The Subtle Art of Awareness

When Jim de Sève began working on his documentary, Tying the Knot, four years ago, it was a small, personal film. He had fallen in love with Kian Tjong and both men wanted Tjong, an Indonesian immigrant, to stay in New York. Had they been a straight couple, says de Sève, they would have married immediately and solved Tjong’s Green Card problem. Instead, they waited anxiously for him to receive political asylum. De Sève realized for the first time what it meant to be excluded from the institution of marriage, and all the political and social protections it provides. “I really wanted to make a film that would express my own process of understanding the issue and arguments,” he says.

In 2000, however, gay marriage was a relatively obscure issue, and de Sève had difficulty raising money. He received only one small grant to work on the film, which he quickly spent. Then, in 2003, the province of Ontario, Canada, legalized gay marriage, and suddenly funders began to respond to his proposals. The film became a much more ambitious project, covering the history of marriage as an institution, with profiles of several gay couples who had suffered badly without the protections of legal marriage and extensive interviews with almost every leading gay-marriage activist. By 2003, when the gay-marriage debate had caught fire in the United States as well, thanks to several longstanding cases that had worked their way through the courts, de Sève had nearly finished his film. All the money and attention took him by surprise. “It felt like this wave was coming up behind me and sweeping me along to this very fortunate place,” he says.

By 2004, de Sève was making the rounds at festivals. He quickly found a distributor, Roadside Attractions, and has spent the last few months furiously promoting his film. He is determined to make the most of this fortuitous moment. Tying the Knot will be shown in “gay ghettos” across the country; there will be corporate screenings for groups who do financial planning for gay couples and political outreach in communities where gay-marriage bans are on the ballot. De Sève has cultivated several gay rights organizations and has partnered with them to promote the film. He even organized a screening at the Republican National Convention, which won him no converts among the delegates, but a throng of reporters showed up to film the potential spectacle.

De Sève’s plan for the marketing of Tying the Knot represents something of a template for promoting a film about social or political issues. First, be fortunate or shrewd enough to make a film that takes advantage of the zeitgeist. Don’t skip a single opportunity to have your film mentioned in the same breath as a hot-button issue. Second, don’t forget your core audience. Preaching to the converted solidifies your base and earns you crucial box office returns in the first weeks. Third, share the work—and the attention—with organizations that can mobilize their networks and put bodies in theaters. Fourth, don’t be afraid of a little flamboyance in the name of a good cause.

This is a good time for social-issue documentarians and filmmakers. In the past few years, documentaries have done extremely well, from Spellbound (2002) and Capturing the Friedmans (2003) to Bowling for Columbine (2003), and the audience continues to grow. 2004 has also proven a goldmine for anyone with a political film to market. Fahrenheit 9/11 exploded at the box office, thanks to its sharp critique of the administration and in good measure to Michael Moore’s flair for getting attention. Anti-Bush sentiment has whetted the public’s appetite for opinionated films, and election year cash-flow has meant more money is available for promotion. You just have to be creative. Robert Greenwald organized house parties nationwide to support his film about Fox News, Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism, and has been reported to sell more than 100,000 DVDs of his movie before its theatrical release.

In the past, conventional wisdom had always held that social-issue or political films won’t turn a profit. “There’s a common assumption that you could actually hurt yourself by going out and advertising your work as a socially minded [filmmaker],” says Eileen Creighton, who is researching a study for the Ford Foundation on the investment prospects of socially responsible media. “The perception is that you’re an artist and you have a social purpose, but that you have no financial awareness.”

Siddharth Kara, a Los Angeles-based writer/producer with a background in investment banking, established his company, Saffron Pictures, in 2003 in order to make commercially viable films that would raise awareness of social and humanitarian issues. “Everybody thinks they know what is commercially viable,” Kara says, “and what’s not viable is anything about an issue.” He was only able to secure funding for his first film, Trafficking (2003)—about the sale and abuse of women in South Asia—outside the United States. “Hollywood is happy to pick up a film at a festival that’s made on somebody else’s dime, if it gets a good response and they think they can distribute it,” says Kara. “But in terms of actually footing the bill up front, that’s different.”

There are, of course, examples of Hollywood films with a conscience that have done well in recent years. Erin Brockovich is frequently held up as an example of a film about social action. This summer’s The Day After Tomorrow was a big-budget action movie about the dangers of global climate change. But does either of those movies qualify as a social issue film? Erin Brockovich probably did more for Brockovich herself—not to mention Julia Roberts—than it did for the issue of corporate responsibility. And a cursory search of The Day After Tomorrow’s website reveals no links to research on the effects of global warming.

However, these films may be evidence that investors are beginning to see socially responsible films as viable vehicles for both moneymaking and social activism. That’s where promotion comes in. The right kind of film can bring in a loyal audience who will tell their friends to see it again the next weekend or they’ll visit the website and volunteer their time. Filmmakers who present their subject or cause as a way to gain attention—not as an albatross that might potentially deter an audience—are changing the way social-issue films are perceived by the industry. But this new approach does beg the question: Is it the filmmaker or the cause that benefits the most from a movie?

“There are certainly a lot of fine lines there,” Kara says. “If you tell a story about an exploited or downtrodden group, there is a danger that you are using their suffering or their issue to sell a film. That’s a criteria about which I’ve been very sensitive, and the story we’re telling [with Trafficking] is very empowering.”

“Integrity is always an issue,” agrees Melissa Bradley, whose company, New Capitalist, advises individuals, corporations, and other funds on socially responsible investing. “If it’s a story that’s told well, that doesn’t exploit or misrepresent anyone, then I think everyone benefits,’ she says. “As investors, we don’t always have a chance to be engaged in that discussion about content, but we look for filmmakers who do keep that in mind.”

For his part, de Sève says no one has accused him of exploiting the issue of gay marriage. He has found the response to his film within the gay community to be overwhelmingly positive. “The only place I’ve felt tension is from people who think you’re making a lot of money, which is not the case,” he says with a laugh. Both primary subjects of de Sève’s film, a police officer in Tampa, Florida, and a farmer in Oklahoma, lost their partners tragically and are struggling financially. “I had a long conversation with one person in particular about how distribution works,” de Sève says, “They thought I was raking it in.”

Most filmmakers who are serious about social activism agree that a film is only the beginning of a campaign. Kara says: “You must have an articulate, lucid plan for how you’re going to leverage any interest generated by this film into making change. Or else, is this just a career move for you?”

As in the case of Tying the Knot, both social action and promotion begin by partnering early with organizations that can help you reach a sympathetic audience. Dallas Brennan, who runs Big Mouth Productions with fellow producer Katy Chevigny for the purpose of making social issue documentaries, says that each Big Mouth film begins with outreach. “Very early on in the research and development, we set up an advisory council of people who know a lot about the issues,” says Brennan.

For their most recent film, Deadline, a documentary about the death penalty and criminal justice reform in Illinois, they used this council not only for research but for promotion once the film was finished. They have organized targeted screenings and made Deadline available for use by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, among other groups. Big Mouth has received a grant from the Ford Foundation to do outreach with a variety of communities. “In general, the advocates of the issue are grateful to have a new tool at their disposal,” says Chevigny.

Like many social issue films, Deadline also has an extensive website with an active blog. People can use the site to learn more about criminal justice reform and they are directed to local and national groups that can harness their volunteer input or donations should they wish to become more involved. Because Deadline does not have theatrical distribution (although in a unique move, NBC bought the rights to air it during an edition of Dateline earlier this year) these strategies literally become the film’s distribution network.

This grassroots approach is an important template for filmmakers trying to sell investors on a social issue film. New technology has made filmmaking a much cheaper process. But large-scale promotion remains dauntingly expensive. Studio films targeted at a mass market can double their budgets with promotion and marketing alone. “That’s because their strategy is to reach as many people with advertising as they possibly can,” says Creighton, the investment researcher. For social issue films, however, it’s important to reach your most sympathetic viewers first in order to build a following. “You start at the top of the pyramid with a consumer who has a great deal of interest in what you’re doing,” says Creighton. “Then you move out from there. Bigger films aim their promotion at the bottom of the pyramid, at the general population.”

Bradley, the investment advisor, agrees. “Major distribution companies try and reach everyone and there’s no economy of scale,” she says. “I believe that the way to make money is to refine your marketing target. You may want it to be a general audience film, but go after your core audience first.”

Indie blockbuster My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002) began its inexorable juggernaut with screenings for Greek audiences. And Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ famously silenced doubters (though not many critics) with a campaign that first targeted church groups and Christian organizations, before moving on to a wider theatrical audience.

This tactic can seem counterintuitive. After all, did church-goers really need to be convinced to see a film about Christ? But de Sève says he learned early not to neglect his core audience. “I think it’s important to preach to the converted,” he says. “If you don’t have a church for the converted to go to, the movement won’t be solidified and unified. You need the pep rallies.” Michael Moore learned this lesson well with Fahrenheit 9/11. It may have seemed like an overnight success, smashing box-office records for a documentary and stunning the political right with its popularity. But Moore built carefully on the connections and buzz he’d developed during the promotion of Bowling for Columbine, a film which took much longer to reach a mass audience.

Grassroots activists say this method is an excellent way to get a wide variety of people to help with promotion. “Initially, it’s not a question of convincing people of our message, but of finding the audience we already have and enabling them to work with us to promote the issues we have in common,” says Katherine Dodds, who runs Good Company Communications, a Canadian public relations firm which specializes in social issue marketing. “It’s not just preaching to the converted. It’s giving the converted a tool.”

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