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Friday, June 19, 2009

The Second Most Important Question a Filmmaker Can Ask

I had some great conversations with documentary filmmakers earlier this week at SilverDocs, and look forward to more stimulating debate at the LA Film Fest's Financing Conference tomorrow.

At SilverDocs, I suggested that there are two important questions filmmakers need to ask during the process of making a film. Filmmakers already ask the first one, constantly: will you give me money to help make my movie?

But the second one -- just as important -- isn't one that most filmmakers know about, or ask often enough.

Here it is: what groups, online communities, blogs, Web sites, or non-profits do you think would be interested in this film?

I think you should ask that of everyone you meet: your cinematographer ... your investors ... your screenwriter ... your prop master ... everyone you interview for a documentary. And keep a list of their answers.

You will discover that there are magazines, blogs, fan communities, and organizations with millions of members that you should build relationships with. Let them know what you are working on. Get them (and their audiences) involved in some way -- as you are making the movie. Give them sneak peeks as you are in post-production. Give them a trailer or early cut to show at their annual convention. Enlist their help in spreading the word once you're on the festival circuit or in theatrical release. Do ticket and DVD give-aways to get their communities buzzing.

You ought to be asking this second question throughout the process of making your movie because that will help you discover who the most powerful taste-makers are, online and off. People you encounter who know these bloggers and publishers and non-profit presidents will make introductions to them for you. That's something that no amount of Googling during the post-production phase can do, unfortunately.

What's the benefit of all this? Rather than building a great Web site and then trying desperately to get people to come to it, you'll have created powerful connections to people who already have an audience, and can tell that audience about your project.

There would be no movie if you weren't good at asking question #1: will you give me money?

And there won't be much of an audience if you aren't good at asking question #2.

(Of course, these two vital questions pertain to the business of making and marketing movies. I acknowledge that when it comes to the art of cinema, there are lots of important questions, starting with, "What do I need to do to tell a great story?")

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  • Great post Scott. I couldn't agree more. Building out the support network takes too long to just do it after you've finished the movie. Plus, there are so many unknown groups that you'll discover if you focus on finding them throughout the film making process. I made that mistake on the current film I'm working on, but won't on the next one.

    By Blogger Roman, at 12:11 PM  

  • Very good post...Thank you..

    By Blogger DakidHasdough, at 5:33 PM  

  • The corollary to "who is my audience" is "what can I share with them to engage their interest?" It can be a conundrum sometimes with a scripted feature to know what unfinished elements can be comfortably shared and will make sense out of the context of the finished film.

    (I know that I once spectacularly failed at this by putting together a clip reel of a film in-progress; the footage looked great, but out of context gave completely the wrong impression of the tone and content of the film. I think some of my loyal fans never got back on board with that film... )

    In many, if not all, cases, it's wise to have a dedicated budget for the personnel and process to collate existing source material and general original material just for the purpose of establishing this pre-completion make-connections workflow. It's not just knowing *to* connect, its knowing *how*.

    Thanks for this important topic!

    By Blogger Christopher, at 5:59 PM  

  • It think you're entirely correct Scott. I would only point out, as Gary alluded to on our panel, that this can be much tougher in the fiction world than in the doc world. Finding an audience before-hand for a character-drama is a real challenge. I believe it is one reason why the industry is incredibly gun-shy about the genre right now.

    By Blogger Noah Harlan, at 4:20 PM  

  • ps: forgot that blogger had my handle as "Clarence Worley" - old joke... it's me....

    By Blogger Noah Harlan, at 4:21 PM  

  • I think a fair number of saavy documentary filmmakers ask the second question, but perhaps not enough. It's something that I teach my students, using the examples of films like Maria's Story, Blue Vinyl, One in Eight: Janice's Journey, Outfoxed, etc. which are all films that have provided great benefit to particular organizations who in turn helped distribute the film either directly, indirectly, or both since it helped them with their own missions (important point: the benefit to the organization must come first, it's folly to think of non-profits and advocacy groups as your distributors, think of how you can help them, and the rest will take care of itself).

    Here's my take on SEVEN QUESTIONS HIGHLY SUCCESSFUL DOCUMENTARY FILMMAKERS SHOULD ASK ABOUT EACH PROJECT: 1. What are YOUR PERSONAL MOTIVATIONS for making this film? 2. Who is the audience for your film? 3. What do you want your audience to take away from your film? 4. Why are YOU and no one else uniquely qualified to make this film? 5. Why should it be a film and not a magazine article, book, brochure, or web site? (films are expensive to make and distribute, are you getting commensurate impact?) 6. What organizations might benefit from showing your film to their members or prospective funders? (how can you help their missions?) 7. What is more important, widespread distribution to your intended audience or making money? (if the answer is making money, go back to #1)

    By Blogger David Tames, at 9:52 AM  

  • One can broaden and reverse these questions into

    1) Who will be interested in using this product (watching this film), and how valuable is that audience (how much will they pay directly through sales and rentals or indirectly e.g. though being a demographic served by PBS, advertisers, etc)?

    2) Will investors give me x amount of money, which is less than or equal to the amount of the value presented in #1?

    While this can and has worked effectively for a lot of good films (particularly docs), this culture has, in America, been born out of a lack of state patronage for artists, cinematic and otherwise, and while the micro-studio system might work much of the time, it fails to allow for the truly avant-garde — that which can only be articulated in the intended medium, not in a proposal or business plan or even a conversation *about* a work in another medium.

    Asking questions about the market and ROI turns the filmmaker into an aspiring CEO of a business communications company (and no doubt, many good communications come out of this). But, fortunately, we've been moving into a period where the amount of funding required to make the films which tell the stories that perhaps haven't yet been told, is continuously shrinking. And for some projects it will be enough that the artist him/herself can be the patron, truly a return to the "amateur", wherein the filmmaker makes films for the love of doing so without having to clumsily approximate a studio head.

    By Blogger Sean Fitzroy, at 8:10 PM  

  • We put up a Facebook Film Page for our new film, DELIVERED when we started pre-production. We've already got close to 1,000 fans and we don't start shooting until mid-July. We've been experimenting with ways to engage our fans and we plan to post regularly to the page and build our fan page throughout production, so that by the time we hit the festival circuit, we'll have a core audience. You can see what we are doing at If you "Become a fan" you can see what we're doing to build our audience while we make the film. With all the great social media tools out there now, we believe this is the way to go for independent filmmakers.

    By Blogger Linda Nelson, at 9:17 PM  

  • Building a Facebook fanpage is one of your possibilites, because it's cheap and easily set up. But - believe it or not - some filmmakers don't even have a website! So we always tell filmmakers to start with building a website first, because you can refer to it later, when using Social Media. Recently i wrote a blog-post about the importance of having a website:

    And Facebook might not always be your one and only choice, because in some parts of the world, FB might not be as popular as in the USA. Same with YouTube. For example in France is really huge and you should think about uploading your trailer on DM when it comes to promotion in France.

    In fact, that's what we are doing at - we tell people how they reach their audience via blogs and social networks and how they find distribution on festivals and VOD/streaming platforms.

    They get a strategic overview for their online marketing activities when using our online TOOL. Additionally we also consult them offline and it works very well.

    If you want to know more about how to find and get to your audience, read this blog :-) or visit


    By Blogger, at 8:42 AM  

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    By Blogger, at 8:54 AM  

  • it's a pity that some people try to spam this nice blog :-(

    By Blogger, at 8:54 AM  

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