No question that the current landscape of independent film distribution is complex and ever changing. We have now more distributors and viewing platforms than ever before and with the development of accessible equipment more documentary films are made now than ever. As a result the market-place for documentary films have become extremely crowded.
Along with the technological as well as cultural changes in viewing habits, there is no longer one universal way to get one’s films seen, but rather a world full of options that the filmmaker must seize, analyze and exploit in order to get their films seen. Regardless of the opportunities, in the heart of all different distribution routes remains one thing; an audience.
Brian Newman, a founder of Sub-genre, a consulting company focused on developing new business models for film, stresses that currently the biggest problem with the industry and individual filmmakers in general is the total disconnection from audiences.
In his presentation at the Tel Aviv International Documentary Festival DocAviv, Newman stresses that in this current exaggerated era of content, filmmakers need to put as much creativity and work into thinking and learning about their audiences as they put into creating their stories.
Similar thoughts were shared at the documentary distribution masterclass held by Patric Hurley, the distribution manager from Dogwoof. He spoke about how a lot of films get pitched that are aimed at groups such as ‘women aged 25-35’, or maybe ‘men between 40-55’. But those are not audiences as they are extremely difficult to reach and if you don’t know better, than it is extremely difficult to attract distributors. In the era of scattered audiences, where everyone uses their resources to watch whatever content they choose in various platforms, audiences must be thought, more thoroughly, and narrowly, than ever.
The heavy audience development needs to start from the get go, and exploit the possibilities of online platforms and social media. Audiences should be brought into the process of engagement from as early on as possible, and in multiple platforms. Distribution must be though from the start of the filmmaking process by building an online presence for the film that can later be exploited in distribution and sales.
‘With the advent of social media, the availability of support for your own efforts via crowdfunding campaigns, the maturation of transactional VOD, the emerge of digital self-distribution platforms like VHV and Reelhouse and the continued health of U.S and International TV markets, filmmakers who know their audiences and can speak directly to them have a potential to control their own work AND make more revenue while doing so.’
-Dan Cogan, Founder of Impact Partners
Again though, the reality of the online era is the difficulty of turning likes to dollars. With our current short film project King Doc UK we pushed a lot of effort into building an online fan base for our film about the UK drag kings. We felt that there was a specific LGBTQ+ / drag audience for the film, and hoped that by building a fan base of them, we could be able to attract the attention of traditional press to help the crowdfunding.
By hard work on hashtags and following specific users (this literally ate my phone battery from full to zero several times a day), we were able to produce an online community of over 2300 followers across the most common social media platforms, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. But how many of those followers donated towards the crowdfunding campaign of the film? Very few! Interestingly mainly those users who we had interacted with; followed them back, messaged them and answered their comments. The rest of the followers were most likely people scrolling through random content on their mobile phones, not really invested in what is on their screen.
An effort to promote merchandise products that were available for sale at our crowdfunding page.
So as part of a more developed audience creation plan a designated social media strategy and a manager is in order to exploit the full potential of the online communities. And there is potential, hugely, but it needs planning and recognition from as early on as possible. The online is like a bottomless black hole that has platforms for every single niche that exists. The difficulty is to find that space that they occupy and invade it successfully.