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Documentary Audience Development and Recruitment

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Looking Towards The Future For Documentaries

The Need For Effective Audience Development

It's easy to hook movie goers on documentaries once they've seen one.

Yes, just one good nonfiction film can convert a die hard blockbuster viewer into a dedicated documentary watcher.

The trick is to get the blockbuster fan to watch a documentary in the first place.

Unfortunately, the general movie going public tends to think of nonfiction film as boring -- a bunch of talking heads rattling on about a subject that they think doesn't concern them and that they don't want to gab about with their friends.

They're wrong, of course. But they don't know that.

Things are changing. But slowly. Too slowly.

The general perception that 'documentaries are boring' seems to be more entrenched in the United States than it is in Canada, Europe and the rest of the world. But documentaries lag behind narrative features in ticket sales, pay-per-view and broadcast views everywhere in the world.

The statistics remain a huge challenge to nonfiction filmmakers and distributors who want documentaries to be seen and appreciated by more people, and want to find financially viable ways to meet the already existing demands of audiences who are devoted documentary fans who really want more nonfiction films to be made more accessible to them.

It all boils down to audience development, to increasing the numbers of moviegoers who will buy that theater ticket for an enlightening nonfiction film instead of selecting the narrative feature, the mind-numbing blockbuster.

Recruiting Audiences for Documentary Films

People working in the documentary film world -- filmmakers, distributors, programmers and all others, including critics -- are all participants in the ongoing business of audience recruitment for nonfiction films. Their mantra: Get more people to watch documentaries. And, pass it on.

Documentary filmmakers must be constant and consummate activists, on call at all times to meet the challenge of informing prospective audiences about their films, and about the entertainment and educational value of the nonfiction genres, in general. They're filmmakers, not salespersons by profession, and many are frustrated by the need to constantly push individuals and groups to support screenings at their local Cineplex or art cinema, or at screening series, or film festival, and/or to click on the purchase tab and place nonfiction DVDs into their shopping carts on Amazon.com and other online movie selling sites. Documentary distributors, programmers, festival personnel, marketers and those who write about nonfiction film are a pro-documentaries team constantly pursuing this goal.

Building on Successes

Some documentary box office successes -- such as An Inconvenient Truth (2006), Religulous -- serve as models in the discussion of audience development. But documentary hits at the big box office are rare, and with rare exceptions, those that succeed at the box office don't have sequels or become franchises the way successful narrative features do.

To develop new audiences, the documentary community is constantly creating and testing new strategies that fall outside the parameters of traditional movie marketing -- including inventive social media campaigns, including developing audiences by getting people involved in the film's production by making a financial contribution via crowdfunding platforms or appealing to particular interest groups to follow the film's production as it progresses and pre-arrange screenings for group members, or for the general public.

Another option that's worked very successfully for some filmmakers and their films is self-distribution. Filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady have forged the way with their successful self-distrubution of Detropia, a marvelous documentary that played the festival circuit, was subsequently rolled out for theatrical screenings at select theaters and special venues and after thus gathering momentum was released on DVD, available for purchase on the Web at Amazon and other online film vendors.

Self-distribution, however, is a full immersion effort and can take years to accomplish. And, many filmmakers simply don't want to spend time doing that. They want to get away from the business of distribution and get back to the business of making another film.

The Film Festival Effect

Film festivals play a huge role in audience development for documentaries. Festivals not only provide a forum in which documentary filmmakers and distributors can build strategies based on the latest documentary audience building successes, they screen films for the international press whose reviews help build demand for documentary screenings in other arenas. Festivals are also adept at developing their own loyal audiences, those who support and attend the festival year after year, and who help to build audience building buzz for a film. But, unfortunately, a documentary's audience exposure can fall off at the end of the festival circuit, and that's not satisfactory to filmmakers who've committed their passions, artistry, time and resources to a project. And, it doesn't meet the needs of audiences who've seen and appreciate documentaries and want to see more -- but can't get to a film festival.

Audiences Recruiting Audiences

When movie goers become documentary fans, they recruit friends, family and colleagues. There seems to be a multiplier effect in play in audience development for documentaries.

Documentary watchers who can't find the films they want to see in their local theaters can petition theater managers to increase nonfiction programming. People whose demands for documentary films are not being satisfied by local theaters can approach non-theatrical venues such as schools, libraries, churches and community centers about starting documentary film series, or they can create their own documentary viewing clubs. Audiences who want to see more documentaries are great recruiters for audiences who have seen few or none, and are still laboring under the erroneous assumption that documentaries are bland and boring presentations about dry and uninteresting subjects that have no entertainment value and no bearing on their daily lives and aspirations.

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