If you’ve been kicking around the independent film market much, you probably hear a lot of the same themes again and again from sales agents and distributors about the types of genre films that are high in demand and routinely do solid business.
One genre that is exploited less frequently but stands out more than most is the Family Film.
Family films are not quite as universally appealing to produce as action films, or horror films, however, the genre does transcend language barriers more than most genres. A well-produced independent family film has a better chance of overcoming the typical distribution challenges, especially if certain conventions are met.
But what makes one family film stand out among the rest?
I am going to break down for you what a quintessential family film should and should not include.
Like most mainstream genres, there are sub genres that exist under the banner of family – and there are quite a few of them. Family films can hybridize with nearly any mainstream genre. The massively successful Spy Kids franchise is an example of a mainstream family action film.
Family films lend themselves to comedy, drama, faith-based and even sci-fi. Family Adventure films like Honey, I Shrunk the Kids are universally appealing as are films that incorporate the use of animals as principal characters.
In the indie film world we often joke about adding in a horse or a puppy into almost any movie as a method of increasing distributor appeal, but the root of the joke is in the reality of animal movies being consistently in high demand.
2. Target Audience
One of the most common places I see filmmakers miss the mark with family content is with the target audience.
To truly fit into the family genre, the film needs to cater toward young, elementary age viewers. Very often I see family films skew toward a teenage demographic and they tend to fall flat with buyers. The reason is that these films, particularly the ones with a high school setting, are often a bit too PG for teenage viewers, yet too mature for elementary age viewers. As a result these films tend to fall short in the business they do.
A film geared for teenage viewers needs to have a bit more edge than a traditional family film. Not to say that it has to go full American Pie, but the teenage audience will always gravitate more toward adult comedy than they will G or PG type audience friendly content.
A true family film will cater toward a young audience that would require a parent to engage as a viewer in addition to their children.
One of the reasons that animation and family films have always done so well at the box office is because twice as many tickets are sold based on the parent being required to participate as well.
3. Production Value
Like any film, having quality production value can make or break the film.
Family films often exploit the use of animals, children and special effects – all very challenging components when working on a budget. If done well, however, the film’s business potential is significant.
4. Star Power
Having well-known actors in a family film is not essential, particularly if the film revolves around children and animals.
However, this is a genre that can definitely be personified to the next level by casting well known talent, particularly in the older adult roles. This will ideally make a family film more appealing to a parent who might be watching the film with their child and it will always help entice distributors.
Casting appropriate names is important, however. Few well-known actors transcend all genres and many often lend themselves to specific genres, so when casting for a family film, look closely at actors who have a track record in previous family friendly productions. Actors who have been able to work in family films tend to have a broader universal appeal because they become recognizable to both kids and adults alike.
One of the smartest things actor Michael Madsen did earlier in his career was star as the father in Disney’s Free Willy films. Madsen was originally known for R rated content like Reservoir Dogs and Species, so when he became known by young audiences due to Free Willy he suddenly engaged an entirely new generation of viewers.
5. The Dove Seal
The Dove Seal is a seal of approval from the Dove Organization. A Dove Seal on a film validates that the title is in fact family friendly and approved for all audiences. This is not only appealing to distributors, but it’s extremely appealing to parents and viewers.
If you are producing family content then definitely take the time to get familiar with dove.org. Any film can be submitted to the organization and they review family content as well.
The family genre is not necessarily the glamour genre for the independent filmmaking community, but if done well it can be one of the most lucrative ones for sure. The family market is constantly hungry for family films. There literally can never be enough of them.
In addition, you may also find that investors are much more willing to get involved in content that has the universal appeal of a family film.
And most importantly…
The points laid out above are the essential boxes that need to be checked to satisfy both distributors and audiences alike, but like any film, having an original and classical storyline with good characters will set you up from square one with the best chance for success.
If you have managed to find or create that, the rest is simply a matter of execution.