Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Access to 40 Million – Is it an audience?

I sure struck a chord on that IFC post. Several people seem to agree with me that an IFC First Take film being “available for download by some 40 million national cable TV subscribers” doesn’t mean much. Being available to 40 million is not 40 million served.

They aren’t the only ones making such claims, however, and smaller fish do it all the time. LinkTV, for example, loves to talk about how they are “available as a basic service in over 29 million U.S. homes that receive direct broadcast satellite television (DBS).” Great, I’m glad their alternative programming is available, but who watches? To this day, I haven’t met a single person who does, and I ask people regularly.

To be fair to IFC, however, these films being accessible to audience members is not a bad thing. IFC needed to spin their change in course somehow, and this was as good a way as any probably, but they could have been clearer about the difference between potential and actual audience.

My blog is potentially accessible to billions of web users. That’s great – anyone can find it, read it and argue about it - I couldn’t possibly have written something just ten years ago and had that big of a potential audience. In the words of IFC, it is “pretty much unparalleled.” Oops, it is paralleled, by every blog out there, just like First Take films are paralleled by just about every on-demand film. We both have lots of potential, but what about audience?

I’d be willing to bet that maybe 12 people read my blog regularly if I am lucky, perhaps more when someone links to it from a more popular blog. I would love to be carried in Harpers or the New Yorker (or the Huffington Post), but I’m not. I don’t claim, however, that I’m getting unparalleled traction anyway just because billions of people could, theoretically, link to my blog and IFC shouldn’t use that same claim towards its 40 million potential viewers. It’s a bit disingenuous.

That said, the potential that I could be read, and that these films could be seen is a great thing for everyone. I would even call it revolutionary, as pretty much everyone does. I am glad that a world now exists where I could, in theory, order up any IFC First Take film on-demand from my home. I also love that I can go online and find thousands of other films that never got picked up by IFC or anyone else. It’s not easy to wade through everything, but just like I loved flipping through bins of albums by crappy bands just to find that one great record, I am glad that I have more access to so many more films.

It’s also great that filmmakers, who for so long have had so much trouble finding an audience, now have this possibility. Even if only 1/10th of 1 percent of the potential IFC First Take audience watches, that would be 400,000 people (come to think about it, that’s a number worth aiming for). If you put your film on Amazon, they have 65 million customers – even better odds. I think most of us can feel inside our bones that this must be a good thing for both filmmakers and audiences.

Access does not equal an audience, however, and it’s an important distinction. Perhaps what we should say is that access is only part of the solution to finding your audience. It’s an important step, and one that shouldn’t be overlooked. Not being accessible to 40 million people would be much worse. But this doesn’t mean that being accessible to this large audience is an end-unto-itself, and filmmakers would be wise not to consider it a distribution plan. It should be part of such a plan, but you’ll also need a plan to make sure the 1/10th of 1 % buys the film. To figure out these odds though - you’ll need to analyze the numbers. It could well be that more people will watch your film (and you may perhaps make more money) going with a smaller distributor or even self-distributing, than by being put out in First Take. I don’t know – since no one has the full picture – but its worth asking around and finding out who is making what. For all I know, more people watch LinkTV and I’ve only heard of IFC because they have a bigger marketing budget. Who knows? No one I know.

What’s really needed are better numbers – how often are titles ordered, how often is it a purchase and how often is it part of a monthly all-access subscription, what’s the split to filmmakers, etc. No one can fault IndieWire, Variety or anyone else for not answering all of these questions – the answers are obfuscated too often by the distributors - sometimes because they can’t give the numbers out (contractually), but more often because they don’t want to do so. While I do think some heavier digging could be done by the press, it isn’t easy. I may try to do some here eventually, or at my day-job though, because I think getting at these numbers is one of the greatest needs in the field. It’s way too hard for filmmakers to get real advice and real numbers on distribution, especially beyond box-office. Since most of us can agree that theatrical has become primarily a marketing move, this doesn’t help much. We need DVD, VOD, download, streaming and other numbers, and some way to correlate the effects of each mechanism on the overall success of a film. We also need systems and distribution mechanisms that help turn potential audiences into actual viewers, and hopefully, purchasers of films.

Bottom line – access is good, potential audiences are good – real numbers, even better.


Pamela said...

Yes! Well-said. I'm linking this blog post to my site and my own twelve readers will DOUBLE your "viewership" in no time. :)

Danielle Farrar said...

Ha, I came through Pamela's "Still In Motion" blog. :)

As I posted on her blog, there's an article in the NY Times implying that the audience is all ready and drooling for the content, but there are very few distributors willing to license their content:

Thankfully, Jaman is in the independent sphere and our rights-holders are smaller (sometimes we deal directly with the filmmaker) and are able to be more agile with regards to distribution.

And hey, now that Still in Motion linked to your post, I'll be putting your feed on my Google homepage, thus increasing your readership. :)

JC said...

I agree.... it would be great if we filmmakers and the public could get real numbers on DVD, VOD, etc. from distributors. But as most of us know, they do not want to disclose info like this, and only do so when they have to, such as to the producer of a movie they're handling. This is the only way I get actual info... from fellow filmmakers willing to tell me or from my own experiences with who is handling my movie.

No doubt you've probably touched on this before, but the studios are absolutely loathe to discuss actual numbers of DVD units moved on various movies. The only info out there tends to be in the home video trades, with total revenues made by sell-through or rental -- but only on the top sellers. And VOD will never be any different.

If the studios had to release actual numbers of DVD units, they'd likely find themselves facing lawsuits by producers and directors who are owed profit participation. DVD has been such a huge cash cow for the big boys, that being mum is their best word. God forbid anyone should upset the status quo and threaten their take.

Collusion? Well, at least in the sense that if no one talks about actual DVD numbers, or actual number of VOD buys, then everyone is safe (i.e., the distributors) and it's business as usual.
"The Secrets to Distribution: Get Your Movie Distributed Now"

Anonymous said...

Alternate theory from JC's: That the numbers simply haven't been run in accuracy. No conspiracy, no withholding of information. Simply--it's too expensive and time-consuming to get real numbers. In any case, all the numbers--with the exception that is of the budget--are often ignored in the big end of the industry. If they weren't then, for example, perhaps we'd see a whole bunch more films geared toward Latino audiences in this country. This is a microcosym of the problem, but it's significant and telling.

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