What The Heck Is The Thru-Line?
And Why Is Every Film A Marketing Challenge and An Opportunity?
***I am updating this article, particularly after a discussion with a client that tweaked my thinking on using the word “problem.” Every time I used it, I found myself explaining it, and he was right. Thanks to Anre Garrett!
Many new and even highly experienced filmmakers arrive at our door trying to think about all parts of a business plan at once, worried about the research (worried about what to research), worried about how to describe the process, planning to deliver a detailed schedule of their production activities, trying to make their own stab at projecting the value of their film, and worrying about all kinds of deal questions, their festival strategy, selling DVDs on the Internet, selling downloads to phones in China, you name it, a stew of boiling ideas and decisions. I sometimes call this state of affairs “all trains arriving on all tracks simultaneously.”
But how do we stop and schedule the trains? One of the biggest contributors to overwhelm in decision-making and clear action is simply trying to make too many decisions simultaneously.
A Good Way To Overcome This – Remember Why You Are Here
Every film has a driving force in its idea. The industry likes to call it the concept. They love to reduce things to a few pithy words that seem to mash two or three ideas together and make a film rank high on a “cool” meter. The fact of the matter is, some films take contemplation, some films encourage involvement. There are many kinds of films that are viable for many kinds of film fans. Some are even for people who are almost never fans of films, or are very wary of films. Some elements of the Christian audience fit this profile.
Remember Why You Are Here, Above All – The Thru-Line
When a film is conceived, there is an audience for it within the story’s conception. Some think it’s dirty to contemplate your consumer, but even if the perfect consumer of your story is someone just like you, maybe even is you, that’s an audience too (no matter how unique and unreachable and above it all you think you are). I once had a Thanksgiving dinner where one of the older guests, an ex-hippie mom who had raised two very nice geek sons who were into all the latest gadgets and technology, even working in technology, and she said she was unreachable, as she didn’t have a TV, and wasn’t susceptible or identifiable to marketing. Well, if she reads Mother Jones, or even her local co-op newspaper, somebody is trying to reach her with messages. I think she hated me for saying all that. She was just the right kind of person to get a What The #$*! Do We Know?! message from the granola, co-op, whole foods type marketers that worked on that film. She probably did get more than one message.
Paula Silver once told me she was hired to help galvanize the audience for My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and her first job was to go a Greek dancing convention in Seattle. As she gave out every shirt she had printed up, she told the dancers that they needed to support this film, or “it would be another 20 years until you get a film about Greeks.” That was the start of the avalanche for the film. Constituency. Films like this are built on constituencies.
I call the line from the conception of the story to the ultimate consumption, the Thru-Line (trademark, service mark, copyright, intellectual property). The Thru-Line is what will always return you to why you are even here anyhow. When you are pitching your film and its reasons for being to an investor, your Thru-Line is what you are asking them to partner with you on. When you are lining up actors and production personnel, you are asking them to get aboard and help you attain the vision that delivers your Thru-Line. When you are presenting your film to a festival, or to a distributor, you are asking them to get aboard and help you bring your film to the audience, achieve the fullest expression of the Thru-Line.
Why Does The Thru-Line Exist, Then?
The Thru-Line is your direct connection to your audience, why you’re even making the film. It can be sublime, sharing a meditation on the most metaphysical of concepts in a documentary or a filmed tone-poem, or it can be a ridiculously funny and bloody zombie romp, or it can be a quiet look into the emotional needs of a woman uprooted from her homeland and dropped into an alien farm town halfway around the world. And I’ve enjoyed working on all of the above.
Every Film Is A Sizing Problem Challenge – Then It’s A Marketing Problem Challenge and Opportunity
What do I mean by that? I don’t mean that marketing is at the heart of your endeavor, but I do mean that communicating the existence of your film to your natural audience is as important as making the dang film in the first place. So, thinking long and hard about who your audience is, how to describe them, why they even want to see your film, or they need to, is a crucial first step.
Unfortunately, this business (making a film) usually costs some kind of money. And often the story requires enough money that a couple of friends just can’t do it out of their wallets, even if their wallets are middle-class, or above middle-class.
So, unless you can do the whole thing on your own allowance, you will need financial partners. Knowing who your audience is, and being able to clearly articulate who they are, and why they want to see your film is part of bringing those financial partners on board. Knowing who your audience is can also help you size that audience in some reasonable fashion.
Celibate Goths may be a pretty small group, but you can look for them and their friends and try to find out how many there are, and how they communicate, and get a feeling for whether they can help support your ten million dollar movie or not. If not, then you need to either determine how to crossover, or how to trim your budget by five or ten bucks. This is “Sizing.” Now, when you do this a lot, sizing becomes easier, and you can get a feel for it, but there are no absolute “facts” out there, and you just might uncover the surprising and wonderful fact that Celibate Goths are all on one Twitter channel, and that there are forty five million of them, and they all use VOD extensively every day because of something they got in a tweet, so your job is easy, and a $10 million negative cost is easy to deal with. But the key thing in this paragraph is that “there are no facts.” Everybody in this risky business of filmmaking and delivery wants to feel secure, so they grab at “facts” and spout them repeatedly, to gain and retain comfort, and to provide it to others.
Here’s a fact:
In a 2009 New Yorker article on the new Julia Roberts and Clive Owen international spy dalliance romp in the hay, the author says that “Today, the film industry considers adult-oriented drama a small target, and one that is getting smaller. Middle-aged Americans don’t go to the movies; young adults and teenagers do, and they prefer action to talk…”
There are actually several facts stated in this small excerpt, a. what the movie industry considers a viable target audience (probably based on the “4 quadrant” theory – men, women, above age 25, below age 25) b. who goes to movies (and who doesn’t) c. and what they love in a film (and don’t love).
Let me show you a countervailing couple of facts:
The audience opening weekend for Gran Torino was 45%+ 50 years old and older. The audience for The Unborn the same weekend was more than 40% under 18.
Gran Torino achieved $143 million US gross, and The Unborn achieved $42 million US gross.
Gran Torino had 52% highly satisfied female attendees opening weekend and The Unborn had 56% very unsatisfied female attendees opening weekend.
1, 2 and 3 are much closer to facts than the facts (a, b, c) in the quote above.
The secret is, (whisper) the audience is aging, and, frankly, the MPAA is trying to hide that, or, at least I think they are. Up until 2005, they reported age and attendance figures by slices like this:
Starting in 2006, they began reporting it like this:
Now, read below, and you might wonder, like I do, if they are trying to plaster over a crack in reality.
–In 1990, the percent of moviegoers above the age of 30 was 37%.
–In 2000, the percent of moviegoers above the age of 30 was 42%.
–In 2006, the percent of moviegoers above the age of 30 was 51%.
The audience is aging, and has been since at least the mid 90’s. I have been covering it that long, sad to say, or happy to say. But these are facts.
–In 1990, the percent of moviegoers above the age of 40 was 17%.
–In 2000, the percent of moviegoers above the age of 40 was 24%.
–In 2006, the percent of moviegoers above the age of 40 was 33%.
When a segment of the audience nearly doubles its hold on a marketplace (those above age 40), this is significant. But even these facts are also “facts.” When you start to analyze frequent moviegoers, you get a different, but not radically different slant on the situation. As would be anticipated, you lose a few points when looking at frequent moviegoers in the upper age groups. They have a lot more discretion, a lot more money, a lot more decision freedom, and a lot more they like to do.
And don’t even get me talking about online presence and other facts areas like that. What many people think are facts are actually just crap to talk about.
The point is, facts are closer to facts, and what is often taken as “received wisdom” like the statement from the New Yorker article is nothing but water-cooler talk, in light of real facts.
That’s why what you hear in the halls of AFM might be far from a fact, and just one piece of anecdotal information handed around ten times before it got to you, all massaged into a soft little tidbit.
Facts are actually better.
Every Film Is A Marketing
Challenge and Opportunity
I see every film as a marketing problem (Read: problem as task) challenge and opportunity, but that is really broken down into:
- An audience identification task
- An audience sizing task
- An audience hangout identification task
- An audience message preference identification task
- An audience position in the flow of information
- A scoping out of the cost of messaging the audience task
- Identification as to whether all this will support the ostensible negative cost, or investment.
- Go/No Go – or redesign…
- Unless these things are at least reasonably and satisfactorily answered in some way, it is hard, I believe, to begin to think really clearly about what the model for your film’s life could be.
Oh and by the way, the Julia Roberts film opened with a 60% female audience, and almost 50% aged 50 and above. Both males and females were generally dissatisfied, and older audience members the most dissatisfied.
Onward and Upward