March 7, 2013
Theoretically, life has never been better for independent filmmakers. Inexpensive cameras capture superlative images. Sophisticated editing tools run smoothly on laptops and free tools like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube allow you to market to a global audience. Emerging platforms like Seed&Spark help you distribute your film directly to your audience—and get paid for your efforts. So why aren’t there more successful independent films?
Unlocking the True Value of Your Creative Content, an online project and presentation at NAB 2013, aims to find the answer. I’m interviewing successful independent artists to develop a roadmap for others to follow. The project’s aim is to help a greater number of independent projects to be successful and eventually allow more artists to build sustainable careers around independent distribution.
Although the project is far from complete, already important patterns are emerging.
What follows are five strategies filmmakers have used to create engaged, supportive audiences and connect their films with these audiences.
1. Become the CEO of your own startup
In this new world, you’re no longer an artist just making films. You’re the CEO of a startup company built around you and your creative works. Whether you make narrative or documentary films, animated shorts or full-length theatrical stories, you need to find, cultivate and connect an audience willing to pay for your efforts. Your job as the CEO is to bring as much creativity, energy and love to the product development, marketing and distribution aspects of this startup venture as you do to making the film.
2. Start building your audience before you begin shooting
Plant the seeds for your film’s success before you begin shooting. Start by identifying affinity networks, communities that will be most receptive to your film’s messages or storyline. For example, if you’re producing a documentary on hydraulic fracking for natural gas in the U.S., look for communities already discussing the issue and join the discussion, not as a marketer, but as a fellow activist or enthusiast. These networks of people will be the most receptive to the ideas found in your film and are most likely to be the ones to put effort into the film’s success. Stacy Peralta, creator of “Bones Brigade: An Autobiography” found the network of skaters who’d grown up idolizing the skateboarders profiled in the movie to be most vocal advocates for the film, ultimately helping it reach a wider audience.
3. Engage early, engage often
As you identify and develop the audience for your film, involve them in your creative process and production efforts. Share outtakes, on-location photos and stories. If you’re shooting a documentary, become a source for news and updates relevant to your subject. James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot of “IndieGame: The Movie” refer to this as “thinking like a fan.” They put themselves in their audience’s shoes and asked themselves “what would a fan like to see?”
In doing so, they’ve answered questions about the gear used to shoot the film, shared the stories of the game developers featured in the film and communicated with their audience through thousands of Tweets, emails, updates and bonus videos posted on their Web channels. As a result, the duo grew from 297 followers at the project’s inception to over 30,000 by the film’s release, which allowed them to turn down distribution deals at Sundance in favor of direct-distribution.
4. 1,000, 2,000 or 2,500 true fans?
Kevin Kelly once calculated that a band needed to develop a community of 1,000 true fans—fans who buy the band’s albums and purchase concert tickets—for the band to achieve sustainable success. For a filmmaker to be successful, you’ll likely need access to 2,500 or more true fans through your immediate and affinity based networks. Initially, this may sound like an insurmountable number, but consider the multiplicative effect of social networks. Your core followers have their own audiences. By providing them with more content to share with their friends and followers, you’re able to reach a much larger audience than you could initially.
5. Sharpen your business skills
Professional creative artists of all disciplines are feeling the negative effects of outsourcing the business aspects of their craft to agents, unions, distributors and agencies. These entities are businesses in their own right—and have historically put their own business needs before those of the artists they represent. Crowdfunding and independent distribution allows artists to regain control of the creative process and preserve a far greater share of the film’s earnings. With greater control comes greater responsibility. Filmmakers need to bring a clear-eyed business disposition to the dollars-and-cents aspects of filmmaking. The bottom line—in order to build a career as a creative artist, you need to generate a profit from your current project to be able to fund future projects.