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Getting Your Film Ready for School: It's Academic DIY

By Judith Dancoff

Courtesy of Judith Dancoff

What are the keys to successfully selling your film to the academic market? The mistake too many documentary filmmakers make is to think of the process as simply a matter of buying e-mail lists; they are then disappointed when they don't make the sales they want.

The fact is, marketing, like filmmaking, requires solid pre-production, with one's campaign at the back end, not the beginning. We would never turn our cameras on without a lot of preparation, so why do we think we can go directly into sales without the same degree of work? As in filmmaking, pre-production is an essential part of this process. Is your film right for the academic market, and if so, to which of the scores of niches that each university represents? 

Effective salesmanship is about finding the right buyer for your product, and then positioning it in language that he/she will respond to. Distributors simply list films in generic catalogues, for every type of buyer. We are more like door-to-door salespeople, finding just the right buyer and making a pitch they can't refuse.

One final point before we begin: As in any business, you need to work from a distribution plan, if only in your mind, rather than in a scattershot approach of doing everything at once. For films with educational potential, start with theatrical and broadcast distribution, then follow quickly with what I call Academic DIY. Restrain the impulse to market your film for pennies to everyone unless you have strong evidence that home sales will justify that. Can you really make enough on Netflix, Amazon, Distribber, et al, to equal eight or more academic sales per month--at $2,000 per month? And even if you can, how much time and social networking will that require? Once a librarian sees the Amazon price, he may be unwilling to pay for the licensed film, even though he knows he should. As your own distributor, you are in the driver's seat. Think clearly about what you are doing, when you are doing it and why. 


Locating Academic Potential: Positioning Your Campaign

The educational potential of some films is obvious; others less so. Your first order of business is to discover your film's target audience--and by the way, it will rarely have more than one or two. Yes, your film may touch on many subjects, though believe me, once it gets to a school library, it will only be housed on one shelf. Which department at the university will be most interested in your film? That's what you must discover.

If you're lucky enough to live in a college town, walk your DVD over to a few departments on campus, and get some teaching assistants and graduate students to watch it. You can also offer it to a professor for a free class screening in exchange for answering your questions. (Naturally, this can also be arranged by mail).

In marketing parlance, this is called setting up a focus group. Do the viewers see a usefulness for teaching their subject and, if so, how and in what way? What do they find particularly informative? What is of less interest to them? Don't argue, simply listen to their academic point-of-view, which might be very different from your own, and even eye-opening. Record their answers and also be alert to their degree of interest. On a scale of one to ten, you're looking for sevens, eights and more. If their reactions are tepid, feedback from more academics is still warranted--you may have just run into a curmudgeon on a bad day--but use this and all subsequent rejections as a divining rod to get closer to your true audience.

If reactions are positive, ask for one or two endorsement quotes to use on your website. Here, you want the professor to state the usefulness of your film for teaching the particular subject, and also get him/her to articulate its most important qualities. These are a film's selling points--important to highlight on your website and in your e-mail cover letter. Let me give a real-life example. In a psychology environment where many are focused on medicating mental illness and finding its genetic causes, I helped San Francisco filmmaker Ken Paul Rosenthal position his wonderful film Crooked Beauty as a piece that challenges viewers to explore the role extreme emotional states can play in imagination and creativity, the psychosocial and personal causes of mental distress, and different approaches to medication and treatment. While some academics might not be interested in these topics, Ken found enough who were to produce strong sales. In other words, work to explain your film's strengths in a language that your target buyers will respond to.

In addition to endorsements from professors or librarians, reviews from Video Librarian and/or academic journals in your target market are also important.

Other points to keep in mind: Schools and universities prefer films under 60 minutes (under 45 is best) that inform (rather than simply advocate or entertain) in areas already being taught--i.e., just because you think your film on ghosts and the paranormal  should be taught in universities, doesn't mean it will.  

On the other hand, public libraries are less concerned about length, and can be more responsive to films they perceive as having a general interest.


Create Your Materials and Website to Match Your Positioning

Right about now you are probably asking, "Do I really need a specific website for academic distribution?" The answer is yes--not an expensive site, not even a fancy one, but one dedicated to the task. Here's why: This kind of distribution is based on e-blast campaigns that are literally over in a matter of seconds. If someone has opened your e-mail and clicked on your website, you're incredibly lucky. Now you have probably two minutes, max, to engage them before they click away, and if they do, they're not coming back. A glitzy Hollywood site and/or one focused on building a fan base is exactly what you don't want. Professors and librarians are not fans.

Website home page for Rick Minnich's Forgetting Dad. Courtesy of Judith Dancoff

The specific design is up to you, but it should have the following elements, all clearly visible and easily navigable: a short blurb synopsis, correctly positioned with your selling points, on the front page along with one or two academic quotes or reviews; a few bulleted target markets; and a compelling visual image. Some people also put a few film festival laurels on the front page (it's OK if you don't have them) and a list of schools that have purchased (also OK if you don't have any). Links might then include: About the Film, About the Filmmakers, Trailer, Press, Endorsements, Purchase, etc. For some examples, go to my website,, and click on any of the films highlighted in Filmmakers in the Spotlight in the right-hand column. They are all different, though share a similarity in their simplicity and directness.

By the way, in designing your site, keep in mind that academics tend to be allergic to Hollywood and anything that smacks of flash over content. A professor's only concern is whether or not your film will help her teach. If she thinks she's being sold, that's all the more reason for her to click away.

Also, keep all elements of your site consistent with your sales points and positioning. This is especially true for your trailer that you may have to re-edit. Don't claim your film is about x, y and z in your sales blurb and then show something different in your trailer. On the other hand, remember that your trailer needn't be fancy or perfectly edited; even well-chosen clips will do, as long as they show the content that you're selling and that the academic cares about.

Base your prices on a fair comparison of equivalent films on distributor sites, neither overselling nor underselling yourself, and you're almost ready to launch your campaign.  


Test Marketing & Launching the E-Blast

Before you buy expensive e-mail lists, though, there's one last thing to do, which may also yield you some real money. While ultimately professors are the main drivers of academic sales, begin with inexpensive librarian lists to nip any problems in the bud. An e-mail service like will keep track of exactly which librarians opened your e-mail, which clicked on your website and which did not.

To send this out, of course, you will need a strong, succinct cover letter that sums up the most important elements of your synopsis, pitches your academic selling points, and includes two of your strongest quotes, with the speakers identified by institution. Think of the cover letter as bait that will get your reader to click on your website, then your homepage to get her to click on your trailer, then your purchase page, and so forth. Sales are a process of slowly drawing the buyer in and helping her to reach the conclusion that she has to buy.

Each step must be easy for buyers to comprehend and sufficiently interesting (from their academic point of view) to take them to the next step. Even your subject header is important. Never simply state the title of your film. What does a title mean to a women's studies professor in Indiana?  For my Judy Chicago DVD, I usually use something like Historic Judy Chicago DVD highlights early performance art, Ti-Grace Atkinson. This is because my three selling points to my buyers from the art history and women's studies fields are (1) my film is about the 20th century female artist Judy Chicago; (2) it gives many examples of early performance art; and (3) it offers rare footage of radical feminist Ti-Grace Atkinson. Note, however, that even the first three words of the subject header are interesting enough in themselves, in case the rest of the header is cut off in the initial e-mail.

Once you have the confidence and money to branch out, I recommend the professor lists that can be purchased from companies like Market Data Retrieval (MDR) or Mar-Dev. Librarians may know something about what their faculty wants, but not everything. Go to the source for the most interested buyers.

For a complete list or companies that make it their business to know who teaches what, visit the American Library Association's website,, for two great resource fact sheets, "Buying Library Lists" and "Marketing to Libraries." You can also simply check out MDR's website,, to see the kind of information they sell. When you're ready to contact these people, though, a word of warning: While their e-blast technology is great and their ability to drill down to specific professors in different fields astounding, they are, at heart, salespeople, ready to sell you as much as they can get away with. That won't be a problem, though, since you'll already know precisely who your buyer is. And to further trim down the price, you can also make various selections based on states in the country, gender of professors and tuition of schools.


Campaign Timing, Fulfillment and More

By now I hope you have the sense that while effective Academic DIY is logical and even old-fashioned in its approach, it is not easy to outline in a single article. I have no doubt raised as many questions as I've answered. What about the number and timing of campaigns, for example? I recommend at least two a year, shortly after the start of each semester, and one to librarians in the summer, often a good time to reach them when the campus is otherwise quiet.

As to fulfillment, my opinion has always been that if I'm making $250 per sale and rarely have more than 10 a month, for that good profit, I can afford to hire a helper once in a while to put the DVDs into envelopes and address them. Then a client turned me onto, which charges just $1 to create the DVD, package it and mail it out, after the buyer has paid the shipping fee. No doubt, readers have their own recommendations. Do whatever feels right for you. Do not, however, pay to have thousands of DVDs created and then stored, for a further fee, in someone's warehouse. If you don't use a company like Kunaki, create them as you need them, and never more than 100 to 200 at a time.

Finally, there is the whole issue of streaming, a much thornier issue, and worth an entire article in itself.  I hope I'll be back soon to do it.

A while ago, I met a filmmaker at a Doculink Christmas party who had made over $300,000 on the academic sales of only one of her titles, and it's still going strong. Will you do as well? Minus my crystal ball, I can't say, though I can tell you that if your film is right for the academic market, and if you can communicate its rightness effectively, you will eventually sell from 50 to 100 DVDs plus per year, for as many as ten years or longer. Nothing happens overnight, though. As with anything worth doing, learning the ropes takes time.

Analyze your results carefully after each campaign, make adjustments as needed, get feedback when you can and work to spread the word-of-mouth about your film at academic conferences and in journals. Above all, remember that as a distributor, you are a businessperson and in charge of your own campaign.


Judith Dancoff holds an MFA in filmmaking from UCLA and an MA in education from Columbia University. She taught herself the basics of Academic DIY with her own film Judy Chicago & the California Girls, now owned by hundreds of universities and museums in the US and abroad, and began her consulting firm,, in 2009, to help other filmmakers do the same. She can be reached at