Harnessing passion

Filmmakers and distributors weigh in on how combining creativity with online and offline outreach can extend theatrical runs and keep the conversation about your doc alive.
July 1, 2009

Distribution has changed. While release windows are collapsing and the tug-of-war between theatrical, DVD and online is intensifying, it’s becoming more and more imperative that filmmakers get creative in order to have their films seen by a wider audience. Some strategies work better than others, and while most distributors will tell you that choosing the best method depends very much upon the type of documentary you’re working with, many filmmakers are using social networking and community outreach to create a larger impact with their work and continue the experience outside of the theater.

Like most filmmakers, Carl Deal and Tia Lessin want their projects to reach wider audiences. Thus, for Trouble the Water, their critically-acclaimed and Oscar-nominated documentary from 2008 that follows two people caught in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the aim is now to take it beyond the screen. They plan to do that by harnessing the emotional responses from viewers and directing them to charities, community organizations and political actions that relate to the issues touched on in the film, while also using these organizations to bring new audiences to their film.

Despite the fact that Trouble the Water has won awards (including best documentary at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival and the Anne Dellinger Grand Jury Award at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival) and garnered much recognition, Deal says that as an indie film, creativity is still required when it comes to publicity and distribution. ‘[It's] still a small independent documentary,’ says Deal. ‘So we’ve relied on some good, old fashioned organizing to make sure it finds its audience. All independent filmmakers have to do that.’

To help point audiences in the direction of their film and related social causes, Lessin and Deal teamed up with Blue State Digital (BSD), the company behind assorted fundraising and social networking elements of U.S. President Barack Obama’s online campaign, in a move to drive up their own web presence.

BSD specializes in online fundraising and social networking as well as building constituencies for whatever project they’re working on, whether it be a politician’s run for office or a documentary film’s run for more viewers. In both cases its job is to make people active participants in the campaign, while making sure they understand where their money, or their efforts, are going.

‘The last thing we want to do is just have people take three clicks and then close their browsers,’ says managing partner Thomas Gensemer. ‘That’s a very passive level of activism.’ What BSD strives to do, in the case of a doc like Water, is make people aware of both what they can do to help various causes related to the film and how they can use the doc to raise awareness and educate.

The team behind an even smaller independent documentary, The Way We Get By, couldn’t afford to hire marketers or web promotion specialists to help get more people to see their film; so they turned to students.

Director Aron Gaudet and producer Gita Pullapilly, first-time filmmakers whose doc deals with elderly troop greeters in Maine, approached marketing classes at colleges and universities in the states where they were hoping to screen their film and asked for their help. ‘The professors were actually really excited to have a real world project instead of just something out of a book,’ says Gaudet. The filmmakers gave the classes the basic information about the film and the students came back to them with reports detailing which theaters could screen the film and where the elderly or the military groups were located in that state. The students even made calls to local theaters to let them know about the movie.

When they are screening their film in theaters, Gaudet and Pullapilly also make sure to hang onto their already engaged audiences by getting email addresses at the end of the screening and handing out postcards detailing their website information so viewers can keep in touch and connect their friends with the film. ‘A lot of times with independent movies at festivals you’ll see the postcards for the movies out on a table,’ says Gaudet. ‘We get them to the theater in other ways, through publicity or articles, and then bring the postcard to the theater. Then I feel like everybody who’s getting our postcard actually wants it and they’re going to go home and go to our website.’

‘How to reach an audience has changed a lot with social networking,’ says Laure Parsons, director of home media sales and marketing for Zeitgeist Films, distributor for Trouble the Water. Gaudet and Pullapilly agree, and have galvanized their Facebook group for favors along the way. When they noticed that the most viewed trailers rose to the top of SXSW’s YouTube page, they used Facebook to ask their members to watch their trailer and comment on it. ‘Then suddenly our trailer was one of the most viewed trailers on there and we were on the front page, and if you clicked on ‘most discussed’ leading up to the festival, we were first.’ says Gaudet.

Deal and Lessin are trying to cast a wide net via Water’s online home, to ensure that if someone is inspired enough by their film to want to do more, then everyone can find a cause that they believe in and help out. The site allows for many different levels of engagement, from monetary donations to letter writing campaigns, to simply telling a friend to see the film. ‘When people leave the theater, and want or need to do something, [we're making sure] they have something that they can do with all that anger or that emotion,’ says Lessin.

The key to drawing people into the film and its outreach capabilities, says Gensemer, is by maximizing the buzz around certain milestones surrounding it. One of the key milestones utilized by Water was the Oscars. Knowing that their nomination for the Academy Award for best documentary would increase traffic to the site, the team used that hook to run an advocacy campaign during the weeks around the awards. Based around the priorities of their main partners such as the Gulf Coast Civic Works Campaign, Color of Change, PolicyLink and other local groups in New Orleans, an email blast was sent to their mailing list of roughly 20,000 people, asking them to write a letter to Congress.

Using a web app created by Blue State called the ‘Speak Out’ tool, which allows visitors to type in their zip code and have their letter directed to the corresponding senators and representatives, users were able to send letters through the film’s site. The response rate was high: nearly 10,000 emails were sent.

For its opening in New York City, The Way We Get By partnered with Operation Homefront, a non-profit that serves American troops, their families and wounded soldiers back from the war. The organization supports the film, and the filmmakers encourage viewers to support Operation Homefront’s Backpack Program, which provides school supplies for children of soldiers.

Gensemer says they are looking into using the Speak Out tool to send letters to local theater owners, asking them to extend the run of Trouble the Water, or to use the film in times when they don’t have other films. It could also be used to create what Gensemer calls ‘concentric circles of activism.’

‘The more we can tie it to offline efforts to influence the work on the ground – restoring New Orleans – and further the goal of [getting] more people to see it, the better,’ he says.

About The Author
Managing editor with realscreen publication, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Darah is an award-winning journalist who has spent over two decades covering a wide range of issues from real estate and urban development to immigration, politics and human rights, primarily with The Vancouver Sun. Prior to joining realscreen, she was editor of Stream Daily, realscreen's sister publication covering the dynamic global digital video industry. She also served a stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan for television and print, and was a national business blogger with Yahoo Canada.