Finding Your Audience

Making a documentary film is a challenge in itself; marketing it and distributing the final product—in other words, getting it seen—is arguably even tougher.

Don’t know where to start? Read on for some tips on promoting your doc, grassroots campaigning, and finding the right audience from innovative thought leader Caitlin Boyle.

Caitlin Boyle founded Film Sprout, a film consultation and distribution firm that specializes in grassroots campaigning, to help filmmakers get their films seen beyond the cinema. With a portfolio that includes campaigns for recent films like Trapped, The Hunting Ground, and Sonic Sea, Caitlin has invaluable experience when it comes to connecting films to grassroots audiences...and she was kind enough to share some of her advice with the Story & Heart community.

So how can you not only find your audience, but engage them as you bring your film to the public?

Read on to learn more about Caitlin’s background, her process for campaigns, and her tips for successfully bringing your film to an audience of viewers that can support your film’s visibility, revenue, and impact over the long haul.

Film Sprout's Roots

Caitlin Boyle’s firm, Film Sprout, rethinks the ways that filmmakers can connect with—and market to—audiences.

Caitlin Boyle, founder of Film Sprout

Caitlin Boyle, founder of Film Sprout

Boyle started off in public media, with a background in journalism. In an early-career role she worked as a production assistant at WNET, New York City’s flagship public television station. While there, she had the chance to look behind-the-scenes at a primetime film series that commissioned and acquired feature documentaries from independent filmmakers and repackaged them as hour-long television specials.

The experience, she says, made her curious about how audiences consume films after they’ve aired on television—how their interests are piqued, and ultimately, how they might be moved to engage with those films in their own communities.

When she left WNET to do production work on several independent documentary projects, Boyle realized that grassroots distribution might be one powerful way that independent filmmakers could connect with their audiences directly, without that relationship being mediated by a broadcaster or theatrical distributor.

Films Shouldn't Exist Within A Vacuum

In 2007, she jumped at the opportunity to design an audience outreach strategy for a feature documentary, King Corn, that was having great success on the festival circuit and preparing for a theatrical release. “As I set up screenings across the country for King Corn, I realized that I could create a more direct way to get content to audiences,” says Boyle. “When you have a TV broadcast, for example, there's a wall between you and the viewer. You don't actually know who's tuning in. You don't ever get to speak with them. You don't get to hear audience reactions. You don't get that feedback. I wanted to find a different way of interacting with audiences, and I found that audiences were hungry for that interaction, too.” Thus, Film Sprout was born.

I wanted to find a different way of interacting with audiences, and I found that audiences were hungry for that interaction, too.
— Caitlin Boyle

“With community, campus, and grassroots screenings, we found that we could bring films to audiences that would not be able to access the content without us facilitating the transaction,” she says. Bringing films to underserved audiences—those that craved indie films beyond the PBS listings or who lacked access to the options of big-city theaters—is Film Sprout’s mission.

A Win Win For Everyone

“Our model empowers anyone who wants to set up screenings to do that through their organization, volunteer work, civic group, or activist network,” says Boyle. “We firmly believe that any group that wants access to an independent film, and can scrape together the resources to exhibit it publicly in his or her community, should get the chance to do so. In turn, we believe that those exhibitions, aggregated across hundreds of grassroots exhibitors, can create a powerful revenue source and distribution mechanism for independent film.”

Looking back, Boyle says, it’s also clear that Film Sprout emerged at a moment of collapse in traditional distribution.

“Film Sprout was formed in a moment where there was a great deal of interest in finding alternative, new, and creative ways of getting films out there,” she says. “We struck a nerve, and we found a way to meet the needs of both local, community-based exhibitors and indie filmmakers. We did it by charging a modest licensing fee of every screening host, allowing local hosts to collect ticket fees or fundraise at their events, and passing along licensing revenues to filmmakers."

Through Film Sprout, independent filmmakers can make money and find viewers. And NGOs, educators, students and community organizations can find gorgeous, moving content to complement their work, communicate their mission, and find new donors or constituents. “It’s a true win-win,” says Boyle.

Now, Film Sprout promotes 8 to 10 documentary films a year through grassroots distribution campaigns. For 50 additional projects a year, Boyle offers hands-on consultative support to film teams hoping to launch their own efforts.

Tips For Distributing Your Own Films

Identify Your Real Audience. Then Market to them.

Don’t know where to start with your own distribution process? Boyle’s number one piece of advice is to identify your core audience, and go from there. “Be brutally honest with yourself about who your audience is,” says Boyle. “I often hear that films are ‘general-interest films.’ But the very concept of a ‘general-audience film’ is a myth. There's no film that appeals to everyone, all the time. Every film has a core audience that is going to respond more powerfully to it than anyone else: with more motivation, with more passion, and with more resonance.”

Be brutally honest with yourself about who your audience is.
— Caitlin Boyle

Identifying your core audience comes into play when scheduling screenings and doing promotion—it’s something Boyle says she often coaches filmmakers to do. “We direct people to identify who, specifically, is going to be motivated to not only come see your film, but host a screening, spread the word, take some follow-up action,” she says. “That's a special person who's going to be empowered and excited to do all of those things.”

Fliers for  The Hunting Ground

Fliers for The Hunting Ground

Focus. Focus. Focus.

As for finding that special person, or other influencers, Boyle again advises filmmakers to search for specific people that will really identify with a film’s message.

“Think on a granular level,” she says. “Not just about women who care about reproductive choice, for example. You can drill down even further. Think about students who are members of feminist groups on college campuses who care about women and reproductive choice. There might be 10 or 12 of those very specific profiles that you can think of.”

Don't Ask Your Audience To Come To You. Go To Them, Individually.

The next step is to identify how to reach those people. “Do they belong to networks? Do they follow national organizations? Are they members of chapter-based organizations? Do they sign online petitions? How old are they?” Boyle says these are questions she recommends asking yourself. The answers will influence how you approach your outreach.

Marketing your film relies on the idea that your audience is comprised of individuals, says Boyle. “You're not marketing some kind of mass-produced consumer good,” she says. “Tell yourself, ‘Let me write an email to somebody about my film that is the kind of email that I would want to get in my inbox.’” Even though it may seem obvious, Boyle says to avoid pushy, salesy language in favor of sincerity. “Being very real and communicating with your audiences at that level is important,” she says.

Taking time to learn who they are, what they care about, and how they speak takes you far.
— Caitlin Boyle

Think Socially

With ever-growing VOD options, it may seem like theater-going—and the potential to even reach an audience—is waning. But Boyle argues that the social action opportunities and engagement provided by screenings makes public spaces still viable as destinations. “Think about social change and social action, and the concrete environment that might prompt you to change your own behavior or your own thinking. Chances are, that kind of attitude shift or behavior change is going to take place because of an experience you have with others, interpersonally, in a public forum,” says Boyle.

An outdoor screening

An outdoor screening

For proof, Boyle offers the example of Trapped, the 2016 documentary directed by Dawn Porter about TRAP (targeted restriction of abortion providers) laws that limit access to abortion in many states. “When we do post-screening surveys,” Boyle says,“We see both anecdotally and quantitatively that the discussion that follows the film is often a forum in which people learn what they can do, who their local providers are, who their state representatives are, and whether they are making pro-choice or anti-choice decisions, and how can they register to vote or to otherwise engage with the movement to keep abortion safe, legal and accessible,” says Boyle. “Public context enriches the experience. Obviously, that kind of holistic, action-oriented experience doesn't take place if you're watching a film alone in your pajamas.”

Experience Matters

Beyond providing outlets for social engagement, Boyle thinks that public exhibition will continue to survive because the greater cost that is placed on a theater-going excursion makes the experience feel special to audiences.

“A higher value is inherently placed on that experience because you've had to work harder to get there,” she says. “Maybe you’ve bought a ticket or hired a babysitter. Surely, you’ve at least left the house! Theater-going appeals to people who really value media and storytelling as a cultural good or a social good, and those audiences are keeping both cinemas and community screenings alive”

Keep The Conversation Going

In sum, Boyle offers hope—and evidence—that you can get your film screened and seen, and successfully engage with your audience. Ultimately, she says, the pathway to reaching the audiences who will support your film in the long-term is through other filmmakers.

“I often see filmmakers sign a contract, accept a festival, or make any of the numerous choices you have to make in distributing your film without ever talking to another filmmaker about those choices,” Boyle says. “Information-sharing among filmmakers is incredibly valuable. Avoiding pitfalls, avoiding distribution mistakes, projecting realistic outcomes for your film—all of these things can be shaped by having ongoing conversations with fellow filmmakers.” This kind of collaboration, she says, helps to support filmmakers individually and the field as a whole.

We agree that there’s power in talking to fellow filmmakers...and learning from anyone and everyone you can! Visit Film Sprout to learn more about Caitlin’s work, which we heard about at this year’s Oregon Doc Camp, a documentary film retreat sponsored by Women in Film Portland. Conferences like these are a great way to talk to more filmmakers and get inspired.

Have any questions about promoting your film and finding your specific audience? Tell us in the discussion section below.