Friday, April 02, 2010

FFF - What we can learn from social issue docs

All this doom and gloom in the film business is getting to me...

Nah, just kidding. I actually think that all of my posts lately have been pretty upbeat, even though some people have said otherwise - the underlying message is to figure out ways to make the film business work better. I also don’t hear as much negativity out there in the media business as I used to, in fact, most of that talk is getting pretty old and stale. When I meet with serious filmmakers, and by this I mean whether emerging or established, they have their heads on their shoulders and know the various games you have to play to make films and get them seen, they are pretty upbeat. They are generally excited about all of the changes, they can’t wait to experiment more and they can now at least try around with some new ideas since the old ones didn’t work well for many of them. Okay, quick aside, I do still meet serious filmmakers who are depressed, but I’ve posted enough about them for now and this is a happy post. So I’m now initiating a new category of post here, one devoted to nothing but the good news, the things that are working amazingly f-in well, things I love about film or the film world today or people I want to champion. I hope to keep up the good spirits at least once a week, but given my general grouchiness, and how many projects that pay me are on my plate that week, it may slip (unless I find some happy guest-bloggers, hint hint). I need a name for this feature, but I’m going to try and crowd-source that work - suggest away in the comments or via DM or email. For now, in the spirit of Twitter’s Follow Friday or #FF, I’ll call it FFF for Fun F***in Friday, which also let’s me celebrate cursing, my favorite hobby after film.

This week’s FFF - social issue documentary film. Yes, this sector is not usually associated with fun, but if you’re raising money, looking for help, looking for partners and strategies, looking for a community, building an audience, searching for new strategies, thinking about how curation helps content at festivals or pretty much any other activity in film, this is the Fun sector for you! I’m not kidding. The doc sector in general, but especially the social issue doc sector is thriving, has built some semblance of an infrastructure and is connecting with audiences, which isn’t easy for tough subject matter. It’s doing so well, in fact, that lots of filmmakers get upset that unless they are making a social issue doc there’s no chance for grant support, etc. But this is FFF, no complaining allowed - instead, we should look at what they are doing right and try to replicate some of it in the rest of the film world. So what water are they drinking? Well, someone who actually works in it daily can probably chime in with more than this list, but here’s a start (not in order of importance, just the order in which I think of them):

  1. Funders - Okay, I cheated, this one is first because it is the most important. There’s a dedicated group of funders who are putting a lot of money into these projects. First, there are the old fashioned players - like Ford an other foundations that make sizable commitments to docs. They are increasingly looking to have an “impact” with their funding, and while I generally loathe how they think about this, it does mean that they gravitate towards these films. There’s also an emergent group of new players - places like the Fledgling Fund or Impact Partners (there are others, these are just the most famous) who are taking new approaches to funding docs, and to staying involved through distribution. There are companies, like Gucci even, that are quite serious about putting resources into supporting films with an agenda, and it’s much easier to attract corporate support, from the right places, for such films (when they aren’t too controversial, a topic for another post). This just scratches the surface, but I think you get the point - there’s a wealth of, well wealth, out there for these films. What does that mean for the rest of us? Constructively follow the example. Sure, less people might want to give to avant-garde film than to some social issue, but this is always true in the arts. There are also many wealthy people who like to watch other films, let’s build a business model that let’s them fund these as well - perhaps an Impact Partners for emerging filmmakers of color, or for aging film legends who aren’t making genre pictures - I’m not kidding, there’s likely some group of people who could be brought to the table to fund such ventures. Let’s also get together some research and good arguments for the value of indie film in general and convince foundations that this should still be part of their mission. This won’t be easy, but I’d argue it’s easier in aggregate and in light of the changing nature of the field. Let’s also think smartly about how we might entice corporations to fund this work. I know it sounds far-fetched, but hey, Altoids funded some seriously contemporary artists not long ago. The point is, instead of throwing our hands in the air, let’s address this head-on.
  2. Festivals - The documentary film festival scene is vibrant and seems to help generate audiences for films better than any other festival does. Filmmakers also travel this circuit and meet one another and have formed an active community that strengthens the field (see 4 below). In general, these festivals seem to be better about the whole premiere-itis thing. Filmmakers, tell me if I’m wrong, but I seem to see a lot less complaining that a film has played multiple fests amongst these programmers (though  the first premiere does still matter). They are also very specific to their audiences - people know what they are coming to see, and filmmakers generally know what type of audience to expect. They are more curatorial than most(but not all) fests, just by limiting their genre. It’s buzzy because it’s true - curation is the future, and these fests are well prepared.
  3. Experimentation - Generally speaking, the doc community seems more open to experimentation with new tools, new mechanisms for reaching the audience, etc. While some of the most pioneering filmmakers working with crowd-sourced screenings, for one example, haven’t been documentary makers, these tools have been more quickly adapted by them - look at The Age of Stupid for just one such example. I’ve seen great experimentation with event based screenings, with use of video on mobile (for impact on the ground), with gaming, with the use of viral video snippets and with more old-fashioned experimentation through word-of-mouth screenings, tours and playing with windows of release. This was born of necessity, as many couldn’t line up traditional theatrical, but it has worked out pretty well for the field. There’s a lot here that should be copied by other filmmakers; in fact, as it becomes increasingly rare for all indies to get a theatrical release, these are the strategies we can probably most learn from.
  4. Community - The doc world has done a much better job at building a sense of community than the rest of us. Things like Stranger Than Fiction, blogs, even just seeing one another on the doc fest circuit have built a sense of community. I may be wrong, but this community also seems less back-biting - you’re a filmmaker trying to change the world? Me too, let me help you is much more likely to be heard here than in the narrative, or especially experimental, community. It helps with finding funds, with learning about fests and with (3) sharing news about experimentation. Narrative filmmakers should copy every aspect of this.
  5. Marketing Hook & Defined and/or Niche Audiences - This one is easy enough to understand, right? It’s much easier to reach an audience when that audience is easily defined and targeted. Got a film on returning war veterans. Audience...check. Got one on atrocities in the Congo....check. You get the point.
  6. Broadcast Outlets - For indie film in general, there’s very few broadcast outlets. Yes, we have IFCDance channel (s), but as great a job as they do, they are essentially juggling every film made on earth. With docs, you have one outlet that pays well - HBO (the King, or Queens really, of docland), and several public media outlets, namely POV or some combo PBS/ITVS deal. On top of that, you sometimes get lucky and have an NBC or NatGeo, Discovery, etc etc looking at your films. More importantly, most of them are actually somewhat approachable people who seem to genuinely love films, unlike the suits at other places who seem to hate actually watching movies. A few of them are also filmmakers themselves. All of these outlets also have massive reported audiences (I’m skeptical of the numbers for some, but will concede the point and say it’s more than you’d get theatrically) and this is essentially marketing for your film’s other, ancillary, lives. What can we learn from this? I actually have no idea, but man, I wish we had more broadcast outlets for truly indie films.
  7. Partnerships - Social issue doc filmmakers are usually great at building partnerships with others to get their film seen and to have an impact. People like Working Films, Active Voice and Film Sprout exist to help you strategize grass-roots screenings. There’s tons of nonprofits, NGOs and other community based organizations ready and willing to partner to help get the film shown and to get audiences actively engaged in the issues. More than any other segment of the business, social issue docs engage their audiences in a participatory manner. What can we learn from this? Well, it’s unlikely that Farm Aid will pair with you on your indie rom-com, but we can think of other partners - festivals could work on more year-round partnerships with filmmakers, and so could film societies and indie film theater owners. While some people who see a social issue doc get active in some cause, most just attend for a good conversation. That’s replicable by other genres as well - perhaps we need to partner with coffee shops, book-stores, universities and even libraries (getting sexy here, ain’t I?) to spark more participation through dialogue. Meet-Up groups anyone? I think there’s lots of things to learn here, although fair warning - this is hard-work stuff to implement.
  8. The Good Pitch - This one is really part of partnerships, but is so good, it deserves it’s own line-item. The Good-Pitch is only a couple of years old, but it’s absolutely amazing - traveling from fest to fest, the Good Pitch has filmmakers pitching their projects to an informed, hand-selected audience not just for cash, but for partnerships. As their website explains: “The Good Pitch is a one-day live event bringing together specially selected foundations, NGOs, social entrepreneurs, broadcasters and potential corporate and brand partners to form powerful alliances around groundbreaking films. 8 filmmaking teams will pitch their film and its associated outreach campaign to the assembled audience with the aim of creating a unique coalition around each film to maximise its impact and influence.” This is much more intensive than most of the other pitch sessions and markets out there where you meet with a few companies and stare at one another, wondering why you were connected (ok, some are better than that). The Good Pitch is very tight, focused, structured and has a clear goal - forming partnerships for greater impact. I’d love to see something similar for the rest of us - sure the attendees would be different, possibly including smart experts like Peter Broderick, Caitlin Boyle, Jon Reiss and the like along with film societies and fests, exhibitors, etc. I’m not sure what it would look like, but I bet some organization could put some minds together, come up with something and it would probably be great.
  9. Educational - In the US there exists an educational market that is willing to pay more for films - as much as $50 - $400 for a film - because they are showing it repeated times to multiple students (there’s more to it than this, but it’s a long, boring story). While anyone can sell their film to schools, there’s a much more robust market for social issue docs (and historical docs) than for narrative films. That said, a few enterprising filmmakers are finding some element of their film that connects to different curricula, or perhaps specialized departments, and are making good money in this market. This is especially true for films by, about and for people of diverse backgrounds. Others are experimenting with college tours, to much success. There’s a lot to learn here, and a lot of experiments to be made.
  10. Smart leaders - Some of the smartest people I’ve met in the film business are working in this space. I could hint at who some of them are, but instead, I’ll let you guess, so I don’t leave anyone out by mistake. Ok, I can’t hold back. I’ll mention just two. Any field that has both Jess Search and Thom Powers in leadership positions is lucky - they are wicked smart. Let’s convince them that docs are boring and get them into other films. Bottom line - a successful field needs leaders. We have some of them in other arenas, but not enough and we need more people as dedicated to artistic storytelling as we have towards social change.

I’m sure there’s more than ten things we can learn from social issue documentary, but that’s all I have time to write. Suggest more in the comments and have a fun f-in Friday. #FFF


Dempsey Rice said...

Everything you've said is great Brian... once again! As you know, I'm a doc filmmaker who has made a social issue doc (, but I have to say that I am frustrated by the fact that the only docs people want to fund are social issue docs. It's so much harder to get anyone to pay attention to a story that isn't going to change the world, but that has value and creativity. (

I don't want to be totally sour grapes, but I do want to know how documentary can pull away from the social issue format some and explore ideas/tell stories for the sake of those stories!

Would Grey Gardens get made now?? Maybe, but it would have an entire social issue campaign built around it that focuses on mental illness, caring for the elderly, aging in place, mother/daughter relationships, wealth and family ties... it wouldn't be made just because it is a crazy compelling story!

BNewmanSBoard said...

Ok, now that it's not FFF anymore, I can admit I agree with Dempsey on these two things completely -
1. It's frustrating that people only want to fund social issue docs. I've argued elsewhere on this blog that almost any format film can have just as much impact, even if obliquely (and perhaps because of this) than a social issue doc. I don't see this changing soon, so that's why I suggest learning what we can from them for other genres and styles.
2. We need to pull away from the social issue doc mindset, aesthetically. I see this all the time - great docs that are judged in terms of social issue doc aesthetics, to their detriment (fests rejecting more experimental docs, or more "fun" docs). I also see many, but not all, docs that aren't aesthetically interesting, but they play the fest circuit (and sometimes get broadcast) just because of the issues.
Anyway, good to hear from you Dempsey.