Tuesday, May 11, 2010

My thoughts on 1 of Ted's 38 reasons indie film's failing

Ted Hope has a new post up at his truly interesting blog listing 38 ways the independent film industry is failing today. I would be depressed with just these 38 reasons, but I’m sad to report this is the second time he’s posted 38 reasons, as he had already posted 38 equally interesting things before. I’m sure I could post 24 more to get him to 100 total, but instead I’d like to add just a few thoughts on number 25 of his 38 failures, because I think it’s one of the biggest failures we face as an industry:

25. We know incredibly little about our audience or their behavior.  We spend so much money making our films without really knowing who are audiences are, why they want our product, how to reach them, or how they behave, or how they are changing.  Does any other industry think so late about their audience?  Does any other industry do so little research into their audience?  Shouldn't we all be sharing what info we have?

This one has always boggled my mind. I’ve written about it before, and will likely do so again, but I’m continually amazed at how little we think about and how little we know about our audience. Whenever I meet with filmmakers about their script or project, I ask them about their intended audience, and as you can guess, most don’t have much of an answer. Sometimes they’ll say something like “everyone who loves indie films” or perhaps they’ve progressed to “white males 25-34” or something. A few have films that have clear niche audiences - Nascar fans - great, or - Nascar fans who only watch at home, don’t tell their friends and drink fancy beer - even better, a true niche. Very few have built any fan base already, either for their films or themselves, which is mind-boggling in an era of Facebook, Twitter and plain-old email lists. I understand the whole “I’m an artist, not a marketer” thing, actually, but in this day and age, to not think about your audience in advance is not just poor business, it ignores the fundamental changes that have hit every business and every art form - that audiences are more participatory, so you can’t just try to engage them with a product and no conversation.

I could go on and on about this, but what drives me even crazier is how little we, as an industry, know about our audience(s). Excuse the artistes, but talk to almost anyone else in the business and you frankly won’t get a much savvier answer. Sure, many distributors have been doing this long enough to have some audience research and staff who know a bit about marketing (BTW, this is some, not all, distributors), but very few have done any real, in-depth research into our audiences and their behavior. Those that have done this tend to keep it private - it’s pretty valuable info to have when your competitors have barely thought about looking into it in the first place. As a field, we have very little to work with. How many festivals survey their audiences for real data? How many can break these results on a per-film basis? B-Side collected a fair amount of data on film-going habits, but their database is now part of another company (Slated), so do any of those fests have their portion of that data (I honestly don’t know)? Why aren’t film schools, business schools or all these nonprofits that supposedly represent us doing some data analysis? I have lots of questions like these, but I think you get the point - we need much better research into the audiences for indie films and for our individual films. I can think of a few quick, partial solutions to this problem -
  1. Filmmakers - collect data on your audiences, from everywhere you can, and share it with others. Anonymize it, of course, but share it whenever possible.
  2. Savvy computer geek film people - build open source platforms for the sharing of this data.
  3. Nonprofit service orgs - partner with researchers to study indie audiences. I suggest using these folks, but I’m sure with a grant you could study this with just about anyone - and share it with your members (a reason for them to join!).
  4. Festivals - survey your audiences and share this data with filmmakers. It will also help you when speaking to sponsors.
I’m sure there’s better ideas out there, so share them in the comments.


Angelo said...

Funny things happen when people start collecting audience data: they realize how valuable the data is. Share the data? No, I see monetization in your future, lol

Having worked for a top 5 public relations company, I recognize that collecting email addresses is NOT collecting data (as some might think), it's building a list. Properly collecting and analyzing audience "data" can be very expensive.

Miles Maker said...

Bang ON! Let's do it!! Who's gonna spearhead the platform? Let's call it, 'cloud control'

Alonso F. Mayo said...

Good points. I guess it all comes down to if "indie film" is actually a business though. I'm not saying it shouldn't be, I just don't think it is. I have a feeling if someone put together the financial information from all indie films made in a period of time and did a cost/benefit analysis, the results would be heartbreaking.

Indie filmmaking is an expensive art. And I do think the only solution is to treat it as the business that it should be. It's tough though since that starts with a project's inception. I doubt most independent writers, myself included, get all excited about thinking "what kind of film does the market need."

I keep thinking of a question that comes up constantly in the documentary world, in the proposal stage: "Why this film now?" It's an important question because the answer is the first hint of a real possible audience for a film. And not just "everyone who loves indie films."

bg said...

But that's why they are called indies. Not thinking of business concerns, audience demographics, metrics, etc is why Indies are Indies: they appeal to only people who love movies as an art form, not entertainment. Indies are not supposed to do well commercially - that's not the intent. Any that break through commercially is just luck and timing.

BNewmanSBoard said...

I disagree that they aren't a business - they aren't always a business, and this isn't usually the only concern, but that doesn't mean you can't make art and also think about business. You can think about your audience a little, and think enough about the biz side to hope you get it out to an audience and make some money back, without compromising your art. IMHO.

Bruce DeBoer said...

As Angelo mentioned, the data is valuable, not all that easy to trap in an accurate and specific fashion, and once you compile & analyze it you'll want ROI - but then it gets old fast.

It's great information to have for marketing a film that is already made but are you implying that we should research our audience in order to make a film that they might like? If that's so, then it's a commercial film in my opinion.

I think you've put your finger on a balance point. One end of the scale is artistic integrity (whatever that may mean) and the other end is making a film that is financially viable.

BNewmanSBoard said...

Ok, some more thoughts. First, both Angelo and Bruce are absolutely correct that real audience research goes far beyond collecting lists. I realize this, and know it's expensive to do, but I think some large scale projects could be interesting for the field - as well as for those film producers doing multiple projects. Perhaps some could be done by a nonprofit, for example.

Bigger point, however, is that I disagree that you can only have artistic integrity or financial viability. I maintain that you can have both, although it may be rare. It's probably especially rare because good artists aren't often good marketers, and vice versa, but they aren't mutually exclusive. Look over art history, and you see many genius artists who were darn good at promotion and marketing. I also think it is possible, and in today's US based indie climate, even necessary to think about audience during the creation. This doesn't mean pandering to them, or leaping too far in this direction, but you can think about what might engage an audience in your story-telling and adapt it to them. Even Shakespeare did this, btw. It's also possible to start engaging them cleverly in advance and keep artistic integrity while still also serving as promotion. I guess I just don't think it's necessary to maintain this split, and I see lots of examples in the history of art, film and culture.