Saturday, February 03, 2007

Robert Greenwald's Approach to Outreach

In our previous post on finding funding, we referenced Robert Greenwald as a prime example of finding creative ways to raise money for your films. While the idea of being able to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars through small personal donations or building audiences simply by word-of-mouth appeals to many filmmakers, it is not something you can simply quickly or randomly. It takes a long time to build trust and accountability with funders and Greenwald did not accomplish this simply by sending an e-blast and then seeing the money roll in or the audiences build. His approach has been much more nuanced and purposeful, requiring time, and sacrifice.

This past week, Greenwald was the keynote speaker at the Center for Social Media's "Making Documentary Matter" conference. Docs in Progress co-founder Erica Ginsberg was also there and made some notes on Greenwald's key points. These were originally posted on The D-Word Community and have been reposted here and on other blogs to share Greenwald's approach to outreach. Whatever you may think of his films, we felt he made some some important points, especially regarding outreach for social issue documentaries.

Keynote Highlights

  • Film, in and of itself, does not create social change. Partnerships do.

  • The alternate distribution model is more effective in bringing change than TV or theatrical releases. If your goal with your film is social change, you may need to forego the Oscar, the theatrical release, or the TV broadcast to partner instead with grassroots organizations which can get your film out to the broadest audience possible and, most importantly, reach audiences who will take action and not just watch a film passively.

  • You cannot look to these partners as distributors or buzz-makers for your film. Instead, your responsibility is to figure out how to connect to them and make the film useful for THEM.

  • With UNCOVERED, Greenwald and his production company, Brave New Films partnered with the Center for AmericanProgress, Move-On and other online groups and chose to do a single-day e-mail promotion for the DVDs on the same day they held the first screening of the film in Washington DC. They thought they'd sell 2,000-3,000 DVDs and were shocked when they made $10,000 in the first day and $25,000 within three days. Ultimately, they raised $1 million for MoveOn.

  • The challenge with working with partners is that each has their own way of working, some can be bureaucratic, and many of them so narrowly define their issues that it can be a challenge to bring multiple partners to the table in a broader coalition. WALMART: THE HIGH COST OF LOW PRICE, for example, brought together very strange bedfellows. IRAQ FOR SALE was the most challenging one to gain partners because some organizations were concerned that they could lose their non-profit status if they were seen as taking a side in the political debate during the election season (although the film purposely does not advocate for one candidate over another).

  • With the WALMART film, Greenwald made a strategic decision to stick to a specific date to roll-out screenings (most of them free to the public) and made a very broad coalition, including 1000 churches, student groups, unions, and women's groups. They were especially glad that churches formed part of the coalition because it was a means to recapture moral ground after being accused of being too lefty.

  • With funding, doc filmmakers need to accept that we are beggars. The irony is that Greenwald, who had years of experience inHollywood, found it easier and more dignified to get money from the Hollywood studios for all his feature films and TV movies than he does now to ask foundations and NGOs to support his documentaries.

  • As has been widely reported (including in this blog), with IRAQ FOR SALE, Greenwald was able to fund much of the film by getting small donations from enormous mailing list. More than 3,000 people got producer credit even though they contributed only about $25-50. Greenwald was astonished by the response and admits that he felt more accountable to these 3,000 people to make a worthwhile film than he ever had to a studio.

  • Brave New Films have tried to take advantage of the technologies available not only for fundraising and outreach, but for production itself. Very often, they didn't have resources to send someone out to conduct an interview in person so they would do it by phone or even by an Internet hookup. They created their own Wikis to conduct research. People across the country could access and enter information so they could narrow down their interviews without having to do pre-production trips to see if someone would be a good interview. They also created a secure website so they could view all of the dailies online.

  • Similarly, they enlisted their audience to become part of the production team. They had researchers around the country who they never met. Greenwald cited 10 people they recruited for OUTFOXED. These volunteers were tasked with watching Fox broadcasts all day and were given keywords to look for. They would note them down and the time of day the broadcast took place and send in daily reports so that the Brave New Films team could find the specific material from Tivo. The volunteers loved the work so much that they ended up founding a site called The Newshounds with the motto "We watch Fox so you don't have to." Similarly for WALMART, they recruited 1500 volunteer field producers who filmed empty Walmarts across the country. They now have more than 6,000 people willing to be screening hosts for their upcoming films.

  • Greenwald believes, in spite of the success of theatrically-released documentaries, that is not the future for most documentaries. In the near future, he is not even focusing on any long-form docs, but is instead taking on short 2 or 3 minute pieces which can stand alone or be "webisodes" which can be easily shared virally. The first one, recently released, focuses on likely presidential candidate John McCain. They will also be launching an online memorial for all those killed in Iraq on the March 19 anniversary of the start of the war. Modeled on the AIDS quilt and the New York Times spread on 9/11 victims, it will feature people who had a loved one killed in the war talking for one minute about that person. They already have the commitment of more than 350 blogs to carry the piece. And they are working to draw on their success to help other documentary filmmakers reach wide audiences. Brave New Theaters provides a space for social issue filmmakers to offer their films for online "Meet-Up" type screenings of their films.

These are just the highlights of Greenwald's speech and the other presentations made at the "Making Documentary Matter" conference on January 31-February 1, 2007. The podcast of Greenwald's keynote address is available on the Center for Social Media website.

What do you think of Greenwald's ideas? Can they work for you? What has he missed? Tell us what you think by posting a comment here.

1 comment:

Jim said...

Thanks for the great write-up of Robert's speech!

One correction: with Uncovered, we sold 10,000 *DVDs* the first day, and 25,000 in 3 days. These were at a $30 suggested donation to MoveOn to run anti-Bush ads.