October 2, 2011

It's a New Day: Collective Distribution

The founding members of New Day Films, 1973

As growing numbers of people feel estranged from our political process, they can find comfort in a participatory democracy that works. New Day Films is a filmmaker-run cooperative that has allowed its members to self-distribute their films to the educational market for the past 40 years.

Springing out of the women's movement in 1971, New Day began when filmmakers Julia Reichert and Jim Klein sought distribution for their film Growing Up Female, about the social constraints placed on women aged 4 to 35. In lieu of a good deal, the two founded the cooperative, which enabled them to distribute their film themselves and retain the earnings that would otherwise go to distributors.

"Not all filmmakers wants to be involved in their distribution," co-founder Julia Reichert admits. "But the people who do so stand a chance of earning some money in the short run, and in the long run, getting to know their audience, getting feedback and growing as a filmmaker."

New Day now offers that opportunity to a membership of more than 100 filmmakers. At a time when technological advancements have made it easier for filmmakers to make films but harder to make a profit distributing them, the cooperative has become an attractive option for filmmakers looking to maximize the impact--and income--of their works.

Of course, with new members comes new input. For a group that has predicated itself upon a system of consensus decision-making, New Day's capacity has become a subject of much discussion within the organization. "When the co-op got big enough it got to be very cumbersome to make decisions as a big group," says Reichert. "We needed help, so we actually started hiring consultants to run our meetings."

Every year, New Day conducts meetings to determine the co-op's operations policies and to vote on new steering committee members. "[The consultants] were brought in to make sure that the meetings remained democratic, that every voice was heard, that every idea was fully listened to," Reichert explains. "It was beginning to become a bunch of people who would tend to yell at each other, and the louder voices were the ones that were heard--a lot like the rest of the world."

New Day has managed to create a kind of oasis insulated from an indie film community that can often be competitive. Its members balance the betterment of the organization with their own, and the social impact of their films with their net income. The sustainability of the organization is buttressed by its business structure, referred to by its members as a "share ladder" model.

The "share ladder" stipulates that each member pays for shares of the co-op, which are used to cover its operating costs. The members on the higher end of the ladder (who are earning more from their film sales) pay more to support those on the lower end of the ladder. Since every member pays his/her share, and every one retains the bulk of his/her earnings, the ladder typifies Adam Smith's ideal of a market regulating itself.

Debra Chasnoff, the current chair of New Day's steering committee, has occupied a place at the top of the share ladder since she joined the co-op in 1997 with her seminal documentary It's Elementary, about gay and lesbian issues in grade school. "What I love about New Day is that I don't have more power in the organization than the person at the lowest place on the ladder," Chasnoff says. "In this context, the better we each do in our distribution, the more we all benefit. You're not losing a thing if somebody else in the co-op makes more money. You benefit, because your costs go down."

So why doesn't every independent filmmaker join New Day?

"First, your film has to be accepted and then you have to be accepted," Chasnoff explains. "We're screening for both a film and for someone who would work well within the culture of the association--who will play well with others, shall we say."

Members who for whatever reason don't fit into the New Day mold don't benefit from the unique position that it holds in the educational market. Tom Shepard, who served as chairman of the steering committee from 2007 to 2009, can attest to this. Shepard came to New Day with his documentary Scout's Honor (2001), about the anti-gay policies of the Boy Scouts of America. He attributes much of the film's success to New Day's 40-year history. "I think Scout's Honor was successful because there were a number of other strong films [at New Day] that dealt with LGBT issues that paved the way, namely Debra Chasnoff's work," he says. "The real benefit of New Day is working with other filmmakers who have carved out the market and developed mailing lists of professors who are interested in this kind of material. They already have a relationship and a rapport with them, which are golden."

Members of New Day Films, 2010

Even as school budgets are being slashed throughout the country, New Day has found ways to maintain its standing in the educational market--namely, New Day Digital. The concept for New Day Digital came about in 2008 at the co-op's annual meeting. Anxiety pervaded a conference room of about 80 people as everyone wondered about the extent to which streaming would affect their DVD sales. Out of that meeting came a committee of Web-savvy filmmakers who endeavored to create the company's in-house streaming service.

New Day Digital, originally headed and developed by Peter Cohn, has been living as a beta prototype for the past few years separate from New Day's main website. By the end of the year, the two sites are going to be integrated. Jeff Tamblyn, the current head of New Day Digital, feels confident about this decision. "The colleges are developing a strong interest in streaming because their students are already very comfortable with streaming media," he says. "Just because streaming is for sale next to DVDs doesn't mean that putting them together is going to necessarily affect the sale of DVDs. If a student can watch a film that they're assigned at three in the morning in their dorm room, then that capability makes your library and your organization look very good."

As Tamblyn sees it, the only challenge facing customers--aside from budget cuts--is the technological hurdle that some who are unfamiliar with streaming face. To rectify this, New Day Digital has made every effort to simplify the delivery process. "What we've tried to do at New Day Digital is introduce a system that is so easy for [customers] that they don't need to build their own infrastructure. They don't even need to download special software or anything."

To consummate the transition to digital, New Day Digital plans on moving towards automated transactions. While this would mean less interaction with customers, the decision has inspired the co-op's members to make outreach efforts in other areas. Jesse Epstein, who played a key role in extending New Day's outreach to film festivals, has made a point of connecting with librarians at national librarian conferences--which is much more fun than it sounds. "I went to the American Librarian Association conference in Chicago with 40,000 librarians," Epstein recalls. "It was like the Sundance of librarian conferences. And I literally stayed up until four in the morning partying."

On a deeper level, conferences such as the American Librarian Conference and the National Media Market give New Day members the chance to convey to their customers the meaning of working with New Day, something that needs repeating as Netflix makes it easy to stream New Day titles such as Daniel Ellsberg: The Most Dangerous Man in America. "Librarians are on our side in terms of ordering the educational version [of shared titles like The Most Dangerous Man in America]," Epstein maintains. "They're pretty supportive, and they understand that with New Day they're directly supporting the filmmakers. But as a teacher myself, I know that it's really hard to not get something on Netflix and to pay for the rights. That's why we need to be continuously in contact with the people who are using the films."

As New Day evolves in size and scope, changing with the tides of technology and the marketplace, it is fortified by a solid identity. Each new member takes on the challenges of the present with the wisdom of the past. Co-founder Reichert analogizes the organization to "a living organism."

"We've really held onto our core values," she says. "The idea of consensus decision-making, empowering filmmakers to take control of their work, serving the needs of audiences, and not just being in it for the money, but being in it to explore the ability to make for a better society. It's like a '60s idea that worked."

 

Daniel James Scott is a freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker. Based in Brooklyn, he writes for Filmmaker magazine, Cinespect (cinespect.com) and other publications.

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