In part one in a series of posts on finding an audience for your documentary, Edward J. Delaney explains how to use the Pyramid of Audience Interest to define and expand your doc’s niche audience. Jump to part two: The Elusive ‘General’ Audience.

Filmmakers are in many ways a romantic lot, embracing new advances while clinging to an old notion of success: an opening at Sundance or Toronto (to rave reviews), followed by a wide theatrical release, then maybe a national television event, and on to the Academy Award! Directors such as Louie Psihoyos (The Cove), Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side) and Charles Ferguson (Inside Job), Oscar winners all, knew how to find their way to big financing — or in Ferguson’s case, already had the money. But for every Psihoyos, Gibney and Ferguson, there are thousands of expensively made documentaries that simply never got anywhere.

And the reason for that has much to do with the matter of how they approached their audience.

From Micro-Budgets to Micro-Audiences

With realistic budgets falling into micro-budget territory — thanks to plummeting technology costs — more people can make good films. But more films are competing for a limited audience too. If you’re taking a micro-budget path, you’ll have to ask yourself, for the money you have, what kind of film you can make that has a chance of connecting with an enthusiastic audience. Hence the notion of micro-audiences.

For every subject there is an audience that runs the gamut — from a small group of the Insanely Interested — to a larger (but harder-to-get-to) group of the Not Directly Interested. One costs a little because of inherent interest, and the other costs a lot because it needs to be marketed to. You should examine what each audience offers to you, and what your film offers to them. As I see it, filmmakers who can dispense with delusions of grandeur can find success and reasonable profit from targeting a micro-audience.

If you, the filmmaker, can lock in that small group of viewers at the top of the Pyramid of Audience Interest while seeking ways to move down through the levels, you’re on your way to making back some of your micro-budget — with micro-revenue, of course.

The Pyramid of Audience Interest
Insanely Interested
This film is everything they live for. Will not miss it.

Rising Passion
Developing a strong interest in the topic. This film serves to lock in what is already a strong interest. May not go to the screening, but will get the DVD.

Beginning To Actively Involve Oneself
Has just gone from having a passive interest to something more active. Still less knowledgeable, but is committed to seeking out information on this topic.

Generally Interested
This topic or subject fits in a loose collection of things of interest. While still very much a passive interest, it may relate to things of active interest, and there may turn out to be more connections than originally thought.

Not Directly Interested
In and of itself, the topic holds no interest. What will bring this audience in is some greater value not related to topic interest: Entertainment rather than information, amusement rather than elevation. The ability to get this audience may be a high effort/low yield prospect in most cases. This film will be a side trip from things that do interest.

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The Insanely Interested

The Insanely Interested is a core group of people who live and breathe your topic. While they are a small fraction of the total potential audience, they are the most likely to see or buy your film, and begin the process of offsetting your production costs. They’ll attend screenings, buy DVDs and likely jump in on “extras” you might also sell. These are people who may work in professions related to the topic, or whose hobby relates to the topic, or who make some identity out of what the topic offers. So the question is, how big might that audience be?

They might go from the very narrow, such as the audience I perceive for Between the Folds, Vanessa Gould’s lovely documentary about origami (I don’t see the origami community being huge), to something broader such as Gary Hustwit’s Helvetica, which is about typography (there are lots of graphic designers and artists who bring their passions to typographical design). Either way, the Insanely Interested may know more about the topic than the filmmaker, and have read many books on the subject. So what does a documentary film provide for them? I suspect it’s legitimization. You’re not necessarily breaking new ground for them, but a film does something to tell this core group that what they do is worthy, and allows it to be shared with others. Your documentary should not be so inside that it only appeals to this audience. In fact, the more inside it is, the less this core audience can feel this legitimization.

The Insanely Interested can potentially pay for the making of a micro-budget film. One reason is they’ll be the easiest audience to find. They often have clubs, Facebook groups, conventions and blogs. Social media can help you easily find this group and make them aware of your work.

That seems easy enough, but remember how many documentaries don’t find such a core group of Insanely Interested. Filmmakers can choose topics that are too personal to themselves, and don’t really have a topic at all. If your topic is you, the Insanely Interested may turn out to be you and your immediate family. Or the topic could be something that doesn’t gather audience through legitimization. A darling of the 2007 festival scene, premiering at Sundance and winning an award at Cannes, was the documentary Zoo. It was about men having sex with horses. 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.

Rising Passion

Let us say you feel you’ve saturated your Insanely Interested group. The next cohort is what I call Rising Passion.

This group is on the way to Insane Interest, but is less knowledgeable. They are still seeking out every shred and detail about their topic of interest, and what your film offers may indeed be news to them. There is also a bit of soul stirring going on, be it the amazing creations showcased in Between The Folds or the pleasure of good design in Helvetica. It may be a worldview, or a rising concern about the environment, or an interest in Buddhism. This group may be on the edges of full participation — they don’t go to the national convention, or yet have an ID on the chat board. But they are on their way there.

A documentary on their topic of choice provides a level of confirmation. It helps lock them in. They see in the film what they cannot read in a book, magazine piece or web post: They see living people, who share their passion, talking about why they love the subject at hand. This audience member says, “That’s me.” It brings them, perhaps, to a next level.

A documentary film such as Ride The Divide, Mike Dion and Hunter Weeks’ doc about a 2,700-mile mountain-bike rave, had about 100 theatrical screenings, often arranged through bike shops in cycling hotbeds. You may never have heard of it, but it found plenty of people who loved it.

Buy-in for the Rising Passion group is maybe a purchase of a DVD, and this group is much larger than the Insanely Interested. Interest in a given subject — whether it be an art form or environmental matter, whether it be troubling or celebratory — is a form of self-image-making. “I am one of these people,” this person says, affirmatively crossing a personal threshold. In Ron Mann’s documentary Know Your Mushrooms, the lead player is Larry Evans, a mushroom aficionado who has enough idiosyncrasy, but also enough charisma, for someone who’s into mushrooms (and indeed the film was featured at the Telluride Mushroom Festival as well as SXSW) for a Rising Passion to decide to fully join the fun: “I’m not that guy, but I’m a little bit like him.”

Descending the Pyramid

The Rising Passion group is going to be much larger than the Insanely Interested. As you broaden out the distribution and descend the pyramid, the trick is to not lose these groups as you seek out more general response.

In, The Elusive ‘General’ Audience, a second post of this series on finding an audience for your documentary, Edward J. Delaney looks at how an emphasis on your film’s storyline can help grow your audience beyond a small core of fans. Find more documentary news and features on POV’s Blog, or follow POV on Facebook or Twitter.

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Edward J. Delaney is a journalist, author, filmmaker and editor of DocumentaryTech, an online project that explores documentary filmmaking techniques and technology.