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A Slick Distribution Plan for 'Oil on Ice'

By Ron Sutton

From Bo Boudary and Dale Djerassi's 'Oil on Ice.'

Oil on Ice, a multi-faceted media project about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, deals with the ongoing conflict over drilling for oil there. Located in the northeast corner of Alaska, the 19 million-acre refuge is one of America 's greatest wild natural treasures. The film won IDA's 2004 Pare Lorentz Award for representing the "democratic sensibility, activist spirit and lyrical vision of the legendary documentarian."

Stunning in its photography and soundscape, clever in its construction, passionate in its environmental concerns, Oil on Ice is much more than a prize-winning film/DVD. Producer/director Dale Djerassi explains, "The normal process would be for a film to be completed and released either theatrically or on television and then there would be a DVD, a home video version. What's unconventional in this case is that we are releasing the home video [the DVD] through this channel of our website and some not-for-profit organizations beforehand."

The unique distribution scheme has at its core the 57-minute film, Oil on Ice, produced in 2003 by Djerassi and co-producer/director, Bo Boudart. Special features on the disc include a four-minute exhibition video; bonus interviews with Carl Pope and Amory Lovins, chief executive officers of Sierra Club and Rocky Mountain Institute, respectively; a statement by the native Gwich'in elders about the disputed land area; ten interview bites from middle and high school students about the US dependency on oil; a lovely Gwich'in tribal song presented by prize-winning native author Adeline Peter Raboff; and the Grassroots Action Tool-kit.

The Tool-kit provides the bridge from the disc to what is referred to by Djerassi as "a seamless interface between the disc itself and the website ," In a computer with a DVD drive, all the "baked-in" features of the disc can be watched and the viewer can browse an index of contents on the website, as well as tap resources on the Internet. The Web DVD access feature allows the DVD player software to automatically launch the Web browser that connects one to a world of resources brought literally to one's fingertips.

The DVD was co-produced by Djerassi and Timothy O'Connor Fraser, CEO of Dewdrop Media, in association with Lobitos Creek Ranch. Its categories include "General Tools," "Community," "Wildlife," "Wild Lands," "Energy" and "Get Connected." It gives the film, frozen in 2003 production time, an up-datable quality that, according to Djerassi, "is attractive to organizations and individuals that are interested in affecting policy in regard to the issues that are addressed within the film." These issues include wildlife protection, indigenous people's rights, the environmental impact of oil spills, global climate change, vehicle fuel efficiency standards and renewable energy sources.

The Tool-kit on the Web DVD puts the viewer a click away from a large number of linking sites. These range from the Sierra Club's Priority List, to the latest articles or congressional activities on the Arctic Refuge, to an easy locator of the address of state and county representatives and tips on the most effective means to access and influence them--and even examples of how to create such items.

Both O'Connor Fraser and Djerassi wanted to create an educational/activist version of the enabling Web DVD. They remain convinced that "the power of grassroots efforts to address environmental challenges has long been the cornerstone of environmental progress." They hope this project, especially the enabling Web DVD, will "help people to see environmental issues in their own communities through a new lens."

Both men admit this activist thrust was driven substantially by the Sierra Club. O'Connor Fraser points out that, "When it came to the DVD, they were critical in helping us develop it and have been instrumental in the documentary's unique distribution scheme. Sierra Magazine, distributed to 750,000 members, featured the film in its September-October 2004 "Let's Talk" feature. The Club offered Oil on Ice DVDs free to the first 1,500 persons who requested them.

The club now refers additional inquiries to the Oil on Ice website that features a specially established online "store" where one can purchase the DVD for $21.95 plus shipping. The Sierra Club also sent copies of the DVD to its local chapters throughout the country, many of which have already begun putting on programs designed around the DVD.

Asked how they would measure the success or failure of their distribution scheme, Djerassi and O'Connor Fraser agree it would be a combination of things. Sales of the DVD are obviously one way, but, even though difficult to measure precisely, they are also interested in tracking grassroots activity--meetings and house parties where the disc is used as a model or format for tackling regional or local problems. The DVD producers also have targeted individuals and organizations that are trying to influence policy in the areas addressed by the film. They are pleased that the film and DVD have been identified as a very important media tool in many communities, especially Washington, DC.

A public television broadcast is scheduled for Earth Day in April, and other broadcasts are planned for American Indian Heritage Month in November, with a retail release of the DVD to the public sometime between the two presentations. And while the film has been projected in its video form in several art house theaters on the West Coast, an option for a limited theatrical release, paired with another film, is being explored as well.

Djerassi pointed out that O'Connor Fraser, his co-producer of the DVD, plays a major role in its dissemination; he created and currently maintains the Oil on Ice site and is the director of marketing and distribution of the DVD, working closely with the fulfillment house that handles the online store that responds to order requests.

Another interesting aspect of the project was the team's concern about the petroleum-based products ordinarily used in the distribution of a DVD. And while a traditional plastic case is offered for institutional and educational purchases (handled by Bullfrog Films), Oil on Ice is attempting to break new ground by providing eco-friendly packaging for the disc.

Insync Media stepped forward, and with the assistance of Mohawk Paper Mills, the only mill in the US to use wind energy to make paper, produced a paper package "made with process-chlorine-free, 100 percent post-consumer waste fiber, using non-polluting, wind-generated energy from Fenner Wind Farm in upstate New York." Djerassi and his co-director/producer, Bo Boudart, used Mohawk's interactive environmental savings calculator to estimate that their initial order of approximately 5,700 pounds of Mohawk's paper--instead of paper from a traditional supplier--resulted in the fact that "68 trees were 'not' cut down...and nearly 30,000 gallons of water/wastewater were saved." Both the Oil on Ice production team and the Sierra Club are interested in pursuing an alternative to plastic for the packaging and distribution of DVDs.

Rather than seeing the film as an end in itself, the filmmakers felt that the content of their work was such that viewers would be motivated to want to take action on issues that were addressed in the film. Djerassi summed it all up by saying, "We set out to make a film that would use the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as a place that is symbolic of so many global issues and we think we have accomplished that. Early on we felt it could be a tool for people that would like to affect policy."

The theme, spirit and focus of this project is caught by a John Muir quotation presented by the DVD's Emmy Award-winning narrator Peter Coyote: "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe."


For more information about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Oil on Ice, or to purchase a DVD, visit

Ron Sutton is Professor Emeritus in the Visual Media Department of the School of Communication at American University.