Jay Craven: Cultivating Your Film Audience
Background & Context
This week we interviewed Jay Craven who has developed his own grassroots screening circuit in the specific New England region whose culture, history, and stories take center stage in his films, which often take place in rural Vermont and New Hampshire. For screenings, Jay focuses on small towns, some of which have populations as small as 300. These towns are so small they typically can’t support a movie theater, and so locals typically look to church theater productions and high school sporting events for entertainment. This provides Jay with a unique opportunity to cultivate his own audience instead of competing against big budget films at the box office.
Jay has used three grassroots methods to establish a circuit of town screenings: 1) engaging the audience early on to grow a list of supporters 2) turning town screenings into a community event and 3) using offline and online sign-ups to grow his audience.
1) Jay was able to build an infrastructure of grassroots supporters that later helped finance and distribute his feature films by screening short student films in New England towns. He came up with the idea of using grassroots organizing methods to distribute films during the Vietnam War. Jay explains,
“In 1971, I helped to make a Vietnam War documentary that was called Time is Running Out. We made 50 prints and took it to colleges and communities across the country–to help organize a big civil disobedience demonstration in Washington, DC in May 1971, where 14,000 people got arrested for committing civil non-violence disobedience… It was initially through this experience that the idea of mission-driven filmmaking appealed to me.”
When Jay joined the faculty of Marlboro College, his productions became educational opportunities for his students. He made a regional comedy series (WIndy Acres) with mostly students and he set up internships for ten students on his feature film, Disappearances. In 2012 he took this idea one step further. Two-thirds of the crew for his latest film, Northern Borders (2013) consisted of students from a dozen different colleges who came to Malrboro College for a film intensive semester that included literature and film study along with hands-on production classes, visiting artists, and six weeks of feature production, where students worked in substantial positions ranging from script supervisor, boom operator, associate editor, and location manager to assistant directors, costumes, props, and production coordinator. For Northern Borders, half the budget would be provided by Marlboro. This is a great example of the prominence and potential of academic institutions as points of intersections for grassroots ideas and industry tools (what with their shared resources) — a recurring theme we plan to explore later on in our study.
After Where the Rivers Flow North screened at Sundance and other film festivals, Jay activated his grassroots network of supporters in rural Vermont towns to do another round of regional screenings before its theatrical release. The film ultimately grossed a million dollars theatrically.
This is another example of how filmmakers can establish their contacts and audience through other means besides screening their film. Similar to how B-Side was able to grow its email listserve by providing an online service that people opted into at film festivals, Jay was able to cultivate his own audience in rural New England towns by first organizing a touring film series to small towns where he showed classic, foreign, and indie films, along with his films and his students’ shorts. Also similar to how B-Side was able to later use their listserve to distribute Super High Me locally, Jay was able to distribute his future feature films by gradually growing the network of supporters who originally attended his short film screenings.
2) The audience Jay seeks to attract to his town screenings may or may not be consistent movie fans, but they take an active interest in major events in their hometown. Jay recognizes that,
“half my audience at least does not go to the movies very often except if I bring something to them… The theater is pretty full, and so the audience is reacting together, and there is a kind of chemistry that forms and there is an electricity that comes off the event that is like a performing arts event.”
Not to mention that Jay enhances the appeal of the screening by being present himself to hold Q & A’s afterwards at nearly 80% of the events. Furthermore, by making screenings more accessible to residents in rural towns who have limited options for live entertainment, Jay is able to trigger a word of mouth campaign within the community. Jay notes that, “If my movie were playing 25 miles away at a movie theater, people who were motivated and into it would go. But when the movie is in their town or the town next to where they are, and their neighbors and friends are buzzing about it they will go because it is an event.”
From our perspective working on the Obama campaign, making campaign events more accessible played a critical role in expanding the campaigns’ volunteer base. Similar to how Jay turned church basements, school auditoriums and libraries into town screenings for his film, the Obama campaign transformed barber shops, supporters’ homes and storefronts into phonebanks, voter registration drives and canvasses. The effort to make the campaign more accessible led to thousands of volunteers to get involved especially in rural areas where supporters would have had to travel 30-60 minutes to reach the closest field office to their town. The accessibility and word of mouth campaign from Jay’s town screenings lead to an average audience of 80 in towns where the population size averaged 300. That means Jay was able to attract 26% of a town’s total population to the screening of his film.
3) Jay also grew his list of grassroots supporters by establishing a solid sign-up process at screenings and through offline postcards. Jay discussed,
“the standard that we have used a lot is postcards because for small and even medium sized towns you can mail a post card to everybody in town… when you go to larger areas you start working with mailing lists… and we have are own [email] lists. I have a solid list that is probably 4,000 people.”
Jay has people who attend his screenings sign in so he can add them to an email list he uses to advertise his screenings locally. This allows Jay to continuously build his audience through every screening on his tour. In addition to sending emails to advertise screenings, Jay sends offline postcards to residents in small New England towns. Postcards add a personal touch that help Jay advertise in rural areas where people might not have Internet or are not frequent uses of the web.
The main question Jay’s town distribution model raises is whether independent filmmakers are better off trying to reach a demographic beyond indie and blockbuster audiences through local or regional screenings. Not only is this method cost effective, but it also provides filmmakers with an opportunity to tap into support from people in small towns that are not lured into high budget Hollywood movies and more likely to appreciate the regionally specific cultural aspects of independent film.
However, Jay’s town circuit is dependent upon a very specific region of northern England where the setting of most his films take place. Could town screenings for independent films be effective in other rural and medium sized towns across U.S? Should independent filmmakers consider making screenings more accessible to people in small towns where the cultural themes and setting of their film resonate? By knowing that his film will connect with a specific audience that he knows he’s going to target, Jay can avoid the problematic bottleneck “gatekeepers” of independent film festivals. We plan to explore how Jay Craven’s town screening model might be applicable for distributing independent films with different cultural themes in future posts.
-Michael, Josh and Carl