How do you engage an audience in 2018? It’s a question facing many content creators in the entertainment space, and the one posed in a series of interviews with filmmakers organized the New York Foundation for the Arts. Film Society of Lincoln Center deputy director Eugene Hernandez sat down with Flavio Alves (“Tom in America”), Yance Ford (“Strong Island”), and Eliza Hittman (“Beach Rats”) to talk about the role an audience plays in the creation of their films, getting audiences involved in their processes, and the best tools for building awareness.
For the Brazilian-born Alves, whose short “Tom in America” paved the way for his upcoming feature-length debut, audience engagement begins early, first through finding partner organizations. For example, the new film he’s developing centers on about a Mexican trans woman living in New York, so he reached out to the Mexican embassy, as well as with trans and LGBTQ advocacy groups. By getting their input and expertise during the writing phase, he felt that he could obtain a more accurate perspective, while looking ahead to spreading the word about the film and reaching the communities it represents later on.
Alves said he found success engaging an audience during the fundraising phase, but with the oversaturation of crowdfunding, he found that his emails asking for people to give to his Kickstarter was starting to repel his supporters. He discovered an entirely new way to raise money when he went to sell off his old equipment that he used on his previous films on eBay.
The items quickly sold, so Alves started to sell off all his old stuff and take donations of things to sell from his supporters. Soon, he was selling everything from cat food to adult toys, while making humorous videos about the random things (like a throwing hatchet) people were giving him to sell. Meanwhile, each item he put up on eBay would draw eyeballs from hundreds of people who became aware of his new film.
Alves’ producers laughed at him when he set a goal of raising $25,000, but soon that goal grew to $50,000 and eventually $100,000.
Eliza Hittman approaches engaging the audience in a completely different manner, going out of her way to keep them out of her mind during the creative process of writing and directing the film.
“I think that when you are working intensely on a film, first you have to think about the film in and of itself,” said Hittman. “I have to make a strong film, I have to honor what I wrote, I have to not compromise on things that I care about, like how it’s cast, where it’s set, how it’s shot, what the ending means. You have to focus on what you can control and that’s first and foremost.”
When it was time for her festival premiere of “Beach Rats,” Hittman said that it is was key that she not only stayed involved, but that she had a strong sense of the individuals who would be selling and publicizing the film.
“At no point did I surrender the decision making to other people. I want to be involved with who sold the film,” said Hittman. “The more people you meet, you have feelings about who understands what you are doing and how to build a team around your film. Casting those roles is as important as casting your actors.”
For her first feature, “It Felt Like Love,” the story of adolescent obsession of a young woman who bases her self-worth on who is attracted to her, Hittman found herself having to essentially self-release the micro-budget film.
“One of the more inspiring parts of building an audience for that film wasn’t theatrical, it wasn’t festival, it was actually screening the movie on college campuses,” said Hittman. “It felt personal like I was handing down a story that maybe they hadn’t seen and that’s what storytelling is, it’s passing something to a younger generation.”
For Ford, telling the story of his brother’s homicide in the Oscar-nominated “Strong Island” was already a very personal process involving tough creative choices that included his onscreen involvement. However, he learned that audiences wanted to feel a connection with the filmmaker through the material. “People want to be involved and its difficult because as filmmakers our instinct is to protect our process and protect [our] film, and not have us distracted,” said Ford. “But the truth is, if you finish your film and then look to build your audience, it’s too late.”
Ford was a newcomer to social media, but he received a fast lesson when he woke up one Saturday morning to see his phone had blown up with messages and social media alerts. Solange had screen-grabbed an image from the film, wrote “Strong Island by Yance Ford,” and put it in her Instagram story.
“The only thing you can get wrong about social media to build an audience is not doing it,” said Ford. “The impact of one influencer when it worked the first time… Solange is what pushed me over the edge, Soon as I saw [the impact that just one influencer had], I was like, ‘Ok, I’m in.’”