Stories and Finding a Paying Audience

Posted on 02 February 2011

I’ve just spent a couple days at a conference about transmedia: projects that span a variety of media such as Web, iPhone, television, etc.

One of the main concerns of the participants was how to monetise their activities. Part of that monetisation is knowing how to attract the largest paying audience. “Largest paying audience” and “largest audience” are two different things. You can have a relatively small audience, but if they are willing to pay well for their experience, this may be sufficient to run an ongoing business. Sellers of Jaguars, Rolls Royces, and the like do well following this path.

The Mainstream

The mainstream is of course where the greatest monetary potential is. It is certainly more than worthwhile to keep an eye on what people are currently finding of interest and why. I remember when UFO stories were popular. Many years later I went back and did some research on those stories and found a clear relationship between people’s fear of nuclear annihilation and alien abduction stories. Strange but true.

Unless you have a personal passion for some form of story now successful in the mainstream, avoid slavishly following trends. Once upon a time the major television channels in the US were jokingly called “Nothing But Cowboys” (NBC), “All ‘Bout Cowboys” (ABC), and “Cowboy Shows” (CBS). This is because cowboy shows were hugely popular. What cowboy shows have a regular TV series today? The trend petered out.

With any trend it’s hard to tell where in the cycle of that trend you happen to be. Zombies seem to becoming of less interest. Vampires have continued to trend upward, but we may have seen their peak. Werewolves, it’s hard to know if that’s going to take off any more than it has. Perhaps we’re about to move away from horror tropes and move onto steampunk or period costume drama.

Good writers with good production and marketing support can make very improbable subjects quite popular. Being the first in a trend when it comes to quality stories gives you a lot more audience support. But a certain amount of bravery and alchemical magic is needed to make that happen.

A little easier, but potentially as successful, is combining something mainstream with something new. This is where it’s important to stay abreast of mainstream trends and be willing to embrace some part of them. Your story will have familiar territory with which people can connect, but you are also forging your own territory, making your story a unique product.

The Cool

A little bit of cool and a little bit of edge shows you’re thinking about your subject. That’s a good thing. The problem with a lot of cool is that it’s about exclusivity.

When something becomes too popular too fast, you end up with a small army of people who will attempt to show off how smart they are by finding what’s wrong with this popular item. Harry Potter, Justin Bieber, and The Twilight Series have all suffered from cool backlash.

We can applaud the “cool” kids for not wanting to be sheep. However, their reaction can be so mindless, reactionary, and uniform as to simply classify them as a herd of black sheep.

Worse still, cool is now equated with dark. A little bit shows you understand we live in a complex world, a whole lot becomes worrying. I find it of real concern when people romanticise psychopathic behaviour. I would also say that it’s not as saleable as more upbeat works.

Having performed at the Melbourne Comedy Festival I can say for a fact that performers such as Adam Hills, Lano and Woodley, Denise Scott, The Scared Weird Little Guys, Ross Noble, who all present themselves in a cheerier light, are the ones who bring in the biggest audiences.

French and Saunders are a favourite British comedy duo of mine. At one point they separately made their own sitcoms. Jennifer Saunders helped create the funny and edgy cult comedy Absolutely Fabulous. This certainly did well. Dawn French on the other-hand helped create the upbeat and mainstream The Vicar of Dibley. It came in third as one of Britain’s best ever sitcoms after Only Fools and Horses and Blackadder.

Another word of warning. You should really be coming from within a cool community in order to write for it. If you try to paste yourself onto their culture and their memes, you may become the source of a backlash as well.

The Arty

The arty can also be an exclusive group, depending upon whether you are talking about the avant garde or the lyrical ends of this community. The avant garde are well worth watching for interesting ideas. However, you are unlikely to make a living aiming anything at them. As soon as they know you are selling them something, they tend to evaporate.

Those who favour lyrical works are a well-known niche market. They are the ones who support the many arthouse cinemas in existence. They are also the ones who have made certain books such as Like Water for Chocolate an international bestseller. Like Water for Chocolate is a good example because much of it is humorous and it transitioned well to the big screen. Arthouse comedy could be seen as a sub-genre.

This audience can be generous, they are also intelligent, and may turn away from works that seem to be trying too hard or are too politically incorrect. A big plus is that sometimes it’s easier to get government funding for these sorts of works.

The Fandom

The fandom is quite a powerful force. They organise huge conventions. They push hard to support their favourite shows, films, books, and actors. They have made certain online experiments in new media delivery a huge success. They buy all the merchandise. Sounds like a cash cow.

…But their support only goes so far. Fans are deeply conservative and will only dish out actual dollars for established franchises, and the people and things associated with those franchises. The Web serial The Guild achieved its initial popularity because the lead actor played a regular character in Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Now this alone would not have sustained it. Fine writing and great comic acting make The Guild a real joy. Nevertheless, other fine Web serials are largely ignored because they are not associated with an established fan icon.

With the fandom you have to start at the top and let your franchise work its way down to its core audience—allowing the fan stories, films, and songs to exist side-by-side with your own work. Trying to make your way from the bottom up is a hard journey. Here you will face jealous compatriots who may attempt to tear you down. Every fan imagines themselves a creative hero, whether or not they ever put in the serious work to develop skills and make it happen.

The Niche

Other niche markets can include media to do with lifestyle, brushes with reality, talent competitions, etc. Each will have its particular audience. Each will have different places where your creative product can be monetised. The main point as elsewhere is to bring authenticity. You have to genuinely know and genuinely like what you are creating, or it’s less probable it will strike a note with the audience. If they know you understand and respect them, your audience will become loyal fans willing to put out the money to see you continue.

The Mix

Personally I think the mix is where the most interesting and original work arises. The very funny The Supersizers Go… and The Supersizers Eat… combine a history documentary with a lifestyle food show. The Twilight Series arose out of the fertile combination of romance/erotica and horror.

Sometimes you are combining audiences. Where you have to be careful is when these audiences are distrustful of one another, and you end up losing all of them. One example would be the live action television show, The Tick. I love it. It was Seinfeld for superheroes. The problem was fans of superheroics were disappointed at not having more action, and fans of Seinfeld found it difficult to wrap their heads around the superhero situations. I don’t know if it’s always possible in advance to tell if this is going to happen, but keep an eye out.

Creators deserve to make a living out of their creations. If people want it, they need to support it. We need to find ways to make it easy for our audiences to do so.

Peace and kindness,

Katherine


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