Viewpoint: A New Kind of Box Office

Overlooking educational distribution for your feature doc means turning away audiences and potential revenue. Ro*co films' founder and CEO Annie Roney discusses the importance of the educational market, and how to work within it.
January 27, 2016

The phrase “educational distribution” doesn’t usually get the film industry excited. However, when fully executed, it produces some of the most dynamic, vibrant and meaningful ways of reaching an audience.

It can also return significant revenue for a film. So why isn’t it prioritized more often in a release strategy? One reason is confusion about what it is – and it is many things, and involves many screens.

Yes, educational distribution includes the use of a film in a classroom setting. That kind of use is considered “non-theatrical.” But educational distribution also enables individuals and organizations to host community screenings by licensing “semi-theatrical” screening rights. These individuals and organizations become “exhibitors” who engage their own communities to screen the film together.

The key is to find an educational distribution company that has invested in this type of work and understands the market and its potential.

Also included under the umbrella of educational distribution is the licensing of the semi-theatrical (or public performance) rights to a university library even before a screening is planned, as a way to provide access and opportunity for students, faculty and staff to be able to use the film for public showings and other events on campus.

Because discussion materials and resources are often included with any public performance package, the impact typically goes far beyond a single screening, allowing the film to be truly used in the manner that the filmmaker intended.

Like theatrical box office for docs, there is no formula for success in the educational market. Just like a theatrical release, an ‘educational release’ requires individualized research and outreach to identify the demographic most likely to use a particular film. A successful release will involve identifying not only traditional educational contacts like media librarians, educators, department heads, and student groups on a school campus, but also non-educational contacts such as non-profits, NGOs, churches, training centers, museums and businesses that would have reason to show the film to their community.

In the case of The Invisible War, for example, this kind of outreach led to a comprehensive licensing deal with the U.S. Military and the Canadian Armed Forces who are now using the film as part of an ongoing training initiative at hundreds of installations across the globe.

A successful release can also involve working with grants and donors that have their own reasons for wanting the film used, and can help get the film to organizations that otherwise wouldn’t have a budget for it. The Elton John AIDS Foundation, for example, sponsored a screening campaign that identified and engaged rural HIV/AIDS health clinics in the U.S. by “gifting” them a screening license and support materials to show How to Survive a Plague to their communities.

The Hunting Ground

The Hunting Ground

Capturing interest from organizations and individuals aligned with the film should be a focus from the first day of production and can easily be done through the film’s website. Ideally, a film will begin its educational release at the same time or shortly after its festival premiere or theatrical release. With The Hunting Ground (pictured above), for example, the film was distributed semi-theatrically alongside the theatrical release.

Traditionally, though, almost all theatrical “all rights” distributors exploit the educational market last. Most distributors warehouse these rights with companies that let the exhibitor find the film, rather than leading an aggressive campaign to find the exhibitor.

Particularly destructive to a successful educational run is the lack of sufficient holdbacks against VOD and home video distribution. It is difficult to excite an organization to host a screening for their community when it is already widely available on digital platforms and in retail stores. In other words, releasing the film on VOD and on home video too early can cannibalize the returns from educational distribution.

A three- to six-month window of exclusivity is best. If you are selling your film to an all rights theatrical distributor, ask them what their plan is for the educational market and which companies they like to work with. Ask them if they intend to carve out an educational window prior to their VOD release. Ask them for projections of VOD and educational revenue.

The key is to find an educational distribution company that has invested in this type of work and understands the market and its potential. Educational distribution requires a solid infrastructure and staffing for both outreach and fulfillment.

Be sure those are fully in place with a distributor. Simply purchasing an email list and hoping for sales in the educational market will not yield the best results for a film. Ask a distributor for specific case studies and success stories regarding educational sales.

Not all documentary film is a fit for the educational market, but evaluating the potential before giving the rights away is always a good idea.

  • This viewpoint feature first appeared in the January/February 2016 issue of realscreen magazine, which is out now. Not a subscriber? Click here for more information.
About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.