Film Sprout and the Art of “Grassroots Distribution”

Caitlin Boyle, Executive Director of Film Sprout

So you’ve made a documentary. Now what? Who is your audience, and how do you connect with them?

Since founding Film Sprout in 2009, Caitlin Boyle has became a leading voice for the non-traditional distribution of documentary films in community settings, and a champion of films’ power to effect grassroots social change. Her presentations on film distribution have rallied filmmakers at Hot Docs, RIDM, SXSW, IFP, Sheffield Doc/Fest, Los Angeles Film Festival, the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and The New York Foundation for the Arts, among others.

Boyle spoke to POV in advance of the DOC Institute’s Savvy Producer forum on March 14, The Art of Audience Engagement, where she will be participating in a live consultation.

POV: Brian St. Denis
CB: Caitlin Boyle

POV: Tell me about Film Sprout and your model for film distribution.

CB: We specialize in what I call “grassroots distribution.” That means that we create community screening campaigns for independent documentaries. We create national and sometimes international tours of documentary films on college campuses, in non-profits, in government agencies, in museums—any entity that it is outside of a commercial theatre. The distribution mechanism is pretty straightforward: we book the screenings directly with all of those different entities. We call it grassroots distribution because there’s not a top-down network that we’re tapping into. We’re booking screenings and setting up the screening tours with individual organizations, activists, advocates and students, one-by-one. It’s an amazing way to get additional exposure for a film beyond what it might get in a theatrical release or television broadcast, and it’s also an additional revenue stream for filmmakers. It’s like the crowdfunding of distribution. Each one of those entities pays a small fee, and they often use it to support their own work, either as a fundraiser or a forum for getting new adherents into their space. The filmmaker makes a small amount from each one, but when you add it up it becomes quite a robust distribution mechanism.

POV: How do you manage all of that?

CB: It relies on individual organizations to do a lot of on the ground planning themselves. We certainly rely on community organizations, campus groups, volunteers and programmers of all kinds to rally their own local crowd, to bring in their local audience, and to do the on-the-ground logistical organizing around a screening. But to find those people and respond to those people is a one-to-one relationship. On any given film we might get hundreds, sometimes thousands of requests from people to screen a particular film, and each one of those has to be fielded individually, and each one of those bookings has to be made individually because the organizations are not theatre chains. They’re very unique and they all have their own timelines, budgets, technological capabilities; they really run the gamut. So that’s the “grassroots” of grassroots distribution: that each one of these screenings bubbles up from its own location, each one has its own local flavour, and we have to facilitate that process individually with each individual screening. It’s a real departure from commercial cinema booking, where you can tap into a theatre chain. There’s no vertical integration. It’s very locally-driven.

POV: Despite a proliferation of new online resources to connect with audiences, a lot of your model is built on, I hesitate to say “old-fashioned,” but real-life, community connections. Do you feel that this is best way to engage with audiences?

CB: I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. I think as technology shifts and as audiences begin to have increased access to films both because of the ways they can access them on digital devices, and also because the distribution mechanism is evolving so quickly—the price point is lower, the release times are faster—that’s enabling documentaries to reach more and different people, so there’s a place for that. But there’s still an enormous audience out there—and sometimes they’re the same audience that are going to download a digital file, and sometimes they’re a different audience—that really wants to have that communal experience. What we have found is that not only do people want that experience, but they’re also willing to pay for it. It’s not just an impulse that some people have, it’s something that they tangibly value. They happily go to great lengths and efforts to support independent filmmakers in that way, not just by paying filmmakers for the copyright permissions, but to rent a venue and to promote it, to bring in a speaker and have refreshments; all of that stuff takes an enormous amount of work. So we see this robust audience out there that is, in some ways, very untapped.

POV: I saw fellow Savvy Producer speaker Liz Marshall’s The Ghosts in our Machine on your list of clients, a film that was on the cover of our 2013 Hot Docs issue. What was Film Sprout’s involvement in the film’s distribution model?

CB: For three films a year, we run these big campaigns and tours that place films in specific communities for public screenings. For about 40-50 films a year, we provide guidance and advice for filmmakers who are doing it themselves, and that’s the role we played in Liz’s film. She had an amazing vision for an outreach campaign and audience engagement that would incorporate community screenings with activists, advocates and non-profits. She really wanted to get the benefit of our experience, and that’s how we work with many filmmakers on their projects.

We’re a small operation, and we don’t take on all of the projects that we wish we could. One way for us to extend our reach is to help filmmakers run their own process. That can be a very valuable collaboration, because for a filmmaker who’s very passionate about the issue, and willing to dig in to that work of audience engagement, it’s very beneficial long-term to have built those relationships with your audience directly. When we take on a film hook, line and sinker and book the whole campaign, I think we do an incredible service for the filmmaker in the sense that we’re taking on that whole burden for them. It frees them up to do other things, like work on other aspects of their campaign or to make their next film, and that’s valuable. But there’s no way to replicate the relationships and the dynamic that you begin to create when you’re literally talking on the phone every day to audience members. Filmmakers like Liz who are willing to carve out that time to do it themselves, they gain this incredible, irreplaceable asset. They are the holder of all of those relationships instead of handing them off to someone like me.

POV: Film Sprout’s website positions the organization as helping “social-issue filmmakers.” Why make that distinction?

CB: What we’ve found is that the demand for films that explore social issues is extremely high. Audiences are hungry for narratives, subjects and stories that enable them to get a more nuanced look at the social issues of our time. There’s certainly also a demand for art films, profile films, and biographical films, but we’re a boutique company. We see this amazing demand from audiences, and it’s a way for us to specialize by serving that particular narrow focus within documentary.

POV: There’s often a tendency in critical reviews of documentary to separate the social issue being presented from the filmmaking techniques being used to present it—I read one this morning, in fact, where the reviewer applauded that the issue was being addressed, while criticizing the form in which it was presented. Does the filmmaking affect finding and connecting with audiences?

CB: Absolutely, yeah. What we find, and I think many filmmakers would say this, is that the content is nothing without the craft. I definitely believe that and I select films on that belief. A compelling issue, one that is pressing and complex, and forces us to ask questions, is a key element of a great film. The content is definitely important: it has to be interesting, it has to be surprising, it has to be nuanced. But a story is just a story unless it’s well-told. You have to have that craft to make the story compelling, especially if you want to break out from the ranks of the people who are already passionate about that particular issue. There are social-issue documentaries that are made that have some reach built in purely because they address a specific issue in which there is a lot of interest. But, if you really want to go a degree or two or more beyond that, you have to have a story that is compelling regardless of the content.

POV: One of your roles at Film Sprout is an “impact strategist.” How do you define “impact”? Does it depend on the film or campaign?

CB: I think “impact” includes this idea that there are many reverberations. The definition of impact—people coming into contact with one another, leaving an impression—those reverberations have many influence many areas of a film’s public life. One way of measuring the impact that we do is quite literal: how many people did this film touch? How many people saw it? How many communities or countries did it go to? I think what the grassroots model does—whether it’s a campaign we’re running, someone else is running, or one the filmmaker is running themselves—is extend visibility because it bridges a gap that the commercial cinema network and television broadcast cannot. It brings films directly to audiences. It’s very customized, and makes it very relevant and resonant to that audience. Counting those screenings and seeing where they are is the first layer of tabulating what the impact is.

Beyond that, we see all kinds of impact in different spheres, and it really depends on the film. For some films, the impact is primarily legislative or policy-based; for others, it’s consumer habit change. For some films, the impact is less tangible in the sense that it’s about cultural change or belief system change.

Finally, I think there’s also the general impact that documentary films make regardless of their content, regardless of their stories, on viewer’s impressions on what media can do. I know that sounds very abstract, but we’re entering an age where there’s more ability than ever for an individual to consume an enormous about of content, and I think that part of the impact of the work that we do is showing people what content can be. It’s not dumbed down. It’s very thoughtful. It’s nuanced. It cares. Documentary film, especially feature-length, long-form documentary film, is so different than the other kinds of media and content that’s out there. An impact that is rarely discussed is this idea of what journalism can be, what storytelling can be. I think it gives audiences a lot of hope, because it’s so different to what they might tune in to on national television or even public television.

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Caitlin Boyle is just one of the many great speakers participating in the DOC Institute’s Savvy Producer: The Art of Audience Engagement forum on March 14, 2015. POV is a proud media sponsor of this event, where attendees will explore ways to engage your funders, your audience and create impact with your doc. The morning will feature in-depth case studies and insights from filmmakers like Velcrow Ripper (Occupy Love), Liz Marshall (The Ghosts In Our Machine) and Elisa Paloschi (Driving with Selvi). In the afternoon, there will be a live engagement consultation with Boyle, followed by discussions with experts from Indiegogo, KinoSmith, GAT PR, and more!

Click here to purchase tickets and view the full schedule.

Date: Saturday, March 14, 2015
Time: 9:00am-5:00pm
Location: Innis Town Hall
Price: DOC Members – $115 / Non-DOC Members: $140 / Student: $85
For group rates please email kiva@docorg.ca