By Mike Ambs, June 21st, 2010

In a recent post here, Ted Hope listed “38 More Ways The Film Industry is Failing Today“; many of the questions and points made among the 38 stood out to me, and I’ve spent the last several days trying to openly brainstorm steps that could lead towards change. But today, I wanted to write about one in particular: Ted asked why we don’t encourage, or even demand, that a film build it’s audience (say, 5,000 fans) prior to production and greenlight.

For starters, I love the idea of audience builds. I think the practice of audience builds before a film gets too far off the ground would be a great shift in how we think of films, how we approach them, how to involve the audience long before they ever sit down in a theater – but it raises a few key issues:

Filmmaking is storytelling, and stories are told many different ways and take very different paths. Because of this, it might not be the best idea to mandate audience builds. One reason for this is it could, if taken advantage of, create yet another “door” that is opened easier only for some.

So the real question is, “why” take this route? If you had a fork in the road, would you, as a filmmaker, only take the path of audience building prior to production because it was the path less traveled? Or would it come with it’s own real incentives outside of “popularity”? For example, would studios honor and take seriously independent films that have done the hard work of pre-building their audiences? Or would certain grants and financial benefits kick in at such a watermark? It’s important to help build that distinction and give filmmakers real incentives at thinking of storytelling in this way: your supporters are your foundation, build that first, then your film.

This topic of audience builds is interesting to me because, as much as I agree with the idea of pre-building your supporters, I’ve been very hard at work on For Thousands of Miles for six years now, always with a strong interest in the community that can grow around a film, and I still fall short of that hypothetical benchmark of 5,000 supporters. Even with Facebook, Twitter, mailing list, Kickstarter, production-blog subscribers, Vimeo community, etc: we are not above 5,000 people. Have we overlooked the importance of forming a relationship with the audience beforehand? Does our film’s approach and idea need more work before people really begin to relate on a larger scale? And on top of this, these supporters overlap: people who follow the film on Twitter, also might be subscribed to both our blog as well as our mailing list. Which raises the questions:

How do we keep proper tally of the numbers during an audience build without counting one person two or three times? How would an outside review separate individual supporters across multiple social tools? And more importantly, who would do this validating? Should we be building stat tools and options for keeping these aggregated numbers public, letting the film’s own growing base self-check it’s own real-world size? Does this public display beg for popularity contest, where growing your numbers by any means necessary as fast as possible becomes the focus, instead of slowly and steadily reaching out to people who will really follow and support your work over the longterm?

Measurement can be relative when it comes to films, support can vary wildly depending on how a filmmaker goes about engaging people beyond their film. So how do we really measure this? Hitting a set number of followers / supporters / fans / backers could be one way, or if anything, the first step in audience building. From there it’s what you do with these people: how you involve them in the process, what they get out of supporting your project. As filmmakers we cannot change the future of storytelling without the audience’s full support – we need them to fall in love with a new “norm” of getting involved and be right there next to us when going head-to-head with the old ways of industry.

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Posted in audience distribution

Mike Ambs currently lives in Ypsilanti. He loves to film things and tell stories. And read on the subway. He's pretty sure blue whales are his power animal.

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  • I attended the LAFF DIY symposium as well and a key thought on this, perhaps the most important line in the 2 days, may have been overlooked by many attendees. Henry Jenkins from USC said something most online marketers already understand and Andrew your example of Banksy clearly shows he knows it as well. To paraphrase Mr Jenkins, "the community for your film already exists go out and join these existing communities." Add value to these communities, participate in them and they will spread the word for your film as opposed to a web 1.0 method of trying to drag everyone to your website/FB page/twitter account. This is reinventing the wheel. We are storytellers, create content that the community will share around your film because you are a part of their community. Not yours.

  • Hey Dennis - audience building seems to be something just not many filmmakers have an interest in. And it's frustrating to see - too many people back themselves into a corner where their film is finished, they have no audience for it, and out of frustration they take a distribution deal that leaves them stranded from their film.

    But I really, really like your point. Don't set up your site and wait quietly for them to come - go to them, get involved in what they are doing. You get what you give.

  • Hi Mike, You inspired me to write a short post about audience building and how it's different than community building. It's on my blog at let me know what you think.
    I understand the reluctance to market our own films... lets face we just want to make movies.
    On the other hand having more control is also something we want... or maybe we wouldn't be directors in the first place! :)) cheers!

  • Very interesting post, Mike. I'm assuming, like me, you've also spent the weekend at the DIY Symposium at the LA Film Fest grappling with all the tasks involved with not only creating a great movie, but now creating the majority of your film's audience and awareness while you are also making the film and then turning that audience you've built into actual buyers of your film. I'm tired just even writing that.

    As an indie producer with a few projects that have rather sizeable "potential" audiences that can be targeted and ultimately marketed to directly...true fans as Ted calls them sometimes, I think - I have also been trying to give some thought in terms of where our energies can and should best be focused for the greatest efficiency and rewards (in terms of sales) throughout the filmmaking process in the current climate. And while I totally agree with Ted on many levels about building 5,000 fans prior to production (especially to use for future projects), you have raised an interesting caveat that I think Ted ultimately touched on in his keynote by saying that "even he nor anyone else really knows what they are doing" in terms of navigating the shift in distribution and audience paradigms. Your observation that each film is different from the next and thus requires its own path in how public awareness for that film comes to fruition seems to sum it up very well.

    Here's an interesting article that explains Banksy's success with "Exit Through the Gift Shop" (don't know why I am actually crediting Banksy for anything), but seems to coincide with your article. Rather than collecting email addresses and reaching a certain number of true fans, the focus was on what and how to create the buzz around the film that would drive the film's supporters to spread the word so that the audience grew and grew based around this buzz. While similar in many ways to the ideas that resulted in Ted's 5000 fan scenario, especially in the filmmaker's and marketers desired result, but it was they strategic way in which they were able to get to this result that makes it such an interesting example with so much gospel going on about building email lists and actually interacting with your supporters on a direct level. Clearly Banksy knew what was possible given the emerging resources and distribution strategies, but the way they reached this new frontier goal successfully was by implementing the best path for their particular film. Here's the article:

  • Hey Andrew - thanks for this comment :) Creating and finding and sustaining an audience *while* the film is being funding and shot and edited, etc, *is* an interesting process. It's been something that has changed a lot over the last 6 years while I've been working on FToM.

    I know it's an exhausting process and one that seems to always keep you a bit behind the curve, but it's a process that I would never consider going without. The people that have supported FToM have not only helped with funding and with word-of-mouth, but have really help shape the direction and scale of the project in a way I would have never done on my own. It's been an amazing experience.

    It's interesting you bring up Banksy - I just watched that film only a few days ago - cause Banksy, even though he took a very minimalist approach to his film's audience building, he has gone about "audience" building for himself in the most creative and effective of ways. He has done it honestly, and slowly. He has built a voice in his art that, no matter what the form: graffiti, painting, sculpture, even film, his fans connect with. Banksy didn't have to start from scratch in pre-building an audience for his film - he has built exactly what so many young filmmakers hope to build.

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