Distributor FAQ: Films for the Humanities and Sciences

What is Films for the Humanities and Sciences?
Films for the Humanities and Sciences is the largest distributor of videos and CD-ROMs to schools, colleges, and libraries in North America.

Who is Film for the Humanities and Sciences?
President and CEO is Betsy Sherer. Vice President, Operations and Chief Financial Officer is Jay Shah. Molly Kramer is Vice President, Finance. Frank Batavick is Vice President, Acquisitions.

Total staff:
61 people.

How many works are in your collection?
Over 7,500 active titles.

How, when, and why did Films for the Humanities and Sciences come into existence?
FFH&S was founded in 1959 and has been located in Princeton, New Jersey, since 1972. Its founders were Harold and Marianne Mantell. Harold was an independent filmmaker, and Marianne was a keen businesswoman. They started the company in order to distribute cultural (literature and arts) programs produced by Harold—many of which we still distribute today—and then acquired titles by other producers.

Unofficial motto or driving philosophy behind the company:
FFH&S prides itself on providing the world’s best educational audiovisual materials—on videocassette and CD-ROM—to schools and libraries all over North America.

What distinguishes you from other educational distributors?
Three things. First, quality: we represent the world’s preeminent producers. We distribute programs from ABC News, Discovery and The Learning Channel, HBO, Public Affairs Television (Bill Moyers), the BBC, BBC’s Open University, NHK, Canal+, La Sept-Arte, Channel 4, and CBC, just to name a few. Second, exclusivity: well over 95 percent of our materials are exclusive to FFH&S in North America.

Also, we are the exclusive distributors for the BBC and the Open University in the U.S. Third, marketing: we publish 150-plus catalogs and promotions a year in virtually every curricular area, from African-American Studies to Women’s Studies. We mail over eight million catalogs a year, each addressed directly to instructors in specific disciplines.

What types of works do you handle?
Videos and CD-ROMs of lengths from 15 minutes to multi-part hour-long series. We handle every genre and style, but primarily documentaries.

Range of production budgets of titles in your collection:
$50,000 to $1,000,000+.

How is your collection organized?
It covers all curricular areas. We’re probably best known for our English (literature and drama) collection because of the roots of the company. However, there are over 20 Social Studies catalogs in areas as diverse as Ancient and Medieval Studies and Urban Studies and Transportation. We also have multiple niche catalogs in Communications, Education, Business, Art, Music, Health and Psychology, Math and Science.

How do you decide what to add to your collection?
We correlate potential programs to what is being taught in the secondary, high school, and college classroom. We do a great amount of research on current school textbooks and curricula. If a topic isn’t taught, we don’t buy the program. It is always a business decision.

Best known title in collection:
Generally the best-selling titles tend to have spin from PBS broadcasts. Titles produced by Bill Moyers are tremendously well known. The recent HBO documentary by Christopher Reeve, Without Pity: A Film About Abilities, is also a title we handle.

In a perfect world, where do you want your films to play?
In 100 percent of America’s secondary schools, colleges, and libraries. The quality is that good.

What’s your basic approach to releasing a title?
We attempt to place a title in as many relevant catalogs as possible to maximize sales for the producer. A program on Toni Morrison can be sold in most of the English catalogs noted above and in African-American Studies and Women’s Studies. This gets the title in front of as many eyes as possible.

Describe your working relationship with PBS:
We represent some of the best producers on PBS, like Bill Moyers and Larry Hott of Florentine Films, and some of the premiere stations and systems, like WNET, WETA, and Oregon Public TV. We work with PBS producers and individual stations to maximize off-air sales. The spin that a PBS airing gives to a show enhances sales. Teachers see the show, wish they had taped it for their classes, then see it in one of our catalogs and order it.

How do you reach your market?
The marketing plan we use is an aggressive, comprehensive, direct mail campaign, complemented by telemarketing and in-person sales calls by our 20-member rep staff. We mail more than four million copies of 80 different catalogs and brochures at the beginning of each semester, for a total of more than eight million pieces annually. In addition, we also mail our master catalog to libraries and media centers.

Our marketing strategy developed in response to changing patterns of educational spending in the U.S. Many instructors at both the high school and college level, and those in many non-academic institutions, are now given funds directly and encouraged to choose most of their own course material.

Videos and CD-ROMs are increasing as a percentage of total instructional material used. Leveraging many titles, we are able to reach every instructor in North America by name, at an economical cost. We use our proprietary customer list and mailing lists from companies like CMG and MDR. Despite having made our business into one that takes advantage of economies of scale, what the individual instructor receives is quite specific and targeted.

We provide instructors with a brochure tightly focused on their area of instruction. They don’t have to wade through pages and pages of irrelevant titles. Also, instructors have come to know that all of the material contained in our catalogues are exclusive to FFH&S and is found nowhere else. This further increases their desire to closely scrutinize the contents.

Direct mail is only the beginning of our efforts. Our reps in the field call upon many major buyers in the school market throughout the 50 states. They are highly experienced and extraordinarily effective. Internally, we have specialized telemarketers who call on college libraries and consult with them on which titles best fit their collections. Our sales staff attends close to 30 regional and national conventions a year, from the National Science Teachers Association to the National Council for Social Studies. At our booth, educators can pick up subject-specific catalogues and preview some of our new titles. Lastly, our new web site, films.com, is experiencing over 80,000 hits a month.

How much of your business is conducted within an international educational market, and how do you reach that market?
We have a sub distributor in East Asia for selected titles, but our primary focus is North America.

Key milestones in the development of FFH&S as a company:
We were acquired by Primedia in 1992 (a Fortune 500 media company with large holdings in educational publishing and satellite casting, e.g., it owns Seventeen, New York, Modern Bride, World Almanac, Weekly Reader, Channel One). In 1998 FFH&S acquired Cambridge Educational Research, one of the largest producers of vocational/career awareness/health titles in the U.S.

Is it possible to make a living making documentary films?
Sure. But you need to find a broadcast or cable venue first before seeking a nontheatrical distributor. That’s where major funding should come from. Some producers think that they will earn enough from nontheatrical sales. Maybe, but it will happen over time because of the nature of the business.

Where do you find your titles, and how should filmmakers approach you for consideration?
Many titles come to us as a result of a phone call or letter because of our reputation. Other producers refer producers. Our acquisitions staff attends MIPDoc, MIP, MIPCOM, and NATPE on a regular basis and festivals in Monte Carlo, Rotterdam, Banff, etc. on a selected basis.

On average, what sort of net income might a documentary filmmaker make with Films for the Humanities & Sciences over a five year period for a 56 minute title focusing on a timely social/political topic?
Royalties for such a title would range from $5,000 to $25,000 over five years. If it is an evergreen topic, it could continue to earn for 10 to 15 years and even beyond.

A few words of advice to indie filmmakers:
Tell a good story. Have a topic sentence for the film and build around it and support it. Tell me something new. Involve the best consultants as you do your research, and put them on the screen to enhance ethos and credibility. Don’t underestimate your audience. Go easy on the MTV effects. Try to make a difference in how the public approaches and understands a topic. Use on-screen graphics for statistics and maps, etc., so we know where we are. Use relevant and high quality B-roll.

Most important issue facing educational media today:
Format/mode of delivery. Producers need to clear everything in their programs for digital delivery. Going back to the stock house a year later to clear the digital rights for distributors like us is too expensive and time consuming.

Upcoming titles:
The Silicon Valley: 100 Year Renaissance, by John McLaughlin, which aired via APS; a new two-hour special from Bill Moyers on the South African Truth Commission and its hearings entitled Facing the Truth, which aired on PBS in March; and a Discovery/BBC production entitled Desmond Morris: The Human Animal.

If you weren’t distributing films you’d be…?
producing them.

Famous last words:
Content is king. Produce shows with integrity about important topics and events, and the world will want to watch.

About :

Lissa Gibbs was a contributing editor to The Independent and former Film Arts Foundation Fest director.