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WHEN THE AUDIENCE TAKES CONTROL
Lance Weiler breaks down the new models independent filmmakers are using to create a fan base.

A SWARM OF ANGELS' THE UNFOLD.

It starts early in the filmmaking process as filmmakers are instructed to write what they know, consider what they have access to and keep their limitations in mind. Those three points are essential when making a truly independent film. But many filmmakers wind up consumed by the filmmaking process. Their resources are spread thin and the epic journey to complete a film leaves them exhausted. And as focused as they are on their work, the sad truth is that many filmmakers do not consider their audience — their interests, expectations or the feasibility of reaching them — while making their films. A common way of dealing with the audience issue is through denial. Two concepts tend to be the norm: “Build it and they will come,” or, even worse, “I make movies for people like me.” But with a congested market and competition for the audience‘s time due to games, TV, other films, online activities and real life, it has become clear that independent filmmakers need to start changing the ways that they interact with their prospective audiences.

Any consideration of today‘s audience must start with one sad truth: Some audience members will work hard to avoid paying to see your work. Case in point: Patrick, a 17-year old suburban male, pushes his hair out of his eyes and talks a mile a minute when we sit down for a session of Rock Band. Even though I‘ve played many times, I let him explain how the game functions. He hands me a guitar and sits himself behind a tiny drum kit. With remote in hand he scans the selection of available songs. Patrick does not buy music or movies, and almost 90 percent of his entertainment comes free of charge via file sharing or the occasional gift card. But on this day he is buying new songs for Rock Band at about $1.75 each at an alarming rate — about an album‘s worth in less than two hours. A smirk crosses his face when asked if he would still pay if there was a way to hack and obtain the songs for free. Patrick figures that he spends 20 hours a week playing games, three hours watching TV and sees two films a month in the theater.

The future of independent film is not in content aggregation, which is quickly becoming commoditized, but in audience aggregation. Filmmakers need to find ways to create an ongoing conversation with potential viewers like Patrick, one that will start early in the process and continue long after the film is finished. Engaging an audience in a meaningful way does not ensure that your work will not be pirated, but building such relationships may help limit the damage.

Today independent filmmakers find themselves in a wonderfully awkward position. It is the best of times in terms of the ease of making work and the worst of times with regards to seeing profits from your efforts. This paradox creates an interesting opportunity for those willing to experiment with new models.

Starting Before the Film is Made

A number of independent filmmakers are engaging their audiences earlier in the production process. For instance A Swarm of Angels is a project designed to remix the whole process of filmmaking from conception to completion. The audience sits at the center of the project. Swarm of Angels creator Matt Hanson explains: “There have been all these formal ways Hollywood has used to test audience reaction and build demand for a film, but the kind of participative filmmaking A Swarm of Angels is part of creating is in its infancy. It‘s a giant experiment to see what works and what doesn‘t. People join because they want to be part of that community and help pioneer the whole process. They know they can help shape it, make it happen.”

The notion of “community” is one that the Internet has embraced as sites ranging from social network behemoths to smaller niche destinations put people together in new and interesting ways. But away from the occasional mash-up trailer contest, static flash film site or random social networking profile page, the majority of films engage their audiences in hollow ways. The focus is solely on getting people to purchase tickets or buy DVDs. This limited approach creates a one-sided conversation that often leaves audience members hungry for richer ways to interact with the storylines and characters they‘ve begun to love.

Katie is one of many who is looking for more of a social experience around her entertainment. When we IM she is up late working on a new revision to her MySpace profile page. She is nine weeks into an online game called Humans vs. Vampires, a social experience that surrounds a Web series entitled Beyond the Rave. Katie, who is 25, explains that what she enjoys is making friends and getting to role-play in the extended world of the story. Because of the game she has met people in various countries and has even taken a road trip to meet a fellow player. She explains that she stopped buying DVDs and CDs two years ago and that her television viewing is down to four hours a week. Now her entertainment comes from social experiences like Humans vs. Vampires, which, she says with a sense of pride, occupies about 80 hours of her time per month.

THE LEACH BROTHERS' LOST ZOMBIES.

The Audience Controls the Story

Today everyone is his or her own media company. With the push of a button they can publish, shoot or record and moments later it can be online for the world to see. It is this ease of creation that Skot and Ryan Leach are banking on. The Leach brothers are creating a hybrid social entertainment experience called Lost Zombies. The story: A zombie epidemic is underway and people all over the world are documenting the walking undead. A horror mainstay, zombies have a rabid online fanbase: From fan sites to forums to social networking profiles, all things zombie can be found and discussed online. The Leach brothers are working to tap this zombie army and introduce the fans of the undead to the concept of crowd sourcing. The epicenter of their efforts is a Ning powered social network. Ning enables anyone to establish their own social network complete with video uploads, audio, friend messaging and all the other common staples of social networking. Skot explains: “From a story perspective the community plays a significant role. They are basically writing the entire story. I believe the Internet has created a kind of conversation that we are all involved with.  We‘ve gotten used to that level of interaction. It‘s rewarding. Now we want that experience from our media.” Lost Zombies encourages its fans to document their own zombie encounters. In just a matter of weeks the community has grown to more than 400 active members with contributed materials flowing in from all over the world.

WRECK A MOVIE'S IRON SKY.

The Crowd Creates a New Model

Wreck A Movie wants to help you wreck your own movies. Based on the success of their crowd-sourced sci-fi cult epic, Star Wreck: In the Pirkinning, which was downloaded more than eight million times before getting picked up for DVD distribution by Universal, director Timo Vuorensola and his team have developed a model which they hope will assist others to crowd source their own films. The concept for wreck a movie grew out of the Star Wreck experience. Timeo explains: “Without thinking it too much, we started to ask for help from the community, which proved pretty soon to be a very good resource base, whatever was our need — when we wanted people to help us out with the script, when we needed actors, when we needed 3-D models, and later when we needed publicity, subtitles and all that type of things. When we started working on our next film, Iron Sky, we wanted to do the film in the same way as Star Wreck. We wanted to build a platform that would support what we called ‘collaborative film production‘ for Iron Sky, and so we started to design one.”

The Audience Becomes Part of the Team

For every hundred fans you might encounter one Mike Hedge if you are lucky. Saying that Mike Hedge is dedicated would be an understatement. He met Arin Crumley and Susan Buice, the creators of Four Eyed Monsters, at a screening in 2005. But Mike‘s involvement goes far beyond spreading the word online or handing out postcards at film festivals. Mike has traveled the country on his own dime to document the experience that has become Four Eyed Monsters. He‘s shot thousands of photos and hundreds of hours of film capturing the events that surround the film. Mike has moved from audience member to friend and is currently working with Arin on a new film.

Six Free Tools For Audience Building

The funding, production, promotion and distribution of independent films by empowering one‘s audience offers many exciting possibilities. As daunting as it may sound there are a number of simple free tools that one can use to build the right foundation for a rich audience experience.

1. Forums are an excellent way to build an audience around your work. They can be a time-consuming process but are worth the time and effort. Tangler.com is an excellent way to create a media-rich forum around a project that enables audio, video, stills and provides an RSS feed for easy notification. There is even an embeddable forum version that can be placed on your site or blog.

2. Real-time communication is one of the foundations of mobilizing an audience base. Meebo.com is a free real-time chat tool that you can embed within your site or blog. There are two embeddable versions of Meebo: a single chat client that allows chatting with site visitors when you are online and Meebo Rooms, which provides a group chat room.

3. Freeconferencecall.com provides a dedicated conference line, which is a great way to hold Q&As, record interviews or mobilize your audience. The free line supports unlimited calls and a maximum of 96 callers, gives upwards of 6 hours of recording time and can output a .wav file of the call. The service even provides an RSS feed if you want to create a podcast.

4. Live streaming provides a simple way for filmmakers to communicate with their audiences. Sometimes a simple video podcast will not do and you may want to build more of an interactive experience around your message. Justin TV, Blog TV and Ustream all offer free services that allow users to broadcast live streaming channels across the Web while providing viewers the ability to chat in real time. All three services are free and in most cases can support more than one camera.

5. Ning is a free service that enables you to easily create your own social network that includes many of the features found in the most popular social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook.

6. Twitter.com is a fun way to communicate with your audience in 140 characters or less. Audience members can subscribe or follow your tweets via their Web browser or a mobile phone.



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