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A Call for Transparency: Filmmakers Need (and Deserve) to Know Their Audience

A Call for Transparency: Filmmakers Need (and Deserve) to Know Their Audience

I host a “Women in Moving Pictures” salon at my apartment once a month. The first one was a small gathering to introduce my writer/director friend Rose to some female cinematographers. It has quickly grown in scope to a place we meet to dig into the challenges in our industry, not just as women (those challenges are many) but as independent creators trying to make a sustainable living.

I am a broken record in these sessions, insisting that the only way to circumvent an industry sluggish to keep up with changing demographics and consumer demands is to build a relationship directly with the consumer. I look around at the filmmakers in the room and I say, like I always do – connect directly with YOUR audience, meet them on the devices they prefer. You don’t need middlemen anymore!

And one filmmaker (whose wonderful film had limited theatrical release and is now on VOD) said to me: where are we supposed to get the information about where our audience is? How can we as filmmakers find that data?

This stopped me immediately because it felt very familiar. Seed&Spark is a resource-constrained company. (We’ve raised $1 million in Seed capital and are working to grow organically rather than raising more money.) Our greatest challenge in building online tools for effective, profitable digital distribution is that we don’t have access to the data available to us that would help us make smart decisions about where to build next.

Here’s what we’d need to know: what kind of people are viewing what kind of content and where? That kind of data is viewed by most online exhibition platforms like Netflix or cable providers like Comcast as highly proprietary. And that creates a real problem in building good business. 

If we want to continue to have a thriving independent moving picture business (I certainly do) we have to figure out how to build smart businesses that are also great films.

Film’s sister economy, the tech industry, runs largely on data-driven decisions and a mindset around experimentation BEFORE a product ships using all sorts of data dashboards: Google Analytics, Mixpanel, Flurry, Optimizely, you name it. In film, we sadly typically only get any sort of audience understanding data AFTER a movie is in the box office or on VOD — if we get anything at all — and access to online sources of the aggregate data for digital distribution platforms is woeful.

While the Sundance Institute and others continue to try to collect “case studies” on individual films, there is no way to sort or aggregate data that people are sharing. You can read about it one film at a time. Efforts to build a dashboard of aggregated box office, VOD income against budget and marketing spend have been thwarted by distribution outlets who will not share, and also sometimes by the producers themselves who believe sharing data, particularly for films that have not made a financial return, can be detrimental to their ability to make the next project. Silicon Valley fetishizes failure, and Hollywood sweeps it under the rug. Oy.

The burden of marketing independent films falls largely on the filmmaking teams themselves, whether they’re distributing directly to their audiences online or even working a “major” indie distributor. Most filmmakers’ immediate networks and marketing resources are incredibly limited, often to just elbow grease. There is almost no data available to filmmakers to understand how other films like theirs have performed on various platforms and what marketing tools have succeeded and failed.

And bless the filmmakers’ pathological optimism (a quality they share with entrepreneurs everywhere): they continue to stab in the dark to try and build good businesses, though very few are succeeding. Just look at the proliferation of new platforms for watching content: it’s not only a reaction to increased online viewing, but basically just many companies trying to take their best guess at what the problems are, how to fix them, and to whom to market those solutions.

Audiences are definitely feeling the strain of an increasingly fragmented, manic experience. Just ask them!

At Seed&Spark, we teach filmmakers about how to find out who their audience is and where they hang out online, but until recently, it didn’t occur to us that the user data we were gathering about where people are contributing to what kinds of films might be a tremendous resource to our filmmakers for purposes of distribution.

Giving filmmakers access to the data about geographically where to find their audiences is a starting place to help make smarter decisions WAY in advance of shooting, editing, and trying to distribute the film.

So we’ve assembled a very rough and dirty dashboard so that filmmakers – able to sort by specific project or genre and subgenre – can see everywhere in the world someone has contributed to a film similar to theirs. With feedback from filmmakers on how else they’d like to manipulate the data, we hope to make this a valuable resource.

Why might this matter? Well, a filmmaker in Albuquerque trying to figure out how to build strong support for a genre film might see that Austin and Chicago seem to be popular places for genre films and reach out to individuals and organizations in those markets to help promote a crowdfunding campaign. They might reach out to the filmmakers in those cities who have crowdfunding experience there, to see if they can get some first-hand insights. A distribution company that has picked up a crowdfunded film might use the data to influence where they theatrically release a film. A filmmaker might decide to organize a Tugg screening based on the interest there, with confidence they can reach that audience.

We are a new, small company, with a data set tiny in comparison to what we’re sure others in our space have gathered. But it’s not anecdotal data, either. It’s a place to start.

This kind of data could influence the way filmmakers reach out to one another, the way distributors build their theatrical releases, the way new and innovative content companies decide how to build, where, and for whom. 

I also now understand why some companies may not want to share it. It’s kind of scary. It may reveal holes in your business or gaps in your outreach (what’s up Montana??). It might demonstrate you’re not quite as mighty (yet) as your competitors.

It takes a big leap of faith to reveal your vulnerable points. Here’s to hoping that individual filmmakers and other companies like us will take the leap of faith with us – that sharing our data makes smarter consumers. Smarter consumers will give us exceptional feedback on what they need to build better businesses. It might mean that meritocracy, not money, determines winners and losers. It might mean that value is determined not by how many users you have but by how powerful and useful the user finds your product. And let’s face it: that might also mean you’re providing the data for one of your users to build something better than anything you’ve come up with so far.

But if you’re revealing your Achilles Heel(s) in service of the community your business is built to serve, they’re more likely to help you grow stronger than to take advantage of your weaknesses.

The greater the transparency, the more we can help filmmakers reach their audiences in more meaningful ways, and build more efficient systems to make a better environment for those audiences to find what they love. Those systems will provide greater value to audiences and return more money to creators who themselves are contributing tremendously to the innovation that pushes us forward. 

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