Scott Harris came to Scotland four years ago to pursue an MFA at the Edinburgh College of Art. He previously specialized in short observational documentaries but is today releasing his first feature, a personal doc called Being Ginger. Rather than attempting to screen at film festivals or sell to a broadcaster, he is releasing the film for sale directly on his website.
When the Scottish Documentary Institute approached me to guest blog for them they suggested I might write about why I'm doing a direct release of my new documentary "rather than the festival game." The simple fact that they'd call it a game is a big part of why my film won't appear on the film festival circuit.
I should start by saying I'm not quite sure how I should present this. Which is to say that I am mindful of my tone. While I want to be accurate and honest, I don't want to sound bitter and angry, because I'm not. But I also don't want it to seem like this has been easy, because it's been anything but.
I'm a relatively young filmmaker, just 32 years old. I graduated from the Edinburgh College of Art two years ago with an MFA in Film. Being Ginger is my first feature. My graduation film was a 23-minute doc by the same name. It was about my experience as a redhead and my quest for love. If I may be allowed to say, it was charming, warm, and painfully honest. It screened twice, first at the college's degree show, then at a special industry screening, and both times it brought the house down. I had lofty expectations when I sent it to festivals, 35 in all, but I was nervous. Previously, I'd been very proud of my first year film only to see it rejected by every one of the 80 festivals I applied to. I privately told my friends that if the same thing happened this time I was done making films. I didn't see the point in trying to bang my head on the door hoping that someone would let me in. One friend, an industry professional who has been extremely successful with several short docs and was at both screenings, told me not to worry: "There is no way a film that gets that kind of reaction from an audience won't get picked up by some big festivals."
I sent it to most of the usual suspects, plus a few smaller festivals, and it was rejected by each and every one. A handful gave me feedback, and while I won't name names, some told me the film was just too long to program, which is fair (but they had all programmed longer shorts). Two others said there was no audience for a film about redheads.
"No audience for this"
While the film was still out to all these festivals I began to think that I had really only scratched the surface of the topic, and that I could go much deeper, so I decided to turn it into a feature. The original short would essentially become the first act, and I went on filming. I approached several broadcasters and numerous pitching forums but no one was interested. I tried not to take it personally, I was aware that there were an incredible amount of more experienced filmmakers out there, which makes it a very competitive market. Also, I have no problem admitting that for some people my film is just a hard sell. They don’t understand what it’s really about, and some people don’t want to give it a chance. You see it isn’t really a film about my hair at all, my hair is just a MacGuffin of sorts. The film is actually about something much more universal. It’s about being different and never feeling like you belong. It’s about not having any self-confidence. It’s about trying to get over the effects of bullying that went on long ago. Not red-hair bullying, which most non-redheads think is funny, but the kind of nightmarish stuff that you wouldn’t wish on anyone.
But if I say I’ve made a film about bullying I’m not going to reach the audience that I want. So I decided to approach the subject with humour. My natural audience is redheads, but my hope is that it will branch out from there...
The most curious rejection came from a broadcaster here in Scotland. In March of 2012 the short won the Creative Scotland Student Media award for best documentary. I was told that one of the local commissioning editors was at the award show, so the next week I sent them an email. I shared the trailer with them and said that I was expanding the film to an hour and I wondered if they'd have any interest in getting involved. At the time I had a solid 53-minute assembly of the first two acts which I offered to let them see. They said there was no audience for it and advised that I give up the project altogether. Just to repeat that: a commissioning editor for a broadcaster in Scotland said there was no audience in Scotland for a film about redheads. In Scotland.
(Now, it's very important to note that they came to this conclusion without actually watching even a second of the assembly or the original film. If they'd watched it and thought it was bad, that would be one thing, but all they knew about it was that it had just been named the best student doc in Scotland, and it was about a redhead looking for love, and without watching it they concluded that no one would want to see it.)
But I digress.
I didn't give up because I believed in what I was doing. It was the most fun I'd ever had "working" and I was confident I'd be able to make the film work. Thankfully I had enough encouragement from friends.
In January 2012 I took part in a scheme put on by Sheffield Doc/Fest called Devise to Deliver. Part of it included a workshop run by Sandi DuBowski and Peter Broderick. That was a big turning point for me. That was were I started to see the potential of niche marketing and connecting directly with my audience. I learned the necessities for putting together a successful crowdfunding campaign, and we talked about different ways to build an audience online. Peter was particularly interested in my project saying that it was perfect for selling directly to my audience.
Folk at the Scottish Documentary Institute were too busy to get involved personally, but they were always supportive and helped me out with different things along the way. They threw me odd jobs every once in a while and were always there with advice when I needed it. I got shortlisted for their Bridging The Gap scheme (for a completely different film about a whisky shop) and when I wasn't commissioned I was devastated.
But it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The last Bridging The Gap workshop we had was run by Arash Riahi, who among other things is an expert in story structure. Rather than talk with him about the whisky short, we looked at clips from Being Ginger which he absolutely loved. He made a key suggestion that led me to make a drastic change to the film. So in a weird way, I’m actually glad I didn’t get the Bridging The Gap commission.
Building a crowd
The point is that I had a mix of reactions from different people in the industry. And there was enough positive stuff that I didn't get discouraged. In August of 2012 I took the original short to the world's largest redhead festival, where I also shot the longer film's final act. I launched a crowdfunding campaign at the same time and raised over $12,000. Not a huge amount by industry standards, but enough to finish the edit.
Over the last year, I've tried to expand my reach as much as one person can alone. I've made memes to help my Facebook page grow, and I've shared special clips on YouTube. I've tried to connect with other redheaded pages and events and formed true friendships with many of the people involved.
As a result of all this, I had a truly remarkable experience when I went to IDFA in Amstrdam last November: I didn't feel the need to sell myself or my film. Normally, when I go to a big festival I am mindful when there are “important” people in the room. People with the ability to greenlight my dream project. But after raising my $12,000, and believing I could bypass the traditional route, the pressure had been lifted. I wasn't there to ambulance-chase as one person put it. I was talking with a filmmaker at one of the free drinks events and it was clear that she was desperate for funding. As we talked she saw a respected commissioning editor walk past us. She grabbed him and tried to sell him on her project, but it was obvious to me that he wasn't interested. He'd been pitched at all day, and while he was nice and polite to her, it was clear that she was never going to get any money out of him. I just smiled to myself and, when he looked at me, wanted to say: “Don't worry, you don't have anything I need.”
There is still room for TV. I've seen too many amazing documentaries that have been funded by some world-class broadcasters. But it isn't for me. No broadcaster wanted to fund Being Ginger, and no matter what happens with it I strongly doubt they'll want to fund my next project. I hope they go on making quality films, but I've finally learned that they don't know everything. William Goldman, one of my favourite screenwriters, once famously described Hollywood by saying that “nobody knows anything.” That's true in the documentary world as well. The most acclaimed films were all passed on by someone.
"Nobody knows anything"
There is a shift happening within this industry, and crowdfunding and social media are leading it. I was deeply disappointed that I was never able to stand up at a pitching forum to present Being Ginger. I thought if I could just play them the trailer in front of an audience they would see that the film worked and that an audience would appreciate it. But maybe it's better that I wasn't selected. I have heard too many stories from friends who have pitched and had wild enthusiasm from the entire panel only to not receive a dime from anyone on it. My sense from going to IDFA and Sheffield and even the Edinburgh Pitch is that commissioning editors are paid to say no. I love PBS's POV strand. Along with HBO it is the best place for a documentary to be broadcast in the United States. But how many slots do they have a year? 20? (And that's a major strand, many others only have room for 8 a year.) And how many pitching events do their commissioning editors attend all over the world? They must hear 1,000 pitches a year. Which means they spend far more time saying no than yes. Which is fine. It is extremely difficult to make a good film. So they have to be selective. But I could spend years trying to get their attention; time that would be better spent finding another way to make the film I want to make.
Now that the film is finished the question is how to release it. And to be fair I did submit the rough cut to a few film festivals, five to be exact, and again I won't name names. All five passed, but two of them wrote me very nice personal notes telling me how much they enjoyed the film and that they were sure it would get picked up, but that they just didn't have space for it. And to be fair, none of them saw the final cut, in fact what they all watched was very rough.
I thought about sending it to more festivals, because frankly I love going to festivals. I've been to Sheffield, IDFA in Amsterdam, and SxSW in Austin a combined 12 times, and each and every time has been amazing. So don't get me wrong, I wanted the film to play at a film festival, but at the same time, I do feel like it is something of a game.
The illusion of submitting to festivals
Last year at IDFA, I met the head of a major international festival in the US. She told me that of all the films that come in through their open call – all those people who pay $50 to submit their film – that those films are watched by volunteers, not the selection committee. The volunteers rate the films, and each film might be watched twice. Then, of all those films, and at this festival that would be somewhere around 500 feature docs, only three are recommended to the actual selection committee (with no guarantee they'll get in). So in my case, if I submit to this festival a documentary that isn't about the environment or a war crime somewhere, or an evil corporate giant taking out the little guy – the types of issues that traditionally fill festival programs – my film is going to get pushed aside and might never be seen by the people who matter.
Then, this year at Full Frame there was an excellent panel discussion on this topic, and David Wilson (who I greatly respect as a programmer simply because he sends out the nicest rejection letters, which is something I think more festivals should pay attention to) said something amazingly candid about this year's True/False. He said he could have programmed their entire festival without any submissions. Every film was either one they had already heard of or one made by a filmmaker they already had a relationship with or something they had seen at another festival. (But he added he kept the open call going because he didn't want to dismiss that one lonely filmmaker who didn't have any connections.)
So as a young filmmaker, with no real connections, I was left with some tough choices.
I could spend a year and $2,000 submitting to festivals, and hope that the film first would make it past the unpaid volunteers and then find its way to a programmer who cares more about story craftsmanship than breaking the form or a good sound design (which one top doc programmer once actually told me he looks for first). I could break my neck trying to get a broadcaster to give it a chance, but even if I found one who loved it, they'd only pay a tenth to acquire a finished film they love compared to what they pay to commission a film that is still an unknown (which makes no intuitive sense, even to them). At the same time, I've been getting more and more people all over the world emailing me asking how they can see the film. Now, I'd like it to be seen in a cinema with a crowd and without distraction, but in my wildest dreams I would never envision Sony Pictures Classic releasing Being Ginger worldwide.
On top of that, multiple redhead festivals wanted to screen the film. And once I started screening at redhead events it would be foolish to not have the film out for sale. Which meant if the film was to play at any film festivals it would have to come before the redhead festivals, the two biggest of which take place at the end of August.
I wasn't sure what to do, I thought about holding it out of the redhead events for a year, but that seemed like a huge mistake. One of the people I turned to was Sean Farnel. Now that he is no longer working at Hot Docs his blurb in the IDFA catalogue said he's a consultant, so I hired him to look at my film and help me assess it. He said it was great and he was confident that it would get picked up by some nice festivals, but not Toronto or Sundance, so he agreed with me that it would be a mistake to pass up on screening the film at the redhead festivals.
I don't know what will happen next. The first festival starts today, and my screening is on Sunday. They expect 2,000 redheads overall, but my screening will only hold 80. What percentage of the remaining 1,920 will go home and buy the $10 download I don't know. Next weekend the film will play at The Redhead Days, which is expecting over 5,000 redheads and 10,000 total visitors. I'll have two screenings of 190 each.
For my online release I went with a company called VHX, they’ve helped me build a unique web page to sell the film from, and their support and customer service has been outstanding. They are still in the beta stage of their site, so I had to apply to be included. They liked the film and I was happy with everything they had to offer. Plus, I saw they were the company that "Indie Game: The Movie" had used, and I’m a big fan of how those guys have reached out to their audience.
In addition to that, I'm working with Tugg in the US to create individual screenings of the film in cinemas all over the country. SnagFilms has asked to distribute the film at some point down the line. And Film Sprout, a company that specializes in building community screenings for independent films, is interested in helping me organize a college tour, and possibly even a high school tour. I've already done one school screening as a test, and I was very pleased with how the students engaged the subject matter and talked about it afterwards.
With some of the industry people I've spoken to their initial reaction to the idea of the film was that it wouldn't work. They didn't think the film was serious enough, but for those who actually watched it they almost unanimously thought it was a great way to talk about bullying because its humour and subtlety make the whole subject more palatable."
And I'm already planning a sequel of sorts. I won't say too much about it here, but if I can reach enough people with Being Ginger, and they like it enough to want to find out what happens next, then maybe I can crowd-fund the next film and raise enough for a proper budget. And then maybe I can build an actual career.
A complete gamble
The real difficulty is the fact that the general public doesn't know or understand the film business. Everyone seems to take it for granted that I've been getting paid to work on this film for the last three years. They all assume that I have a studio or major production company behind me because outside of the film world it seems insane to spend as much money as I’ve spent, and take on this much debt, on a complete gamble. (Little do they know that for two of the three years I’ve spent working on this I lived in a backpacking hostel. Not the glamorous life people picture when I say that I’m a filmmaker. But it saved me thousands of dollars.)
So why am I not going to play the festival game or try to sell the film to a broadcaster? Basically it comes down to this: there are too many filmmakers out there and not enough spots, so I have to create my own spot. Affordable cameras and editing stations are said to be the democratization of filmmaking, and they are amazing, they make it so much easier to make a film. But there is a corollary: they also make it harder to get noticed. The Internet is the true democratization of cinema, not cheap cameras. You can make a film about the issue or event or subject that you care about, and if you can find 10,000 people in a world of 7 billion who care about it too, you can make a living.
Check back in a few months, and I'll tell you how it went.
Scott blogs about film, and sometimes his love life, here.