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Watch and Learn: A Radical New Distribution Model for Social-Justice Films


Forget about movies at the movie theater. A new British organization wants everyone to be able to see social-justice films—anywhere, anytime.

It sometimes seems that the more relevant a film is to people’s lives, the less of a chance it has to be seen. Michael Moore’s rabblerousing films get good theatrical runs because they’re sensational and they’re made by a famous person, but countless lesser-known filmmakers spend years pouring time, energy, and money into message films—many of which are vastly more penetrating and nuanced than Moore’s scattershot polemics—only to see their work vanish into the abyss upon completion.

This was the situation British filmmaker Franny Armstrong faced last year. She’d spent more than four years making The Age of Stupid, an epic docudrama about an old man (Pete Postlethwaite) living alone in a ruined world of the future, looking back at footage shot around the world in 2008 and wondering why we didn’t do anything about climate change when we had the chance. Armstrong, who’d previously directed several no-budget documentaries—including McLibel, an account of McDonald’s infamous failed lawsuit against a London postman and gardener—wanted as many people as possible to see The Age of Stupid, but didn’t want to bankrupt herself in the process. To finance the film, she’d devised a crowd-funding model based on small individual investments, so she turned to the network once again when it was time to get her film seen outside the traditional theater circuit.

Her company, Spanner Films, devised a software model that comes up with a customized rate quote for anyone interested in licensing the film. The fee is based on variables about the nature of the screening—including the GDP of the country where the film will be shown, who will be showing it (an individual, a multinational, a nonprofit), and the capacity of the space in which it will be shown. The model also makes suggestions about how much to charge attendees if the screener wants to use the screening as a fundraising platform so that licensor and licensee can both benefit.

After having success with this model for The Age of Stupid—to the tune of more than 1,400 screenings and $170,000 in additional revenue—Armstrong approached Channel 4’s BRITDOC Foundation, thinking that other activist-minded filmmakers might like to try it too. The result is Good Screenings, an initiative they launched last month to promote the nontheatrical distribution of social-justice films. At present, Good Screenings offers nine features, including The Age of Stupid and McLibel, as well as The End of the Line, about overfishing in the U.K.; Moving to Mars, which tracks a year in the life of two Burmese refugee families; and The Yes Men Fix the World, in which the notorious political pranksters impersonate executives from companies like Dow Chemical and Exxon as a way of exposing corporate greed, hypocrisy, and stupidity.

What Good Screenings looks for, explains producer Sarah Mosses, is films that contain a direct call to action. The organization then works with filmmakers to develop a toolkit for action that moviegoers can take with them after the screening. In the case of the Yes Men documentary, for instance, there’s information about the basic tenets of corporate responsibility, as well as tips on how to adopt the Yes Men’s legendary culture-jamming tactics so that you too can pose on as a starchy corporate stiff on an international news boadcast and apologize to the world for your company’s crimes against humanity.

Good Screenings also leverages its relationships with NGOs and other third-party organizations to find related conferences and events thoughout the year for Good Screenings films to play. “We’re talking about one- to two-year relationships, and really pushing a film for that duration,” Mosses says. That’s quite a difference from a typical theatrical run, which can sometimes give a film as little as a few days to connect with an audience. “It’s not a quick-fix option, it’s a long-term engagement with a community, which is vital for these films to have some tangible change.”

She adds that the organization plans to add 10 to 15 additional films to its slate over the coming months. (Filmmakers who think they’ve got Good Screenings material are welcome to submit their work.) And while Good Screenings’ distribution model is currently limited to dropping DVDs in the mail and mailing them around the world, downloads and pay-per-view are also coming soon. As Good Screenings expands, Mosses says its primary focus will be on ensuring that films have a life in the world beyond the screenings themselves. “There’s a generation of audiences that wants to make change,” she says. “They want to bring friends and colleagues into an issue, and they feel the medium of film is a good way of introducing those issues. They don’t want to go to lectures where they’re preached at. They want the engagement of film to spark a discussion which they can carry forward.”

Still image from The Yes Men Fix the World

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