The present and future of post production business and technology

Why is the “first audience” important?

One of the important things I learnt from Distribution U back in October last year was the importance of knowing who your “first audience” is:

“Another primary theme, from both Scott and Peter, is that the distribution for every project will be different, because the primary (or starting) audience will be different and what attracts one audience will not attract another. In modern distribution the “primary” audience for any project is one that is already engaged, in some way, by the topic or content. That helps get word-of-mouth buzz going and the audience can spread. Targeting a specific audience is easier (and cheaper) than trying to build a generic audience.”

Then I come across an IPTV Evangelist post by Levi Shapiro titled “The Only Successful Model for Indie Film,” which naturally caught my attention. While I’m not convinced that there is only one model there are some nice parallels drawn for the modern era of distribution from models of the past: what is the modern equivalent to the ‘Miramax’ model of the 1990’s. Number two on their list for modern distribution is this:

2. Nurture a built-in audience: “The film was supported by the army from the beginning. We asked for their help and advice, they read the script and said, ‘Yes, we want you to make this movie and we will help.’ So they gave us access to a base to shoot, and we had a full-time adviser on the set. So we knew that officially the army as an institution was behind the movie.”

Now I think I’m beginning to see a pattern when along comes an uncredited post on the (highly recommended) Future of Movies blog titled “A Target Audience means a Better Box Office.” This whole post is well worth reading because it really accurately sums up the issue:

Let me repeat that key phrase from the quote: ‘…you have to make the movie for someone. Movies that are for a specific audience tend to overperform.’

After a little slam on “personal movies” (I’m just making it for myself!) the post goes on to note that metaphoric Hollywood makes “movies for everyone.” But it is the answer to the question “Who is your Audience?” that cuts to the heart of the subject:

“If you say everyone, you are either kidding yourself or better have about $300 million to make the next Avatar.

If you say the audience is yourself and forget the audience, you should just stay at home and not waste your investors’ money.

However, if you can create a project that speaks to an audience – a specific, identifiable audience then your story can be focused, your casting choices should make sense, you trailer will talk to that audience, and the film will entertain them and have them sharing and Tweeting and Facebooking and Rotten Tomatoing all over the place.”

All that “tweeting and Facebooking and Rotton Tomatoing” is what independent productions need to grow their audience. This is the crux of social media marketing: give your target audience something they love and they’ll spread the word for you. From among these people will come your fans – those few who actively promote the show.

If you consider some of the more successful independent productions – documentary or not – you can see the wisdom of this approach.

For One Six Right – a documentary about “the passion of aviation” focused on LA’s Van Nuys airport – the target audience is the body of pilots. Pilots have magazines and website dedicated to them making it easy to reach out to the audience.

2004’s Napoleon Dynamite’s target audience – the first people interested in viewing – was clearly people like me: nerds! Yes, it was fortunate and crossed over to the mainstream because the movie was entertaining and the word of mouth spread. But without that first audience tweeting and telling their enjoyment of the movie, who would have been interested in one nerd helping another nerd win Class President?

When Joss Whedon needed a project to fill in time during 2008’s writer’s strike, he pulled together Dr Horrible’s Singalong Blog. While appealing to SciFi fans the “first audience” to get that all-important word-of-mouth going were Joss Whedon, Neil Patrick Harris or Felicia Day fans. OK, we can’t all get that sort of head start, but do note that it wasn’t made “for everyone.” (Joss Whedon’s work is always targeted to specific niches.)

When  Aaron Woolf was looking to promote King Corn (a documentary about how damaging subsidies on corn farming has been) he chose to find their first audience through blogs about sustainable agriculture and slow food movement.

Robert Greenwald ‘s audience came from where he was an in-house filmmaker.

And so it goes. By focusing on a target audience – a niche if you will – the marketing becomes clearer and more focused. By saying “no” to the rest and targeting and appealing to the target audience, how you reach the audience becomes clearer and more practical.

When we were creating the Intelligent Assistants for various post-production software programs, I had a very clear audience in mind. In fact, I could probably name the half dozen or so people that I was writing for. They never knew it, but it was easier for me to write something that really met the needs of those people than something aimed at “everyone” using Final Cut Pro or Boris RED, et al.

During the years I was programming the Digital Production BuZZ I again had a very specific group of people that I was programming for. It was clear in my mind who I was not programming for. That made it much easier to determine who would be an appropriate guest for that audience, keeping it relevant and focused for those few and contributing, I believe, to its rapid growth.

You can never make an audience for “everyone”. The market for Predator has very little overlap with Princess Bride! To some degree Hollywood has semi-targeted specific demographics. But demographics aren’t people.

When you talk with me about promoting your independent project (as I will be in New York on March 20th and Boston on March 23rd) expect to be challenged with the question “who’s your target audience?” to clarify any questions. If you can’t define your target audience – the first you’ll promote to – you should stop everything and refine the project until it perfectly meets the expectations of a single, first, starting audience.

Then you can start production.