March 31, 2004

Define Your Audience: Generating Some FilmBuzz & Thinking Without A Box

Like legions of filmmakers before you, you've spent months, perhaps years, getting the money to make your film. Unless you're one of the lucky few, much of your financing came out of your own pocket and those of family and friends. Along the way, you learned that film financing, like telling a story on film, requires special skill. That was the first step. The second step was the months, maybe years, it took to make your film; researching and getting the story on film, ensuring that your images revealed your passion for your subject. Writing and re-writing, finding the right narrator, music and effects and then editing everything into a cohesive whole. It's been an arduous and exhilarating journey. Congratulations, you've made your film. Now what?

If you're like most filmmakers, you're probably looking for a distributor. But finding an acquisitions executive to look at your film can be as daunting as fundraising and as time-consuming as production. Indeed, like fundraising and production, marketing is a skill unto itself. You can't leave it to chance that you'll secure a "rep," who'll determine your audience and market your film. As with learning the ins and outs of film financing, and how to tell your story on film, marketing your film requires knowledge, tenacity and luck. 

To successfully market your film you have to be able to define your audience. If you haven't already defined your audience, do it now. It's not enough to say that your audience is "everyone." You can't count on the oohs and aahs of family and friends––who see your baby and exclaim that it's wonderful--to get you a distributor. Unless your film is so personal that your audience is limited to family and friends, you'll have to define your audience in marketable terms.  

Defining your audience in marketable terms involves researching similar films to determine their audiences and venues––that is, where the film was seen. While defining your audience isn't easy, it's not impossible. Fortunately, much of the information you need can be found online, and by attending film festivals and studying distributors' catalogues.  

Once you've determined your audience, how do you make your film stand out from all the thousands of documentaries that are produced every year?  More research. One way to develop an understanding of your audience in marketable terms is to submit your film to local and regional film festivals. Each year more than 1,200 film festivals are held around the world and more than 750,000 filmmakers submit their work for consideration. The best way to make your film stand out is to make certain that it meets the requirements of the festival. 

Andrea Sporcic, operations manager of Cinema St. Louis and the St. Louis International Film Festival, laments, "Many filmmakers don't know their audiences or address why their film might play well in St. Louis." She stresses that filmmakers "shouldn't submit your film to a festival unless you've visited the festival's website, have read the festival's submission criteria and are sure your film fits in with their program."  

While submitting your production to the right local and regional festivals can help you reshape your film based on people's reactions, festival submissions can also be a time-consuming chore. One useful site for gleaning information about film festivals and their submission requirements is Without A Box.  

David Straus, co-founder of Without A Box, says, "Our site helps the filmmaker sort through many festivals, providing the filmmaker with a ‘short list.' We like to think of it as a home base for the independent filmmaker. Anyone can come to our site and use our library to research over 1,200 festivals for free."  

Keiko Beatie, director of program development and special projects for the Newport Beach Film Festival, receives an average of 2,000 submissions a year. "Of those, only about 25 percent are chosen to be screened during the festival," she explains. Since each submission is viewed by three screeners as well as by festival staff, the evaluation process can be time-consuming. "We've found that using Without A Box helps ensure that submissions fit into the festival's program, saving staff time and the filmmaker's resources."   

In addition to saving time and money, Without A Box allows filmmakers to create "accounts" where they can store information, including press kits, about their film.  When a filmmaker finds a festival that looks promising, Without A Box will "pre-qualify" the film by comparing the festival's criteria with the information supplied by the filmmaker. Later, if the filmmaker decides to apply to one or more festivals, a few keystrokes will fill out the necessary applications. Filmmakers can also pay application fees through Without A Box, saving a substantial 20 to 30 percent over the cost of applying to the festivals directly.  

At present, Without A Box has working relationships with about 150 festivals, a number that's growing. Equally impressive are the 25,000 filmmakers from 80 countries that use the site and the approximately 1,000 new filmmakers that come to the site each month.  

The biggest advantage of submitting to local and regional festivals is that you can get feedback from real audiences (as opposed to industry and press audiences) about your work. However, many documentarians don't like to hear that they need to rework their films. But changing your work-in-progress to address the concerns of real audiences is another way of making your production stand out.  

Until recently, "real audience" input was limited to the big studios, which routinely run their films though multiple test screenings to determine how well the films play with audiences. When a film doesn't play well, it's re-edited to address the audiences' comments. Audience research services cost the studios tens of thousands of dollars per film––far too pricey for most independents and documentarians. To meet the needs of filmmakers on smaller budgets, there's FilmBuzz.

John Tenorio, producer of the award-winning documentary Lourdes, used FilmBuzz to gauge audience reactions to his film. "You might only have one shot at getting a distributor or having your film exhibited at a major festival," Tenorio maintains.  "When you're so close to the vest that you can't see the imperfections, you need unbiased opinions if want to make the first and only shot that you have count." Tenorio says that the FilmBuzz report  "swayed a distributor to screen the film."  

"Our reports aren't free, but they're not out of reach for most documentarians," explains Greg Kahn, FilmBuzz's president. A standard FilmBuzz report costs $500, but a second report for the same film only costs $400; a third report, $300, and so on. For that, you get a detailed document showing your ranking within the festival, the average ranking of all the films in the festival, and specific audience reactions to such elements of your film as writing, pacing and length. The report also details whether audience members would recommend the film to family, friends and strangers; the reasons for attending the screening; and the demographic breakdown of the audience.

A slightly more costly alternative is a customized FilmBuzz report, which is tailored to answer specific questions that a filmmaker might ask audiences about his or her film. Reports are generally available about a week after the end of the festival. Along with the FilmBuzz report, filmmakers receive a consultation session.  

Producer Angela Alexander used FilmBuzz's customized report services to gauge audience reaction to her documentary Invasion: Anime, about the influx of Japanese animation into mainstream America. "I was really interested in determining who my audience was and who in the film they related best to and those who turned off the audience," she says.  

Based on the audience survey, Alexander spent more than two-and-a-half months re-editing her film. "We cut our original film, which was an hour and 30 minutes, down to 70 minutes, removed sequences which the audience didn't feel played well and added more of the animation sequences the audience said they wanted to see," she explains. In addition to encouraging her to re-edit her film, the audience survey revealed several elements about the fans of Japanese animation that allowed her to more accurately define her audience.  

While FilmBuzz is a new service, it has been growing steadily. Distributors are taking notice of the surveys because the scoring process is targeted around regional festivals, the audiences at which gauge the clarity and entertainment value of the film and are, by and large, not dominated by industry professionals who could possibly skew the scores. Although FilmBuzz currently has relationships with just a dozen festivals, the company is projecting to more than double that number by 2005. By 2007, Kahn anticipates being in several international markets and having relationships with over 100 regional festivals.  

Paola Freccero, senior vice president of film programming at the Sundance Channel, notes, "It's important to have measurements. Anything that puts you into a smaller pile increases your odds of getting your film screened by an acquisitions executive." A favorable FilmBuzz report can help overburdened acquisitions executives determine whether your film meets their needs. A report that reveals your film's audience is the same one the acquisitions executive is trying to reach and can help get you film in that desirable "smaller pile." Once the Sundance Channel acquires a film, Freccero "tries really hard to give each and every film we buy a profile so that the filmmakers can learn about the critical and public response to their films."

Nancy Gerstman, co-president of Zeitgeist Films Ltd, acquires films for distribution primarily from attending film festivals. Her staff travels extensively, attending more than a dozen film festivals a year, including at least three regional, two or more national and six or seven international festivals. But she also looks at information from other sources. "Reading the releases from FilmBuzz seems to be a good way to assess audience reactions to a particular film," Gerstman notes. "I also pay attention to the films they cover that don't have distribution but they think are worthy."

Submitting your film to festivals is only one component of film marketing.  "Many filmmakers rely on film festivals to find their audiences for them, rather than assisting the festival with marketing their film," says Sporcic. She suggests that filmmakers "reach out to the local media and special interest groups who might be interested in their film. "Personal contact," she explains, "goes a long way in getting people interested in seeing your film." 


Joseph E. Miller is the author more than 150 newsletter and magazine articles, holds an MA in film from the University of Maryland and is the writer, producer and director of more than 50 documentaries.