Distributor FAQ: MediaRights.org

What exactly is MediaRights.org?

MediaRights.org is a nonprofit community web site designed to make social-issue documentaries and advocacy videos easy to find. We are helping community organizers integrate social-issue documentaries into their action campaigns and encouraging filmmakers to learn how to work with community organizers.

Driving philosophy behind MediaRights.org:

We want to build a bridge between mediamakers and activists working on social and environmental issues in the U.S in order to increase the impact of both of their work.

Who is MediaRights?

Jenny Baum, associate creative director; Nicole Betancourt, creative director; Katy Chevigny, financial manager; David Latimer, director of business development; Julia Pimsleur, co-founder and president; and Marc Antony Vose, technical lead.

How, when, and why did MediaRights come into being?

I [Julie Pimsleur] have been a producer of social-issue documentaries for several years with my company Big Mouth Productions (co-founded with my business partner and old friend, Katy Chevigny). Some of our films include Innocent Until Proven Guilty, Nuyorican Dream, and Brother Born Again—all films for which we planned and executed outreach campaigns. I had always been frustrated with the lack of resources at a filmmaker’s disposal for doing educational outreach, which I consider a crucial part of any documentary distribution plan.

The idea for MediaRights.org came to me after a brainstorming meeting at the Ford Foundation in 1998. I was finishing up the production of Innocent Until Proven Guilty when our program officer at the Ford Foundation, Alan Jenkins, invited me to a meeting with a group of 15 activists and mediamakers to talk about how we could work better together.

We all expressed a need to keep up with each other’s work and stay informed about new projects—thus the beginnings of a web site. The name comes from the meeting of mediamakers and [human] rights organizers.

The reason we started MediaRights is that we believe…?

independent mediamakers and people working for social change in the field are natural allies. Nonprofits and filmmakers already do collaborate on occasion and we think they would collaborate more often if given the opportunity. We want to make it easy for these parties to find each other, use the films that already exist, and create media for social change together. The Internet is the perfect place to create this kind of community that crosses geographic, age, gender, race, and professional lines. We organize our site around the issues that mediamakers, activists and educators are all passionate about, including racial justice, economic justice, women’s rights, and health issues.

Where does the money come from to fund MediaRights’ activities?

Our main funders to date are the Ford Foundation and the Open Society Institute. We are currently approaching other foundations and also building in revenue streams to the site itself. Our goal is to be self-sustaining by 2005. MediaRights.org is a project of Arts Engine, Inc., a nonprofit 501(c)3.

If I went to MediaRights site, what would I find?

MediaRights features a database of over 1,200 social issue documentaries organized around 14 social issues and a database of over 600,000 nonprofits in the U.S. There are also resources for filmmakers (funding sources, production tips, etc.), original articles about successful educational outreach campaigns, and other examples of how media can be used to make a difference. You can register as a member, list your film, and add yourself to the activist/nonprofit database or the mediamakers database. You can also post messages or review films in our database. We are in the process of doing a major redesign right now [due for completion by February]. Some of the new features will include: On TV, a television schedule of social-issue documentaries on cable; a Youth Center for young mediamakers and activists; and the Media That Matters Online Film Festival.

How is the site organized?

From the home page you can search for films or nonprofit organizations and see our current and past articles. We feature 14 main issues around which our site is organized, which include economic justice, the environment, racial justice, immigration, and health. One way you can easily keep up with what is going on at MediaRights.org is to register as a member (it’s free) and then you will receive our e-mail newsletter every few weeks. Being a member also gives you the ability to customize the newsletter (and eventually the whole site) to your particular interests.

On the web, what’s the difference between distribution and exhibition?

We are acting as an outlet for distributors—we are providing easy access for documentary film purchasers to find the films of over 20 educational distributors in one place. Users of our site buy or rent videotapes directly from the distributors. Eventually, when enough people have access to greater bandwidth, we will stream trailers and perhaps make it possible for people to download an entire film.

We are waiting for streaming video to be as easy and reliable as reading information and also for working business models of how people can exhibit online and still earn a living. We have been watching the music industry and the Napster debate very closely, since we will be facing many of the same issues in the film industry. We are making forays into streaming media, such as our online film festival which we will premiere in June: The Media that Matters Online Film Festival, co-presented with the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival and powered by Reelplay.com.

What’s the difference between MediaRights and a traditional distributor?

Just to clarify, we are not a distributor. We are working with educational distributors to provide an Internet outlet for their collections and for individual filmmakers. Over 20 educational distributors have given us their catalogue listings, which are now included in our database, and numerous filmmakers have submitted their films directly to us.

In addition to making films more easily available to traditional documentary buyers, such as teachers and librarians, we are approaching new markets. We will be attending conferences and doing workshops about using media for social change in the upcoming months. We are also talking to other web sites, especially community sites, about putting our database on their site to make our films available to their users.

What’s appealing to a filmmaker about having his/her work listed on MediaRights?

By listing your film with MediaRights, your work is made available to powerful community leaders across the country. It’s great exposure if you want your film to be used for social change. We link directly to the e-mail or web site of the filmmaker or distributor, whoever is selling the video to the educational market. Another useful feature we have is that filmmakers can have their films reviewed by users. And we highlight at least one film per month from our database on our home page, helping to give the film more exposure and an extra push.

Our site makes it easier for people who use media to find useful films and it also makes it easier for people who don’t traditionally use media to find films, because they browse the collection by issue. For example, a teacher looking for media on the civil rights movement might come to our site looking for a well-known series like Eyes on the Prize and might find three other films in the same category. They might buy two films from two different distributors and one made by a filmmaker who hasn’t yet found a distributor. We even list works-in-progress.

Describe the type of media works listed on MediaRights:

We have written articles about the educational outreach campaigns for such documentaries as A Force More Powerful; The Farm: Angola, USA; and Legacy. Our database includes over 1,200 social-issue documentaries, and we expect it to double in four months. We are adding a “YM” symbol which will identify youth-produced work, because there are a lot of young people making videos and not many ways for them to distribute their work. The other thing that sets us apart is that we are aggregating advocacy videos—short films that are used by nonprofits to get their points across. Though there are thousands of these videos out there, there is no way to find them on or offline, except on MediaRights.org.

How is the decision made to add titles to the site?

Anyone who wants to list his/her film can. The only criteria is that the film must be a social-issue documentary. Filmmakers can go to the site and click on “List Your Film.” We verify the information and add it to our database. Distributors can list all or part of their collection with MediaRights. We work with them to find which films fit into our categories.

How many “hits” are recorded daily on MediaRights?

We don’t have a lot of traffic at the moment because we are new (we launched in July 2000) and are just at the beginning of our public relations campaign. Word is getting out, though, via our current users and our partners. Our users and members double monthly. We partnered with more established web sites such as Human Rights Watch, Witness, and the Benton Foundation, who help to drive traffic to our site.

How do people find out about MediaRights.org?

We work very closely with our partners, which are like-minded organizations such as AIVF, ITVS, and Paper Tiger TV, as well as the ones mentioned above. They link to us off their sites and through this coalition we are able to reach over 30,000,000 people and create collaborative initiatives. We are also listed with many online directories/search engines.

The most important issue facing MediaRights today is…?

Finding ways to be self-sustaining. We are grateful for our foundation support, but want to make sure that we can support our own operating costs so in the future we don’t have to rely on funding.

Five years from now MediaRights will…?

be the best place to find social issue documentaries. We will also be streaming films in our online theater, helping filmmakers to plan and execute their outreach campaigns, and enabling nonprofits to easily find films or make new films about specific social issues.

The Internet has a huge potential for changing the way just about everything is distributed. Do you think an electronic nonprofit such as MediaRights represents the future model of media advocacy in this country?

I think the web is a great resource for aggregating information, but it doesn’t replace traditional outreach. MediaRights.org makes it possible for people to find each other easily, but they still need to create relationships “off line” or face-to-face. MediaRights will be building more tools for nonprofits and filmmakers to use right off the web site, but filmmakers and activists will always have to roll up their sleeves and make those personal connections.

Any web site, like a traditional distributor, is only as good as the people running it. I am very fortunate to have an extremely talented and committed staff, who are not only great people but have years of experience and really believe in what we are doing.

About :

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