How the 'Who Will Write Our History' Team Organized 600+ Global Screenings
Who Will Write Our History, a documentary about a group of heroic spiritual resisters in the Warsaw Ghetto who wrote and buried eye-witness accounts in a secret archive so the truth would survive, even if they did not, was seven years in the making. During that time, I was fixated on premiering at the Berlin International Film Festival. That didn’t happen. At least not in the way I’d expected. What did happen is that I learned (again) that there are more ways than one to have a successful roll-out.
The film premiered in July 2018 at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, where it received the Audience Award for Best Documentary, and went on to a spirited international romp through 55 Jewish and mainstream festivals. Next came an 118-city theatrical run with encouraging reviews, including a New York Times Critics Pick. But what I’m most proud of is the extraordinary reach of the film, made possible by a serious global grassroots outreach campaign. As of this writing, Who Will Write Our History has had 600+ community screenings, from Belarus to Ethiopia, in 62 countries and 14 languages!
Our nonprofit, Katahdin Productions, has self-distributed four documentaries. Although we work (almost) as hard on getting the films out into the world as we do on making them, we’ve never had so many screenings and this wide a geographical throw. Maybe it’s the timing of Who Will Write Our History—a film about a group of journalists, scholars and activists willing to die for the truth—when journalists are being killed for truth-telling, and propaganda’s corrosive power is threatening the foundations of democracy at home and around the world. Yet beyond timing and the mysterious elements that coalesce in some films and not in others, what concrete and replicable steps went into our global grassroots outreach campaign? What did it cost? And how much money did we earn in return?
We partnered with distributor Abramorama for theatrical release. Abramorama’s COO/Partner, Karol Martesko Fenster, whose father was a survivor, had a bold vision for a global screening event with a Facebook Live component on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which falls each year on January 27 to commemorate the liberation of Auschwitz on that date in 1945. Fenster promised we’d be able to bring the story of the clandestine archive to hundreds of thousands of people through simultaneous international screenings. It sounded great, but also very expensive. It took time to get over the sticker shock and believe that Fenster’s big idea was actually achievable. Executive Producer Nancy Spielberg and I reached out to donors who had supported the production of the film to raise the necessary funds. My personal stretch goal was 300 screenings on 1/27/19.
To reach communities around the world, we needed not just money, but partners. As anyone who’s tried to partner with large organizations knows, it’s a monumental task. Even if an organization does come on board, there’s a huge difference between a partner that tweets something and one that actively helps organize screenings. Luckily, from the inception of the project, we’d developed relationships with stakeholder organizations, such as the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and the Jewish American Joint Distribution Committee. Their early support paved the way for other organizations to join in the global screening initiative. Happily, the World Jewish Congress, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), USC Shoah Foundation, Memorial de La Shoah, UNESCO and the UN Holocaust Outreach Program came on board and connected us to their affiliates around the world.
Working with multiple partners to organize hundreds of screenings required big dollops of staff time. In addition to two in-house people already engaged in festival distribution and outreach, in September 2018, we hired two part-time staff people tasked with soliciting, invoicing and servicing the 1/27 screenings. Abramorama hired a producer for the global screening and Facebook Live event and brought on an experienced Facebook Live team. With five months and counting, everyone started running as fast as they could.
Everything picked up momentum and gravitas when UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, agreed to host the 1/27 “anchor” screening at their Paris headquarters. This was particularly meaningful as UNESCO’s Memory of the World Registry (of the world’s most important documents) enrolled three collections from Poland in 1999: the scores of Chopin, the writings of Copernicus and the secret Archive of the Warsaw Ghetto. I didn’t comprehend the magnitude of what we’d accomplished until I was sitting in a 1200-seat theater on 1/27 with diplomats, dignitaries and guests from around the world listening to UNESCO’s Director General introduce Who Will Write Our History through headsets with simultaneous translation!
The post-screening discussion was live-streamed on Facebook Live. Facebook Live integrated events with simultaneous screenings at the USHMM in Washington, DC; the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles; Auschwitz-Birkenau; and the Jewish Historical Institute in Poland. Audiences at these locations were able to hear and see each other and contribute content to the discussion. In the end, we exceeded my high-bar goal with 355 screenings in 55 countries. It’s fitting that the screenings snowballed into a world-wide community event, since Who Will Write Our History was an international co-production with Poland, Germany and France. In Poland alone, there were 55 screenings, and an astonishing 87 screenings in Italy on 1/27.
Global Grassroots Screenings To-Do List
Build an online community of donors and audience members for your films and stay in touch through emails and social media. Don’t hound, but maintain a presence.
Announce your film early on. Everyone on your lists is not only a potential donor, but a potential screening organizer or a conduit to an organization that can screen your film.
Reach out to stakeholder organizations as soon there are written materials to share. Keep them updated on the film’s progress.
Raise money for distribution and outreach concurrently (if possible) with raising funds for production.
Set an outrageous screening goal and go for it.
Make a realistic budget, taking into account the number of people and length of time it will take to accomplish your outrageous goal.
It’s more about customer service than experiences with film campaigns—hires need to care, be organized, write good emails and be patient and kind on the phone. On the other hand, experienced social media people are essential. In addition to using social media to spread the word about your campaign, they can provide easy-to-use, turn-key social media assets for screening organizers.
Create a simple screening request form.
Share best practices for screenings: how to promote an event, reminders to do a tech check, share social media assets, etc.
Create a sliding scale for screening fees. DO NOT sell the value of your film short. You’re offering a valuable tool for community engagement, education and activism. Our screening fees ranged from $1,200 to free. Do not ship “prints” of your film until screening fee invoices have been paid.
Discourage venues from using DVD! Ship prints at least a month in advance, so venues have the opportunity to test their print well in advance of their screening.
Wendy Cohen, president of social impact agency Picture Motion says, “We like to measure stories with stories. Be sure to survey your hosts and their audiences and ask them to share photos and comments with you.”
At the end of the project, take time to evaluate lessons learned. Create a document that encapsulates what you accomplished.
Expenses for 1/27/19 Screening Event
Personnel, Facebook Live Crew and Equipment, Travel, Duplication and Office Expenses
What Did We Earn?
1/27 Non-Theatrical Screening Fees: $169,000
Deficit: $56,777, covered by screening fees for encore global screenings on Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) in May 2019, theatrical and ancillary distribution revenue, and donations
There are more intangible than statistical outcomes for any outreach campaign. It’s true that our outreach campaign lost money. Yet, our Global Screening Event generated media attention in the US and globally, which, in turn, helped to reach another level of impact and millions of more people. As Wendy Cohen of Picture Motion told us, “Your screening campaign best exemplifies that distribution is something you do, not something you get. There is no doubt this was a herculean effort and a lot of sleep was lost. But it also shows what is possible when you have all the right ingredients: a well-told story, timeliness, an anniversary/day of remembrance, strong partners, funding, a clear vision and a little bit of magic. You can’t plan for those mysterious elements, but you did create a foundation so when they arrived, they turned into something truly magical.”
Here’s my favorite part: Dieter Kosslick, the outgoing director of the Berlinale, was in attendance at a 1/27 screening in Berlin. As the credits rolled, he stood up and announced, “Everyone needs to see this film. I am inviting it to the Berlin International Film Festival next month and I will personally pay for the tickets of all the members of far-right Alternative for Germany who attend.” A flurry of press ensued, as Kosslick’s provocation was picked up by the Associated Press, The Hollywood Reporter, German press, and others. But the headline for me was that, despite the fact that the film had already aired on ARTE and NDR, it was going to the Berlinale! My dream came true! Who Will Write Our History screened in the Berlinale Special Section of the festival in 2019. I had my red-carpet moment with photographers and TV cameras—and an engaged festival audience. All proof of the wisdom of the adage, “Never give up a minute before the miracle.”
Who Will Write Our History will screen September 22 at 4:30 as part of the IDA Documentary Screening Series, at Universal Studios Lot Theater.
Roberta Grossman is a Los Angeles documentary filmmaker whose work highlights ordinary people doing extraordinary things in pursuit of justice. Her Netflix Original Documentary, Seeing Allred, co-directed and produced with Sophie Sartain, premiered in competition at Sundance in 2018.