You don’t have to look too hard to see that independent film has changed a lot in the last 10 years. Digital acquisition has swooped in and changed the game, companies like Redbox thrived and stole a lot of Netflix DVD business which then forced Netflix to dive into the streaming game which has given birth to a huge widespread digital streaming culture. Redbox has thrived but also been hit by the digital wave (their prices just got their second uptick since they began). Youtube brought cheap and accessible digital platforms to the masses, and now we have people growing massive fan bases online as they upload frequent content of all sorts and kinds. Freddie Wong has his huge tech savvy (and young) audience who love his pop-culture aware VFX heavy content, especially gamers. Lionsgate & Freddie (more specifically his company RocketJump) recently inked a multi-year film, tv, and digital content deal. Guys like John Green and his brother Hank (vlogbrothers) built a fan base over 7 years on Youtube, then John wrote a book specifically for them (after a few others that were modest successes) which his audience then elevated to the top of the bestseller lists, and then the book was adapted to the screen and made $50 million opening weekend to the shock of Hollywood.
Filmmaker Kevin Smith was always active online, but his fan-base grew significantly when he started podcasting not just tweeting. His podcast called SMODCAST, which has grown into a large network of different podcasts, has given him a huge platform that was used to turn his recent film Red State into a small but very profitable theatrical success. He even got the idea for his latest movie Tusk while on the air, batting ideas back and forth, and the response from his audience to the idea, including their creation of the #WalrusYes hashtag (which was their way of saying “yes make this movie!”), pushed Smith into developing the script and eventually shooting the film. In the faith-based world two brothers, Alex & Stephen Kendrick, release four small independant films from 2002 to 2011 that go on to make $80+ million at the US Box Office, selling millions and millions of DVDs, creating a multi-million dollar franchise that includes movies, NYT best-selling books, t-shirts, and more. A movie you might’ve heard of this year called God’s Not Dead, made by PureFlix Entertainment (who were primarily known for low-budget direct-to-DVD releases) blew away expectations when it made over $60 million at the US Box Office on a tiny sub-$2 million production budget without piggybacking off a previously successful product like a best-selling book or the marketing draw of a popular true-story. However, for years they built a fan base of people who loved their exploding catalog of DVD titles, which gave them solid footing in in the retail industry and with fans to build from. What is happening?
All of these success stories have something in common, the relationship with the audience. Freddie Wong has one of the most popular channels on Youtube. He’s cultivated and tilled the soil of that fan base for years, giving them tons of content they want to see in massive quantities and in a medium that is uber-sharable (and the one they WANT!). This has grown a massive trust between him and his audience. He’s had multiple successful crowd funding campaigns for his series Video Game High School, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for each. It doesn’t surprise me at all that Lionsgate saw the writing on the wall and snagged Freddie before someone else did. What is the real strength of that deal? Is it merely Freddie’s abilities in After Effects? Not at all, it’s his brand and the trust he has with his online fan base. When John Green took cell phone video at the red carpet premiere of The Fault In Our Stars, it was basically a gushing video-selfie saying “Can you believe we’re here? This is amazing! I can’t believe we did this.” He gave his audience ownership over the recognition and success. Making them feel apart of something was vital. Kickstarter and the concept of crowd-funding works because it not only lets people accomplish something, but it lets other people take part in that accomplishment and be rewarded for it with the thing they helped make possible. There’s a draw to that.
The Kendrick Brothers are themselves a brand. Their names over the course of 4 movies have blanketed the faith space. Everywhere from TV, Radio, Magazines, Major TV Networks, Mainstream press in Hollywood, etc. It wasn’t the typical PR craze. It was a more personal thing. People felt like they got to know the brothers, got to know their heart and the heart in their work, the prayer and care they take with their products which resonates with that core Christian audience. It helps the buyer feel taken care of and respected, it helps them love their movies even more, and their success helps their brand be legitimized. The nature of Sherwood Pictures and involvement of their church also gave a certain community feeling to each movie which outsiders looking in appreciated. The Kendrick Brothers have since moved onto a different model beyond their church, but that community aspect and unity mindset has stayed.
Building a trust with your audience and serving them is important. Making them feel apart of things is important. Giving them credit and ownership (even emotional ownership) is important. They’re not just buying your product, they’re buying you. This is my personal opinion of course, and there is more than one way to sell something, but I see a trend out there in the digital and marketing realm that is built upon the same old foundation. Online communities and audiences have thrived where people get a more SOCIAL experience. I chose a long time ago not to hide behind the logo of a company. I’m still doing what I can to develop strategies that can put myself out there more, to connect what I do with who I am and make that easier to understand and know. I’m far more interested in growing a brand with a face than a brand with a logo. It’s all about finding the proper angle for what you’re doing and knowing who your audience is.
Indie filmmakers need to understand the concept of audience. It’s not merely about genre or gender or age. That’s the hole you dig before you start laying brick, or in some cases you find more solid footing along the way as the audience and the data helps inform you about what’s working and what’s not. Who are these people? What do they like? Where do they shop? What sort of products do they buy? Why do they like them? What are their favorite movies? Do they thrive on mobile? Are they tech savvy? These are basic questions you need to ask about who you intend to reach. The more you know about your audience the better you can help serve them. Is the faith audience something you care to service? If not, then who? A broader demographic? Homeschool moms? Liberal democrats? Moderates? Atheists? Who’d they vote for? Does that play any role in your possible messaging to them? What about the cost of products they like to consume?
There is a degree to which these things can bury you so much that you never actually create anything. Don’t let yourself get there! I’ve been there in my head before (recently) and it’s frustrating and creatively constricting. A good solid product is always a foundation you can put some stock in, regardless of who it’s for. It starts there. It starts with good scripts. It starts with a solid concept and idea. Many writers prefer to let the story unfold and the proper theme and “message” birth from there, instead of starting with something to say. Once you have that concept or that script in hand, then figure out who it’s for, get counsel about it. Being wrong could severely cripple your film, even if it’s good material. How big is the audience pool? Tiny? Huge? What about competition? Making a movie that has a small audience is fine, but depending on what it is don’t go making it for $10 million lol. I think there are 100,000 stories out there worth telling, but our job as responsible indie filmmakers is to try and make them for the “right price,” which often becomes the only price we can afford lol. Make a great product, bottom line. I think it’s been proven many times over that great content on the page can trump shortcomings elsewhere in a film. It doesn’t erase error, but really solid characters, great dialog, and a story that grabs you will win the day. The rest of the filmmaking process isn’t necessarily whipped cream, it’s essential, and who a film is for is important, but I like what filmmaker Zak Forsman had to say recently:
Me thinks we need less talk about how to distribute microbudget movies and more about the craft, to make them worthy of an audience.” – @ZakForsman
The people described at the start of this post built an audience for years and years before they really capitalized on it in a big way. That takes time and work. We all have to start somewhere! But, I don’t think enough people want to put the time in anymore. They just want to make their art and expect people to show up, similar to filmmakers who want to create something, sign a contract, and walk away with lots of money and don’t want to be involved in the marketing. People don’t just show up. Very few indie movies get great success and awareness in the mainstream and catapult someone to another level. Blue Ruin (revenge genre executed very well — READ THIS) or Short Term 12 (heart wrenching drama done right) would be an example, or this years Dear White People (biting and smart satire for an underserved demographic). Most of us aren’t going to create films with that amount of success (yet), though we might dream about it at night. Still, those films were worthy of an audience, and they found it. Start building an online audience today that isn’t just movie-centric, but you-centric. Figure out a way to start interacting with the people who you connect with, who are the most likely to connect with your art. Social media has opened the floodgates to new possibilities. You have to start thinking about building that pool of people who will support you moving forward. Start in the center with friends and family and work your way out if need be as you make content WORTHY of their attention as Zak said above. In the ever increasing noise of this world, where 300 hours of content is uploaded to Youtube every minute (up from 100 hours a year or so ago), it’s going to become increasingly difficult to make enough noise to be noticed. Start carving out an audience for yourself who will follow you to the ends of the earth. I see it happening, it’s definitely possible…the only question is…do you have what it takes and do you want it enough?