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The NYU Cinema Research Institute brings together innovators in film and media finance, production, marketing, and distribution to imagine and realize a new future for artist-entrepreneurs. 


The Scottish Documentary Institute and NationBuilder

Michael Gottwald, Carl Kriss & Josh Penn

A collaboration on a recent documentary sheds light on two organizations doing very interesting things in the world of independent film financing, distribution, audience building, and campaigning.

The film itself -- I Am Breathing -- lends itself to a grassroots approach already. The film follows a Yorkshire man named Neil Platt, who has Motor Neurone Disease, as he records the last few months of his life, as the disease takes its toll on him. The film is meant to be a record of who he was for his toddler son, and to complement filming he also blogs throughout the movie as well -- about how he feels, what he's going through, etc. It is a heart-wrenching film to watch, but it is a perfect example of having a built-in audience for a possible campaign. First there are people who have the disease itself, or who are in social or familial circles with people who do. Secondly there's the created audience started by the subject's blog. In fact, the film began merely as a short film meant very specifically to shed light on the condition of Motor Neurone Disease; this is similar to the origins of Honor Flight, a film we'll explore in a coming blog post. The directors of I Am Breathing note the community parallels in this article: "We planned initially to make a short film for MND but somehow [Neil's] ambition, honesty and desire to communicate pushed it to be a much bigger film. I Am Breathing, like the blog is about creating community around this horrendous disease –reminding us of a humanity in the midst of such suffering."

The Scottish Documentary Institute, which fostered the film's production and distribution, knew that though the film had become a much larger thing, it still lent itself to a campaign to raise awareness. They used Global Motor Neurone Disease Day as a moment to encourage hosting screenings of the film. Right on the SDI's main page for the film, the layout and arrow like icons seem to push you to go from watching the trailer to finding where you can see it near you to how you can host a screening... a veritable trapdoor progression of involvement. Naturally, as is common with "issue" films, revenue from any and all screenings will be split with the proper charity. What's fascinating about the Scottish Documentary Institute is that they are explicitly interested in "bridging the gap between academia and the industry," as noted here, the potential for which is a recurring theme in our findings -- see our prior post on Jay Craven. With the campaign for "I Am Breathing" they are debuting a fundraising widget that stands to be applicable for many different kinds of films, with many different kinds of contributors: "Without an intermediary platform, this toolset will not only facilitate crowdfunding or donations as currently known; it will offer groundbreaking functionality such as instant digital rewards, flexible pricing, automated handling of community screenings, and pay-it-forward technology." They're matching this with some on-the-ground outreach to proper community contacts - "making sure the widget will be implemented by hundreds of partners with an interest in the films’ subject matters. SDI aims to generate additional revenue enabling future investments, to grow its supporter base, to return value to its partners, and to deliver a robust fundraising solution that could benefit many others in the future." This sounds related to what Seed&Spark are doing; what's most fascinating is that filmgoers with various interests in a film could all use this tool -- be it a donor who just wants to support a film that he or she believes in, an internet user looking for rewards for donating to or sharing info about a film, a micro-investor, or big-time investor. With most current crowdfunding sites focusing on one or two of these kinds of users (ie the difference between Kickstarter and Slated), it will be interesting to see how this one-size-fits-all approach plays out.

An organization called NationBuilder was also involved in the audience outreach and organizing for "I Am Breathing." A quick video introduces the basics of what NationBuilder does, but basically it helps organize online and offline campaigns for any "nation," defined here as "a group of people - fans, followers, constituents, members, donors, volunteers, customers, shareholders, partners - united behind a common purpose." The idea of a "nation" is a convenient way to group many organizations we've seen that do have similar structures in their building of an audience; our whole CRI inquiry is based on the idea that an independent film's distribution has much to be learned from something like a non-profit. NationBuilder is like the digital agency Blue State Digital, in that they consult for non-profits, governments, politicians, and work off of a set of tried-and-true online tools (ie the control panel). If anything NationBuilder has a more uniform aesthetic for their clients (see the navigation bar in the video -- it's almost like a cross between Blue State Digital and Wordpress), while each website that's worked with BSD looks differently. However, what's most striking about NationBuilder is it also works with businesses, striking an equivalency between non-profits, governments, political campaigns, and strictly for capital enterprises. While for nonprofits and political campaigns, the site has an overlapping goal to "organize your supporters, volunteers, and donors,"  and a government's goal to "connect with constituents" seems not too far off from that, the video says that business owners can use NationBuilder to "nurture prospects, and grow customer relationships..."

This is the tension within the independent film industry at the moment, borne of a fracture between filmmakers who interact with audiences as a brand they want them to relate to, and those that essentially want them to support their non-profit. No matter what, it seems like NationBuilder is very relevant to modern film distribution -- whether your nation are advocates being rallied to support a cause by seeing your film, or just an audience who wants some escapist entertainment.