Tuesday, March 19, 2013


Filmmakers everywhere should be doing the 'President Obama'.

No, it's not a new viral dance craze.

But it is revolutionary.

And it all starts with one man.

But it's not the President.

What if I told you that the driving force behind President Obama's successful 2012 reelection campaign was another man lurking behind the scenes?

It sounds like a movie plot conspiracy.

A super genius.

A man who assembled a team of fellow geniuses and built a sophisticated computer system to win the election.

A Bond film perhaps?

This may all sound far fetched, but it is absolutely true.

And he even has a name. Not a silly code number or pseudonym.

Harper Reed delivered President Obama reelection.

But more important than who he is, is how he did it.

Filmmakers should be paying attention.

He built a system to track voter, and potential voter, data. Simple yet extraordinarily powerful.

Harper Reed and his team could then track, down to the individual, who their army of Obama Campaign volunteers (the 'door knockers', as they are imaginatively called) had contacted and how engaged the potential voters were with President Obama's re-election efforts.

Now this may not sound sexy to people in the film business traditionally, but it is indeed revolutionary.


Imagine if, before you have even finished your script, you could be sure that it had an audience. What would that be worth to you?

If you're a filmmaker and the answer isn't 'priceless', you should change careers. Now.

Imagine if a movie studio could be sure that its new $100M fantasy sci-fi epic had all the elements that would attract a big audience and loads of ticket sales.

This is the power of data.

Data is the new world currency. Just ask Mark Zuckerberg.

The President knew it. And now he is the President again.

But why aren't we doing this as filmmakers? Our livelihood is actually certain to benefit from this kind of audience data revolution, more so than the political sphere.

And yet, in a bizzare irony, it is a POLITICIAN leading the way. How odd.

To help get you up to speed on this new world of data, I present to you this excellent article on the President's data team, including Harper Reed. It is a must read.


If you are lazy, however, the part you must know is:

With Davidsen's help, the Analytics team built a tool they called The Optimizer, which allowed the campaign to buy eyeballs on television more cheaply. They took set-top box (that is to say, your cable or satellite box or DVR) data from Davidsen's old startup, Navik Networks, and correlated it with the campaign's own data. This occurred through a third party called Epsilon: the campaign sent its voter file and the television provider sent their billing file and boom, a list came back of people who had done certain things like, for example, watched the first presidential debate. Having that data allowed the campaign to buy ads that they knew would get in front of the most of their people at the least cost. They didn't have to buy the traditional stuff like the local news, either. Instead, they could run ads targeted to specific types of voters during reruns or off-peak hours.

According to CMAG/Kantar, the Obama's campaign's cost per ad was lower ($594) than the Romney campaign ($666) or any other major buyer in the campaign cycle. That difference may not sound impressive, but the Obama campaign itself aired more than 550 thousand ads. And it wasn't just about cost, either. They could see that some households were only watching a couple hours of TV a day and might be willing to spend more to get in front of those harder-to-reach people.


Keep in mind though, knowing the size of your audience is not a new idea. For example, there is a famous (though questionably accurate) story about filmmaker Kevin Smith and the release of one of his films by the film moguls, the Weinsteins. For the unaware, Kevin Smith is famous for his films 'Clerks', 'Mallrats' and 'Dogma', as well as his extensive public speaking and comic book writing.

As the story goes, Mr Smith advised the Weinsteins not to spend a large amount on releasing his film, because he wanted the production budget and the distribution budget to add up to a certain maximum amount.

For the purposes of this story, we'll call this total amount 'X'.

Smith claimed that the audience he had cultivated over the years amounted to a certain regular amount of box office return, equal to at least 'X'. These people, Smith said, would always buy tickets because they were 'Kevin Smith' fans.

Let's call this number of guaranteed fans 'F'.

So, including the production budget, as long as the Weinstein's spent no more than 'X' releasing the film, they wouldn't lose money.

According to the story, however, the Weinstein's ignored Smith's advice and, in the short run at least, they lost money on the film.

So what is the moral of the tale?

Even if it's not true, this story is informative conceptually. The guesstimation of audience size by Mr Smith in the story, however, has now become antiquated by the new world of data.

In the future, you won't have to guess. Data is how you will know, for your film project, what your 'F' is.

'F' will be a powerful number. It will drive constraints like the amount of investment money you will be able to raise to make your film, and therefore help you determine your 'X'.

But 'F' will also bring opportunity. It will inform how much more you need to do, to raise awareness about your film. It will guide your focus for engaging audiences, and potential audiences.

In short, knowing 'F' will help you build your audience, and your career, as Kevin Smith has.

And the data revolution has already begun. From the documentary makers who have used targeted online advertising of their film to track the 'click-throughs':


...to Netflix creating their new original show, 'House of Cards' using Netflix viewer data to show who to cast (Kevin Spacey), who to select as Director (David Fincher), and even what kind of show to make (a remake of the original BBC TV Series):


As with anything new there are concerns. In particular, there is worry that too much data-driven decision making will lead to formulaic films and TV shows being made.

I don't agree.

Formulaic content was already being made, long before there was ever the faintest notion of a data revolution.

All the data does is tell you what audience exists. Nothing more. Nothing less.

You will still have to make creative decisions, to engage with this audience. Perhaps though, the data will give you pause to scale your budget to the available audience.

So, no more bankrupting studios with $100M films, that have no audience to watch them.

This can only lead to better decisions on the business side of filmmaking, which is traditionally our weakest area. We are creatives after all.

And for you, the time has come to embrace the data revolution.

Use the data to work out your 'F' and then work to engage and grow your audience.

President Obama knew it was important enough to invest in, and he only wanted four more years.

This is your entire film career. How much more important should it be for you?

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