It has been said that making the documentary is the easy part and that distribution, promotion and outreach is where all the hard work is. That may be true…so if you are serious about your film and you are willing to put the work in, maybe you should take your doc on the road and get your story out to a wider audience.
Let me tell you how I ended up on a nine city film tour that started in New Jersey and ended in Florida. My latest DIY doc is about 80 homeless people living in the woods who wanted to create a tiny house community that they called Destiny’s Bridge. I ended up putting a short clip from my documentary on YouTube. It showed a 72 year old man, Sam, watching his home in the woods be demolished by a bulldozer and it quickly went viral. The Huffington Post ran an article about it, as well as many other high profile web sources including Yahoo’s Home Page. Anyway, someone who saw it had contacted me and said that their organization wanted to help Sam. They ended up building a beautiful tiny house on a trailer for him.
I contacted a local college (Monmouth University) to host the presentation of Sam receiving the keys to his new house that included all the fanfare of reporters, TV crews and students. Shortly after he received the tiny house, it became clear that Sam would never actually live in it because it is illegal for him to live in his tiny house in NJ. So he spent the following winter in a tent in the woods. The fact that Sam was stuck in the freezing cold woods while his brand new house was in storage inspired me to take the film out on tour and bring attention to Sam’s story, while screening and promoting my documentary.
While they were building the house, I was monitoring my Google Alerts closely. In case you don’t know, a Google Alert is when you get a notice every time something is mentioned about the key words you submit. I submitted “tiny house” and “homeless” to the alert. I was receiving several internet stories everyday and soon realized that “Tiny Houses for the Homeless” issues were going on all over the country.
I decided that I would try a film tour in key areas where communities are involved in “Tiny Houses for the Homeless” projects along the East Coast. I reached out to the main subject of the film who had access to the tiny house and he agreed to take the house on tour along with an assistant who helped us work the merchandise table.
The next step was to send emails out to organizations down the East Coast who were involved in the “Tiny Houses for the Homeless” movement. These were the people I was reading about in my Google Alerts. It didn’t take long to realize that they were interested and wanted to work with me so I started scheduling screenings. Some of the screenings were in churches, others were in colleges and theaters. We even ended up screening the film at a homeless shelter for a couple hundred residents. I left it up to the hosting organization to find the best place to have the film event and told them that the screenings had to be free and open to the public. I also made it clear right up front that we would have a merchandise table and a donation box to off-set the costs of the tour.
Promotion is the key to getting people out to community screenings, so you must make sure your hosting organization is willing to work hard on promotion before you agree to the screening. I made up custom digital movie posters for each screening and also sent each host a press release template to use as a guide for publicity. The other thing I did was budgeted $20 per screening on Facebook ads that were targeted to people interested in the film’s cause that lived in the area. The rest of the promotion was up to the hosting organizations.
Most of them did a great job with promoting the screenings and we normally had pretty good crowds. After each screening we had a Q&A discussion about the film as well as the situation going on in their communities. We also collected emails and gave tours of Sam’s tiny house before and after the movie. Sales of DVDs, posters and T-shirts along with donations we received on the trip were enough to cover all of our expenses down there and back on what turned out to be a very successful nine city film tour from New Jersey to Florida.
If you click on this Facebook post you can go through the photos of the film tour and see the places we stopped, the people we met and understand the value of an effective film tour.
If your film is somewhat topical and you believe that there is nationwide interest in your DIY documentary, you may want to consider a national film tour. Many documentaries have had great success touring the country and talking about the cause behind their documentary. Organizations will sometimes cover your expenses plus you can do what I did and sell DVDs and T-shirts. And remember…ALWAYS have a “donation box” at all your screenings so people can support your film. After your film is played is when people are most likely to be generous and donate money to your film to support the cause. Never miss that opportunity to raise funds for your Outreach Program.
So think about it…you may want to get your Google Alert set up with key words about your film and see if there is enough national interest to take your documentary on the road!