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10 New Ways to Think About Audiences for Social-Issue Documentaries

10 New Ways to Think About Audiences for Social-Issue Documentaries

There’s a paradigm shift in terms of how filmmakers think about distribution, said Caitlin Boyle, founder and executive director of Film Sprout, the grassroots distribution and marketing company, in her presentation at Oregon Doc Camp, on May 30 in Sublimity, Oregon.

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Boyle likened traditional distribution to “a delivery system and you can think of it like a ferris wheel. The audience is in the little cages and the hub of activity is coming from the center. You’re literally along for the ride as an audience member.”

But the new model is more collaborative and grassroots-driven, more like a farmer’s market, according to Boyle. “The filmmakers are the farmers and the customers are the audiences, but a lot more back and forth and education has to happen. The audience has to be much more empowered to make their own decision.”

Boyle explained how her model of grassroots outreach is imprinted over a distribution model. “By charging a modest fee every time the film is shown and doing it at a high volume you end up creating a revenue stream for the film that without doing that would simply not exist. The number of films who leave that money on the table is simply astounding,” she said, adding “This is not just about doing good in the world.  It’s also about sustaining yourself as a professional filmmaker while making change.”

Boyle shared the following insights, learned from working on social issue documentaries such as “King Corn,” “Gideon’s Army,” “Damnation,” “Vessel,” “The Hunting Ground” and more, with the audience of documentary filmmakers gathered at the weekend retreat.

1. Your audience loves you. Look for your superfan.

Boyle said she has had enough of all of the “doom and gloom in this industry” with people griping that “It’s harder and harder to reach audiences” because “it’s not true.”

You just have to know where to find your audience. “You have to know where to look for your audience and you have to know what to look for,” Boyle explained. “But, you might be surprised to learn that you’re not looking for documentary film lovers as a group. Rather, you’d be better off looking for your superfan, the people at the absolute core of your issue. It’s okay to preach to the choir, but you have to know where to look for your choir.”

Instead of focusing on the 200 people who come to a screening, Boyle said you’d be better off focusing on the one or two people who felt strongly enough to organize the screening. “They’re the ones who are motivated enough to share your story,” she said.

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2. Your audience isn’t “out there”: know your audience.

It’s a common misperception that your audience is “this faceless mass,” said Boyle. “Your audience is right where you are. You probably know them.”

You have to be able to identify them and they don’t always fall into a traditional demographic such as women 18-45. “The more specific you can get, the more you can know your audience…the more successful you will be communicating with those audiences and reeling them in and knowing how to share your passion for the film with them so as to empower them to share your story,” said Boyle.

3. Your audience believes: sing with the choir.

Boyle said that sometimes singing to the choir makes sense. “People who are already true believers have an amazing ability to bring in people who are a few steps away from that,” she explained. With “The Hunting Ground,” the Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering documentary about the epidemic of campus rape, for example, Film Sprout tapped into national organizations and managed to book the film on 500 college campuses in six weeks, fueling word-of-mouth.

4. Your audience is an amateur: take the time to teach.

Keep in mind that the opinion makers and social issue activists who want to bring your film to their community likely know little or nothing about how film distribution works and might not understand why they have to pay a licensing fee. “This is not the way people are accustomed to seeing media or consuming film. They’re much more used to the conventional model,” said Boyle. So it’s up to you to explain to them how theatrical windows work, why licensing fees range drastically and more.

When you’re booking a film with an organization, it’s not the same as a theatrical distributor where you speak the same language. Taking the time to explain the basics of distribution is worth it in the end. “It’s a huge time suck, but it has enormous value,” said Boyle.

5. Your audience thinks: identify psychographics, not demographics.

Boyle recommends that you identify psychographics – or attitudes and mindset – even through the development phase of your project. “When you’re trying to build an audience from the ground up and working with individuals…you have to be thinking about what those people believe about the world they live in,” said Boyle. For instance, the people who host screenings have to believe that stories can create social change. “If they don’t believe that, then that person is not for you. If you want to host a grassroots community screening, you have to go to people who believe that grassroots is the way change happens,” she said. “You want people who think that storytelling is the way in to the issue.

6. Your audience procrastinates: set deadlines.

It’s all about timing. “You want to create a campaign that has a real deadline,” said Boyle, explaining that “On every project that we do, we think about what’s the one or two or three or even five ways we can rally people around particular time-stamps or dates.” Keep in mind that if you give a date that’s too far in advance, they’ll procrastinate. If you give them a date that’s too soon, they’ll give up. “There is actually a sweet spot for deadlines,” said Boyle, explaining that “it takes 4-6 weeks to publicize a community event if it’s going to be any good.”

You might also consider pegging screenings to national or international events such as Earth Day.

7. You audience plans: program the process.

Whatever the scale of your project, you want your audience to know the scale of it. Boyle recommends that ou use a calendar to chart out your entire campaign so you can see how all of the pieces will fit together.

“Maybe you know when your first festival will be or your first broadcast will be, maybe that becomes the end date. Plot that on your calendar and pretty soon you have a somewhat strategic plan in front of you that you can hone as you go in the same way you plan a shooting schedule and apply for grants,” said Boyle.

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8. Your audience is busy: assume the 10% rule.

If 100 people say they’re interested in booking your film, assume that 90% of them will back out.

“A lot of people who will appear to be extremely excited about your project will, in the end, not host your film,” said Boyle. “Nine out of 10 won’t follow through because they have lives and they host screenings avocationally.”

Even if you’re proactively following up with people and reminding them of their interest, it’s likely you won’t get a better conversion rate. As an example, Boyle pointed to “The Hunting Game” saying that 3200 people expressed interest in organizing a screening and 600 screenings have been held, which is better than the 10% average.

“The Hunting Ground” has been “a real outlier in terms of the number of screenings we’ve been able to book,” said Boyle. “But you don’t get to 50% even in the best circumstances.”

9. Your audience needs a compass: if nothing else, this film needs to….

Boyle said that she’s observed that the films that are successful and leave a lasting impression and maybe even become a catalyst for social change are “ones that have a very specific goal in mind.” She said she asks filmmakers she’s working with to complete the sentence “If nothing else…” in order to identify their primary goal for the film.

“Maybe it’s a distribution goal, maybe you want your  name in lights, you want the theatrical distribution that gives your film a certain prestige or a certain cache that leads to influence, not just impact. Maybe you want the film to be the thing that moves the needle on a local referendum,” said Boyle. “It doesn’t have to be a vast huge internationally recognized goal, but there does need to be a specific goal.”

10. Your audience is you: go back to the beginning.

When planning a campaign, Boyle said that she and her colleagues ask the filmmaker what drew them to the film. “What made you excited about it? What is it that made you think ‘I’m going to spend years of my life and thousands of dollars to make this film visible to others?'”

Boyle suggests that filmmakers “think back to why you cared and that’s why other people will care.”

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