'Made in L.A.,' Funded from All Over
By Robert Bahar and Almudena Carracedo
Over five years, our documentary Made in L.A., which tells the story of three Latina immigrants fighting for better working conditions in Los Angeles garment factories, grew from a short educational video into a feature doc that would premiere on the PBS primetime series P.O.V. and win an Emmy. Hundreds of educational and community screenings followed the broadcast, and we are now entering our second year of outreach and community engagement.
But Made in L.A.'s journey began in the living rooms and gardens of its "core audience." Individuals with a passion for social justice, fair trade, women's issues, labor and immigrants' rights reached out to their communities and made this journey possible. Throughout the subsequent production, post-production and distribution processes, our audience's support has been crucial to making Made in L.A. a success.
In this article, we explore how we combined traditional funding and distribution with more innovative, niche-oriented approaches built on a strong relationship with our core audience. As we have taken the film to communities around the world, we will also explore how we have succeeded in maintaining a "double bottom line"--engaging communities with the message of the film while generating enough revenue to sustain our continued work on the project.
Made in L.A. began when Almudena Carracedo read a newspaper article about sweatshops in Los Angeles. It talked about deplorable conditions faced by immigrants working in some downtown garment factories: long hours, sub-minimum wage (or no pay) and unsafe and unsanitary conditions. Shocked that this was happening in the US, she set out to make a short educational video that would expose these issues, and would take about five months to complete--or so she thought!
She approached Los Angeles' Garment Worker Center, then newly opened, and started spending time there, sometimes filming, often just talking with workers. Speaking in her native Spanish, being a woman and working alone, she gradually established trust. The workers had just launched a boycott campaign, and there was much to film. The five months that she had planned to devote to the project passed quickly.
But Almudena did create a ten-minute educational video for the organization, which showed the piece at all of its classroom presentations and whenever new workers came to the Center. With four years of work still ahead, Made in L.A. was already serving its audience and advocates, and making an impact.
As the workers' campaign dragged on, Almudena began to focus on three women, and she was amazed to observe their growing sense of self-confidence and empowerment. A real film was unfolding, and she was capturing the subtleties of a transformative journey. But she knew that it would take more than just one person to bring the project to fruition, so Robert Bahar came on board; together we restructured the film and began to think seriously about fundraising for the first time.
Initially, we were declined by major funders, but we did raise money from small foundations dedicated either to supporting emerging filmmakers or to the issues in the film. Clearly, while the film had not yet attracted larger institutional funders, it appealed to our core audience in an emotional, powerful way. With our passion for the project and with the support of the Garment Worker Center and the national coalition Sweatshop Watch, we began to inquire about who might be willing to host fundraising events. One contact led to another, and, like a tree branching out, we got to know many people who believed in the importance of completing the film. In a series of five fundraising house parties, graciously hosted by these community members, we reached thousands of people, and were able to raise more than 10 percent of our ultimate budget-enough to cover our modest expenses during the first four years of production. (For details on how we created these house parties, we've written a brief guide called "Reach Out! Planning a Fundraising House Party in Your Community." A free download is available
In addition to successfully yielding funds, these house parties served a number of additional purposes. Instead of our being locked away writing grant proposals or struggling to re-edit a scene, the events gave us a forum to connect with hundreds of our audience members, and we listened carefully to their compliments and criticisms. The moral support was also essential: In one case, a woman came up to us in tears, saying "You must complete this film!" Such moments were powerful reminders of why we had started making the film in the first place, and of why our struggle to complete the film was worthwhile!
We kept track of everyone we met, and the network of supporters that emerged from these events would lay the groundwork for our successful outreach and distribution campaign--and for building a real community around Made in L.A.
Seeking Out Completion Funding
While grassroots funding supported our shooting process, we knew that we'd need significant finishing funds to be able to stop working on other jobs and begin editing. So, with the crucial moral and financial support from our core audience, we began to position the film for bigger funders.
The long journey of securing completion funding could easily be the subject of another article. Suffice it to say, we took Made in L.A. to the 2004 IFP Market and had the opportunity to meet with public television series, major cable networks and foreign broadcasters. While there was much enthusiasm and interest, no one was ready to jump on board. As we listened to their feedback, we saw that the film still faced challenges in crossing over beyond its core audience. That winter, we began to work to make the film feel urgent and relevant to wider audiences while maintaining our core audience's connection to the material. We made the film more personal, we studied and shaped each character's arc, and we worked even harder to tell the "big story" and "the issues" through the specific stories of our three protagonists. As the film finally found its voice, almost a year later, we were able to secure completion funding from ITVS, P.O.V. (through its "Diverse Voices Project") and the Sundance Institute Documentary Fund.
It's worth mentioning that we had contemplated giving up on getting funding more than once. It's such a delicate balance to determine whether you should be cutting trailers and writing grant proposals, or should simply use that time to make the film without funding. In retrospect, we're glad that we didn't give up on pursuing funding. Not only did it allow us to complete the film properly, but the process pushed us to make an important leap in developing the film.
After an intense and creative year of editing, we completed Made in L.A. in June 2007. The P.O.V. broadcast was scheduled for Labor Day, so this gave us a narrow US festival window. Luckily, we were invited for a world premiere screening at Silverdocs, and a West Coast premiere one week later at the Los Angeles Film Festival. Both events were tremendously successful, with two packed screenings at Silverdocs and nearly 600 people in attendance in LA! We attribute much of this success to the effort we made to reach out to the core audience that had been supporting the film through the five-and-a-half years of production. Through e-mails, bilingual flyers, extensive coverage in Spanish-language media and support from partner organizations, we reached far and wide. As a result, one of our Silverdocs screenings featured a contingent of immigrant workers from the worker center Casa De Maryland. In LA, day laborers came from more than two hours away to see the film, and a huge number of progressive organizations were represented at the event.
As our national broadcast approached, P.O.V.'s Communications and Community Engagement teams worked tirelessly to get press, catalyze community screenings and develop resources around the film. At the same time, the San Francisco-based Active Voice brought national partners on board, planned additional screenings and convened a braintrust of Washington-based organizations to discuss how best to frame Made in L.A., and how the film might fit into policy discussions around low-wage work and immigration.
With support from Latino Public Broadcasting, P.O.V. organized a satellite media tour featuring us and Lupe Hernandez, one of the women in the film. The tour garnered coverage on news programs across the country, including Fox News' Fox and Friends, Univision's Primer Impacto, CNN en Español, Telemundo and MSNBC, in addition to countless interviews on local and national radio.
At the same time, we waited with trepidation for our first reviews. We were confident that our core audience would embrace the film, but how would the mainstream press respond to it cinematically? And would the film communicate the issues? So it was with joy that we read The New York Times review: "Labor protest is not dead. Nor is it futile, according to Made in L.A., an excellent documentary...about basic human dignity."
Making an Impact: Long-Term Community Engagement
As we emerged from the whirlwind of the broadcast, and in the midst of international festival premieres and a huge number of events in the United States, we began to strategize about what our outreach would look like and how we would sustain ourselves during the effort.
Our first step was to release the DVD ourselves on our website
and publicize it to our core audience through our e-mail list and partnerships with relevant organizations, and at screening events. Since then, self-distributing to home video and community groups has provided a small, steady revenue stream.
At the same time, there was great demand among educators, and we knew that we wouldn't be able to serve this market on our own. Instead, California Newsreel, a leading educational distributor with a specialized collection on Economic Globalization, took on the educational rights. Our self-distribution and their distribution efforts have complemented each other, and this has provided another important revenue stream.
With home video, community and educational distribution in place, we began to devote ourselves to community engagement. Our first year focused on community and university screening events, where we used Made in L.A. as a vehicle to raise awareness, increase public engagement, encourage coalition-building and catalyze action. Whenever possible, we'd follow each screening with a panel discussion that would introduce the audience to local organizations that could connect the film to what was happening in their own communities. For example, at an event at Yale University, we held a bilingual screening and panel discussion where organizers from the local group Unidad Latina en Acción explained how students could get involved supporting immigrant workers organizing in local restaurants. Several additional screenings have followed by local groups in New Haven, and the film has been incorporated into the work of local activists.
In addition to individual screening events, we have organized week-long screening tours in Northern California, New England and the Pacific Northwest, doing up to two campus and community events each day. The Northern California and New England tours were built around invitations that we'd received from various universities and groups, while the Pacific Northwest tour was a unique partnership with Sweatfree Communities, a national coalition that works to convince institutional purchasers to adopt "sweatfree" purchasing policies. Together, we used film screenings and appearances in six different cities to raise awareness about their campaigns. Less than a month after one of our Oregon screenings, the local city council passed a "Sweatfree" resolution!
The past year of screenings exemplifies the "double bottom line" approach. In addition to accomplishing our mission, the screening fees, honoraria and travel support from universities and local groups have provided an additional revenue stream and have been crucial to sustaining our efforts. Perhaps most importantly, they have also enabled us to bring the film to communities that aren't able to provide financial support but that vitally need the film.
In our second year of outreach, we are focusing on several core audiences that emerged during the first year, including youth organizers and the campus, civic and faith-based communities where the film is most likely to help catalyze change. We are also working to empower groups to incorporate the film into their work, and we have created "Screening Kits" that include DVDs, posters, postcards and online tools that make it easy to plan and promote one's own Made in L.A. events. We've designed the kits to be inexpensive, and we include enough extra DVDs in each kit to sell at the screening so that the kit can pay for itself. We hope that this approach will prove to be a sustainable model for us as social-issue filmmakers, and for grassroots groups that will use the film!
So, a year and a half after we finished our film, we're still working hard engaging audiences. We are living proof of the filmmaking adage: "When you finish your film, that's when the work begins!"