Part 4: It Never Gets Boring! - Karen Guthrie Guest Blog
This is the final instalment of our guest blog from filmmaker Karen Guthrie, we hope you've found it enlightening! The self-distribution journey can be a challenging one but as Karen has pointed out the opportunities it affords can take you places you never expected. If more people taking distribution into their own hands means more great documentaries like The Closer We Get out there it can only be a good thing!
45 Screenings in 15 Countries
Almost a year after the premiere of The Closer We Get I was still very busy travelling to festivals, in time racking up 45 Q&As, with the film screening in 15 countries. Every audience discussion gave me ideas for new ways to reach audiences who sadly weren’t beating a path to film festivals or small independent cinemas.
However I knew it was time to knuckle down to some funding applications for outreach. I knew exactly who should see it by now.
At this stage I could see that it was soon going to be impossible to pay Sally (our brilliant Distribution Producer) to keep working for us if we didn’t find a new income stream to support her. We were not and are not in the black budget-wise. Liaising with the BBC alone on the technicalities of delivering a broadcast-ready cut took days and days of her time, and for both of us the learning curve was very steep, as we had no previous experience.
maintaining a successful film takes attention to detail, inspiration, hard slog and patience
I’m still surprised and delighted beyond measure by the success of The Closer We Get, but maintaining a successful film takes attention to detail, inspiration, hard slog and patience all in equal measure and I’m so glad we employed a team as long as we could afford to. There is no way I could have managed sending out DCPs, tracking screening invoices, producing a DVD and all the myriad other jobs Sally did whilst I was working up the impact projects, travelling and presenting the film at film festivals and screenings and doing press and PR. Oh, and having a life that might accommodate the thought of a new project too!
So although I have never struggled to come up with the ideas for broadening our distribution and impact work, I have come to learn that the nuts and bolts of who, how and why have to be as important in your planning from the outset.
The Right Funder, Pretty Much
Our earlier Lottery-funded impact work (see Part 3) mostly targeted stroke-survivors and caregivers and it left us with a suite of useful tools, such as a 48 minute cut down and a series of bite-size film ‘extras’. We knew that these could easily go farther and benefit more people, but we also knew we needed much more staff time and access to specialised networks in order to deliver beyond what we’d already achieved. We wanted to build on what we had learnt from both the post-screening discussions and from our ongoing contact with charities, professional bodies and the NHS, to create strands of activity targeting both. We needed a flexible funder who wouldn’t flinch at that range. At that time the Bertha Britdoc Connect Fund was the most appropriate and achievable for us. The process was straightforward and rigorous, and we were successful. We did receive less than we applied for, with the funder asking us to remove a strand of work targeting teenagers.
Working with Young People
we have consistently found it hard to reach young people with outreach work
On that note, we have consistently found it hard to reach young people with outreach work. Working direct, within the school day, is nigh-on impossible and specialist schools-only organisations, like Into Film, can develop and deliver great projects in schools but at a relatively high cost charged to the filmmaker or distributor. Also they aren’t able to share much meaningful data or feedback with you from those schools who have seen your film, a gap that made it much less attractive to us to go with them, as we are always keen to learn from the outreach we do, and that means access to first hand feedback.
However, I’ve led a few BFI Film Academy workshops (a scheme for 16-19 year old ‘NEETS’ ) with TCWG which have been brilliant, but that’s as close as we have come to meaningful engagement with younger people specifically. Perhaps the healthy-looking plethora of charities and groups active in the fields of young people’s mental health and wellbeing give a sense that this group in society is being ‘catered for’ already, and that resources are better placed elsewhere. But I repeatedly experienced heartbreaking exchanges with this group across my journey with the film, each showing me that in fact young people do need support in coming to terms with issues such as life-limiting illness, family crises and bereavement. Film, especially first-person film, can reach them in a uniquely powerful way at this time in their lives. But we’ve found ourselves frustrated at many turns in our attempts to reach out to them.
The Art of the Possible
The funding landscape changes fast, so what worked for us in 2016 may not be the best advice now. I’ve no experience of pursuing or working with money from corporates or sponsors, so what I’m saying here is strictly about applying to Trusts and charities etc. If you’re in the game you can easily Google up the latest slew of application deadlines for film impact work and you should! Influencers all over the world are waking up to the potential of film to change ideas, behaviours, lives. The Doc Society (formerly Britdoc) have useful tools online you can refer to, have a look!
At the early ‘blue skies thinking’ stage of outreach and impact planning I want to emphasise to you:
- The value of informed, strategic choices that make the very best of your precious time and energy. Especially if it was you that actually made the film you’ll be working on - you must be tired! For example, you may aspire to hand-deliver your film in person to every NHS consultant in the UK (I did want that and kind of still do) but that’s just not do-able and therefore it’s not fund-able. Work out how most of the right people can be reached and do that.
- Do stuff that is genuinely interesting for you to tackle and - hopefully but there’s no guarantee - accomplish. Maybe that sounds dumb, but this work is hard and sometimes thankless, so find a project you’re driven to do.
- Take some risks. Why? Because it’ll help with everything in point 2, but also because impact is a growing and dynamic field of practice in film, and as such we need to try new things out (and sometimes fail), identify and target even harder-to reach individuals and groups, and share the results with our peers and especially with partners, policy-makers and anyone else who will listen. This is how a culture around what we are doing will be built. This advice does not cancel out point 1, as good funders can see when a left-field but well-argued idea is worth a punt.
See Beyond Stroke - a two-pronged approach
The support from Bertha Britdoc meant we could do things we'd long aspired to achieve. It put us and the film in front of almost every stroke care professional in the UK in one ‘strike’. I delivered a well-attended presentation at the UK annual Stroke Forum, we put an extras giveaway DVD in their delegate bags (there were 1300), and we included a code to watch the full film online at a heavily discounted price. Perhaps the best outcomes of this strand of work were the least easy to measure: putting real, lived patient and family experience in front of people who look mainly at the clinical picture of stroke; getting them to remember and empathise with the person before them. There were big surprises too! Not one delegate actually used our code to watch the full film online (we used a trackable Vimeo code).
If we want impact work to grow in ambition and scope, then we need to be working inclusively
The strand that hoovered up most of our available time (and plenty more besides) was a Carer Training Pilot based on our bite-size extras. We designed this just for local authority carers working with stroke survivors in their own homes. Why them? Our goal was to reach those whose work had the most impact on the everyday lives of stroke survivors (or in fact anyone with a life-limiting condition); people who could make a small change to their next day at work. Yes, we want to reach the great and the good too - the policy-makers, NHS leaders and politicians. Hopefully, with the ripple effect of films like this, we will one day! In the meantime, I felt strongly that our work shouldn’t tick boxes, and that it would be worthwhile for all impact filmmakers if a film like ours took on this challenging sector and communicated that experience to our peers. If we want impact work to grow in ambition and scope, then we need to be working inclusively, and not just where there is already an appetite for what we do or infrastructure to deliver it easily.
It goes without saying that carers deserve much more of our respect than society typically gives them. But this was always going to be an especially challenging group to reach. After all, as a caregiver to my late mum, I had firsthand experience of the demands of their job. Typically, carers work part-time and often sporadically, they are poorly-paid, receive minimal training, and can have little or no work access to IT or a group work base. To top that, our desk scoping showed us that across the UK, local authorities were delivering this ‘domiciliary care’ in myriad ways. These ranged from wholesale outsourcing to private agencies to inhouse training and delivery. Shockingly, some local authority receptionists we spoke to had no information at all to hand on how this vast service was delivered in their area. We quickly grasped that to be achievable a TCWG-based free training session for any carer had to be fast (under an hour) and very easy to deliver. We couldn't rely on emailing PDFs and downloadable links, hard copies and DVDs were going to be needed. Unfortunately we would have to accept that in some areas with a high incidence of stroke, nobody would come forward to do the training despite our efforts.
it is crucial that you know the details of your target audience’s daily lives before you design your offer
The takeaway from this is that it is crucial that you know the details of your target audience’s daily lives before you design your offer. Down to the minutiae, in fact. There are still no guarantees that the horse will drink once it’s been led to water, but putting the capacity of the target audience first is key to achieving success. If you’re a film maker yourself, this level of nosiness should come easily: If you don’t know anyone personally who fits the target profile, then make it your business to find somebody and talk to them about themselves and how they consume (or don’t!) film at the moment. How will your project fit into their already full lives?
Suffice to say, we bit off more than we could chew with our carer pilot, and realised only too late how we had underestimated the workload of this project. Chasing so many private care companies and their trainers; tweaking the wording on the learning resources we provided and obtaining the evaluations we so needed after the training had been completed, all swallowed time. In the end though, our materials trained over 700 carers across the UK, and we achieved 70% of our target numbers. In total, the Bertha-supported activity took 1139 hours to deliver (142 days or 28.5 weeks full-time equivalent) across the staff team. We had anticipated and budgeted for 410 hours. That’s a lot of unpaid overtime across the team, I’m sorry to say.
It was a real challenge to evaluate this project, despite us doing all that we could to make it easy for the trainees and trainers. Eventually, phone pictures taken (on the spot) of completed evaluation forms proved the most expedient ‘system’, yet many participant groups just could not find a way to get the information we needed back to us. It’s hard to establish why that is without putting a lot more work into in but I’d guess it’s for the same reasons that access to training is scarce in the sector, that the facilities available and the working day are just not designed for it. In hindsight, we perhaps could have spent longer at the start talking to care companies and designing the evaluation around what they could do rather than what we wanted.
Yet the feedback we did get from carers was fantastic, and showed that our work was making a difference: It was enhancing the feelings of self-esteem and worth in carers and making them pause for thought and review where they could perhaps do things differently tomorrow.
Though our training ‘Pilot’ has ended, we are optimistic that some of the authorities will continue to use our training resources, and that new take-ups will also come to us. These can offer an income stream in the future too. In fact, Greater Manchester’s Stroke Operational Delivery Network has done just that for its 150 staff, and have put our resources on their training intranet.
Words of Advice As You Plan Your Impact Campaign
You can download and read the full Evaluation we did on our Bertha Britdoc (now Doc Society) supported work here, which includes much more information and data on our projects.
- Do not underestimate the desk research and admin time needed to map, deliver and evaluate the work. If you don’t have someone regularly at a desk and phone, consider partnering up with an organisation that can offer your project this ‘inhouse’. Sometimes having someone to pick up the call you’ve been chasing for months is vital. This can be a helpful ‘in kind’ budget line.
- Learn the language used by your target groups, even if it’s not what you’d choose to use: For example, with carers it took us a while to learn to use the word ‘training’ instead of ‘outreach’ or ‘education’.
- Expect to have to sell your idea hard, even to the right partner/s. Even if you’re giving something away for free, most will take some convincing that it meets their needs as well as yours. They may expect evidence upfront, so try to have some at hand, even if only informal comment postcards from screening audiences.
- If the target audience isn’t one you know well, or is complex/dispersed, consider fundraising for a small pilot or scoping exercise first. It can ensure you get paid to better prepare for a bigger project, and inform a major funding application persuasively. I wish we’d done this for our Carer Training.
- Lastly, remember to take stock of what you have achieved and not mourn the failures. There will be many of both, and it’s easy to get hung up on the one VIP who never - ever - replies to your emails.
Who Buys Your Film & How?
Let’s return to good old-fashioned distribution for a while.
I want to give a brutally honest overview of how the figures have panned out for us, as I think there is far too much Emperor’s New Clothes about. I talked a bit about the reality of the finances of small screenings in the previous Blog Part 3 but here I want to look at sales.
I don’t think we questioned that we would release a DVD of TCWG, archaic though they may seem. Nina Pope and I have released DVDs of all our films since 2005, and our first – ‘Bata-ville: We Are Not Afraid of the Future’ - is pretty close to selling out its run after a decade! We have UK & US distribution for one of our films (Living With The Tudors) from which sales income has been negligible, so it’s always made more sense to sell them direct from our online shop at www.somewhere.org.uk, which is one of the places we planned to sell TCWG too.The advantages of a DVD are:
- They can be cheap to produce
- They’re still a useful crowdfunding ‘reward’ (though remember that means your top 100 fans won’t be buying theirs!)
- They have currency where internet speeds are still poor and hence downloads are unpopular
- They still appeal to older audiences as something to give, gift-wrap or just put on a shelf to show people.
- DVD copies for press are still the norm (or at least they were a year ago)
Our TCWG DVD cost £2500 to produce for a run of 1500, but could have been cheaper had we selected lower-spec options. We had our DVD release all planned out and hot on the heels of our long theatrical/festival run and all our lovely reviews. When we finally licensed TCWG to BBC Scotland for a broadcast in August 2016, things changed. They demanded we delay the release and sign over an exclusive window in which they could sell downloads of the TV cut (48’) on their (now defunct) BBC Store. All this, regrettably, for a licensing fee to us that was less than the cut-down cost to produce.
In my experience, general audiences don’t give a toss about when or whether a film is available online / in cinemas / on DVD or free on the back of a cereal box or all at once! Almost all the press you’ll get is around the high-profile festivals and theatrical/cinema release (if you have one) of your film. We’d blown our meagre PR budget on those. We gained brilliant coverage and reviews on the way so I’m not complaining, but we had to find additional money to pay for PR around the DVD/DOD release, and we had to giveaway over 15% of the DVD run for press freebies. I’m not sure it was worth it given the general apathy a DVD/DOD release garners these days. We would need to sell 250 DVDs just to pay for the PR for that stage!
Let’s turn briefly to streaming/DOD. Again, I need to highlight the constant changes in this area for indie films. At the time we were looking into it (early 2016), there were still hefty sums of money needed to get yourself onto iTunes or Amazon. You had to use a third party aggregator (in our case, Quiver) if you’d no distributor, and pay the equivalent of your first 250 or so downloads up front just as a fee. Frustratingly, within about six months it looked like Amazon Video was offering to do this with filmmakers direct, but back then this wasn’t possible. We had to choose between iTunes and Amazon as the one platform we could afford. Amazon won out, and though our sales are not exactly impressive, it was a good choice (see below).
Sales – A Sobering True Story
- In the week of our DVD/DOD Vimeo release our trailer was loaded over 21,000 times. Guess how many sales we made? ...4!
- Even a few months later, our peak-grossing Vimeo month brought in a whopping $90 gross. This spike was very probably caused by me appearing on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour.
- At the time of writing we have made 69 online Vimeo sales in 16 months.
- Our web store at www.thecloserweget.com has sold 38 DVDs, whilst our shop at www.somewhere.org.uk has sold a very few. I’ve sold around a dozen at special events such as conferences and talks, which I now always remember to take a few to though this wasn’t so in the beginning!
- We have sold 46 DVDs on Amazon, despite prices significantly more expensive than our own shops (which are both easy to find via Google)
- Our Amazon Downloads so far total $292 gross/about £200 (Costs to get the film there? About £1000 without labour)
I don’t let these miserable figures get me down, probably because sales targets were never at the forefront of my mind nor a measure of success. Despite its acclaim and its prizes, I know TCWG is never going to be an easy watch, and that many of its most ardent fans come to it by a word-of-mouth recommendation. If I ever get indignant, I remind myself just how many utterly brilliant films by filmmakers I respect and know I have yet to ‘get round to watching’. It’s life, nothing personal. Until the NHS buys up the rest of the DVDs to give out to staff, we will likely always be selling a slow trickle. I can live with that.
Time Is On Your Side
I want to emphasise again the lengthy time-scale of what we have done with TCWG. I admit, if someone had said to me when I started shooting in 2011, ‘Karen, you will work on this film every single day of your life for the next six years. You ok with that?’ I would have had a melt down, but that’s what’s happened and it has been wonderful.
I encourage you to be in it for the very long-game with your work too, and to welcome the slow evolution of your creative ideas around your project, and the ripple effect of audiences growing month on month, year on year.
This was our first, and to date only, distribution deal and it came a full 28 months post-premiere!
If you need motivation, here’s an example of the rewards of patience and tenacity:
On a whim, two years after our Hot Docs premiere in 2015, I contacted some of the non-theatrical distributors attending the 2017 Hot Docs, encouraged by the visiting delegation going there from Scottish Documentary Institute. By now our film should have been ancient history, but I took a chance and sent emails summarising what we had achieved since winning the 2015 Best Feature and who the strongest audiences were proving to be for the film. Soon, Kanopy – a global educational distributor that delivers subscription online viewing – signed us! This was our first, and to date only, distribution deal and it came a full 28 months post-premiere! Kanopy has a brilliant online system where you can log in and delight in your film being watched in places far and wide – New York Central Library to Leicester University! We’ve not been with them long but in the first two months we had earned a sum which though very modest easily puts them ahead of most of our income streams at this time. Crucially, we blissfully don’t have to do anything to fulfil these orders, whereas every single DVD we sell on our own shops and on Amazon has to be posted by our ‘Fulfilment Centre’ (i.e one of my nieces with a pile of DVDs under the bed!). So it’s a win-win with Kanopy, who were also happy to agree to non-exclusive educational rights within the UK, meaning we ourselves can continue to sell those if we wish to.
Keep Your Rights, Keep Earning & Keep Working
More broadly, retaining almost all of our film’s rights, as we do, means that we can be flexible as and when new opportunities evolve in the future. We can only guess what these might be in, say, another decade or so. But for now, we are starting to sell licenses to educational providers who want to use the film as a teaching tool (NHS and academia) and we can do bespoke deals for this. We also hope to pilot a project this year using the film in the Scottish Prison Service, and from that we will also get some modest licensing fees. Yes, we’ll need to put a lot of work into developing and fund-raising this project, but if it grows as we hope it will these could become significant given the huge number of potential participants. We’re also speaking to a Heritage Lottery project seeking films that illustrate patients’ experiences of the NHS. These are all initiatives we wouldn’t be able to explore if the film was conventionally and “successfully” on a regular distribution pathway with restrictive rights, royalties etc.
When Nina and I look over our pages of budgets, there are still figures that jump out and surprise us!
As with previous films, we have also benefited from claiming UK Film Tax Relief, which I recommend all eligible filmmakers go for. When Nina and I look over our pages of budgets, there are still figures that jump out and surprise us! For example, we’d budgeted a teensy £500 for film festival submissions and in the end the total is three times that, and that’s for a film which was invited into many festivals and had many submission fees waived.
Now and Beyond
We’re now a tantalising 2k away from breaking even with the overall production and distribution costs for the film. By this I mean that when we reach that target, we can start to pay ourselves our deferred Director/Producer fees (we deferred almost all of these). This will likely be a trickle over many years but I like to think that we will get there in the end. I’m very proud of what we have already recouped, TCWG was by a country mile our least-funded film up front, after all.
The reasons why such an acclaimed film was repeatedly passed over by every funder and commissioner going will need someone else’s attention to explain… As I outlined in Part 2 of the blog, we delivered with around 30% of what we needed in our production budget and a third of that was crowdfunded by us.
In the distribution phase it’s significant to note that we have accessed the same sum with way more ease, and we still have momentum there to exploit, if we want to. Thus I have been able to pay myself and others modestly for most of the distribution work we have done, whereas for the creative work of actually making the film I remain unpaid.
Lastly - My Words of Wisdom
- Try - I mean, really try - to get paid for making your film in the first place. Recouping deferred fees after release is slow, wearisome work.
- Imagine the most work your project could ask of you. Then double it. Ask yourself if you’re still up for it. Yes? Good. You’re made for this job. It will take even more than that.
- If you’re an inexperienced filmmaker, cajole someone with a few films under their belt into showing you their budgets and timelines in detail. I guarantee it will be as useful as it is surprising.
- Some things you will need will always cost hard cash. DCPs, train tickets and good PR, for example. So there should be no such thing as a totally unfunded project.
- Attend your own screenings whenever possible, and try and do so incognito a few times. It’s good for your self-esteem to hear strangers laugh and cry at your work. But more importantly, you’ll learn everything you need to know about your film’s true impact from what they say before, during and afterwards.
- Hire a good team and keep hiring whenever new distribution projects require it. It’s also less important that your people have film experience than task experience.
- Finally, as your distribution journey continues, the good news is that mostly it gets easier. It’s the Ripple Effect. People love to hear about a success story, so every Good Thing That Happens is the basis for your next call to a stranger. Blow your trumpet (no one else will) and you will find that more and more people will want to get on board with your work.
It’s up to you to turn that into impact.
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