Distributor FAQ: University of California Extension

University of California extension
2000 Center St., 4th fl., Berkeley, CA 94704;
(510) 642-1340 or 643-2788; fax: (510) 643-9271;
cmil@uclink.berkeley.edu; www-cmil.unex.berkeley.edu/media/;
contacts: Dan Bickley and Kate Spohr

What is the University of California Extension Center for Media and Independent Learning (CMIL)?
We are the educational media distribution agency of the University of California. We distribute high-quality documentaries and educational media to colleges and universities, primary and secondary schools, libraries, health organizations, museums, government agencies, nonprofit groups, businesses, and many other types of institutions worldwide.

What is your relationship with the University of California?
Like other departments and programs of UC, we are governed by the Regents of the University of California. But here’s the thing that differentiates us: We’re entirely self-supporting and our operations are not subsidized by the university in any way. We’re not even located on UC property. As a result, we’re very entrepreneurial: we do extensive and aggressive marketing, and we’re dedicated to strong customer service.

How, when, and why did CMIL come into being?
Although it has changed its name several times over the years, CMIL began distributing educational media—slides and films—in 1916. Later it was known as a rental library for 16mm educational films. Because of the high cost of buying and maintaining 16mm films, for several decades colleges and universities usually rented, rather than purchased, the educational films they used in the classroom.

When video started to come into widespread use in the late 1970s, the entire system of educational distribution changed radically, and so did our operations. In the early 1980s, we consciously reinvented ourselves and changed our emphasis to sales of independent productions. In 1980, 90% of our income came from 16mm rentals; now, 90% of our income comes from sales and licensing of videos.

Driving philosophy behind CMIL:
We embrace works that take a strong and informed point of view, break new ground, and challenge entrenched beliefs. We welcome controversial content as long as it stands up to scrutiny. We’re not here just to preach to the converted.

What distinguishes you from other distributors?
Our affiliation with a major university and our resulting commitment to education, the diversity of our collection, and our flexibility (in terms of contract terms, promotional ideas, and in working with filmmakers).

Who is CMIL?
The principals involved in day-to-day media marketing operations are Dan Bickley and Kate Spohr. The director of CMIL is Mary Beth Almeda.

Total number of employees at CMIL:
Full-time 5; part-time 4.

How many works are in the collection?
About 650.

What would people be most surprised to learn about CMIL?
We are entrepreneurial, approachable, and our door is always open to independent producers, wherever they may live.

Films and filmmakers distributed:
There are so many good ones, it’s hard to single out one or two. Just a few would be: Forgotten Fires, by Michael Chandler and Vivian Kleinman; Halsted Street, USA, by David Simpson; The Band, by David Zeigler; The Reincarnation of Khensur Rinpoche, by Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam; You Don’t Know Dick, by Candace Schermerhorn and Bestor Cram; A World of Differences: Understanding Cross-Cultural Communication, by Dane Archer; Fender Philosophers, by Lisa Leeman; Riding the Rails, by Michael Uys and Lexi Lovell; The Democratic Promise: Saul Alinsky and His Legacy, by Bob Hercules; Popol Vuh: The Creation Myth of the Maya, by Patricia Amlin; Ishi, the Last Yahi, by Jed Riffe and Pamela Roberts; the ethnographic films of David and Judith MacDougall; and those of John Cohen.

Generally, what types of works do you distribute?
Our collection is extremely diverse. We handle mostly nonfiction films, covering the gamut of the documentary form, from personal essays to investigative exposes to animation. Our titles are of varying lengths, typically from about 15 minutes to an hour. We’re primarily looking for new works with educational utility, merit, and significance—that is, films with very strong, well-researched content.

What drives you to acquire the titles you do?
We acquire films we like, those we believe are important, and those we think will work well as teaching tools.

How is your collection organized?
We’re best-known for our titles in the humanities and social sciences—in such areas as anthropology and world cultures, ethnic studies, archaeology, women’s and gender studies, history, sociology, communication and media studies, psychology, art, architecture, city planning and urban studies, education, and environmental studies. We also have significant collections in the areas of physical and biological sciences, medicine and medical policy/ethics, clinical psychology and psychotherapy, and criminology/penal studies.

What’s your basic approach to releasing a title?
Every title we distribute has a number of “major” markets (comprising our steady client base of universities, public libraries, schools, etc.). Promoting to these relatively large, tried-and-true segments of the educational market is obviously an important part of our work. For instance, promotion for our titles on world cultures goes to every college professor of anthropology in the U.S. But we also put a great deal of effort into developing and reaching secondary and tertiary (niche) markets where appropriate.

For example, a recent release on homophobia in women’s sports was targeted to women’s studies courses at the university level, but also to athletic coaches, diversity trainers, and nonprofit organizations concerned with homophobia and gender equity. The chief reason we are able to do “niche” marketing so effectively is that we write and design all our promotional materials in-house. This allows us to develop direct-marketing materials quickly and affordably, which in turn makes it possible to experiment and try new things. Our “experimental” approach certainly applies to direct mail, but we are also using it with Internet marketing, where opportunities for niche marketing abound.

Where do your titles show?
In classrooms at every level, in libraries, in museums, on television, in continuing education programs, at academic conferences of all sorts, and at festivals.

How do teachers find your titles?
Our customers—mostly professors, teachers, and librarians—find our programs through a variety of means. College professors and media buyers at school districts receive our targeted mailings. Media librarians may meet us at film markets and previewing seminars, or may find our title descriptions on a range of media databases. An increasing number of customers access our catalog through our web site. Our titles are often reviewed in trade magazines or academic journals, and many are featured at conferences and festivals.

Do you develop study guides to accompany titles?
The best study guides are developed by filmmakers or their advisors who are experts in the subject matter. Although most of our study guides are originated by the producers themselves, we usually complete the editing, design, and layout of study guides. We believe that most study guides, especially for K-12 use, should be simple—no more than one or two sides of a standard sheet of paper. It can then be easily folded and mailed with copies of the video, and it should be inexpensive and quick to create and produce.

Where do you find our titles for acquisition, and how should filmmakers approach you?
We’re pleased to say that many new titles come to us by word-of-mouth (i.e., from acquaintances of producers we represent). We also attend film markets, place ads in trade magazines like this one, scan festival catalogs, and generally maintain an open-door policy for producers.

We always pick up at least a few new titles at the Media Market of the National Educational Media Network in Oakland each May [see review page TK]. It’s best to contact us by phone or email or via our web site. Tell us what your production is about, what length it is, who its intended audience is, and when it will be completed. We are willing to look at fine cuts, but cannot make offers until we see the completed program. We evaluate everything that is sent to us, and we return all tapes at our expense.

Range of production budgets of titles in collection:
Production budgets range from several thousand dollars to six figures. The content of the production and the talent of the filmmaking are the factors that make a work successful in the educational market, not the production budget.

Biggest change at CMIL in recent years:
Probably the addition of Kate to our staff three years ago. She now handles nearly all of our contract negotiations with producers. That’s very time-consuming, since we believe in being very open and flexible in those discussions. This has allowed Dan to concentrate on promotion and marketing, and as a result we’ve been able to reach out to new and niche markets that we didn’t reach before. For example, in the last two years we’ve launched targeted promotional campaigns aimed at hospices, correctional institutions, religious organizations, college diversity trainers, school-level guidance counselors, and a number of new college subject disciplines.

Most important issue facing CMIL today?
Like all educational media distributors, we’re struggling with really thorny issues related to digital media technology and electronic licensing. Our customers are becoming more involved in distance education, Internet delivery of courses, video-on-demand systems, etc., and they want to use programs in new and different ways. We need to be able to make that possible but at the same time protect our producers’ interests and guarantee them a fair return on their work.

Where will CMIL be 10 years from now?
Our core business will probably not change too dramatically. We will, essentially, still be in the business of distributing media titles that enhance the teaching process. There will likely be major shifts in the formats and methods of distributing our programs. And how these shifts play out in the marketplace will determine to a large degree whether we can increase our revenues from distribution and therefore pay adequate returns to producers, so that they can continue to create high-quality productions.

You knew CMIL had made it as a company when…?
we sent our first six-month royalty check of $25,000 to a producer!

Best distribution experience lately:
Having one of our titles featured on a segment of The Oprah Show, [TKTK- just Oprah?]where a clip was aired and the producer was interviewed.

Other distributors you admire and why:
Our competitors and colleagues: Bullfrog, California Newsreel, The Cinema Guild, Filmmaker’s Library, and First Run/Icarus. We all weathered the 1980s, didn’t join the home video or CD-ROM stampede, and stuck to our marketing philosophies.

If you could give independent filmmakers one bit of advice, it would be to…?
have a clear idea of who your audience is and how your film will be used. Tackle subjects about which you are passionate.

Upcoming titles to watch for:
Death: A Love Story, by Michelle LeBrun, and In My Corner, by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg.

Famous last words:
If at all possible, never sign away the nontheatrical (educational, home video) rights to your work before talking with several good educational distributors.

About :

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