A favourite film school phrase is “develop your audience profile.” It’s a staggering question to face especially if like me you have never ever been to film school.
What do you mean by ‘developing an audience profile? One way to look at screenwriting (and filmmaking) is that you are developing a product just like any other manufacturer, and getting audience research right is a basic first step.
Knowing who your audience actually are is one of the basic tenants of marketing. So too with storytellers.
Researching your audience may leave you peering into the void of writer’s block. Don’t be fooled: writer’s block is a symptom of fear. Let me give you some ideas of how to safely get out of the abyss and learn how to find your audience.
1. What are your reader demographics
In widest terms, to whom would you like your story to appeal to? David Heyman returned from a producer on the Warner Bros lot with the ambition to make children’s movies. Painstaking research yielded JK Rowling and Harry Potter. Lloyd Kaufman graduated from Yale and wanted to produce movies that appealed to the frat house culture. Thus sprang Surf Nazis Must Die, Tromeo and Juliet and Poultrygeist.
Ask these questions:
Sex? Male Female
Age: Child Teen 20’s 30’s 40’s 50’s 60’s
Status? Single Married Divorced
Education: High school College Graduate
Income: Low Average High
Ask even more questions, like where they live, do they rent or own their own homes, how far do they commute to work or school and so forth.
Empire Magazine has built their entire success around creating an audience profile avatar named Eric: a 20 something essex boy. Whenever they have a story idea they ask themselves if Eric would like it.
Finding out who your audience is could actually help you writing your story too!
2. What’s your audience’s power level
Let’s dig a little deeper. What type of person are you aiming at, what kind of influence do they have?
For example – if your story is aimed at high schoolers, what kind of student are you aiming at: the leaders or the followers? The geeks or the sociable? Could your story be opened out at all by being more inclusive of broader groups? Or would you simply dilute the story?
These probing questions require a lot of reflection and may not become immediately obvious. Consider this one seriously and the answer will pop into your head one day when you least expect it.
3. Give me a day in the life of…
Here’s a fun exercise. Grab a sheet of paper and do a diary of a typical day.
When do they usually get up? Do they leap out of bed or hit the snooze button?
What do they wear? Is it the first thing at the top of the drawer or the last in a series of laboured fashion choices?
How do they get to work? Where do they lunch and do they have any bad personal habits?
Who would they rather spend time with?
The more of these kinds of questions you can answer the easier it will be for you to build up a profile of your intended audience. You might even want to browse through some image banks to see if you can find an image or two that remind you of who your audience is.
4. Owchers and wowchers
No one in the world has a 100% perfect life. Far from, in fact. What are the things that really turn your audience off. It could be physical (the pain of working out), sociological (fear of losing one’s job) or psychological (the stress associated with an impactful life decision like divorce or marriage).
So too are the Wow moments in someones life.
There are hundreds of variables at this stage in your research. Don’t be shy. Spend some time and think creatively. The results will really pay off.
5. How do they vote?
I don’t mean how they vote politically, although this is usually a good shorthand question to get to the core of the audience you are pursuing. I really mean to ask what are the core moral values of the audience you are pursuing. For example, are they tolerant of different cultures, or not.
I find it somewhat amusing that Facebook has a special question where you can choose your views on life from conservative to liberal. I can’t imagine any woman ticking ‘liberal’ too easily, while us guys hate to think of ourselves as ‘conservative’. Still, Facebook ask this very question of each of it’s half billion users and get away with it. Why shouldn’t you?
6. How do they thrill?
Now that you are getting pretty close to your audience, ask yourself what they are looking for on a great night out. The answers might surprise you. Ask yourself what they expect from entertainment in general (ie: music, literature, art, theatre, dance).
Lastly, and here is the biggie: can you identify what kind of emotional experience they are looking for?
7. Let’s be negative
I am hoping that you know what type of story you are going to tell by using the ultimate tool of genre. You will be thinking of writing an action-adventure, or comedy-horror or romantic-comedy, for example.
Ask yourself what your audience likes and dislikes about the type of screenplay you are writing. Do this right, and you might even figure out how to overcome their objections. Sometimes you might want to educate them about the type (genre) of story you are writing and how your horror story, for example, isn’t just another bog standard horror story, but has brand new never-been-seen before elements that should put your script on the top of everyone’s must see list.
8. Identifying your audience
You have gone a long way to seeing what makes your audience tick. This knowledge will empower you to speak directly to them. You know what age they are, where they live, what their role is, what their moral values are, what turns them on and what turns them off.
Going through this process will enable you to really get to know who your audience is and allow you to tell your story with a consistent voice.
Have you researched who your audience is yet?
Deciding and researching your audience is your job as a storyteller. Bringing your story to the audience is the job of the filmmaker. Don’t try to tell them who your screenplay is about: it should be obvious to any reader what audience your story will appeal to and give a clear strong idea of what story you are telling.
Now get writing!