Filmmakers: Know Your Goals and Your Audience

by | September 24, 2011 | Distribution, Strategy

This is an excerpt from my introduction to the new book, Selling Your Film Without Selling Your Soul, that I wrote with The Film Collaborative (Orly Ravid & Jeffrey Winter), and Sheri Candler. This post also ran on Chris Dorr’s Tribeca Future of Film blog.

A New Path to Engage Film Audiences and Create Careers: An Introduction

The three films that I researched for this book, while different in genre, size, year of release and experience level of the filmmakers also share a remarkable number of similarities in addition to their differences. I want to compare those similarities and contrast the differences in a structure that that I use to help filmmakers conceptualize strategies for their film’s releases. Some of this system is included in my book Think Outside the Box Office, while some of it I have developed through my work with filmmakers over the past two years.


It is essential to determine the goals of a particular project’s release before employing any strategy for that launch. (Note—these goals are potentially different from those envisioned by the filmmakers when they set out to make their film.) In order to evaluate the success of a film’s release, one must first identify the filmmakers’ original objectives in releasing their film.

1. Fortune

Cold hard cash to pay back investors (and the filmmakers). This was the case with all three films. Each had investors that they needed to pay back, and this was a priority.

2. Audience

Having your film seen by the widest possible audience, (or any audience). In the cases of The Best and the Brightest and Note by Note, both film teams were taken aback by the lack of interest from the distribution community and were at a loss of how to respond. In different ways each sought to ensure that their film didn’t languish, unseen, on the shelf like so many other movies. So, while recoupment was a primary goal, a second driving factor in their release strategy was to simply have the film viewed by an audience.

3. Traditional Career Launch

In which the prestige of the release helps to get another movie made within the traditional studio or independent financing model. This was the goal of director Hunter Weeks for the release of Ride the Divide before he and producer Mike Dion realized that they each had different objectives. Eventually, Weeks agreed with Dion that the investors had to be paid back. Ultimately, though, through that recoupment process, Hunter was able to develop a new model
of engagement for the film that led to his next project (see 5 below).

4. Change the World

This is the desire of most documentary filmmakers (and some narrative filmmakers as well), and it became a secondary goal of Ride the Divide.
However, a fifth goal has emerged for filmmakers in the last few years which is much more achievable today than ever before:

5. A long term connection with a sustainable fan base

The goal here is different from number 3 in approach, attitude and technique. Instead of depending on other people (i.e. gatekeepers) to determine whether or not your film gets made, as is the case with the conventional studio career launch, according to the new model of filmmaking, it is your audience—and your relationship with your audience—that determines whether or not your movie gets made.

What I learned from the filmmakers of both Note by Note and Ride the Divide was that, although they started their releases with the initial goal of recoupment, in the end they realized that the hybrid strategy that they were employing to meet their objective created a relationship with a fan base that they could utilize and build upon for future projects. As a result, this has become a higher priority for both filmmaking teams as each pursues and crafts subsequent projects to capitalize on the audiences that they developed for the films that I am considering in this book.


My process of examining audience engagement for a film can be outlined in three questions/steps:

1. Who is your audience?

You must know your audience in order to have a chance of connecting your film with them. For most independent filmmakers, it is best if they can identify niche audiences to connect with, and to find a core within that niche. Each of the films in this section identified and engaged their core and niche audiences. For Ride the Divide it was bicycle enthusiasts and those who live along the Continental Divide. For Note by Note it was Steinway piano dealers (super-core), and music teachers (core). For The Best and the Brightest it was the super-fans of some of the film’s stars (not the ones that you would expect), and the regular clientele who frequent the theaters that they booked.

2. How does your audience receive information?

How might you inform your audience about your film’s existence so that they might be interested enough to watch it? Two successful avenues for independents have been organizational partnerships and social media.

Organizational Partnerships

Engage with organizations that share a common goal relevant to your film’s niche, and who will connect you with their members. To do this effectively, you must determine how the relationship is win-win for both the organization and you. Ride the Divide is an excellent case of how filmmakers can create win-win partnerships with non-profit organizations and for-profit organizations (corporations and brand sponsorship).

Social Media

This involves a whole range of activity, from creating and cultivating an email list, establishing an engaging website and using social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, to connecting with influencers, blogs and websites. Ardent fans of several of the actresses from The Best and the Brightest found the director, Josh Shelov, online. He engaged with those fans who subsequently championed the release of the film. Essential to engaging social media is the 80/20 rule (perhaps it should be the 90/10 rule). This rule argues that only 20% of what you talk about in social media should be self-promotion (or promotion of your film). The other 80% or 90% should be information that is of value to your audience. If you only talk about yourself and your film, chances are that people will “unfollow you.” An easy way to find content to talk about is to set up Google Alerts for topics/keywords that concern the world of your film.

3. How does your audience consume films?

Will they see it in a theater, buy DVDs, etc.? You should have a sense of how your audience consumes media in order to provide it in a manner that they desire. In their own way, all three films succeeded in (1) discovering how their audiences wanted to engage media, and (2) providing avenues for that engagement. Although The Best and the Brightest will have just started engaging ancillaries as this book is released, they are releasing all ancillaries simultaneously in order to best let the audience choose how they want to consume the film.