Five Reasons Why “Whose Streets” is Essential Viewing

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While at the Sundance Film Festival this past week I had the fortune to to see the premiere of “Whose Streets” by Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis – produced by Jennifer MacArthur.   It was even more fortunate because I was able to view this powerful film on inauguration day and it provided wonderful counterprogramming. I was struck by a number of things in the film that still resonate with me almost a week later.

1. The film shows how far we still have to go as a nation to confront a legacy of slavery that is still with us.  The film wisely starts with a reference to the Dred Scott decision in 1846 and compares it to contemporary St. Louis and Ferguson. (In the Dred Scott decision, the Supreme Court in one of its most notorious decisions, declared that since Dred Scott was a slave he was not a citizen. As such he did not have a right to sue for his freedom even though he lived in a non-slave state.)  This initial juxtaposition, along with the quotes from prominent black leaders that served as chapter breaks, was all the contextualization the audience needs.   Very soon we see the largely white police using overwhelming force to intimidate and control the primarily black citizens of Ferguson.  The dogs used for “crowd control” is enough to throw you back to the 60s and beyond.

2. The film does an incredible job of constructing the story of people living through the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death focusing on four activists:  Brittany Farrel, David Whitt, Tef Poe and Kayla Reed. Weaving a narrative from a wide range of filmed and archival/cell phone material the filmmakers provide a visceral experience where you feel that you are there on the streets with the mourners and protesters. You live the events with them, and see how truth unfolds through their eyes.  

3. I believe it might have been the LAPD under Daryl Gates that spearheaded the militarization of local police with armored battering rams being used in the early 1980s. (http://www.laweekly.com/news/the-militarization-of-police-started-in-los-angeles-5010287). The film Do Not Resist (http://www.donotresistfilm.com/) which came out last year, uses Ferguson as a backdrop to examine the increase in militarization of police forces across the country. But Whose Streets is the first film that I have seen that gives a sense of what it is like for American citizens conducting peaceful protests to come face to face with police in full combat gear flanked by armored personnel carriers.  Our founding fathers would be aghast.

4. I like to feel that I am a savvy media viewer – but the contrast presented by this film between the stories of the people on the ground and traditional news media was stunning.  As shown in Do Not Resist, the events of Ferguson have been used as a justification to increase the militarization of police forces in the US.  But Whose Streets deftly shows the distortion of the mainstream by constructing the reality of events as witnessed by those on the receiving end of force.  There is much talk about media bias these days and real stories not being told.  Somehow my bet is that most of the untold stories and media bias is of and against the marginalized.

  5. On the bus after the screening a white women commented on how she felt that there should have been many more interviews with white people to broaden the appeal of the film. But why does a film about black experience in America need to be mediated by white people?   I think she perhaps missed one of the key points of the film:  having a lived experience of how racism in American society has stayed embedded in our society.

I was inspired by the bravery of the activists in the film and their families in the face of such intense opposition. The film shows through the lives of Brittany Farrel, David Whitt, Tef Poe and Kayla Reed how difficult the struggle for human rights can be.   Coming at a time when our country is facing an attempt to push back gains made across the board in civil rights, women’s rights, environmental protection, etc., the film is a much needed inspiration for activism and the need for continued struggle.

 

 

Documentary Magazine Article – Documentary Distribution in Turbulent Times

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During IDA’s Getting Real 2016 conference in September,  Susan Margolin and I hosted a two part panel on the state of documentary distribution.  I conducted a series of case studies with Nanfu Wang, from the critically acclaimed Sundance film Hooligan Sparrow. Christo Brock and Grant Barbeito’s Touch the Wall, and finally Keith Ochwat and Christopher Rufo’s Age of Champions.   Susan then dove into a panel of  industry experts including Josh Braun of Submarine Entertainment; Orly Ravid, entertainment attorney and founder of The Film Collaborative; Annie Roney of ro*co films; Nolan Gallagher of Gravitas Ventures; and Felicia Pride of Tugg, the theatrical event platform.

Susan and I wrote an in-depth article of analysis and case studies for Documentary Magazine which just came out online which you can access on the Documentary Magazine site:

http://www.documentary.org//feature/independent-documentary-distribution-turbulent-times

I look forward to your thoughts and feedback.

Artist, Filmmaker, & Renowned Disney Producer Don Hahn Comes to Cal Arts

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Hard to believe we are already halfway through the first month of 2017! So much has already happened this year. I just got back from Winnipeg where it was below -10 degrees. TALK ABOUT FREEZING. Luckily, I didn’t have to leave my hotel too much and I had a fantastic time at All Access 2017 hosted by On Screen Manitoba. I not only got to give a keynote address and take part in a fantastic panel discussion, but I also got to meet with some wonderful filmmakers. That is truly one of my favorite things. There is a lot going on in Winnipeg!

Look out for some informational blog posts coming up in the next few weeks where I will be talking about the importance of planning out the marketing of your films from inception and at various stages of the process which was the subject of my keynote.

In the meantime, I want to tell you about yesterday. As many of you know, outside of being a filmmaker and a marketing and distribution consultant, I have the pleasure of teaching some courses at Cal Arts. Yesterday, we had the fantastic Disney legend, Don Hahn, join us to give a presentation on unlocking one’s creative self. If you aren’t familiar with Don, he is best known for films like Beauty and the Beast and the Lion King. One of the things I truly like about Don is that he is also an avid fan of documentaries and has made some amazing ones himself. Those include Waking Sleeping Beauty, Earth, the incredible Tyrus (which he was the EP on) and many others.

I have to say that his presentation wasn’t only a learning experience for my students, but myself as well. (And I have to say this is always the case in our Guest Artist Workshop class).

Don touched on a lot of really interesting and important topics. He talked to the students about not letting fear hold them back, about the importance of creative collaboration, and about how many artists borrow and take from each other. But there was one message that really stood out to me and I think to my students as well.

That being, there is no such time in life when we are ready. He implored us to remember that it is a terrible thing to sit around and wait to be ready. Sometimes, you have to just get out and create. Don’t worry about the rest. Just get out and create.

What do you all think about that? How many times in life have we all let the fear of failure hold us back? How many times have we said, I’m not ready yet? Don’s message is one I think people from any industry can take heed from.

Thank you very much, Don, for coming and talking to the students at Cal Arts.

And of course, if you want to learn more about Don or check out his book Brain Storm: Unleashing Your Creative Self visit his site at http://www.donhahn.com/

Keep checking back regularly. I will be posting content from Sundance Film Festival coming up!

10 Key Points on How to Move Forward With Outreach and Impact for Documentary Film

A Report from the IFP Filmmaker Lab

by Jon Reiss

With all the trauma of this past week, I at least had the good fortune of spending it at the IFP Filmmaker Lab in NYC.   We all showed up Wednesday morning stunned/tired from watching returns all night/depressed.   Some stayed home but by the middle of the morning nearly all the filmmaking teams had turned up. I say that I was fortunate because one of the things that I love about the labs is that we become a community of support for each other. Even though my morning presentation was on something as banal (for last week) as budgeting and timing a release – we were all reminded about how important stories and art can be to inspire, motivate, create community and express our humanity.  (Though, helping artists get their work out to an audience will never stop being relevant – especially now.)

For the second session the documentary filmmakers were scheduled to have a panel about “Impact” while the narrative filmmakers were to go to a session about agents and managers. Not surprisingly most of the narrative filmmakers stayed to discuss impact.

Joining me was my dear friend Jennifer MacArthur from Borderline Media and Emma Alpert from Just Vision.   Jennifer is one of the most profound thought leaders in this field.   Emma and Just Vision do incredible work focused on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

Here are ten key points for films seeking to have impact on the world that came out of that session.

1. Films seeking to have impact need to have a strong story that moves people and should not just be a PowerPoints of facts.

Think about how are you going to connect beyond the core audience – through story. Everyone making a film for impact wants to get beyond the choir (although now it is also important to charge up the choir). What many filmmakers forget is that this takes an emotionally engaging story that can keep an audience involved for ninety minutes. Often filmmakers get so caught up in the message of the film that they lose site of the fact is that people respond to emotions. We unfortunately keep relearning this in politics as well.

1B: Don’t underestimate the power of humor in your film to help connect with audiences.

2. Do test screenings with your film with people you want to reach outside of your choir. What are their feelings about the film? Is it moving them?   Consider focus groups of specific target audiences.

3. Since many (if not most) times documentaries are made in the editing room – it might be best to wait to start engaging outreach until you have a rough cut so that you know what your film actually is going to be and what audiences it will appeal to.  Sometimes though, you may want to engage with stakeholders earlier if you want to interview their principals, which might increase their motivation to help the film’s release.

4. Research what you are trying to change in the world. Is that possible for your film? Will it have that affect?

4A: Brainstorm what is the big idea that you are trying to accomplish – and then create a specific action item that will work toward that larger goal.

5.Identify stakeholders in your space. Determine their reach. But more importantly understand how your film can help them! Convey this to them. It needs to be a win win relationship

6. Don’t overstate what impact can you make to funders and stakeholders. What can you do and measure realistically?

7. It is a conventional wisdom to go after stakeholders that have the greatest reach. Makes sense. But perhaps consider trying a specific goal or action plan with that stakeholder – and if the relationship works – great – if not consider pivoting to another perhaps smaller stakeholder.

8.Embrace modeling. Try one tactic or goal first and see how that is working – if it isn’t working, pivot to another.

9.Because of the political earthquake last week, it will be nearly impossible to effect legislative change on the national level in the United States for the next few years. Think locally. The US Council on Mayors is a much more liberal group and one where you can meet politicians who are excited about change and want to engage in programs for their communities.

10. Funding for outreach had been difficult to come by before last Tuesday – and probably now will be more difficult to obtain. However there are people of means who support social causes – but will that money now go into grassroots community building or into media? How might those two work hand in hand? Are feature films the best platform for impact – or are there other forms of media (shorter/serialized) that might have more success?

I would love your thoughts on this. Agree – disagree? What would you add?   How can film and story affect change as we approach the age of Trump?

 

 

 

 

Heading to Sheffield International Doc Fest and Edinburgh International Film Festival

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I’m excited to be heading to the UK for the Sheffield International Doc Fest and the Edinburgh International Film Festival. In Sheffield I’ll be taking meetings with a number of international documentary foreign sales representatives but I’ll also be participating in Sales Sunday which is Sunday, June 12th.  Then I’ll be meeting with filmmakers as part of the distribution and marketing Switchboard Surgeries – as well as 10 Minute Meetings with impact oriented films.

In Edinburgh – I’ll be there for the final sessions of Make Your Market the PMD training initiative through the Scottish Documentary Institute.   I’ll also be participating in EIFF’s Distribution Rewired program which is Tuesday the 21st.   DISTRIBUTION REWIRED is a two-day focus dedicated to developing communication and collaboration between filmmakers and film distribution professionals working with new/emerging distribution methods.  Continue reading →