Building An Audience Before The Camera Rolls: Why It Matters (and How We’re Doing It)

HamiltonOnSetSmuggled2One year ago, California prisoners were 1 month into a nearly 2-month-long hunger strike, which began in protest to the conditions at the Pelican Bay Prison’s Segregated Housing Unit (SHU), where individuals live in extreme isolation. They spend 23 out of 24 hours each day in their cells — receiving their food through a small food slot. Their one hour of recreation is spent in another concrete room, slightly larger than their cells, again, completely alone. Many individuals spend years in the SHU.

Living in Southern California, I had access to lots of media coverage of the strike, and I learned that more than 80,000 individuals in the U.S. are in solitary confinement at any given time. Most, for non-violent offenses and many who are mentally ill even before being placed in isolation.

One evening amidst the strike, my husband and I began talking to each other about it, and we realized this story had been haunting both of us — begging us to pay attention. Ramon is not only my husband, but also my producing partner and a talented writer and director.

As we spoke, I remarked, in half-jest, that perhaps our company, Think Ten Media Group, should only make films that take place, essentially, “in a box,” as our previous award-winning film, SMUGGLED, had.

Denisse Bon and Ramsess Letrado, inside the box, in a scene from SMUGGLED.

That discussion didn’t lead us commit to “box only” filmmaking, but it did make us realize that SOLITARY (as we’re currently calling our next media project) was not a film we *might* make, but was a project that we had to make. The story had picked us and we were listening.

As independent filmmakers well-versed in making projects with limited funding, telling stories that require few locations and a small cast, has been essential to our success. Finding a story like that, which also inspires us as filmmakers and links us to a higher calling is absolutely golden.

SMUGGLED tells the story of a 9 year-old boy and his mother being smuggled into the U.S. in a small compartment beneath a tour bus and much of the story takes place in that small compartment. With 5 awards, 15 film festival selections and a successful screening campaign that took the film to university campuses and community organizations throughout the U.S., we knew we could captivate an audience without all the bells and whistles. (Read Bill Meeker’s review of the film here.)

We also knew that we could have done much more with SMUGGLED if had we established a relationship with our core audience before we made the film, rather than working to find them after the fact.

With SOLITARY, we decided to learn from our previous mistake. We realized that we needed to reach out to organizations and individuals already working in the areas of prison reform, restorative justice, etc. before we shot the pilot episode (we’ve decided that SOLITARY will be a web-series, rather than a film). Our outreach began before we had a script. This outreach helped us craft an authentic script, drawing directly from stories of individuals who have been in solitary confinement — stories that our partners had collected and connected us with Five Mualimmak, who himself spent 5 years in solitary confinement before being exonerated. He has become an invaluable consulting producer for the project.

These connections have benefited our project in several other ways. For example, we’ve reduced the budget for the pilot through being offered free lodging and food for the shoot in Portland and a partner suggested the prison location we’ll be shooting at in Portland, which is available at a fraction of the price of the sites in the Los Angeles area we were considering.

We’ve now got a network of individuals and organizations committed to SOLITARY, and we see these individuals and organizations as partners, which means we are working together to create a compelling media project. We’re also committed to building relationships that can move beyond this project.

At Think Ten, we often tell stories about individuals that society wants to forget. We seek to bring forth THEIR humanity, so that we can reconnect with OURS.

By building relationships with organizations and individuals who share this goal with us, we’re working toward sustainability for our company, which is the holy grail for any indie filmmaker.

Girl Rising opened in 100 theaters and sold 100,000 tickets in its first month. Its success was not purely because it was a compelling film about an important topic with celebrity narrators, but also because the filmmakers had spent 10 years building relationships with non-profits and individuals committed to the issue of educating and empowering girls around the world. When they released the film, they weren’t starting to build relationships with their core audience, they already had a relationship with their core audience. Thus, their core audience helped the film expand beyond its niche.

This is similar to the approach we’re taking with SOLITARY. Ultimately, our goal is to make a compelling and entertaining web-series that will interest a large audience, not just individuals interested in human rights or prison reform. If we don’t engage our core audience, we’ve got no hope of reaching beyond it.

For indie filmmakers, identifying your audience and building a relationship with that audience (well before you shoot your film) is not just a good idea, it can be essential to your success. In short, if you build it, they will come.

Jennifer Fischer is the co-founder of Think Ten Media Group. She produced SMUGGLED and is producing SOLITARY. Ramon Hamilton co-founded Think Ten Media Group with her and wrote, directed, shot and edited SMUGGLED. He is also wrote the pilot episode of SOLITARY and will be directing it as well. Fischer also writes about her experiences as mother at The Good Long Road and coordinates the Spotlight On Hope (SOH) Film Camp of Think Ten Media Group, a free film camp for pediatric cancer patients hosted by the UCLA School of Theater, FIlm and Television. She tweets about SOH, filmmaking and much more as IndieJenFischer. So far, the partner organizations involved with SOLITARY include: American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, Solitary Watch, American Friends Service Committee, National Religious Campaign Against Torture, United Methodist Church General Board of Church and Society, Campaign to End the New Jim Crow, Incarcerated Nation Campaign, Media Change Makers (of the University of Texas-El Paso), SendAPackage.Com, Broken On All Sides, Jail Action Coalition New York City, The Bronx Defenders. Additionally, Academy Award-Winning Producer Jonathan Sanger is an Executive Producer for the project and Dr. Arvind Singhal is the Entertainment Education Specialist for the project. Consulting Producers for the project include Five Mualimmak, who works with the Incarcerated Nation Campaign and is a member of the Campaign to End the New Jim Crow and the Jail Action Coalition of New York, and Jean Casella and James Ridgeway of Solitary Watch.