By Zak Forsman, April 3rd, 2010

Where is my audience? Few questions have haunted me these past years like this one. We have two feature-length motion pictures at Sabi Pictures; conceived together but requiring uniquely individual strategies for their release later this year. Reception to private screeners we sent out has been strong, word of mouth has been upbeat, they are good films and ready for the world. We’ve received three good, but varied, offers for digital rights. We’ve received praise for the films from the people at Sony Pictures Classics, nurturing a relationship there. And next week I talk to another well-known, well-respected indie distributor who responded well to one of the films. Programmers from Sundance, Slamdance and Tribeca have issued personal emails to us saying they admired the filmmaking very much, often saying that the film was in close consideration but that ultimately an official rejection would be coming in a few days. We have not had an official selection from any of the major festivals this year.

We’ve put a great deal of focus into preparing to release these films without the benefit of announcing a platform release at a major festival. If we land one, we’ll incorporate it into the strategy, but we aren’t relying on it. Instead, we have been laying a foundation for a direct-to-audience release beginning August 2010. We want to hold theatrical event screenings to support each of our release windows for DVD, iTunes, VOD, and later Netflix, Hulu, etc. Fantastic. But where will these screenings be held? If I knew the cities and towns of my 1400 friends on Facebook, the 1900 followers on Twitter and the thousands on our private mailing list, I would know exactly where to go. But I don’t.

This lack of data around our core audience – the first of a series of concentric circles that will grow outward with word of mouth and marketing – is troubling. To resolve this, I’ve embraced two services. The first embrace began with a donation to Open Indie’s Kickstarter campaign so Heart of Now could be amongst the first films to debut on the site. I’m happy to report it is still the most requested film on the network. Rather than explaining how Open Indie works, here is a pre-launch video demonstrating the fundamental workings of the site.

The second service is Crowd Controls by Brian Chirls, currently in private beta. It was first launched with Iron Sky by Timo Vuorensola and consists simply of a map and entry form that you embed on your own site. This is the refined and evolved technology Brian designed for Four Eyed Monsters to collect and visualize audience data.

I began using both of these services, Open Indie and Crowd Controls, at roughly the same time. And initially, I thought what you’re probably thinking: “I’m going to have to choose one or the other. These do the same thing.” I was wrong. While both have elements for discovery and distribution, each is weighted toward one or the other. I’ll explain.

Open Indie, as the community grows, will serve as an excellent platform for audiences to discover Sabi’s films and for screening hosts to organize Sabi events of any scale in their hometown. When someone requests White Knuckles or Heart of Now on Open Indie, we gain a new fan. I know their name and where they reside, and they now know of at least one of our films. They’ve watched the trailer, requested it and it’s on their radar. That’s discovery. Their privacy is protected so I don’t have any way to contact them directly. They will only hear from me if I organize a screening close enough to them to trigger a notification from Open Indie. So that’s where the $100 per film per year is going… primarily to Twitter-like discovery with a means of distributing the film to them as a screening event in their town. They will not be contacted about me, Sabi Pictures or any of our other films. And that’s a truly wonderful service: a trusted filter audiences can rely on. One screening could more than pay for the annual fee.

On the other side you have Crowd Controls. This service has no inherent discovery element. You provide the discovery in the design and content of your web site and by attracting traffic to it. You create your own narrative. Visitors who are compelled to do so, will fill out a form to add themselves to the interactive map. The audience it builds does not exist outside of your mailing list, there is no interactive network or community of fans, but it does provide us with a direct connection to every person who has requested to see the films, while adhering to strict privacy laws across the globe. It is up to you to nurture that list. Again, the discovery element is up to you, but here is the key advantage: the ability to collect audience data speaks to our core distribution strategy as artist-entrepreneurs.

And that distribution strategy at Sabi is to capture the email addresses and postal codes of our fans prior to the release of our motion pictures. Then, it’s to convert those fans to customers and advocates by directing them to landing pages for DVDs, announcing local screening events, and alerting them to VOD, internet, rental, streaming, ad-supported and other windowed platforms as they become available. This is where Crowd Controls sings, on the distribution front.

Here is the fully functional Sabi Pictures Fan Map by Crowd Controls for the theatrical event tour of White Knuckles and Heart of Now later this year – August 2010.

One very intriguing benefit of both of these services is that they have inspired the more motivated members of the audience to offer to host screenings, even if the demand is not reflected in the map. They, quite often, have established their own audiences in film clubs, art-house theaters, screening series, coffee shops and universities across the globe. Both services have produced such inquiries from fans, moreso from Crowd Controls. Something about that map and the ability to add yourself to it is very compelling.

So what’s the takeway? Both of these services are in their infancy. Well, more like toddlers taking their first steps. As they develop, I’m sure there will be more and more overlap between the two. But for now, they are not at odds with each other as you might suspect at first glance. They each compliment the other in a wonderful way. In the never-ending search for real solutions, here’s two that I trust.

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Posted in audience tools and services

Zak Forsman is an artist-entrepreneur whose emotionally-charged motion pictures are known for highly authentic performances and beautiful compositions. They have been praised by Ain’t It Cool News as “Brilliant” and “Absolutely Gorgeous” and by Filmmaker Magazine as “Very Accomplished, Amazing.”


  • saskiawb

    This is a really helpful breakdown, Zak. Gracias.

  • Thanks for the great article Zak. I'll be checking out these services.

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