[Editor's Note: No Film School asked Christopher Rufo to write an article about the steps he took to build an audience worth $1.5 million for his documentary.]

Finding your audience is the first step on the long road of your film’s distribution campaign. As early as possible, you need to ask yourself: who, exactly, is my audience? It’s a deceptively simple question that will have a huge impact on the trajectory of your project. The key to direct distribution success is to have an effective way to think about and identify your audience.  

In the mass media age, it was all about big: big hits, big stars, big box office. But as independent filmmakers, our competitive advantage is about small: small films, small budgets, and small but passionate audiences. The key is to really drill down to your tightest core audience—the people who will be most passionate about your film.

If you can make a connection with this smallest possible audience, you’re putting yourself in a position to succeed. If you focus all of your energy into converting this group into die-hard fans, you'll create evangelists who will help spread the message about your film. 

1. Focus on finding your smallest possible audience

As we outline in our Filmmaker.MBA direct distribution course, your goal is to find the smallest possible audience for your film. This may sound counterintuitive, but as independent filmmakers, we’ll always have a limited amount of time and money to spend on marketing and distributing our films. Your goal should not be to market to everyone, but to focus your resources on your smallest possible audience—the people who are most likely to purchase your film and share it with friends. This approach works for character-driven films, social issue films, and even “personal films.”

2. Come up with an audience hypothesis 

First, you want to come up with a hypothesis of who your audience might be. Ask yourself: what is my film about and who would want to watch it? The key is to dive into the spirit of your film. Think of a specific type of person who would absolutely love it. 

Here’s how the audience identification process worked for our documentary Age of Champions, which tells the story of five competitors up to 100 years old who sprint, leap, and swim for gold at the Senior Olympics. At first, our hypothesis was that “seniors” would be the audience for the film. It was genius; we knew there were 40 million seniors in the US and we thought all of them would love our film. Unfortunately, this couldn’t be further from the truth. As we found out, most seniors could care less about documentaries, fitness, the Senior Olympics—all of it.

"You’ve discovered your true core audience when you’ve found a concrete group of people that jump for joy the moment they hear about your film."

So we drilled down a little further. We thought “seniors who exercise” might be our audience. We took the film on the road to some senior fitness events to test our message. Wrong again—it turned out to be really difficult to pitch the film directly to senior athletes, who were disappointed when they found out we weren’t selling exercise videos.

3. Test your hypothesis with real people

Conduct experiments to test your hypothesis. This means actually getting your film out into the world and connecting with your potential audience. You might call potential partners on the phone, share your trailer on relevant blogs, or attend a conference in your possible niche. The goal is to get your project in front of real human beings, ask questions, listen, and see if they’re interested. If they’re not overwhelmed with excitement when they see your film, revise your hypothesis, conduct another experiment, and repeat this process until you reach a conclusion.

For Age of Champions, we tried reaching out to nonprofits and businesses in the senior health community. Finally, we hit the bulls-eye. This was our market: senior centers, retirement homes, and senior health companies. They loved the film and wanted to share it with their local communities. After a few conferences and lots of phone conversations with our early customers, we were able to drill down even further.

Screening_event_audienceScreening of 'Age of Champions'Credit: Keith Ochwat

4. Confirm your hypothesis 

You’ll know you’ve discovered your true core audience when you’ve found a concrete group of people that jump for joy the moment they hear about your film. They want to buy a DVD on the spot and can’t wait to share it with their friends. At this point, you can confirm your hypothesis and start moving on to the next step in your film’s lifecycle.

For Age of Champions, we discovered that our core audience was “women, age 40-65, working full-time in senior health organizations.” So, in the span of a few weeks, we went from thinking our audience was 40 million seniors to a concrete, specific, identifiable group of senior health professionals. We designed our entire distribution strategy around this insight and eventually did more than $1 million in sales directly to this audience.

5. Start building your mailing list 

After you’ve identified your audience, it's important to stay in touch and start building your network. You’ll want to set up an email marketing service like Mailchimp so you can easily capture and manage subscriber email addresses. One you've built up your mailing list, send your followers meaningful, relevant updates regularly (monthly or quarterly is probably enough). You want your network to feel like they have a relationship with you so they'll remember who you are and will be willing to help when you need it.

One tip to build your mailing list more quickly is to create a pop-up or scroll box with a compelling “bribe” for your audience. You can offer exclusive information about your film or some content that your audience would find valuable enough to give you their email address in exchange. For Age of Champions, we offered to let people watch the first 20 minutes of the film for free, which encouraged thousands of people to sign up for our mailing list.

Read more about how we built an audience worth $1.5 million here.

Featured image from Shia LaBeouf's All My Movies livestream.