Magazine article Filmmaker

Investing in Audience

Magazine article Filmmaker

Investing in Audience

Article excerpt

Karin Chien on independent film's new equation.

There's something we should have learned in the last five years, which is the most important lesson we can carry into the next 20 years: ignore audience at your own peril.

For a while now, indie film's m.o. has been, "Build it and they will come." Well, audiences have stopped coming. A few years ago, if you asked a young indie filmmaker who his or her audience was, you heard "everyone." Nowadays, ask an indie filmmaker about audience and most likely you get "I don't know," or perhaps just panicked silence. But we keep making thousands of indie films a year, having conceded budget as a hedge against diminishing streams of revenue.

As an Asian-American producer, I've had a front-row seat to this seismic shift hitting our industry. In the late '90s, there were three Asian-American indie features made a year. Now there are 20 to 30, nearly all of which do not get distribution. Some celebrate this as progress, yet the real story has been happening elsewhere, on YouTube, where the top stars and highest earners are, incredibly, Asian-American.

How did the top five Asian Americans on YouTube amass more than 3 billion views, while indie filmmakers learned to settle for a few thousand? To confront this question, with the help of my collaborators Chi-hui Yang and Gary Chou, we're gathering creators from across the industry in an ongoing summit called Present/Future. Here's what I've learned so far. Five years ago, when industry gatekeepers put up the usual barriers, instead of appeasing the gatekeepers, young Asian-American creators went online and posted homemade videos on the then newly created YouTube. When they realized people other than their friends were watching, they made more videos that people liked. Now, five years later, they've cultivated a global audience large enough to pay their rent, finance their work, recoup their operating costs, generate sold-out international tours and attract serious Hollywood attention. Recently, when asked what she would do to capture the 5 million subscribers YouTube's number two star Ryan Higa has, a network TV exec said, "I would kill each and every one of my staff if I had to." Audience is the new power.

The YouTube stars are inadvertently rewriting the indie film equation. Instead of: festival awards + angel investors + unpaid labor x five years = microbudget first feature, they formulated a new model: audience = financing + distribution = more audience.

And what comes from audience is sustainability: financial, emotional, creative sustainability. …

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