Love it or hate it, social media is becoming an increasingly important tool for working filmmakers. But is having an online presence really that critical to your overall success?
It depends entirely on your path of course, and no two filmmakers ever succeed via the exact same means.
There are filmmakers out there who don’t have any sort of online presence – social media or otherwise – and have had no problem breaking into the industry. But in today’s day and age, filmmakers who do take steps to build an audience using social media (along with blogs, podcasts, email lists, etc.) are often at a major advantage… At least from a pragmatic standpoint.
There are plenty of drawbacks to social media too of course, many of which I’ve written about at length. In particular, I believe it can hinder the creative process and decrease creative output, at least for some of us. But that’s not the focus of today’s article.
Instead, I want to use this post to highlight a few arguments in favor of building up your social media/online efforts, and then explore methods for creating a strategy to get you there.
Let’s start with the major benefits…
WHY TO BUILD YOUR AUDIENCE
1. Gatekeepers Care About Your Audience
There is plenty of evidence to prove having a measurable audience of your own gives you a major leg up when dealing with any gatekeeper. Agents, film festival programmers, financiers, and talent will almost always factor in your social media/online audience when deciding to team up with you. There are exceptions to this of course, but they are very much exceptions.
In a recent interview I conducted on The Backlot with Elliot Grove (Founder of Raindance Film Festival), he reinforced this point. I asked whether festival programmers take social media presence into account when deciding between two equally strong submissions, and unsurprisingly the answer was yes. While there are many other factors that weigh into the decision as well, social media is an integral component. After all, why wouldn’t a festival be interested in programming filmmakers who already have built in audiences that will turn out to their screenings?
The same logic applies to virtually every other type of stakeholder or gatekeeper that you may try to win over. An audience of your own is a very valuable thing, and can be leveraged in so many ways – not only by you, but by those you seek to work with.
2. Your Audience Can Be Mobilized
In my opinion, the greatest benefit of building your online presence is the direct line of communication that it creates with your audience.
Building up your audience isn’t about vanity metrics, or trying to get the greatest quantity of followers. It’s about attracting the right people – those few individuals who really love what you’re doing, and who will be willing to support your career over the long term. Whether you need to leverage your audience to crowdfund your next project, spread the word when you drop a new trailer, or purchase your next movie outright, your true fans will be there to support your efforts at each step.
Personally speaking, I don’t know where I would be in my career without the audience that I’ve built over the years. They have generously supported the my projects from fundraising to distribution, and serve as a powerful source of motivation. As a filmmaker, they are my greatest asset and I dedicate a significant amount of time to providing them with value.
3. Increased Viral Potential
On a recent podcast, I interviewed David F. Sandberg, director of SHAZAM! about how he got his start in the business. His career exploded when a 2 minute no-budget short film he directed went viral on YouTube. This attracted the attention of Hollywood and opened up the door for 4 major studio feature films.
Obviously there is no way to replicate this kind of success, but it does prove a point – the internet can be an extremely powerful tool for filmmakers. Especially when you already have an existing audience that can help signal boost your work.
Think about how many short films screen at festivals every year, but never have a life beyond a few small in-person engagements. Now contrast that with short film’s like David’s LIGHT’S OUT, which initially bypassed the festival selection process by going online, and was 1000x better off as a result.
You don’t necessarily need to release short films to have this kind of traction either. Maybe you share great behind the scenes content on Instagram, or micro-blog about the writing process on Twitter. Whatever your content may be, putting it out regularly will help you build your audience immediately, and increase the odds that something you share will strike a chord with a lot of people and go viral. And when that happens, you never know who you might reach… And how much bigger your audience will grow in the process.
HOW TO BUILD YOUR AUDIENCE
Alright, so now we know that there are some obvious benefits to building your online presence… But what’s the right way to do it?
Everyone has to find the configuration that works best for them, as there are no hard and fast rules. That said, the following three principles can help guide your decisions and lead to a winning strategy of your own –
1. Don’t Use Social Media As Your Main Platform
Social media can be a powerful tool for finding new audience members, but it should never be the end point for your fans. Your audience needs a home, and if that home is your Instagram or Twitter account, you’re going to be severely limited in how you can leverage your audience. Not to mention, expanding your audience over time will be an uphill battle.
Rather than a social platform, I recommend using an email list as the “home” for your online audience. You can attract people from Instagram/Twitter/Facebok/Clubhouse/etc., but ultimately you want to incentivize them to join your email list. That will give you the most direct line of communication with them, and ensure that you are never at the mercy of how any given platforms decide to place you in their algorithm, or how long your fans stay on those platforms.
Email lists also offer dramatically better conversation ratios. I would way rather have 1000 real fans on an email list than 20,000 followers on Instagram, just as an example… Because I know when it comes time to sell my movie or spread the word about a new project, the email list will outperform social by a landslide.
2. Do Use Social Media To Find New Fans
Knowing that your goal is to drive fans to your email list, now you can approach your social media with purpose.
Often times, filmmakers use social media exclusively as a personal outlet. They take photos of what they’re eating for lunch, or share something personal that’s only of interest to their inner circle. This type of activity will never lead to substantial growth on social media, and will deter high quality audience members from wanting to click “Follow”.
If you’re going to spend time on social media, at least make it count. Think of it as a big net you’re casting out into the sea. You might post something and it reaches 1000 people. Of them, maybe 100 click to your profile. Of those, 10 follow your account. And of those, 1 signs up for your email list.
With these kind of numbers, you need to reach a whole lot of people through social media in order to really grow your email list. And more importantly, you have to reach the right kind of people, otherwise they won’t join your list at all.
There is no magic formula for what type of content you should post or how often. Only you can test different strategies and figure out what works best for your needs. But from a general perspective: Always seek to provide as much value to your prospective audience as possible. If you consistently provide unique value through highly relevant content, you will attract the right type of audience members who will perpetuate your growth in the future by republishing your material.
This cycle will continue and your social media “net” will widen each month and year. And along with it, your email list will grow just as steadily.
3. Be Selective With Your Platforms
When you first start to release content online, it can be overwhelming to figure out where to start. There are so many platforms out there, and it’s daunting to try to tackle it all at once… Which is why my recommendation is simple: start with just one.
Your one platform could be more traditional social media like Instagram or Twitter, or something outside of the social media realm, like a blog, podcast or YouTube channel. There are millions of potential fans out there for your work on every platform, so you don’t have to be everywhere at the same time. It will be far more sustainable to focus on building one platform up first, and then expand to others in the future.
To pick which platform is right for you, consider the type of content you want to share, and how that intersects with your skills. If you are an amazing graphic designer, maybe you use instagram as it is image-based. If you love talking to camera, maybe start a YouTube channel or podcast.
Most importantly – stick with it. It took me close to 5 years to really get any traction with the content I put out online. But it was well worth the wait.
Start now, and build steadily… Before you know it, you’ll be able to tap into an audience of your own, bring your projects to life, and find sustainability in your career.
I speak about all of this at length in my Audience Building class, which you can check out here if you’re interested.