Happy New Year, Stage 32! My goal is to start this year with some fighting words, to dispell some of the privileges and entitlements that are holding us back, and to empower our community to seize the reigns of our crazy, runaway culture. Put on your safety belts and helmets, dear readers… because the year is 2020, and the future is in our hands!
Ten years ago or so when I was an active freelancer in the film finance world, one of the myths Hollywood leaned on very heavily in our sales pitches was the idea of a “built-in audience.” Back then, the idea was that the audience for horror films and family entertainment was so indiscriminate, careless, and hungry that giving them literally anything to watch would all but guarantee your ticket and DVD sales. How many films were greenlit purely on the basis of that lazy-ass logic? Too many.
Now that we’re banning cocaine at the workplace, Hollywood middlemen have gotten a little crankier and a little more shrewd in their assessment of a film’s potential market. These days, quite a lot of a film’s apparent marketability hangs on the minimum guarantees that the film’s producer can pry from distributors in exchange for the confirmed attachment of pre-sellable marquee talent.
In all the time I’ve worked in Hollywood, the work of figuring out a film’s actual market is not a job anyone has ever taken serious responsibility for. With the addition of minimum guarantees to the film packaging process, finding a film’s market is a problem that executives can simply dump on our distributors. Unfortunately for filmmakers, our distributors just want movies that won’t draw side-eye from the movie theaters. Movie theaters themselves just want to run the box office and sell popcorn without any extra drama. Modern film development is all about making sure that nobody ever needs to accept the blame when a movie DOESN’T make money! Who is actually out there, figuring out how to sell our visionary masterpieces and market-changing entertainments? Nobody, that’s who!
If you’re seeing a ton of remakes and recycled content in the marketplace, that’s not because executives don’t know there’s an audience for new content. Today’s executives have sobered up enough to understand that having a comic book or a 70’s television show in the pitch deck doesn’t mean audiences will line up at the box office, any more than they would for a properly marketed original feature. Our entire problem is that after a few decades of avoiding the “audience problem,” nobody’s left in Hollywood who knows who these people are or where to find them.
What I’m saying here is that if we want a built-in audience, we have to go out there and get it ourselves.
If you’ve been reading my other blogs on Stage 32, then you know my entire approach to success in Hollywood comes down to two essential virtues. First, a successful showperson is constantly working to elevate their craft beyond the reach of anyone and everyone who’s work they do not actively, ardently admire. Most of us already agree this point is elemental to a professional work ethic. Our showpersonship, on the other hand, reflects the work we put into building a strong community. Making ourselves necessary to other people is what makes other people passionate about supporting us, whether that means working on our projects or buying movie tickets. Obviously, we all believe the stories we tell will make us necessary to other people. Otherwise, we’d be telling different stories. Now, having acknowledged the value our fertile imaginations, I’m asking us all to risk a more critical eye regarding the selflessness and the necessity of our roles in the community.
When you ask someone who the audience for their movie is, folks will generally rattle off a bunch of basic, dispassionate demographic information describing the people they HOPE will be in their audience. In actual, here-and-now reality, the audience for our movie is the group of people we KNOW are going to buy a ticket for our film. If the project we’re talking about is the director or producer’s first creative effort, the audience is pretty much going to be mom and dad.
Getting that first “mom and dad” project out of the way as soon as possible is absolutely vital because seeing those two reserved seats in a sea of chairs we have zero control over is what scares us into expanding our audience. Thankfully, most showpeople pass that milestone long before coming to Hollywood. Before we talk about turning those two seats into an army of supporters, permit me a tangent that I think will change the lighting on this whole discussion...
If you’re a showperson who has invested in the people around you to any small degree, then the news that a dear friend is getting married, having kids, or leaving Los Angeles has broken your heart at some point in your career. Our dreams are intertwined with the dreams of others. Our vision of success includes the people we believe in, admire, and love. Feeling lost when those people move on to something they feel more confident in or connected to is definitely ironic, but it’s also very natural.
What do we do with those relationships, once those people have cut themselves out of the portrait of success we’ve secretly enshrined? How do we reconcile ourselves to the constant loss of partnerships and shared ambitions that seem to define life in showbusiness? My answer is simple. Sell those people some movie tickets!
Our families, who want so badly to share in our lives but can’t “meet us halfway” because they regard our decisions as too extreme, are audience members. Our friends and showfamily who moved on to other lives even though they had so much craft, or passion, or potential, are audience members. Those people, for sure, will buy a movie ticket.
“But dude, doesn’t that like... cheapen those relationships?”
No! No, you’ve got it all backward. Presumably, we’re telling stories because we think we have something to give people. Don’t we plan to better people’s lives in some amazing way? If that thing we have, whatever it is, isn’t quite good enough for these people... then, dear reader, our craft is not as strong as we’ve been telling ourselves it is.
What these relationships are, really, is the standard to which we need to start holding ourselves when we invest in our audience. Consider your relationships with those people as a baseline for your audience cultivation. Imagine giving as much to everyone who engages your work, either as a colleague or as an audience member, as we’ve given to these people. How strong would your community be then? If your audience were full of people like that, what would it actually take for the house to be empty?
That is what a built-in audience looks like.
Now that we’re seeing the intimate side of showpersonship, consider the work that went into building the big brands of showbusiness. Every single book Stan Lee ever wrote had a page in the middle for letters to the editor. If you make comic books for Marvel, to this very day, you write the audience in every single issue. Period. Comic conventions were invented, for the record, because comic creators didn’t have enough chances to hang out with their audience. After literally half a century of unrelenting showpersonship from Marvel, a “three-phase” production plan for the movies isn’t just a good idea - it’s absolutely necessary.
Walt Disney built Disneyland so he could host the people who loved his cartoons, feed them turkey legs and punch, and show them his train set. If you think for a second that Disneyland is any more complicated than that, go take another look. William Shakespeare served bread and ale to the poor at every show, just so nobody was ever watching theater on an empty stomach.
Here we are, flapping our lips about which demographics owe us the big fat ticket sales? No! That, my friends, is some deeply privileged bullsh*t.
If the prospect of building an audience on the scale if Disney or Marvel feels intimidating at this point, that just means you’re paying attention. Try not to worry. Every audience for every production in history started with “those two seats.” Taking the seats we know we have and then multiplying them, is a huge part of building a successful showbusiness career. Here are two very important things we should always be doing to make that happen:
Part of the allure of auteur theory is the seductive notion that film is all about one person’s “vision” or genius and that for a moment the world can revolve around the power of one person’s ideas. If you’d like my thoughts on this “auteur theory” bullpucky in more detail, please feel free to read my contentious article on “CASHING IN YOUR MILLION DOLLAR IDEA.” When an auteur filmmaker is out to create art “for themselves,” they have maybe one good movie in them. Hopefully, they’ll be lucky enough to get paid for making that movie over and over again.
Any kind of collaborative art, and certainly any kind of performance art, grows and thrives in the space between people. Actually great auteur filmmakers are writing their own material because they don’t trust anyone else to give their actors, or their DP, or the rest of their team the material that will challenge their creative growth and bring out the strengths of their craft. In the end, great cinema is never about the vision. Always, it’s about the people.
In a craft that’s fueled and fed by the human beings involved, we need to make the audience part of that creative space. Develop the stories that build a bridge between the people you’re working with and the people you know will be showing up to watch. Bring those people together through your work. If you have aesthetic fetishes, or storytelling interests, or themes you want to explore, then that’s great! Throw that stuff into your work so you don’t make yourself crazy and bored, but please - and I say this with love - don’t make the egotistical mistake of thinking that our personal creative urges are the point of cinema.
Once we accept that the audience is who we’re creating for, we all need to start creating for that audience now as opposed to later. When we start looking at our stories in terms of how they bring our community together, take the budget into account. Don’t wait on finding the resources for that one perfect project. Make things now. Make things constantly, and share them with the people who show up for you.
Use your creative powers to give, rather than take. Give, first and foremost, to the people who support you, believe in you, and love you. Not too surprisingly, some of those people will go out of their way to start making you and your work a bigger part of their lives. If our stories are going to make us truly necessary in the lives of other people, this is how we start making that happen.
In showbusiness, our dreams are intertwined with the dreams of others… so we need to do everything we can to keep the dreams of our community alive, healthy and growing. Volunteer on the projects led by those people we believe in, and don’t worry about what we’re getting in return. Put time into the community - and invest that time specifically in helping audience members or colleagues with their goals, instead of relentlessly spamming with branding and crowdfunding.
When it comes to giving away time and work for free, my one cautionary piece of advice is that it is essential to surround oneself with people we admire. Plenty of people in this town are looking for someone else to “do the work” for them, and plenty more lack the craftspersonship or showpersonship to sustain their dreams. Find the people whose values align with your own, whose habits support your success, whose craft pushes us to improve yourself, and then give those people all you’ve got.
As our audience and our community start to grow, the things we do for “our people” will naturally start getting less and less personal. While the isolation that comes with popularity does seem more or less inevitable, it makes the community stronger to fight that trend with greater social media presence and sustained involvement in the personal commitments that mean the most to us. Writing these blogs for Stage 32 doesn’t give me the same personal connection as volunteering at my theater spaces here in LA... but I think it’s helping more people, so I keep doing it. Making the most of Stage 32 means taking time when you have questions, making myself available when folks track me down on social media and then finding good opportunities to creep back into the theater once in a while.
Leadership starts small. Our leadership in the community grows as people allow themselves to trust and rely on us. As our leadership expands outward from the immediate circle of colleagues who know they can depend on us, those people who keep showing up to go along for the ride become our audience. In time, this community you’ve built will empower you to pack a house just by showing up. With enough work, as we’ve seen from Marvel and Disney, one movie can pack 5,000 houses simultaneously - with a few theme parks besides. All that begins with the habits of one-on-one showpersonship.
To be meaningful, help needs to be unconditional and it needs to be on the recipient’s terms. We’re not asking for so much as a click, and we’re not worried about whether our own personal standards of success are satisfied by the work in question. All we’re doing, little by little, is making ourselves necessary.
Probably the loudest debate when it comes to audience-building is over the hotly contested necessity of social media. Understandably, some people hate talking to other people on the internet. Other folks maintain that social media is a core responsibility of the job. Hilariously, a bunch of folks are trying to win both sides of this argument at once.
Many celebrities and entertainers find success without social media, but those people are finding other means of keeping their expanded showfamily close-at-hand. As our community-building efforts start growing beyond that core group of family and collaborators, we need some way of finding out what’s going on with the outskirts of our community. Just the act of making and producing content will bring those people together, to some small extent. What we need is a means of keeping in touch with our audience and our collaborators in the meantime.
Stan Lee wrote letters to everybody. Walt Disney fed them turkey and let them play with his trains. If you hate social media that much, go figure something out.
If you look up a photograph of your favorite athlete, that photo will most likely be a picture of them hard at work improving their game, or out volunteering in the community… or on the road. Every comic, every musician, every theater company, every dance company, every musical show, and every public speaker from politicians to comic book creators is eventually forced to hit the road and make a habit of traveling to where their audience lives for live performances and after-show gatherings. Each and every professional in these industries know that it makes their community stronger to build a tour circuit and to keep coming back at least once or twice a year to check in with their audience in person.
Imagine how much easier that work would get if those industries had a nationwide network of non-profit organizations that were staffed by single-minded nerds devoted to the task of bringing content creators and audience members together. How utterly stupid would those content creators be for not literally living on the road as much as possible, going to as many of those events as they can squeeze into a year, and building an annual tour circuit? “Fortunately for us,” according to the overwhelming majority of our colleagues in film, “the film industry works under totally different market dynamics and none of us will ever have to do that work!”
Despite the indie film community’s appalling stupidity, laziness and apathy towards “off the beaten track” film festivals, these people have built a tour circuit just for the purpose of encouraging filmmakers to visit other places. Literally, since the Dark Ages, when pageants toured the European countryside in wagons, touring has been one of the most important ingredients to success in showbusiness. Stop looking at the festivals as an opportunity to get a distribution deal or an agent, and get your ass to Topeka, Omaha, Anchorage and everywhere else where there’s a movie theater.
Pay for it any way you can. Crowdfunding can certainly help with this part of the process. To my way of thinking, it’s very smart to book our traveling cast and crew members at local colleges and to have them speak to any folks who are interested in film. Now that you’ve come all this way to see these people, make time to invest in their success as a film community and in their enjoyment of film.
Nobody likes being treated like a statistic in a market sector that’s on tap to be exploited. Particularly, that treatment feels wildly inappropriate when it’s coming from the folks in charge of helping everyone else manage their sense of cultural identity and their connection to the rest of society. Most of our truly celebrated and beloved filmmakers treat their audience like colleagues and family. Typically, those filmmakers who are out there treating audience members like slot machines with faces are falling short of their potential in other areas of their careers, as well. Just on that level alone, it’s a good idea to start thinking of your audience as a community and not a market niche.
More intimately, making movies for a faceless, drooling mass just isn’t any fun. When we believe in the potential of other people when we believe in their capacity for growth and their strength as a community, then telling stories that delight, inspire, and challenge them becomes a thrilling, delightful experience. To bring together all the amazing people we work within our careers, as well as all the incredible people who have supported us along the way - and then to unite those people in a shared experience, and give them something new in common - WITH A STORY?
That’s f-ing crazy. That’s alchemy. No matter where those people go, from that moment forward, they will always be a little less alone. Every single one of those people knows that there are other people in the world who chose to share this new experience with them. When you stop and think about it, the fact that so many people have chosen to have the same experiences you did says some powerful, encouraging things about the kinds of people out there in the world. Maybe that knowledge gives you a little more confidence in the intelligence of other people, or in their sense of fun, or whatever… but it’s a common bond that wasn’t there before.
When we stop making any part of this process about ourselves, then we’ve taken the most important step towards building an audience of our own. Invest your time in projects designed to bring your people together, and to invoke the best of what they have to offer - whether that’s their ever-evolving craft or just their attention and time as audience members. No matter what role those people play in your work and life, treat them with devotion. Be vigilant and relentless in your search for new ways to fuel their dreams.
Feed them bread and beer. Give them a train ride and a piece of fudge. Write them letters, and tell them how they can be superheroes when they grow up. Whatever they need. Whatever it takes.
Then, when the lights go dark, give them something that nobody else can give them. Give them something that delights, challenges and inspires them to grow together. Let them be a family - your family - together in the dark. When the lights come back up again, the experience they shared doesn’t just go away. That, dear reader, is the value of showpersonship.
Invest your life in the excellence of your craft and the strength of your showpersonship, and your audience will follow you anywhere. Happy New Year, Stage 32! Go and show the world what you’re capable of.
Writer, director, and producer Tennyson E. Stead is an emerging leader in New Hollywood with a lifetime of stage work, a successful film development, and finance career, and a body of screenwriting encompassing more than 30 projects - most recently including the upcoming Emagine Content sci-fi tentpole Atlas Uprising. His company, 8 Sided Films, leverages an ensemble of actors and film professionals who share Stead's craft and commitment, as well as the risk mitigation offered by those showbusiness practices built over centuries of the collective experience and passed down as tradition and dramaturgy, to bring creative and financial sustainability to Hollywood. Here is a list of the articles Stead has written for the Stage 32 community:
REALITY CHECKS FROM AN INSPIRATIONAL CRIPPLE:
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