I’ve been on a bit of a journey lately. My life as a storyteller continues to be stretched, challenged, toughened, and reshaped. I’ve written before about how my attitude as a writer can either sweeten or spoil my stories, but today I want to share how I learned to love my audience.
That’s a hugely important lesson to learn, too. Between social media, crowdsourcing, new technology, and shifts in the industry, the gap between artist and audience is quickly closing (and in some cases, it’s even closed entirely). If you’re going to do business in 5-10 years you need to learn how to not just connect with your audience, but love them as well.
The Trap of Anonymity
My wife and I moved into the Berclair neighborhood of Memphis just after we got married. Our street is nice enough, but gunshots are not uncommon in the area, and there are certain streets you just don’t go down. Needless to say, when our neighbor’s dogs started keeping us up at night, baking not 30 feet from our bedroom window, I thought it best to let the police knock on their door.
Weeks passed like this. The dogs barked, we lost sleep, the police were called, citations were issued. I began to demonize my neighbors, imagining them to be heartless thugs, drug dealers, violent and unwashed. Who else would continue to let their dogs bark at night knowing full well it was a disturbance. They became malicious in my mind.
I’m sure you’ve guessed at this point that I was completely wrong. At the insistence of a police officer, I went and spoke with my neighbors. They were good people, we had a nice chat, and we found a working compromise with the dogs. By not engaging my neighbors directly, I alienated myself from them. Their absence created a vacuum quickly filled with my own insecurities.
What does this have to do with filmmaking?
When we screened John Gray for the first time, our audience didn’t really get the film. My response was to criticize them. If they had only paid attention better, if they weren’t wanting me to spoon-feed them the plot, if only they weren’t so dumb. I felt like it was the audience’s fault they didn’t enjoy the film.
I had fallen into a trap. My anonymity isolated me from what mattered most: connection.
The Shrinking Gap Between Artist and Audience
Up until recently, filmmakers didn’t have to engage their audience if they didn’t want to. You wrote, produced, and edited your film within the walls of the production company. You’d then screen your film at festivals attended primarily by industry types. If you were lucky, a distributor would buy the film from you, handling that messy business of getting it out there. You then returned home rich, and again, never having to interact with your film’s audience.
Things are changing, though.
Take one look at the music industry; as the major labels focus on just a few high-ticket artists, the independents are quickly filling the vacuum left in the mainstream market. The film industry is not too far behind.
Today in independent film, production budgets are crowdsourced, marketing is done via social media, and films can be sold directly to fans via websites, festivals, and conventions. All of the above require being connected to your audience, and you can’t be connected to someone you don’t love.
Time to get friendly with the neighbors or get left behind.
Dumbfounded by Generosity
Let me close with a story about my other next door neighbor, Thurman. I like Thurman. He’s in his 80’s, has lived in the same house for over 50 years, and babysits his great grand-babies. He’s like a walking time capsule; a breathing window into a bygone era.
Last week, as I left my house for a meeting, I stopped and asked Thurman if I could borrow his lawnmower over the weekend. Being the kind man that he is, he said yes. I told him I’d replace any gas I used up, but he just smiled back. I left and was only gone for a couple hours, but a shock was waiting for me when I got home: Thurman had mowed my lawn for me. And not just the front lawn, but our fair sized back yard as well.
I was dumbfounded by his generosity.
I want to make films for an audience the way that Thurman “loans out” his lawnmower. I want that kind of connection. Imagine the stories I’d be able to tell if I could!