Making your documentary screening an ‘Event’
We’re in Los Angeles today to show, at UCLA’s Korn Convocation Hall, my documentary “Library of the Early Mind.” And despite competing with the Super Bowl, there apparently may be a good turnout, based on RSVPs.
UCLA has paid not only a nice screening fee (they pay us, but the event is free to the public) and generous travel/lodging that gets us out of the snowy East for a bit, but has also set up a panel to follow the film. That, in the words of Ted Hope at Truly Free Film, makes it not a “screening” but an “event.”
“Eventizing” your film is part of the way you create a larger experience, Hope says, “by focusing on specific audiences and understanding what it is that will drive people out of their house to do something in conjunction with others.”
Hope said in his post last year,
I am up at the Sundance Film Festival now, where every screening feels like an event. People wonder why certain films can pack the house at a festival but no one shows up when booked for an actual run. The context of a festival creates the urgency. Yet even still here, you feel that not enough is done by just putting it up on the screen. Filmmakers need to focus more on the context they create around the film. In this day and age it is irresponsible to simply screen your film. You need to build ramps up to the event, and bridges after the screening — tools & processes that keep the conversation going. It is surprising how few examples there are of folks who are doing it well.
His 10 suggestions for eventizing the screening includes, for documentary filmmakers, the aspect of creating a conversation. In the dozen or so screenings we’ve done since the premiere in late October at Harvard’s Askwith Forum, and for the 40-50 more we have scheduled into fall 2011 at universities, museums and library-based theaters, what we’ve seen that the most successful events involve the screening, a panel, and the audience’s ability to interact. The events not only are revenue in and of themselves, but (we hope) getting the word out on the film for the eventual DVD sales and digital downloads we plan.
Since this film involves a serious examination of children’s literature, that means bringing in distinguished authors. When the Rhode Island School of Design set up a panel with Chris Van Allsburg (“The Polar Express”), the ensuing response caused them to shift the screening from a 200-seat venue to their 575-seat Main Auditorium, and that all but filled.
Some observations on all that, as related to documentaries:
1. Make your film short enough to allow for that discussion without making it too long a night. A 75-minute film followed by a 30-minute panel seems ideal, in our estimation. Our film is 85 minutes, so that still allows for an event no more than 2 hours.
2. The panel and the audience will want to discuss the topic of the documentary, not the documentary. Too many filmmakers we’ve seen speak try to make the discussion about themselves, or specifically about the film, rather than the subject the audience came to see. The audience members often want much less to ask about the film as much to “give testimony” to their love of the subject, or deep interest in it.
3. Give them something to leave with. “Events have a material aspect to them,” Hope says. “We take events home with us somehow, but generally via the merchandise that we barter for with our dollars.” We can sell, or we can give. Even a cheap trinket like a keychain or fridge magnet creates a physical interaction that can’t be replicated via a digital download.
4. Make new friends. The audience who attends your screening comes because of their deep connection to the topic. Thank them, honor them, talk to them. They can become advocates for your film elsewhere.
5. Have a way the audience can remain engaged. Ask them to join your Facebook page, or get on your Twitter account. They have made direct contact with you and your film; return the gesture by keeping in contact.
6. Have some fun if you can. A surprise guest or an audience plant can have a great effect, says Edgar Wright, who lists a “Magic Moment as “Getting Simon Pegg down to LA and into the screening without anyone knowing, then freaking out the audience by pretending to call him in Vancouver and his phone ringing in the auditorium.”
7. Tell them what’s next. My new project is a complete departure from this one and I’ll seek a whole new audience; some filmmakers, like Gary Hustwit, have creates synergies by moving into new films with related topics (design). If you expect your next project to be something that suits the audience in front of you, be sure to help build anticipation.
8. Have an advocate, and let them make it their event. At each of our major events, we’ve had an advocate who really makes it work. Here at UCLA, it’s Professor Virginia Walter, who has worked to set up the panel, bring in the screening fee, do posters and related promotion, and buttonhole potential attendees. In each of our major screenings, we’ve had a friend like this who has made it happen. They deserve credit and spotlight – lavish it on them.
9. Add to the cause, if you have one. Last month’s Charlotte, NC, screening of “Cargo: Innocence Lost,” took on the topic of human trafficking, and included not only a panel with director Michael Cory Davis as well at federal ICE representatives who have investigated human trafficking cases, but also a more direct gesture: The organization NC Stop Human Trafficking sponsored an emergency bag supply drive in conjunction with other members of the Charlotte Human Trafficking Task Force. Emergency supply drive items were collected at the documentary screening. A simple principle – people who come to see a film on a compelling human topic may want to contribute more than just applause. Giving them a chance to feel the affirmative step forward to make a difference can be very effective.
10. Extend the information. When Joanna Rudnik’s documentary on breast cancer, “In The Family” screened in Tulsa last fall, the screening included a panel with St. John Hospital breast surgeon Laurie Flynn and genetic specialist Michael Kayser answering questions about the film’s main focus, the genetic/hereditary aspects of breast cancer. The larger event also included an opportunity to purchase, for $125, gift cards for mammographies.
As Hope notes, festival screenings are different; again, documentaries are different than fictional films. But for this type of distribution, making the experience more than just “watching a movie” is the key.
(Good or bad, I’ll add to this post tonight and let you know how it turns out tonight.)
Update: A nice event. About 150 people and a reception with champagne afterwards. A good many people came up asking when the DVD will come out, because they want to recommend it. In essence, what we hope for, which is to create “ambassadors” for the film who will help us find more viewers…