically, often feel better covering something that’s already been covered by somebody else (as long as it’s not a direct competitor). As much as you’d think journalists want fresh material, there’s a warm feeling of security knowing you’re not sticking your neck out. So when you get your hometown paper to write about your film (or a blog to post, or a radio show to have you on), make sure the next-highest media outlet in the food chain gets those clippings. And when they cover you, expand your press kit and move up another step. Six or eight clips later you’ve got yourself a phenomenon. By the time you try the big outlets, you should have a solid array of coverage that screams “legitimate.” I’d also suspect that arranging some theatrical showing in art cinemas and the like (which often rent time before their evening shows) builds the same legitimacy by steps, if they go well. The art-cinema owner in Portland may feel better if the art cinema in Cleveland had a nice one-week run there. The pipe dream of “wide national release” is a rarity. Look for smaller “general” opportunities that can build. If PBS won’t take your film, contacting individual, small PBS affiliates can be a way to go. The money won’t be significant, but it gets the foot in the door.
5) Slow is not bad. Remember as well that the nature of documentaries is they are, or should be, far less time-sensitive than other forms of nonfiction media. A slow buildup is perfectly fine, it would seem, if it feels new to that audience. As much as filmmakers obsess about whether footage is 4:2:2 or 4:2:0, or whether you shot on HDV or DVcam, audiences don’t much care if you give them an interesting story. Don’t worry that your film is on a codec that went out way back in the more-innocent days of ‘07. It really doesn’t matter.
6) “Wide” people may like you more if you take up less of their time. Filmmakers think of “feature-length” as having a sweet spot of 70-90 minutes that, frankly, is a notion that serves the theaters they’ll likely never screen in. As a film-festival judge, I saw many a 90-minute film where I thought “that would be so much better if it had been cut in half.” A lesser known law of The Theory of Relativity holds that watching a movie on your laptop slows down the flow of time in comparison to watching the same movie in the theater. With iTunes and other digital platforms, 50 minutes may be the new 90 minutes.
In summary: Wide is harder than narrow. Even if your film is really good. You may end up with “wide/shallow,” meaning a broad cross-section of people but not that many of them. If you have a ten-theater “national” release with thirty people in each theater to see it, is that any better than the same number of venues packed with people deeply enthused about what you’ve done? Wide is not passionate. That’s why it’s better not to forsake your core audience trying to interest people who, to paraphrase, just may not be that into you.