ITVS’s Rebecca Huval discusses research, news, and trends that come out of ITVS’s IndiesLab.
Documentary filmmakers have complex motivations for producing films. Unlike the makers of, say, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, most nonfiction directors want their viewers to do more than simply pay for theatre tickets. They’re after long-term engagement. But how should doc makers find their audience if they aren’t a blockbuster like Waiting for Superman?
It starts with the selection of a subject. From the moment you decide to make a film about a certain topic, you’re also choosing an audience. Over at POV, Edward J. Delaney explained how to find a micro-audience, meaning, the viewers who already have a vested interest in your topic. One telling case is that of the 2007 Cannes award-winning documentary Zoo.
“It was about men having sex with horses,” Delaney noted. “While this film hit what festival programmers love — it was edgy, artful and unusual — a bestiality film is not legitimizing a passionate core group (at least one that’s willing to be found on Facebook). After the festivals, it seemed, Zoo had fewer places to go. It isn’t a Friday night date movie, and you’re less likely to invite your friends over for popcorn and Zoo.”
Which topics do attract long-term audiences? Needless to say, those that cover subjects with passionate followers (e.g., Helvetica because it drew graphic designers and typography geeks, as Delaney mentions) and films with a clear call to action. Stories that show ordinary citizens doing good work can interest a broad audience. Not in Our Town showed how Billings, Montana residents responded to hate crimes. Despite its small town setting, the film “resonates internationally, in communities which see their own stories and possibilities for community strength in these films,” according to the Center for Social Media, which produced comprehensive case studies of long-term documentary engagement.
Another draw: a film that addresses multiple topics. After premiering on Independent Lens in 2008, Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai, about the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Wangari Maathai and her quest to plant trees throughout Kenya by giving women small stipends. The ITVS-funded film has interested groups ranging from human rights, women’s leadership, sustainability, entrepreneurship, Africa, and, most obviously, tree planting.
“It’s because of who Wangari was and the way she looked at the world that this film has so many possible viewers who bring their own interest to maybe one of those specific areas,” said producer-director Lisa Merton. “What was so fantastic about Wangari is that she saw [the world] as a whole and not fragmented. That’s why she won a Nobel Peace Prize.”
Taking Root has partnered with organizations from the international Women’s World Banking to the hyperlocal Richmond Trees in Richmond, Calif. As a result, it was one of the most viewed films in the Independent Lens 2011-2012 season, even as an encore presentation.
Documentary filmmakers might consider zeroing in on their niche audience, or as Delaney calls it, a micro-audience. “My view is that you should always nurture a core audience of people truly interested in your topic, and not move outward until you’ve served them well.”
Lisa Merton echoes that sentiment. She and co-producer-director Alan Dater agreed to leave out a postscript about tribal clashes because it would have dated their film. “I think if we made it a different way, it might have been a blockbuster. But blockbusters, they’re made and then they’re gone.”