Mapping demand to get straight to the story

Crowd Controls allows audiences to request to see films in their area and artists to identify where demand for their work lies.

By Rosie Lavan

Crowd Controls plots the locations of fans on an interactive map to show where demand exists

Crowd Controls was created by New York-based Brian Chirls. A simple interactive form asks fans to enter their email address, postal code and city, then their location is plotted on an interactive Google map.

In-built safeguards protect privacy and communications are tailored to ensure that fans only receive information about events in their area. Crowd Controls is a transferable and easy-to-use tool: built using standard HTML and Javascript and embeddable on any website; it works internationally, accepting information from countries that do not use postal codes and allowing fans to type in city names in their own languages and characters; and, as white label software, it can be customised to suit the brand identity of different projects.

Chirls developed the tool when he was working with Arin Crumley and Susan Buice on the independent film Four Eyed Monsters (2005). No distributor would take on the film, despite the fact that they had built up a considerable online audience. They promised to screen the film in any city where at least 150 people wanted to see it, and thanks to the data collected through the Crowd Controls prototype, which proved how much demand existed, Four Eyed Monsters hit screens in dozens of cities across the US.

Chirls has been working closely with Energia Productions, the Finnish company behind the sci-fi parody Star Wreck, on their forthcoming feature Iron Sky, and the current version of Crowd Controls had a soft launch with this film in late 2009. Through the tool, 17,000 people have signed up to demand a screening of the Nazis-in-space film, even though it has not yet been made.

Heart of Now, a much smaller film using the tool, has had some interesting results. Chirls was concerned that Zak Forsman’s film had only drawn 271 requests – filmmakers can be anxious that making public low interest in their work might prove damaging – but Forsman has received emails from people in unexpected places, excited both about his work and that it will play in their often overlooked locations.

The whole purpose of the tool is to put power in the hands of the audience. Chirls explains: “I’m trying to foster this relationship between the fans and the filmmakers. It’s not about the relationship between the fan and me. Nobody cares about me. I’m not the one who’s telling the story.”

As a result, no Crowd Controls branding appears on sites using the tool – though Chirls admits there is no logo yet – but his principle is to take the audience straight to the story.

Respect for the audience informs his stringent line on privacy. For example, when filmmakers have approached Chirls asking whether they can pass on the database of fans’ details to a distributor if their film was to get taken on he says the answer has had to be no. “The audience are giving their address to the film – they are not giving it to me or some platform.”

It is currently a one-man operation, but Chirls envisages building a team around him. There is a long waiting list for Crowd Controls, but working with a small number of filmmakers at present is enabling him to continue with ongoing updates and experiments. One of his key aims is to help filmmakers generate official reports and profiles of audience demand, based on the quality data collected through Crowd Controls, to present to theatres or distributors.

“It’s kind of funny,” he says, “because even though it’s all internetty and web-based it’s still in a way a very conservative way of doing business.” He hopes to open the service up to other artists, like comedians, theatre practitioners and musicians, and is already working with Ira Deutchman’s Emerging Pictures which enables people to demand a cinema in their area.

For Chirls, it all comes back to the need to create a story. “Not just the story that you are telling in your film, but the story of the audience’s whole experience – starting with discovery.”

Key projects

Four Eyed Monsters (2005)

Iron Sky – in production

Heart of Now (2010)

Ride the Divide (2010) Award-winning feature about the world’s toughest mountain bike race across the Rocky Mountains

Emerging Pictures – Network of arts venues tied together through digital technology enabling films to be screened cost effectively

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