Last fall, as the science-fiction thriller "Looper" was building up steam in theaters, it wasn't surprising to see fans lining up to see it a second time -- the better to untangle the film's complicated skein of time travel, shifting characters and life-or-death plot twists.
But why were those re-"Loopers" watching their beloved movie with their iPhones on and their ear buds in? It turned out that "Looper's" writer-director, Ryan Johnson, was giving them his own private guided tour through the world he'd created on-screen, by way of an in-theater podcast he produced specifically for that purpose.
Johnson had done the same thing a few years earlier with his film "The Brothers Bloom," an indie starring Mark Ruffalo and Adrien Brody that had been in danger of getting lost in the multiplex shuffle. "I was scrambling to figure out a way to generate more interest in the movie," Johnson recalled in a phone conversation from Los Angeles. "I just thought [a podcast] was a unique idea I could do myself that would be this homespun thing."
In the filmmaking world, "Clerks" director Kevin Smith proved an early adopter of podcasts as a canny, cost-effective way to promote his work and build his audience. But Johnson, 39, has taken the technology one step further in bridging the gap between conventional spectatorship and the kind of filmmaker-viewer engagement that audiences increasingly demand -- and movie studios increasingly covet.
Johnson, an enthusiastic Twitter native who regularly interacts with fans on his website, admitted that "not that many people" availed themselves of the "Brothers Bloom" podcast. "But I still liked the idea. So I asked people on Twitter, hey, did anyone actually use that weird thing I did with 'Brothers Bloom'? And I got a lot of positive responses, so I decided to give it another shot."
So far, Johnson's "Looper" commentary has been downloaded or streamed more than 27,700 times. After a brief etiquette lesson (please put your glowing screen in your pocket) and instructions on when to start the podcast (right after the TriStar Pegasus shows up in the opening credits), Johnson begins his narration, a laid-back monologue during which he explains how he shot various scenes, the mechanics of the film's special effects and stunts, and even where his mom and dad show up for cameos. ("Not her ... not her ... her!") Whereas the "Looper" DVD commentary includes stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Emily Blunt, Johnson's in-theater version is simultaneously more conversational (you can hear him take sips of coffee throughout the nearly two-hour presentation) and more technical, with the filmmaker eagerly digressing into explanations of anamorphic aspect ratios and the vagaries of lens flares.
"You can be a lot more casual with the fans," Johnson says of the podcast. "You kind of relax a little bit and dig in a little bit deeper. If someone's doing this, they're not a casual consumer. They're really interested in the process, so you can dig in and not be afraid that you'll bore them."
Johnson doesn't produce the podcasts as a way to increase revenue; he readily admits that the number of repeat theatrical viewings was probably too negligible to be significant. Rather, he's part of a generation of filmmakers for whom creating and nurturing a dedicated audience is as instinctive as sending a text instead of leaving a voice mail. "The people I know who [use emerging technology and] are, quote-unquote, successful at it are not approaching it with a goal of becoming successful at it," Johnson says. "They're successful because they genuinely enjoy being out there and interacting with people. I would be doing this even if I wasn't making movies for a living. And I think people can sense that. They can also tell which filmmakers were told by their P.R. departments to start a Twitter account for their movies and do it in an obligatory way, then ditch it."
Sony, "Looper's" distributor, was supportive of Johnson's idea to do a podcast. But increasingly, Johnson's contemporaries in the low-budget world are discovering that distributors demand interaction with viewers. Indeed, some companies have been known to make deals largely on the strength of communities filmmakers have nurtured online. When IFC Films acquired the comedy "Super," they also acquired star Rainn Wilson's huge Twitter audience. Only a few days ago, Warner Bros. greenlighted a movie based on the "Veronica Mars" television series after creator Rob Thomas raised more than $2 million on Kickstarter, setting a record for the crowd-funding website. The money was surely less important to the studio than the more than 45,000 fans who flocked to Thomas' page -- guaranteed customers who can generate valuable word-of-mouth once the movie is released.
Capturing the audience first is the new normal, says distribution strategist Peter Broderick. Filmmakers should be considering their audience "when they're thinking about their movie in the shower," he says, adding that reaching out early on social media and funding sites creates an immediate feedback-loop. "You're hearing from people directly," says Broderick. "And those people, aside from making a donation down the road or buying a DVD or a download, can also connect you to other people. So you have a way of expanding within those micro-audiences."
For directors working with tiny budgets, distributors now expect to leverage their pre-existing network. "There's an expectation now that the filmmaker will bring their audience with them," said Joe Swanberg, a few days after his new film "Drinking Buddies" premiered at the South by Southwest film festival. "And the only way to keep in touch with that audience is through Twitter and your website and things like that."
For his part, Swanberg welcomes 24-7 engagement with fans, having grown up with social media as a young adult. "I'm 31, and I think everybody my age and younger has grown up with it now," he says. "We've all been turned into marketers and brands ... You're basically running your mom-and-pop film business, but the name of that business is your name, and the idea is to build the brand. It's very bizarre, and it's certainly not anything we talked about in film school."