In the second instalment of the blog Karen discusses the highs and lows she traversed after her film, The Closer We Get, moved on from the festival circuit. From distribution woes to the surprising benefits of crowdfunding Karen has great advice for all you indie doc-makers out there!
You might be tempted to credit the success of 'The Closer We Get' to its unique qualities: the main one being my exclusive access to an extraordinary family story but the truth is that all documentary films are unique, in so much as all human subjects are. It's why we never grow bored of them! But it would be disingenuous to play down my particular devotion to my film's subject, and my joy and satisfaction in sharing the messages of the film with others. My mum Ann died without seeing the film complete, and my dad Ian passed away eighteen months after its UK premiere. To the surprise of some, he attended a number of screenings, proudly, defiantly, soaking up both the praise and the criticism that came his way.
From our previous docs we knew that doing self-distribution did not mean we had a duff film. In fact we were in good company!
But despite a stellar festival profile starting with Hot Docs, the months passed after winning Best International Feature there, and we still had no sales agent or distribution for 'The Closer We Get'. From our previous docs we knew that doing self-distribution did not mean we had a duff film though. In fact we were in good company - See ‘Reality Checks: 7 Great 2015 Documentaries Without Distribution’
It was clear that we were going to have to take the reins and get the film out to the world ourselves. ‘We’ being the very tiny Somewhere, the non-profit that is just my co-producer Nina Pope and I. We had no idea what this would entail this time round, but we had such a good feeling about it. Time and time again we had met with incredible generosity with this project. So many people gave us their cheapest rates for services, or did things for free, and worked their hardest, giving us and the film limitless momentum. People felt how special the project was and wanted to be part of it.
Let’s draw a quick sketch of The Closer We Get’s finances:
No one commissioned the film, and we had no major names attached to it. I’d shot most of it myself across 18 months, unpaid, amassing 88 days of footage. For production, we had Arts Council England funds of £20k. This had been secured on the reputation of myself and Nina Pope as artists rather than as filmmakers. We had £15k from crowd funders for post-production, and that was ALL we had. (I took an excruciating peek in my “Funding” folder when starting this blog, and the unsuccessful applications run well into double figures, a personal record and not one to be proud of. Yet this has been our most successful film by several miles. Go figure!)
I took an excruciating peek in my “Funding” folder when starting this blog, and the unsuccessful applications run well into double figures!
All together our development and production costs were £95k, so you can see how much deferral / in kind we have borne. This is why we still work so hard on distribution over two and a half years on from the premiere. We have to. It just helps that we still love the film too. Anyhoo, back to where we were in 2015, after our premieres at Hot Docs and Edinburgh...
Creative Scotland backed a Scottish release that summer. We speedily recruited the multi-talented Glasgow-based Ged Fitzsimmons (Cosmic Cat) to secure dates and venues. We were buoyed on by brilliant reviews in mainstream and industry media, plus quite a few newspaper features on me and my family (not all were sympathetic – my dad was the brunt of a few tabloid nasties we tried to ignore).
Despite all this exposure, it was a challenge to pin down a sensible tour schedule
Despite all this exposure, it was a challenge to pin down a sensible tour schedule, provide venues with marketing materials and to gain supportive partners to help us develop audiences in some very far-flung corners of Scotland. But Ged pulled it off, balancing this with the ongoing international film festival commitments too. In one 24 hour period, the film screened in both Inverness and Taiwan! With Picturehouse Cinemas on board offering a few Scottish cinemas and a week in London, it was exciting times.
Impact crowd sourcing
Our Indiegogo campaign raised enough cash to almost finish post-production. But something else happened too. The campaign helped me learn how to talk about the film, and to hear what audiences reacted to the most in its message. In hindsight, I can see that it was the start of 'crowd sourcing' impact ideas.
The campaign helped me learn how to talk about the film, and to hear what audiences reacted to the most in its message.
Each time I posted an Indiegogo message, I received moving feedback from strangers and acquaintances who related to my circumstances: People struggling to care for loved-ones and who had spent a long time being brave about that; people with tricky families who just wanted to say, “I’d no idea you were enduring this behind the scenes. I care. It could happen to any of us.”
Every successful bit of impact we’ve done with the film has started with a comment from the audience - a question, a surprising reaction maybe. Discovering the deepest universal messages within your film and exploiting them is the key to successful impact. Perhaps that’s true of marketing too, but the difference is that impact takes the film to people. It doesn’t wait for them to ask for it.
Charities Get Closer
Many of us doc-makers see the enormous reach charities have, and we want our film to be part of their big conversation around a shared issue. We did too. I hope our experiences can highlight some of the pitfalls and benefits if you're thinking of dancing that dance. Perhaps the most meaningful thing charities and NGO’s have done is provide us with chances to ‘test screen’ the film to various target audiences, have a lot of our assumptions proved wrong, and rethink. For us, charities have put us in front of some influential people, they have brought some great PR and made us feel good about our work. But they haven’t brought hard cash, so Pursue With Caution is my advice.
The profile of our Indiegogo campaign enabled me to make meaningful contact with the Stroke Association’s NW regional branch, a charity I had chased for a long time. It would become one of the key impact partners for the film in time. But they couldn’t officially ‘back’ the campaign. Instead they promoted it, they paid me to work with stroke support groups and organised a rough-cut screening attended by a wide range of stroke professionals and carers. It was great to hear from audiences that we suspected were the ‘target sectors’ for our impact work, and who we hoped would be common-or-garden ticket buyers as well. These events also brought a few surprises: I learnt that when it comes to impact ideas you need to be very ready to have your supposed expertise annihilated at times.
I learnt that when it comes to impact ideas you need to be very ready to have your supposed expertise annihilated at times.
In our case, we learnt that stroke survivors themselves really didn’t need to see a film about another stroke survivor to help them understand how life-changing stroke is...duh! They were already ‘on message’ and so for them the film had to be sold under a different guise – in fact, just as a good watch. They were never going to be an especially significant audience for us. Seems obvious now, doesn’t it?
But something surprising and valuable that those stroke survivors did say – and have continued to – is that the film makes them feel grateful. For life, for surviving, for their carers. They’re often cautious to tell me this at first: after all, they’re talking to me, the now-bereaved daughter from the film. But with my encouragement they do speak out, often for the first time. It’s spine-tingling to be in the room with that. It’s exactly that opportunity to say something a little transgressive and deeply personal about how you relate to a film that underpins all meaningful impact. And making opportunities for that to take place is what it’s all about. The care-givers and care workers who saw the film early on, they were a different matter.
The more the audience had in common with each other, the more freely they shared their experiences without fear of judgement.
Whenever a group of them got together with the film, we heard powerful feedback on its capacity to build empathy and show them what ‘being cared for’ really felt like. The more the audience had in common with each other, the more freely they shared their experiences without fear of judgement. My presence seemed to help things flow, and few screenings took place without me being invited there. Audiences found it cathartic, and we realised that bringing carers – not easy folk to reach – together and in front of the film was going to be key in setting the film to work on an impact mission.
Without access to the Stroke Association’s support group network we couldn’t have learned all this, and at a time when this knowledge could be instrumental in directing us ahead. Without naming names, certain smaller charities wouldn’t even reply to emails or calls from us - although that changed a little once we reached The Film Festivals Normal People Have Heard Of (Edinburgh and the like). It was dispiriting at times, especially when you are both supporting the same goal, but I started to toughen up and to concentrate on those that were open to our approaches.
I still, of course, hoped (and to be honest still do) that a charity would just do something as downright helpful as buy a few thousand DVDs from us and give them away, but this just hasn’t been on the cards. Interestingly, when we’ve sold DVDs to fundraise specifically for charities - for example, we ran an offer to donate a sales percentage during Stroke Month - sales have been no different from usual (i.e pretty low), despite much positive PR and social media flurries. So perhaps charities know something we don’t about what really affects the push and pull of the consumer.
See Beyond Stroke – the first impact project
Shortly after our festival run started, I had the headspace to act on an idea I’d had around editing some of the film’s unused scenes. These were short and sweet, exploring specific topics around caring for the physical and mental health of a severely disabled person like my mum. I knew the film’s rushes inside out and was sure the material was emotive and educational. Just as importantly, these clips could stand alone from the film itself if necessary. This could mean that a whole spectrum of other uses could theoretically be found for them, in social and health care training.
If you want to do significant impact work I’d advise cultivating a capacity to accept that most audiences will NOT be sitting in a dark cinema with your film
Anywhere that watching a big 87’ feature just might not be an option. By this point I was getting less precious about the film, and if you want to do significant impact work I’d advise cultivating a capacity to accept that most audiences will NOT be sitting in a dark cinema with your film, as you would prefer them to. They might need to watch it on their phone, on telly, in snatches between lunch and the school run or on their lunch break on their work PC. Your film has to hold its own in all these places, and if it does, it has the power to change the world.
We made a modest, swift-turnaround funding application to the Big Lottery Scotland to make these ‘Extras’, and to reach small local stroke support groups and carer groups with them. We began to talk to Chest, Heart & Stroke Scotland, and they advised on the content of the suite of Extras in return for us giving them the clips for use in their in-house training. We also made a one-hour cut down of the film with some of our Lottery funds, when I realised a 87’ watch was uncomfortably long for many stroke survivors and their care-givers, who themselves were often older or in ill health too.
We called this ‘See Beyond Stroke’, tacking a screening / discussion tour for me and the film onto our Scottish theatrical tour, hoping to capitalise on local marketing opportunities and on my existing travel schedule taking me to far-flung places like Orkney and Shetland.
Or this was the plan. In reality it proved very tricky to make this work in tandem – support groups were hard to communicate with, often met at fixed day-time slots, and often did not have access to screening facilities or to transport. I ended up revisiting some places in order to deliver the Lottery-funded sessions, and the project extended significantly as organising it was so complex. At least the funding was able to pay for this work though and it was without exception very rewarding to do.
Further up the food chain though, we were finding that the charities which supported these grassroots groups were still not able or willing to make a commitment to supporting the film more significantly, even ‘in kind’ with marketing and the like. My sense is that most of their time is spent just about getting by, and though they’re happy you’re joining in, there just isn’t capacity to do more with what you have.
In every case where a significant collaboration has taken place it has been us that has initiated, devised and fund-raised for it.
Approaching them early on too - in our case - didn’t help them bite either. With the exception of the NW regional Stroke Association, fruitful relationships with charities / NGOs have been erratic for us. In every case where a significant collaboration has taken place it has been us that has initiated, devised and fund-raised for it. We’re fortunate to have the skills and tenacity to do that work, but if you think impact work is easier to get off the ground than the film itself, think again.
One last thing - the one hour cut-down we made for this impact work was what I waved in front of BBC Scotland one last time. Lo and behold they licensed it - four years after it had first been pitched to them.
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