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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. 


New Day and the Complications of a Grassroots Cooperative

Michael Gottwald, Carl Kriss & Josh Penn

In one recent installation in our series of posts about would-be final project ideas, we considered what a grassroots film collective. This was not meant to imply that organizations that look somewhat like a grassroots film collective don't already exist. For example, we happened upon this interview with Ellen Frankenstein, Steering Committee Chair of New Day, which is a distribution company operated as a "filmmaker-run collective." Interestingly, New Day had some  origins as well as structuring principles that certainly had echoes of and connections to grassroots ideas. For one, "New Day was initially formed when the women's movement arrived and a group of independent filmmakers couldn't find distribution for their feminist films. Inspired by ideas of collaboration, hope, and social change the founding members created a cooperative alternative." This reminded us of how Jay Craven went from campus based political activism to community based film production and circuit-based distribution. The throughline is organizing: a campaign is being waged in each case, that depends on outreach and activation of the surrounding community or audience.

New Day consists of "member-owners": filmmakers who become part of the group to have assistance in distributing their film, but in return also assist other filmmakers with their distribution. "As part of the co-op," says Frankenstein, "all active members volunteer time to run the business, from acquisition to promotion, website to finance." This idea of having a responsibility to the group, and even the language of "member-owner" is akin to how the Obama campaign would empower volunteers by instilling the responsibility they had with titles like "Neighborhood Team Leader." In a grassroots organization, this is par for the course. It upends the hierarchy and makes everyone accountable to everyone else.

However, this raises many questions. First of all, how do you ensure that everyone is committed to the collective and the work that goes into it? With the Obama campaign, everyone had a shared goal to get their candidate elected president. In a situation like this, the goal of the filmmaker is to get their own film out there -- a significantly more individualist cause. Fortunately they have a rigorous application process, turning away more and more filmmakers every year, and one imagines that one of the criteria for admittance is commitment to the group endeavor of helping others' work. Also it is not a structureless free-for-all: "When new filmmakers join, they are paired with two buddies, one to mentor and support direct marketing efforts, and the second, who has a film in a similar subject area, to aid with market targeting."

But there is the output question. The goal of this company is to successfully distribute films (plural), and the pluralized, diversified nature of that versus the focused goal of electing an official makes one wonder if this places the New Day in a different, but much older conversation about capitalism vs. communism (or rather communitarianism). New Day is explicitly a co-operative... But is the application process enough to ensure that people with such diversified skill sets are going to be admitted such that everyone has a niche and something to offer films beyond their own? Not only that, but how do you ensure that everyone is just as motivated to work in supportive roles on others' films as they are on their own -- besides some sort of pledge of allegiance to the co-operative?

We've often considered how much a strong workforce or volunteer force is necessary for a real grassroots film organization. But we had never considered that the motive for that force could come directly from one's own desire to get their own film out there. We had always assumed that the motive for the volunteer or worker would have to come from something more broad: a passion for film, or for documentaries, or for "film organizing" as an endeavor. The question that New Day raises is, can you get just as much from sublimating one person's personal, specific goal as you can from a group of people with a broader, more abstract goal?