In 1942, in an effort to motivate and mobilize America’s young men to war, the Morale Branch of the U.S. Army commissioned Major Frank Capra to make a series of factual films that would explain why the U.S. was entering the war, and the principles for which it was fighting. The effectiveness of the resulting seven-part film, Why We Fight, was later recognized by a German chief of general staff who reportedly remarked: ‘We had everything calculated perfectly except the speed with which the Allies were able to train their people for war. Our major miscalculation was in underestimating their quick and complete mastery of film education.’
Skip forward six decades and film has become a widely adopted educational tool. And as playback and delivery systems become increasingly efficient, the sector’s demand for content keeps rising. ‘As we move from VHS to DVD and eventually to digital delivery, teachers are incorporating [films] into their curriculum and how they teach,’ says Elizabeth Sheldon, director of acquisitions and coproductions at Wynnewood, U.S.-based Schlessinger Media, the programming division of Library Video Company (LVC). ‘Twenty years ago,’ she continues, ‘video was considered much more ancillary.’
Founded in 1985, LVC has distributed film-based content to the educational market for two decades. The company recently acquired hardware supplier Safari Video Networks and in May introduced Safari Montage, a VOD server for the K-to-12 marketplace that comes pre-loaded with 1,000 video segments and full programs.
The demand from the ed market represents a substantial source of revenue to factual content creators and rights holders. The niche encompasses all non-paying audiences, including prisons, community centers, government organizations and distance learning institutes, but schools and universities are widely recognized as the most lucrative clients. Andrew Schlessinger, the founder and CEO of LVC, says that in the U.S., primary and secondary schools spend a combined US$150 million a year on hard copy VHS and DVD products. ‘However, that number is rapidly growing and perhaps doubling due to technology money that is available to support digital video delivery,’ he notes. ‘With new budgets for digital video delivery, you’ve got maybe close to $200 million being spent this year, going quickly to $300 million.’ Schlessinger says that by the end of the year, 25% to 35% of the company’s revenue could come from digital video delivery, whereas 70% of its current sales are for VHS and 30% are for DVD.
Yet many producers and distributors fail to capitalize on the ed market’s potential. This is partly because it is considerably more robust in the U.S. than in Europe, where government initiatives and publicly funded bodies provide audiovisual material for little or no money. However, to ignore the educational market where it’s vibrant – particularly in the U.S., but also in Canada, Australia, parts of Asia and to some extent the U.K. – is short sighted. Most significantly, what differentiates this market from its commercial counterpart is longevity. ‘Your traditional distributor and producer are after immediate returns,’ says Julian Mobbs, head of sales and business development for Channel 4 Learning in London, the educational sales and distribution arm of Channel 4 Television. ‘A broadcast sale… means you’ve got money in the bank right away, but if that broadcaster doesn’t want your program after a period, then that’s it – there’s no medium- or long-term returns. In the educational market, your product or series might last for 20 years. The royalties will keep trickling in.’
Investing in the future
Debra Zimmerman, the exec director of Women Make Movies, notes that filmmakers partnered with the New York-based non-profit take home 30% of revenues from sales to the educational market, with royalty checks cut twice a year. (This is a typical deal as performance depends on labor-intensive volume sales, not price point.) WMM also does TV, theatrical and home video distribution; the ed market, says Zimmerman, is WMM’s backend, much like home video is to a theatrical distributor. And just as DVD sales often surpass box office revenues, for many titles education is where the money’s at. Case in point: Lourdes Portillo’s Senorita Extraviada, a 74-minute doc that looks into the kidnapping, rape and murder of more than 350 women along the Mexico/U.S. border. The film won the Special Jury Prize at Sundance in 2002, and that summer it aired on ‘POV’ on New York PBS station Thirteen/WNET. WMM sells the vhs to educational buyers for $295. In three years, the documentary has made more than $130,000.
While sales of Senorita to the educational sector show no signs of slowing, the title failed to sell well commercially. ‘I saw the film and was so shocked I couldn’t sleep for days. Then I brought it to the international market and nobody gave a fuck,’ says the doc’s Montreal-based sales agent Jan Rofekamp of Films Transit. ‘We did a few small broadcast sales, but the key countries said ‘no’ to the film. Europeans just don’t see it; the story just doesn’t get there.’
Zimmerman encourages filmmakers to take an objective look at a film’s commercial potential when mapping out their distribution strategy, and to get in touch with distributors early to avoid costly missteps. WMM, for example, requires exclusive home video rights for a film, though other distribs don’t. LVC, which acquires finished programs for schools and libraries, will take non-exclusive home video/DVD rights for a doc, as will C4 Learning. But since Schlessinger Media is acquiring – and in some cases coproducing – content that’s then specifically tailored to the school curriculum, it demands exclusivity. Savvy rights holders will work with educational distribs not only to avoid giving away lucrative rights, but to tap into potential synergies and fundraising opportunities.
For the best returns, do more than repurpose content
‘Our programs are generally factual series that were produced for broadcast but have a stronger potential in the educational market than in the consumer,’ says Schlessinger Media’s Sheldon. Among her recent acquisitions are ZDF’s four-part series Great Empires as well as Napoleon and The Explorations of Vasco da Gama. From Germany’s Telepool, she picked up Treasures of the World, a historical series of 15-minute episodes about the 300 Unesco sites of the world.
Rights holders get an advance recoupable against royalties in exchange for exclusive U.S. and Canadian distribution rights for all markets except broadcast and cable, generally for a 10-year period. But for high-profile projects with strong educational appeal, Sheldon will lend support early on by coming in as a coproducer, typically for 10% of the budget. Most recently, Schlessinger Media partnered with Millimage and Penguin Television to produce The Way Things Work, a science series based on the eponymous book by author David Macaulay.
Like Schlessinger Media, C4L licenses educational rights for a program and then creates added value elements that are tailored to the school curriculum. Its key customers are primary and secondary state schools, of which there are 23,000 and 4,500 respectively in the U.K., as well as about 2,500 independent schools and learning institutions. C4L sells whole documentaries on dvd as well as CD-ROMs, but since it was founded in 1997 it has been building a digital library called Clipbank. Aimed at 11- to 16-year-olds, the subject-based bank includes one- to five-minute clips from C4′s program catalog that are sold to schools in batches of 250 for £250 ($455). Each clip is accompanied by a description, a glossary, learning content and more, thereby becoming a mini, self-contained lesson.
‘What the educational market is increasingly wanting, and what technology is enabling teachers to do, is to create learning objects. That is, any type of digital content that has a clear learning objective,’ explains C4L’s Mobbs. ‘Kids are media savvy and used to watching incredible things on telly and increasingly amazing things on the Web or via video games. They’re expecting that level of sophistication when it comes to interactivity in the classroom. That’s what’s driving this whole change.’
Though Mobbs acknowledges that the ed market is often slow to adopt innovations, he contends that it’s currently on the cusp of change. He attributes this in part to a nudge from the government that came in the form of £330 million ($600 million) for U.K. state schools to spend between 2002 and 2006 on digital content such as CD-ROMs and online products. C4L has already garnered interest from prodcos curious about producing clips specifically for the educational market. The distrib is also contacting prodcos about repurposing their archives, and is seeking content for universally taught subjects such as religion, history and science.
Mobbs hopes producers will pick up on this trend and begin to consider the market as more than ancillary. ‘Producers are still making content specifically for television,’ he says, ‘because the educational market is not yet big enough for most producers to make a special effort to create, say, a bank of clips from their programs.’ He continues, ‘In the future, we’ll be encouraging our production partners at the outset to consider the needs of the [educational] marketplace. We’ll give them advice on how that needs to be done and we’ll help them with the investment.’
C4L isn’t alone in sussing out the ed market’s potential as a primary source of revenue. In February, Film Australia launched learning@filmaustralia, a portal to online educational resources that draws on the state-owned company’s extensive film archive. In addition to the standard fair – video clips, teachers’ notes for over 100 docs, online ordering of dvds – the initiative bowed with five curriculum-based programs designed specifically for the Web. Using five- to 10-minute video clips, the programs tackle body image issues, Australia’s work history, changes in media, notable Australians, and the country’s railways. Two more programs launch this summer: Ceremony, about indigenous experiences and practices; and National Treasures, which looks at iconic elements in Australia’s museum collections. ‘New media is not just an opportunity to deliver the same thing we offered in another form,’ says CEO Daryl Karp. ‘It needs to have its own language and its own identity.’
Karp describes the website as a pilot program that’s designed to reveal what schools want and what they’ll pay for. At the moment, therefore, Film Australia isn’t charging for the Web-specific material on the site.
Film Australia’s bottom line is to ensure that Australians see homemade programs, but the prodco’s initiatives must be viable. While Karp sees a growing trend towards media studies and using film in the classroom, she’s less confident than C4L’s Mobbs that the ed market will support doc content like TV does today. ‘I’m probably slightly bleaker than other people in the company about the genuine value of the educational market – not just in Australia, but across the board. There’s not a huge amount of disposable income in education for the sort of documentary material that we make,’ says Karp. And yet, she is currently in early discussions with Australian doc-maker Dennis O’Rourke for a program that will have a significant portion of its overall budget paid for by education and new media partners. Considering this, she adds, ‘I suppose for the right project there is a different opportunity to finance documentaries.’