Thoughts On Audience Building

Today's guest post is from filmmaker (and mind map builder!) Mike Ambs.

In a recent post here, Ted Hope listed "38 More Ways The Film Industry is Failing Today"; many of the questions and points made among the 38 stood out to me, and I've spent the last several days trying to openly brainstorm steps that could lead towards change. But today, I wanted to write about one in particular: Ted asked why we don't encourage, or even demand, that a film build it's audience (say, 5,000 fans) prior to production and greenlight.

For starters, I love the idea of audience builds. I think the practice of audience builds before a film gets too far off the ground would be a great shift in how we think of films, how we approach them, how to involve the audience long before they ever sit down in a theater - but it raises a few key issues:

Filmmaking is storytelling, and stories are told many different ways and take very different paths. Because of this, it might not be the best idea to mandate audience builds. One reason for this is it could, if taken advantage of, create yet another "door" that is opened easier only for some.

So the real question is, "why" take this route? If you had a fork in the road, would you, as a filmmaker, only take the path of audience building prior to production because it was the path less traveled? Or would it come with it's own real incentives outside of "popularity"? For example, would studios honor and take seriously independent films that have done the hard work of pre-building their audiences? Or would certain grants and financial benefits kick in at such a watermark? It's important to help build that distinction and give filmmakers real incentives at thinking of storytelling in this way: your supporters are your foundation, build that first, then your film.

This topic of audience builds is interesting to me because, as much as I agree with the idea of pre-building your supporters, I've been very hard at work on For Thousands of Miles for six years now, always with a strong interest in the community that can grow around a film, and I still fall short of that hypothetical benchmark of 5,000 supporters. Even with Facebook, Twitter, mailing list, Kickstarter, production-blog subscribers, Vimeo community, etc: we are not above 5,000 people. Have we overlooked the importance of forming a relationship with the audience beforehand? Does our film's approach and idea need more work before people really begin to relate on a larger scale? And on top of this, these supporters overlap: people who follow the film on Twitter, also might be subscribed to both our blog as well as our mailing list. Which raises the questions:

How do we keep proper tally of the numbers during an audience build without counting one person two or three times? How would an outside review separate individual supporters across multiple social tools? And more importantly, who would do this validating? Should we be building stat tools and options for keeping these aggregated numbers public, letting the film's own growing base self-check it's own real-world size? Does this public display beg for popularity contest, where growing your numbers by any means necessary as fast as possible becomes the focus, instead of slowly and steadily reaching out to people who will really follow and support your work over the longterm?

Measurement can be relative when it comes to films, support can vary wildly depending on how a filmmaker goes about engaging people beyond their film. So how do we really measure this? Hitting a set number of followers / supporters / fans / backers could be one way, or if anything, the first step in audience building. From there it's what you do with these people: how you involve them in the process, what they get out of supporting your project. As filmmakers we cannot change the future of storytelling without the audience's full support - we need them to fall in love with a new "norm" of getting involved and be right there next to us when going head-to-head with the old ways of industry.

Mike Ambs currently lives in Ypsilanti. He loves to film things and tell stories. And read on the subway. He's pretty sure blue whales are his power animal.