Written by Emily Verellen
for The Fledgling Fund
What comes to mind when someone mentions independent film “distribution”? You can probably define that fairly easily – the selling and delivery of these titles to audiences through any number of means: theatrical, DVD sales, festival release, broadcast and perhaps even online streaming.
What if someone said “outreach” or “audience engagement”? Can you define and distinguish those terms as easily? We have found that these two terms are often used interchangeably – creating confusion within the social issue independent film community, and in our own conversations. We hope that this paper creates a more standard definition for the terms and infuses a new understanding of the importance of each of these distinct components and how they work together to spark social change. From our perspective, distinguishing these terms is critical because they are key components of the work we do at The Fledgling Fund – supporting creative media that inspires social change.
We can use The Fledgling Fund grantee Made in L.A., an Emmy-award-winning character-driven documentary film that profiles the lives of immigrant garment workers in L.A., to briefly illustrate each component. When Robert Bahar and Almudena Carracedo set out to make Made in L.A., they knew their jobs as filmmakers would not be complete upon securing sales agreements with traditional distributors for the film. They recognized that the film would have the potential to change hearts and minds and to ignite social change around the issues of immigration reform and immigrant working conditions by connecting both traditional and non-traditional audiences to the personal stories behind an often impersonal and policy-heavy issue.
Beginning in 2008, Made in L.A. was distributed comprehensively: over 85 film festivals, broadcast on PBS POV and Spanish National Television, self-distribution of home/community DVDs, educational distribution to over 620 universities through California Newsreel, and over 460 community screenings, and counting. The in-person screenings brought Made in L.A. directly to an estimated 30,000 people. In addition, 139 of these Made in L.A. events featured local activists who could connect the issues in the film to local struggles with direct action potential, and over 100 events catalyzed conversations within faith-based communities. These strategic screenings, in partnership with non-profits and NGOs, focused on stopping sweat shops and improving immigrant workers’ rights, would never have been organized by a traditional film distributor; it was Robert and Almudena’s commitment to non-traditional audiences that brought them what was by many
measures their most critical and measurable successes.
In addition, significant online outreach and engagement brought the filmmakers’ message to over 250,000 people and three high-profile Washington, D.C. events, including a screening on Capitol Hill, put the film in front of policymakers as they prepared to confront immigration reform. The outreach and strategic communications work the filmmakers did began long before the film was complete and involved building meaningful partnerships with over 20 national and international organizations. The filmmakers worked closely with these partners to identify target audiences and reach out to them at key points to spread the word about upcoming screenings and related events. Once these audiences had seen the film and were eager to begin or deepen their involvement with the immigration reform movement, the filmmakers and their nonprofit and faith-based partners focused on audience engagement by encouraging four actions: Learning more about immigration reform and contacting elected representatives, fostering community-based conversations about immigration often with a local action component, being more conscious consumers to avoid goods made in sweatshops, and getting involved with community organizing and social justice events. These actions were, and are, directly connected to the film’s narrative, tangible, doable and impactful – hallmarks of a well planned audience engagement campaign. While the challenges featured in the film are still not solved and the work continues, the Made in L.A. team was able to spark new conversations and debate, grow the movement for reform and inspire real tangible actions from audiences around the world.
Made in L.A. is just one example of a documentary film inspiring social change by using the tools of distribution, outreach/strategic communications and audience engagement. It is important to note that every film has a unique path to achieving their social change goals. That said, “distribution”, “outreach and strategic communications” and “audience engagement” are key processes that, based on our experience with our grantees, seem to be nearly universal for success. Throughout this paper, we will outline The Fledgling Fund’s definitions of these terms and how they support our work of inspiring social change through creative media in a unique way. We will then connect those three components to our Dimensions of Impact, which were described in a previous Fledgling Fund paper. Lastly, this paper will outline the four primary questions that filmmaking teams should address as early as possible in order to maximize their film’s social impact. This paper is intentionally and solely focused on social-issue independent documentary film, as that is The Fledgling Fund’s primary interest.
To read more, click here to download the PDF.
Verellen, Emily. “From Distribution to Audience Engagement – Social Change Through Film.” The Fledgling Fund. 2010.
“From Born into Brothels to Who Is Dayani Cristal? and projects in between, The Fledgling Fund has been instrumental in the success of projects I and my teams have worked on. As funders and partners, the Fund provides a source of support that allows our teams to build dynamic, innovative projects that have demonstrable community-level impact. And beyond individual project support, the organization has a unique understanding of and vision for the growth of the media impact field. I couldn’t have done my past work without Fledgling’s support, and our growing, evolving field is richer for their guidance.”