Following our conversation with Obama guru, Jeremy Bird, we interviewed activist and independent filmmaker Sandi DuBowski. Sandi is known for directing and producing the award winning documentary, Trembling Before G-d. The film tells the compelling story of several gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews who are trying to reconcile their sexuality with their faith. Trembling was very well received on the festival circuit and at the box office, winning seven awards including at the Berlin Film Festival and Chicago Film Festival, and broke the Film Forum’s opening day box office record by grossing more than $5,500 on the day of its single screen New York debut. Sandi later took the film on a town hall-style screening tour to schools and synagogues across the country to spark a conversation about LGBT issues among Orthodox Jews. Similar to how Obama veteran Jeremy Bird gives consulting advice on grassroots organizing for political campaigns through his firm 270 Strategies, the success of Trembling has resulted in Sandi becoming one of the leading consultants for “issue” organizing around film. The distribution campaign for Trembling focused on the act of screening the film itself instead of an external action like passing a law or signing a petition. This is a different approach than other issue-based films we have studied in our research like Participant Media’s film, The Visitor, which attempted to engage its audience in a number of external action campaigns on its website, i.e. offering free legal seminars to lawyers to learn how to defend immigrant detainees. In contrast, Sandi decided to focus the campaign on distributing the film itself because, “Trembling was something that had a lot of resistance, so it really was about building a conversation as opposed to something like having the court law come in and change how the U.S. military deals with rape…” Sandi was able to channel the enthusiasm of LGBT community towards the action of distributing his film by focusing the goal of the campaign to break the silence of a community that many people felt needed to be more vocal. Sandi then formed metrics to gauge the progress of distribution and translate the success of the film to supporters and investors. Sandi reflects,
“There is a whole growing field in ‘How do you evaluate this? How do you measure it?’ And for me it was like, if I could create a conversation in a public institution that never had a conversation before, that for me was like a statistical marker of success. If I could get a school that never discusses homosexuality to really have all the teachers have a conversation about it with the principal and social workers, that was a victory.”
From our perspective working on the Obama campaign, metrics for canvassing, phone calls and fundraising played a critical role in giving supporters an understanding of how their time and money contributed to the campaign’s success. Similarly, Sandi shared the stories about people who went through transformative experiences at Trembling screenings to translate the success of screenings in Jewish Orthodox institutions. These stories helped motivate supporters to contribute money and time to the distribution of the film. As Sandi states,
“We consistently had a proven track record. Were able to tell the story of the success about how people’s lives were really changing. It was very much turning a movie into a movement… That strategy for fundraising was throughout the whole process of the film, so it just felt like a continuation of the way I had worked.”
Instead of waiting on a distributor to support his screenings financially, Sandi raised funding on his own so that he could hire a network of outreach directors that helped organize screenings throughout the country. Sandi discussed, “Everywhere we went, I would hire outreach directors. I got my distributor to pay me to be an outreach director. I hired in New York, I hired in Boston, I hired in L.A, I hired in San Francisco, I hired in Chicago, so I built a whole team nationwide, as well as in Canada.” This is similar to how the Obama campaign hired organizers during the primary. Sandi would hire organizers 6 weeks before a new screening so they could build publicity and work with different organizations to plan for the event. He was able to sustain his team of outreach directors by tapping into various financial sources during the distribution process through grants, private donors, grassroots emails and donations.
Sandi also touched on the recurring theme in our research that new technologies make it even more critical for filmmakers to build a team that help manage the many tools available for distribution. Sandi observed,
"Now there’s such a menu of options to mobilize an audience…I think capturing the audience is really important, capturing the data in that room. And really being able to record that data, and having someone on board who can actually do all that social media work and that data recording and that data basing is what we all forget, and then we’re all flooded with information, flooded with data and we have no way of organizing it….I think team building, capacity building is so important right now, and it’s really important to think about how we’re going to run like a mini NGO with our film.”
Sandi’s example proves that filmmakers can build their own distribution team by being nimble with financing and embracing a grassroots structure. We wonder if Sandi’s successful distribution strategy of hiring outreach directors to organize community screenings could be expanded even further through empowering a team of volunteers. In our recent interview with Jeremy Bird, he highlighted four key grassroots principles that emphasized the importance of data and sharing real responsibility with volunteers. Bird mentioned that what separated the Obama campaign from other grassroots operations in the past is the inherent sense of ownership and trust built into the core of its volunteer structure which is named “The Snowflake Model.’ In the ‘Snowflake Model’ volunteers were assigned to neighborhood teams and given specific roles like Phonebank Captain, Canvass Captain and Neighborhood Team Leader that each played a significant role in the historic turnout efforts of the campaign. Could a similar model be adapted to empower audiences to get more involved in the distribution of film? We plan to explore this question in future posts.