Updated: May 21
As independent filmmakers, we often decry the major studios' penchant for tentpole films and their continued exploitation of film franchises. Many of us see it as a cookie-cutter formula devoid of innovation and absent the real voices of the community at large. But the truth is that the major studios are doing one basic thing that many independent films don't: They make movies that people want.
The independent film game is chock full of creatives who make films that are an extension of their own unique views on the world. There is nothing inherently wrong with this approach when creating film for the sake of making art or making a statement, but it doesn't quite pan out when creating film to make a profit.
The major studios and highly successful independent filmmakers understand that people seek out and buy content that is an extension of their own personalities. Just as social media marketing pushes content to us based on an aggregation of our personal preferences, successful filmmakers push content to their audiences based on a verifiable set of interests and desires.
Take a look at the theatrical content that dominated the scene in 2019. Action and Adventure movies took 60% of the market share. Why? Because these movies provided content that was based on strong preexisting brand recognition and a demonstrable appetite for more of the same. The major studios are doubling down on what they know people want and, from a business standpoint, this makes absolute sense.
So where does this leave the independent filmmaker? Well, as an indie filmmaker, you should be doing the exact same thing. We get that you can't do it on the same level as the major studios. You can't afford to buy up highly-valuable intellectual property and forge partnerships with highly sought-after brands. But what you can do is ask your audience what they want.
It's that simple. Think of it this way: Have you ever planned to prepare dinner for someone? A family member. A date. A friend. What is the first thing you ask them? "What do you want for dinner?" And why do you ask them this? Because you want to be sure to serve them something they want to eat. Then why not do this with filmmaking?
As an indie filmmaker, your most valuable asset isn't your creative mind nor is it your ability to bring a project to life. You most valuable asset is the audience for whom you're making content. They are the ones who can make or break your career so they are the ones who should be guiding it. Before you put pen to paper or move from paper to production, engage the communities your art is intended to serve and find out what they like, what they dislike, what they want, and what they need. When you understand your audience, you'll know exactly how to feed them.
There are a number of ways to engage your target audience. For example, you can leverage polling on social media to target specific people or communities to inquire about their interests. You can build a crowdfunding campaign and promote it to your target audience to see if they bite. You can run A/B split tests of sample content to gauge audience reaction to your concept. You can send a draft title and synopsis to your friends and ask them if they'd watch the movie based on the description alone.
The fifth of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey is "Seek first to understand, then to be understood." As the text suggests, you should "use empathetic listening to genuinely understand a person, which compels them to reciprocate the listening and take an open mind to be influenced by you." By listening and engaging with a goal of understanding your audience, they will be more compelled to listen to what you have to say and to consume what you create.
So, the next time you set out to write or create something new, find out if there's an appetite for it. The hungrier the audience, the better!
Be Better. Be Creative. Be Engaged.
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