In the penultimate instalment of the guest blog Karen Guthrie recalls her experiences of taking The Closer We Get to audiences far and wide. The preparation, the travel, the money (or lack thereof) and the unexpected moments that make it all worth while!
I’m lucky enough to have lost track of the ‘career highlights’ that The Closer We Get has brought me. But one that really stuck took place at the brilliant Chicago International Film Festival, where we had our US premiere in late 2015. I’d agreed to a special educational screening and Q&A event, and turned up at 9am to find a less than excited auditorium of sleepy African-American teenagers that had been bussed in from a nearby high school. They did not look happy to be there with a forty-something Scottish filmmaker and a film about her ‘sick mom’.
"the most powerful and impactful screening I’ve experienced in my nine years in this role.”
However, when the lights went up after the film I could feel the atmosphere in the room had radically changed – we were in the grip of what Rebecca Fons, the festival’s Education Director, called "the most powerful and impactful screening I’ve experienced in my nine years in this role.” Hands shot up to ask questions and we shared the most extraordinary conversations. We talked family rifts, forgiveness, care-giving, Dads and death – they knew a lot first-hand about all of that stuff, and it was humbling to hear their experiences and how they related to the film. Everything that made us different from each other had dissolved. This is the impact film can and really does have and when it is your film it is spine-tingling. We all hung out in the cinema foyer for ages, the kids crying and hugging. They didn’t want to get back on the bus to school.
What Rebecca and CIFF had done was to take an inspired risk on what looked ostensibly like a rather mismatched film and audience, and it more than paid off. I’m highlighting it because it was this experience that showed me hands-down that we had a film that disregarded barriers of nationality, age, race and culture, that its themes were truly universal. It showed me that our impact work could and should broaden out from stroke as a core issue. The Closer We Get will never be a film just ‘about’ stroke, and instead of seeing this as an Achilles Heel when it came to impact (wondering if charities might be happier to work with us if it was), I now saw its breadth as an enormous asset. From then on I felt fearless at every Q&A, and most importantly I felt motivated to bring the film to any audience I wanted it to intrigue, amuse, help or even teach - confident in the knowledge it would connect.
I learned that proactively offering the film up to the education teams ...was a good idea.
All this said, over the years I’ve realised that only the biggest and best resourced festivals have education / impact teams that can dedicate time and inspiration to getting your film to hard-to-reach or challenging audiences. Especially abroad. But let’s face it, if a festival has gone to the trouble of getting you out to the event and subtitling your film (to date we have screened in Mandarin, Taiwanese, Russian, Croatian and Polish to name a few) then you may as well show willing and work hard whilst there. In time I learned that proactively offering the film up to the education teams with the evidence of the Chicago screening to hand, was a good idea. A fair few festivals jumped at the chance.
I left with the feeling the world was a little smaller and friendlier, and again, with the certainty of the power of film to bring people together.
This is how I ended up a VIP deep in the Ural mountains in Eastern Russia, courtesy of a wonderful and rather underrated (in the UK anyhow) festival, Flahertiana (based in Perm). In a remote coal mining city reached by a death-defying 3 hour drive, Flahertiana has developed good relationships with local educators in the provinces, and managed to empty out a couple of high school classes to bring along (no UK school we’ve ever approached has ever been able to do this) for a screening and another absolutely humbling Q&A. Again, I left with the feeling the world was a little smaller and friendlier, and again, with the certainty of the power of film to bring people together. Flahertiana also put the film into a suite of curated docs that toured Russian cities year-round – how thrilling to be screened in Tomsk!
On the Road with Your Film: Show Me The Money!
Now, all of this has been life-enriching beyond measure, but since we’re talking business here on the Blog too, let’s look down the barrel of the gun.
With time, our festival reputation grew and we rarely turned any down (see the list). But our festival activity brought in little income, and no big distribution deals, as mentioned previously. My trips were all-expenses paid, but festival cash prizes were the only income we were making, and that’s often just a few hundred euros. About 50% of the festivals agreed to pay us a screening fee though I don’t think a single festival offered this up front. We had to badger them and it was never more than about €150. I’m sure bigger films can get bigger fees, but I am no hustler. To date, we’ve made a total of around £5500 from screening fees (and to put that in context, that’s less than we scraped together to pay for PR).
It’s a funny life, being on the road with your film. You spend days just getting to a place (I live on a remote mountain, so I’m used to the travel) and then you usually sit out the duration of your film in the cinema cafe, before being waived into your Q&A for your 20 minutes in the sun. In between, if the festival is worth its salt, you meet other filmmakers and are chaperoned around all manner of available fun. It’s a good life, but certainly not a lucrative one.
In total, I notched up just over 100 days touring abroad and nationally with the film in around 20 months. There have been 67 screenings of which I have attended around 75% in person. (Although organisers invariably request my presence at screenings, I can categorically say that it makes no difference to ticket sales / bookings. What matters is the effort the venue makes to market the film to its local networks. ) I also delivered Skype Q&As to festivals when requested to, although this happens less than you’d expect given the cost of flights. None of the international festival dates paid anything more than expenses, so that’s a lot of time spent not earning.
Luckily for us, we were supported by Creative Scotland to tour the film across several weeks in Scotland, and for that work we made sure I did get paid as well as expenses. Ditto the outreach we had begun doing in local community and stroke support groups, as I said in Part 2 of the blog. These remain the single decent fees I’ve so far made from the project, but they cover about 20 of those 100 days. Though it was hard to ring-fence this money from our still weeny budget, I’m glad we did. It helped keep me sane in the screenings in which just two men and a dog turned up and motivated me to keep talking to press and generally take the whole thing as seriously as it needed to be taken. It also paid my rent. Many of us have got used to working on our films for free, my advice to anyone with a film that’s getting a lot of screening requests is try and get paid for your distribution work. It really is work, even if you enjoy it!
I realised how new energy and ideas can be vastly helpful even well into a distribution journey.
Last thing to say here is what I learnt when the people in our team changed midway through this phase, something that ordinarily would have scared the hell out of me. The prospect of getting someone new up to speed when our first Distribution Producer Ged Fitzsimmons stood down was daunting, but Sally Hodgson, one of the most experienced independent distribution people in the land, came on board and brought new wind to our sails. Later, when our Bertha Britdoc-supported impact work allowed, we also recruited Jen Skinner who had different and complementary experience too. Although we all worked very part time and remotely from our own bases (and this was very difficult at times when you just need to brainstorm in a room) I realised how new energy and ideas can be vastly helpful even well into a distribution journey.
The Highs, the Lows and Thoughts for the Future.
The wonderful ZagrebDox screened our film in three, full, several hundred-seater cinemas on their opening Gala Night, all for the cost of my flight and hotel.
Let’s start with the reality of cinema box office for small docs, something people are pretty cagey about for fear of revealing the Emperor’s New Clothes.
But for most small docs their bread and butter is a (hopefully long) run of national screenings in all sorts of cinemas and community run venues, each with their own way of doing things that probably isn’t your ideal. Let’s start with the reality of cinema box office for small docs, something people are pretty cagey about for fear of revealing the Emperor’s New Clothes. The truth about a week’s run at Picturehouse Central in London’s West End followed by some of their regional cinemas, is that you have to provide several expensive DCPs plus posters etc, you’re obliged to turn up for a live Q&A for opening night (by then you’re a few hundred down) and then the ticket percentage you’ll typically receive is 35%. A really good night might sell 40 seats at say £7-£15 depending on venue, but it’s very often less than 15. Go figure. Top that off with hard-pressed venues only updating their websites within days of screenings and placing most of the PR work onto your team, the subsequent months of invoice-chasing, and suddenly that theatrical release has lost some of its sheen. There are exceptions in the world of the small venue, of course: Dundee Contemporary Arts worked with staff at the city’s art school, Duncan of Jordanstone, and numerous local ‘friends of the film’ to fill our screening there. Word of mouth recommendations were our main driver plus the power of my occasional high-profile media appearances on the BBC or in a broadsheet. Even having an acclaimed and ‘Googleable’ film like ours with stellar reviews doesn’t necessarily sell tickets on the ground when it’s not an explicitly feel-good film.
If a screening looks to have made few or no bookings in advance, my experience is that this is a Bad Sign and chances are there will be only a couple of people showing up on spec.
Occasionally with independent venues it’s possible to negotiate a minimum guaranteed return for a screening (say around £150) which puts some onus on them to sell tickets to at least that figure. But the problem we found is that this sum just isn’t enough of an incentive, although it’s the limit of what we could get them to agree to. And when a venue in the middle of nowhere tells you two hours before the screening that they’ve sold no tickets, you’ve already paid for your train and B&B nearby and can do very little to push up sales at the eleventh hour. A minimum guarantee of £100 can feel like a very slight consolation for all that effort. I have memories of wanting to stand up shouting on a chair in the foyer of Eden Court in Inverness to try and convince all the people queuing for the latest Pixar fare to come and see my doc. And the week after I would receive several emails saying, ‘I missed your film. Why was it only on for one night in my town of XXX?!’. If a screening looks to have made few or no bookings in advance, my experience is that this is a Bad Sign and chances are there will be only a couple of people showing up on spec. Whenever we got the chance we offered a reduced rate for a relevant interest group to bulk the audience (e.g local stroke nurses or film students) but even this didn’t always make a difference, and was often very admin-heavy to organise.
Paradoxically some of the best attended screenings we had were the most remote (e.g Shetland and Orkney) with avid local audiences and dynamic organisers. Another effective tactic was screening within thematically-relevant bigger events with their own good marketing - e.g a Glenesk screening we did as part of Luminate! (Scotland’s festival for creative ageing).
For us, I’m not sure delaying the DVD release to encourage screenings, or to comply with the BBC’s exclusivity contract, was the best choice financially.
With the benefit of hindsight, I sometimes wish I had had a suitcase of our DVDs to sell at all those little screenings, as I truly believe that every single audience member would have bought one. It’s that kind of film, people have a life-changing experience and always want their friend to see it next. The received wisdom of limiting availability windows is all very well in theory, but for us, I’m not sure delaying the DVD release to encourage screenings, or to comply with the BBC’s exclusivity contract, was the best choice financially.
I’ve discussed this with our team a lot, turning over the alternatives to this state of affairs that leaves the independent doc maker so short-changed at the very point when they get to share all their hard work with the world. It’s not that venues and programmers aren’t enthusiastic about your film, it’s just that they don’t have capacity to do the niche, bespoke audience development needed to get those seats filled on the one night you are in Dunfermline, Dumfries or Doncaster. Frankly, it will never be profit-making to do so. You may have the subject expertise, but you won’t have their local knowledge, so what’s to be done to make a bridge?
The idea of publicly-funded, regional distribution managers working across numerous low-budget films and venues to mobilise new audiences is an interesting one to me.
The idea of publicly-funded, regional distribution managers working across numerous low-budget films and venues to mobilise new audiences is an interesting one to me. These people would work with the film and venue teams to connect with local audiences in experimental and distinctly local ways, after all what works in one town may not work in another. I work a lot in the public sector art world, and this is something they seem to be way ahead with, there are many inspired engagement staff working in this field. Let’s hope recent shifts in public funding for documentary film can explore such ideas.
- If you don’t ask, you won’t get. Ask festivals for Screening Fees. Don’t rely on ticket sale cuts. Explain why you can’t offer free screenings firmly and clearly.
- Try for at least four weeks to market any national public screening big or small. Any less and you should consider block-inviting relevant special interest groups locally to swell numbers.
- Travel for post-screening Q&As if you want to and/or are paid to. I found it didn’t affect ticket sales much but venues are convinced otherwise so they may put up a fight!
- Bring on new staff to your team during distribution and impact work. Their fresh enthusiasm, new ideas and personal networks will be a big asset.
- Distribution is demanding work. From the sending out of DCPs to the director Q&As, prioritise paying whoever is doing it.
On The Road – 45 Director Q&As and Counting!