Audience in a movie theater (Image by Flickr user ToastyKen)

In a second post in a series on finding an audience for your documentary, Edward J. Delaney looks at how an emphasis on your film’s storyline can help you grow your audience beyond a small core of fans. (Part one looked at cultivating micro-audiences.)

I remember working years ago for a newspaper in which at an editorial meeting the publisher spoke of trying to raise the circulation by 25,000 copies a day. After months of promotions, discounts and other active efforts to get that boost, the publisher concluded that the money it took to artificially raise the circulation was more than the potential advertising revenue we’d see because of higher numbers. We were simply losing money by trying to have more readers in a market we had pretty much saturated.

Smaller, it turned out, was better.

To release your documentary to a general audience, you could similarly spend extra money, effort and time with marginal results (or worse).

To give your film a general release, you’re probably shotgunning, and that costs money. And a general release is not a wide release. It implies giving up your core audience in the hopes of your work being seen by larger numbers. Documentary film is still a cost–revenue proposition. A bigger budget on your film requires more audience just for you not to lose money.

Your Core Audience vs. The General Audience

Having attended many a film festival and been a judge on a few, I’ve seen many documentaries that seem stuck between the two audiences. Often, it seems to me, trying to capture both audiences is at cross purposes:

  • Core audiences want details, but general audiences find those details boring. Lose details and your core audience sees the film as giving them something they already know.
  • Core audiences want to advance their knowledge, while general audiences more often seek escape and entertainment.
  • Core audiences relate the topic to their lives, while general audiences may never engage in the topic again.

So, each time you step away from your core audience and try to capture that bigger audience, the risk of falling flat increases. There’s no shame in making a documentary that achieves all it aims to achieve, but escapes the general audience. Filmmakers can make careers from made-to-order docs for niche TV, for example. 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.

In Search of a Plot

Trying to go wide leads to other considerations. For one, general audiences look for something core audiences don’t always: a plot. Be it March of the Penguins, Grizzly Man or Super Size Me, most successful documentaries generally have a storyline. The unfortunate I’m Not Here had no definable plot other than Joaquin Phoenix stumbling through an apparent effort to be a rapper. It was received so poorly they later denied it was a doc at all. Another high-profile documentary that didn’t meet expectations was Freakonomics, which cost $2.9 million to make and had a reported box office of about $100,000. The film currently has an 48 percent audience score on Rotten Tomatoes and was passed by for film awards, but I give the film credit for trying to do something about ideas.

The successful documentaries that don’t have a strong plot — and I consider Bowling for Columbine to be one of those — work on the basis of unique personality. A punchline every three to four minutes is what it took for Michael Moore to succeed, even if his thesis is often convoluted and contradictory. If there’s a plot at all, it’s the journey of one man to get an answer to a question that’s really impossible to answer. Columbine keeps you watching through a mix of comedy and pathos. Plots tend to have a need to focus down to a single character or protagonist, or at least a small group. The current fashion in documentary (spurred more than filmmakers will admit by the rise of the reality television show) seems to be live-action documentaries in which we follow one person or a small group of people through a complication. A plot also implies a big climax, which seems to be why a rising number of docs seem to lead to our protagonists ending up in some Big Contest — grocery bagging, mother of the year, singing competition, the big game, etc. The showdown, with its clear winners and losers, makes a very easy plot device. But it also works an awful lot of the time.

Plot is about focus, and focus is about shedding complexity. It’s hard to go wide with details and go narrow with story. Man on Wire, with its story of one man’s tightrope walk, is a different film than one about all the different people who do such stunts. It was able to go wide because it added plot. It doesn’t matter if Philippe Petit will fall from the wire (he’s interviewed years later, clearly alive) or if he’ll succeed (the poster ruins that) or if he’ll be caught, but it matters how it all happens. March of the Penguins succeeds by doing something no self-respecting scientist would do: It treats the penguins as humans, assigning emotion and motivation so they become proxies of ourselves in our own struggles with life’s journeys.

General audiences also seek, consciously or unconsciously, some level of character development. That means that your protagonist goes through some significant personal change, as is typical in a dramatic film or in a novel. Audiences who might not care a whit about the topic care about people in such struggles. Ironically, few documentaries have such literary movement. But those that do, such as the classics An American Family and Hoop Dreams can truly move audiences. (It’s worth noting that box office for Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man far outpaced that of his less-plotted doc Encounters at the End of the World.)

One successful film that doesn’t, The Cove, has a lot of plot devices instead, making it akin to an escapist summer thriller like The Bourne Identity or Mission: Impossible. But for all its success, it lacks a character change. In the end, audience members becomes vaguely aware of the dolphin problem after seeing a minute of disturbing climactic footage, but that’s really less the point than the excitement of the chase.

On the other hand, Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly’s The Way We Get By (POV 2010) is all about the action of the film leading our main characters, elderly troop greeters, to explore the meaning of their lives.

Problems with Plot

The most important thing for a filmmaker to remember about plot-driven documentaries is that they carry an element of risk that cannot be planned: What if the Cove guys hadn’t succeeded on their mission?

Risk is lessened by either telling a story retroactively (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, The U.S. vs John Lennon) or having a can’t-miss climax (see The Big Contest play out in Jeffrey Blitz’s 2002 doc Spellbound, about the national spelling bee, or Patrick Creadon’s 2006 Wordplay, which takes you to a crossword-puzzle competition).

The other notion is that, in the end, even general documentary audiences aren’t really general. If they were, we’d be choosing from a half-dozen docs on Friday night at the multiplex. Documentary audiences are often older, with a higher level of education, and they often mix the desire for the educational and entertaining. That means getting to them in a meaningful way will be harder.

But what may ultimately bring audiences to films is something the filmmaker can’t script: serendipity. The nature of documentary is that it’s real, and what unfolds before the audience is the joy of the process. Filmmakers who make widely viewed films on micro-budgets will be the ones who sense the story, chase it and watch it bloom in front of their lenses.

Read part one in this series on finding an audience for your documentary: Cultivating Micro-Audiences.

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.