Background & Context In this post we report on an interview with Marcia Jarmel, director of the documentary film Speaking in Tongues. Marcia shared a generous amount of insight from her own experience with grassroots distribution.
Marcia and her co-director Ken Schneider partnered with Working Films, a national nonprofit that focuses on audience engagement to work strategically with particular documentaries to make a social impact. As Speaking in Tongues deals with issues of secondary languages in schools, the campaign attempted to raise awareness of the importance of bilingualism through community screenings, educational distribution, and community action. In other words, they explicitly imagined and positioned their film as a tool for social change.
The Speaking in Tongues team utilized two grassroots methods to distribute the film nationally: (1) reaching out to advocacy and issue interested groups and (2) community screenings. To coordinate outreach for community screenings, they identified six key audiences: Policymakers, Legislators, Parents, Educators, Youth, and Language Advocates.
To promote sales online, Marcia and her team sent out alerts electronically and reached out to a network of partner organizations that posted the trailer on their websites and blogs. The outreach resulted in more than 250 community screenings across the United States, many of which were hosted by community groups, advocates and conferences. The highest attendance for a screening was over 300 and the film has sold close to 3,000 DVD's to date. It continues to screen and reach new educational audiences 4 years after its premiere.
There are four key themes to be considered through a grassroots/campaign lens, from the film: 1) clear goals for interpreting and formulating metrics from the start, 2) the advantages of positioning a film as a social instrument, 3) the need for a specific kind of workforce, and 4) the current potential of gathering and reusing valuable data for future film campaigns. Finally, we’ll end with some concluding ideas on how some of Marcia’s challenges could be rectified.
1) We showed in our past post on Participant Media that using a film as a tool for social action can usually create a metric system for impact that a standard film cannot. External action is simply easier to measure – and the case of Speaking in Tongues is no different. The filmmakers used a service called Sparkwise that tracked all the data that they selected as relevant to the film; this could be everything from number of likes on Facebook to what states had passed H.R. 6036, the Excellence and Innovation in Language Learning Act. In other words, the filmmakers tied the film’s success to the success of the larger social movement it was supporting.
However, the film did not begin tracking these metrics until the campaign was waning; the platform wasn't available yet, and it was unknown at the time how useful they would be. The Speaking in Tongues filmmakers did do substantial work to connect with advocates and set up community screenings, as well as email blasts to thousands of educators interested in the issue. They screened at about 20 conferences to audiences large and small. The idea was that these audiences would then bring the film and its materials and messages back to their own communities. Of course, the social impact of one film can be extremely tricky to measure, especially with a film like Speaking in Tongues, which was one voice in a broader debate. To isolate & measure impact would mean isolating the film from its social movement; instead, Marcia says, "our strategy... was to connect with campaigns already in process rather than try to create and implement our own campaign... because we didn't have the people power or organizing expertise in house."
2) Marcia considered the film’s status as an instrument for change not as a hindrance to its popularity but rather as helpful in the distribution opportunities they were exploring. In the personal contact required to build the community screenings, the film’s agenda provided a common goal for citizens previously unaffiliated with the film – as opposed to trying to get them to advocate for a film that does not take on a cause they care about. Marcia reflected:
“It’s really about relationship building, which is probably very similar to political campaigning… Instead of offering [just] a film which people can see as a request to promote a film for free, you frame it in terms of what the organization needs. What are they trying to do. Can we create an event that can serve to push their own agenda forward? ... These relationships take time and management.”
This is Community Organizing 101: sharing your story and framing the challenge at hand in terms of how its resolution can move toward a common goal. In order to do this, however, you need organizers that can reach out to supporters through intimate, one-on-one meetings on the ground. Which leads to our next takeaway:
3) If there was one thing that Marcia kept coming back to, was the need for a larger workforce to collaborate with. With the campaign for the film so oriented around community screenings, it was clear that more direct, on the ground, hands-on attention to these screenings could have made them exponentially more popular, which would have been good both for the film’s political goals and for it as a thing in the marketplace.
As anyone who has worked in a campaign regional field office knows, it’s fundamentally important to engage volunteers to build whatever you are staging in the area. Local volunteers can also provide tactical advice and event-building support in a much more customized and impactful way than mass emails. Finally, organizers on the ground could also have helped conduct press outreach, which is an activity unfamiliar and uncomfortable to many volunteers but vital to a sustainable promotional campaign.
“Having more people nurturing those relationships, checking in with contacts regularly, having the budget to travel to meet people face to face, all of that would have made a big difference in what could have happened and the pace at which things happened,” reflects Marcia. When asked what the most important factor is in the success of campaigns like hers, she concluded “I think it’s people.”
The interns that Marcia did have were not, in fact, people interested in advancing in the film industry, nor were they up and coming political activists with a particular interest in the cause. Rather, they were folks interested in marketing. Marcia conceded that anyone interested in documentary film should be much more versed in this kind of ground-level organizing skill set. We’ll revisit this idea in the last, concluding takeaway.
4) A brief but simple takeaway: Marcia’s film is a textbook case about how valuable data can be in the modern self-distribution landscape. Throughout the course of her film’s campaign (and all of its outreach, community screenings, and publicity), innumerable names, phone numbers, and email addresses were acquired. However, at the end of the ordeal, there was not a logical place to pass it on to, when it seemed like there very much should be. Marcia reflects,
“It’s not the data that I don’t know what to do with, but the universe of the film…website, Facebook and Twitter followers, newsletter subscribers, blog followers. There’s a universe there that I don’t have the bandwidth to sustain. I will continue to include the contacts in my outreach for future films, but the network of people following these issues through us, seems like a resource that shouldn’t be let go.”
We’ve established in other posts that information like this is pivotal for self-distribution. As Marcia mentioned, it seems like it should have a life beyond one film’s outreach – as it did with B-Side. However, B-Side was an organization; this is one group of filmmakers. But what if there was a legitimate way for filmmakers to share information like this?
“At the beginning of this I had zero experience … I started out thinking I could do everything myself, and made myself pretty nuts for a while. It is much, much easier to have an army of people helping you. I think most filmmakers do not have that.”
If there has been one recurring theme from our conversations with Marcia and other independent filmmakers is that filmmakers often feel overwhelmed by having to create their own digital and community outreach campaign from scratch. Not only does this create more work and stress for the filmmaker in areas that are not their expertise, but it also results in the important data gathered from audiences who are already engaged going to waste once the distribution run of the film is done.
This makes us wonder if a film collective could be formed so that when audiences ‘opt-in’ to a film project – i.e. they give their information at a community screening, or to a volunteer -- the information is shared and passed onto a group of filmmakers that later use the information for their future campaigns. Taking it further, this collective could also share best practices, organizers, and even volunteers so that filmmakers like Marcia do not have to start from scratch every time they make a film. Especially for filmmakers who want to use their film as a tool for change, the skills necessary for organizing an engaged populace for voting and for filmgoing overlap in a major way. We’ll end with this quotation from Marcia:
“I think there is a huge disconnect between people who are doing advocacy and political work…they don’t understand how film can be a tool for them. Everybody wants to have a video for their website that promotes their own agenda but people do not understand how powerful stories can be in moving that agenda forward. The more independent those stories are from the advocacy organization itself, the more powerful they can be in bringing people in beyond the choir.”
What would such a “film organizing” organization look like? Would it consist mostly of filmmakers or include community organizers and activists as well? This is an idea we plan to explore in future posts.
Marcia and the Speaking in Tongues team will be putting up a new section of their website this summer that will include information on best practices and case studies about the successful impact of their film. Anyone interested in following the Speaking in Tongues campaign can join their mailing list at (www.speakingintonguesfilm.info) and / or their Facebook page at (https://www.facebook.com/Speaking.in.Tongues.film). The website also has many free and useful resources for organizing community screenings of Speaking in Tongues.
-Michael, Josh and Carl