Producing 201 - The New Audience

I recently taught two classes for Thom Powers' Advanced Producing course at the School of Visual Arts.  And while it's geared for documentaries, it forced me to collect my thoughts on various aspects of film producing, in general. 

Since I feel guilty for blogging so infrequently during the distribution of The Kids Grow Up, I thought I'd partly make up for it by sharing some tips on producing that came up for me, in the process.  Or that come to mind in the daily slog of producing.  I'll try to put up an observation or bit of advice here every day or two (or three), and we'll see how long I can keep it up for.

My first observation is about how audiences, particularly young audiences, are viewing films these days.  It's something I've known intellectually for a while now, but the class brought it home to me in a visceral way.

Part of my second class was to be a case study of 51 Birch Street, so I made seeing it a homework assignment. I didn't give the 20 class members (average age of about 25) any instructions on how to see the film, but said it's easily available on multiple platforms.  When we next met, before I began the case study, I conducted a quick survey.

It turns out that 8 saw it on dvd via their laptops, 11 streamed it directly onto their laptops and 1 honest soul fessed up to not seeing it at all.  So, no one saw it on anything as large as a monitor or normal tv screen. All but one who watched it streamed saw it for free on Hulu, and they reported there were commercials about every 20 minutes. Not counting these commercials, each person paused the film at some point in their viewing between 3 and 5 times, on average.  Considerably more than half admitted to texting, chatting or answering emails at some point (if not constantly) while watching, as well.

Like I said, this doesn't come as a total shock.  I have a 22-year old daughter who's spent her whole life half-watching movies while multi-tasking with laptop in hand.  But it reinforces the big challenge traditional filmmakers, used to telling stories with character arcs and 3-act structures, are facing these days.  It's a fact of life that most people under 30 (and many older, as well) will not be raptly watching your film on a big screen with their undivided attention.  If they watch it at all, they'll do it on their small screens with their attention absolutely divided.  Their experience will be more like reading a book that they put down and pick up again than how we think of as the immersive experience of watching a movie.

Whether to tailor your next 90-minute feature documentary to this new audience or not is a timely and compelling question.  But whether you do or don't, it's absolutely something to keep in mind.