30 Years On, There's Still a New Day For Marketing and Distribution
Those who haven’t made documentaries may wonder why anyone would want to. Fundraising for filming and editing can take years. Once you’re finished, the chances of seeing the finished product on the big screen are virtually nil, and slim on primetime TV. Even if the doc is broadcast, then what? It still needs marketing and distribution.
Many documentary producers sign their films over to distribution companies, even though they typically take at least 75 percent of the gross, leaving the filmmaker with less than 25 percent. After an initial promotional push, the distributor’s focus almost always turns to newer films, so that last year’s documentary ends up as a postage-stamp-sized entry in the back pages of a catalog. The film isn’t reaching its potential audience—nor is it earning anything—while the producer is locked into a contract for years.
That’s not the worst that can happen. In the early ’70s, four producers learned that their feminist films were too “controversial” to market. No distributor would touch them. So the producers pooled their resources: They bought mailing lists, designed brochures and sent them out. The strategy worked, and New Day Films was born. Within a few years the cooperative had expanded to include other producers whose films focused on issues of social justice and diversity. Today, New Day has 67 independent producers with 138 films and videos on topics ranging from multiculturalism to media to mental health.
Filmmaker Debra Chasnoff joined in 1996. “New Day quickly became one of the few contexts in my life where I felt I was among peers who truly understood the passions and challenges of my professional life—what it’s like to be a progressive, activist documentary filmmaker,” she says. “That understanding has proved to be invaluable, and a support to me, as I’ve gone up against the religious right.”
Chasnoff’s It’s Elementary became a top-grossing film for New Day. It focuses on grammar school children talking about gay issues with their teachers. Under the New Day banner, Chasnoff and her partner Helen Cohen have marketed it to schools, universities and community service organizations, despite attacks from conservative right-wing organizations. “Placing the film with another educational distributor would have been frustrating,” Chasnoff maintains. “The share of revenue from sales would have been much lower. But more importantly, having been immersed in our issue for the four years it took to make the film, we were far more aware of the distribution potential—and the political strategy—that was needed to effectively promote It’s Elementary. We couldn’t imagine putting that job in someone else’s hands.”
As New Day co-founder Jim Klein observes, “If you make [a film] and just walk away, you learn nothing of its impact. There’s a value to the connection to an audience, even apart from earning a living.” Over the years, New Day’s target audience has grown. Although it’s primarily colleges and universities, it also includes secondary schools, community groups, libraries, hospitals, labor unions, political organizations, churches and religious organizations.
New Day members are constantly seeking new viewers and ways of reaching them. To accomplish this, they are assigned certain tasks that aid the entire group, like analyzing website orders, creating promotions or serving on the Steering Committee. They also share the costs of producing a catalog, buying mailing lists and advertising New Day as a whole. In recent years, members whose films have a similar audience have done smaller, targeted joint mailings. The costs of running the co-op and its central office, as well as attending key festivals, conferences and group meetings, are also shared. Booking, shipping and billing are handled by a fulfillment house in New Jersey. Producers also market their own films from their homes or offices with guidance, if needed, from other New Day members. The annual cost to an individual for all these activities can be as low as $3,000 to $4,000, and increases considerably, depending on the volume and type of promotion.
The reward for all this work is substantial and turns the distributors’ payment ratio upside down. Members keep an average of 67 percent of the income from sales of their films, and high grossers can keep more than 80 percent. The cost of membership is assessed on a sliding scale, based on each producer’s sales income, and is calculated every half-year as members’ fortunes change. New members pay an initial $100 membership fee, but are excused from shared expenses for the first six months so they can conserve cash to invest in their individual promotion.
New Day has a small volunteer Steering Committee that conducts the group’s ongoing business and a paid two-person consulting team to facilitate meetings and further coordination. Each member is assigned a Steering Committee member liaison to foster communication. Every June the members meet to catch up with each other, talk through the issues facing independent producers and distributors, and share tips on how to promote their work and increase income.
What is remarkable is that New Day members maintain a successful, smoothly running business without the benefit and expense of full-time paid staff. And its reputation grows. As filmmaker Tommie Smith notes in the 30th anniversary State of the Co-op Report, “We run a business with revenues of over a half million dollars per year, with operating expenses only about a fifth of that. We continue to have success attracting a slate of strong, creative, energetic new members who bring to our collection some of the most important new documentaries in the market today.”
As the cooperative evolves, so does the technology its documentary makers use. Members are at the brink of radical change. After New Day received several requests to digitize, stream or otherwise “netcast” its films, the group’s Futures Committee began to research “new possibilities . . . for delivering our work to customers in more efficient, cost-effective and feature-rich ways,” such as DVDs that also include multimedia study guides, transcripts and supporting material.
The switch from 16mm film to VHS was a simple format change, compared to digitization for streaming video, Internet commerce and DVDs. Yet, as the group’s Futures Committee recalls, “even that change profoundly affected our market. What kind of opportunities and dangers exist in an age when both production and distribution can be digital?”
The problem is one of intellectual property—anyone can download streaming video for free, but 16mm film or videotape is a discrete physical property that is rented or sold for specific uses. And there’s also the issue of cost. New Day members were forced to drastically cut the amount they charged for their work when the market switched from film to video. Cutting DVDs or streaming video costs even less, which means New Day’s independent producers will have some tough decisions to make as their customers continue to make the transition from VHS to the new technologies.
Libby Bassett is a freelance writer and editor based in New York City and a former broadcaster for ABC in Africa and the Middle East. She was field producer on Five Days to Change the World, the most recent documentary produced by her husband, Robert Richter.