On Tour: Tony Heriza asks, “Where is the audience?”

22 Feb

Where is the audience for independent documentaries?

What brings people out of their homes to a public space to watch a documentary and talk with the filmmaker?  That is the mystery.

On our two recent tours with Concrete, Steel & Paint (through the South last fall and through the Mid-Atlantic states more recently) my co-producer Cindy Burstein and I have visited venues that have cracked that mystery — and ones that are still struggling with it.

Unfortunately, the last two stops on my On Screen/In Person tour – Wilmington, Delaware and Vineland, NJ – fell into the latter category. Despite efforts to promote the events, attendance at both screenings was disappointing.

When we were ready to dim the lights in the beautifully renovated Theatre N in the heart of downtown Wilmington, fewer than ten people had settled into the 200 comfortable red seats.

There were bright spots nevertheless. The film looked and sounded great and the discussion following the film was complex and personal. Several of the audience members worked in fields related to criminal justice. Another had a close family member who is currently incarcerated. Others in the audience had direct involvement in community mural making. Nearly every person contributed actively to the discussion.

And yet it seemed like a missed opportunity.  With a hundred people in those seats, the dialogue could have been even richer and the impact of the screening could have been much greater.

I am moved to write about this now because two nights later, I drove to South Jersey for a screening at Cumberland County College.  I was prepared for a small turnout, having heard that the venue had been having difficulty attracting an audience to the series.  This time 12 people were seated in an impressive 500 seat performance space. Again, great projection in a beautiful space… followed by an animated discussion. I do appreciate these things and I don’t mean to minimize the importance of having even a dozen people see and respond to the film and then wrestle with the political and creative issues.

But sitting among all those empty seats, I had to ask the question: Is this the best we can do?

I don’t pretend to have the answers for these particular venues. Each environment presents its own challenges. It does seem that conventional promotion – calendar listings and email invitations – are often insufficient to draw an audience to see a documentary film (whether the director is in attendance or not).

One successful approach with our film, Concrete, Steel & Paint, has been to partner with local organizations involved in either criminal justice or community arts, invite local experts to participate in the post film discussion – and then promote the event as an opportunity not only to see a documentary, but also to discuss local aspects of the issues.  On college campuses, professors have assigned attendance at the screenings. In some venues, advance radio or newspaper interviews have helped build interest.  These are not one-size fits all solutions, but they suggest the kind of additional steps that can help build an audience for documentary films, where it doesn’t already exist.

In the last few decades, the awareness and appreciation of the documentary form has grown dramatically, especially in large cities, but building audiences in small and medium sized towns still requires some creativity and determination.

I do think it’s a worthwhile goal and I’d like to thank the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation and the local venues for supporting the effort.

Post by Tony Heriza, OSIP touring filmmaker

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