DOC NYC Goes National with a Cross-country Road Trip
If there’s a silver lining to festivals that went virtual during the pandemic, it’s this: A whole nation of viewers could potentially participate. The question was how to let everyone know.
That challenge was on the mind of organizers when planning the eleventh edition of DOC NYC. Artistic Director Thom Powers knew one thing for sure: “It was very important to us to not shrink the festival. A lot of film festivals this year had either cancelled or reduced in size because the shift to an online environment was daunting enough. I understand that decision. But for me, what that reduction means is that there are films being left behind.”
So they forged ahead with a full slate of 108 features and 92 shorts, viewable for the duration of the nine-day event (November 11–19). As usual, there was a strong contingent of films from New York City. But clusters from other cities also emerged. To bring those into focus and to boost regional audiences, the festival created a five-day DOC NYC Road Trip, which threw the spotlight on 10 cities: Boston; Washington DC; Philadelphia; Miami; Detroit; Chicago; Cleveland and Dayton; Columbia, Missouri; San Francisco and the Bay area; and Los Angeles.
Hitting the Road, Virtually
Launched two weeks before the festival began, the Road Trip was an occasion to goose ticket sales by offering a discount on these regions’ films. “An additional goal was to hear from different filmmaking communities around the country,” Powers says. “New Yorkers famously have a high self-regard for their own city, and sometimes that comes at the expense of recognizing the vitality of other communities.”
Available to all on DOC NYC’s Facebook page, each stop on the Road Trip provided a snapshot of the local film ecology. Dividing the 45-minute sessions into short segments, DOC NYC programmers spoke to regional filmmakers, as well as staff from media arts organizations and festivals that anchored that film community.
Portraits did emerge. Dayton, for instance, “is a post-industrial area that’s seen a lot of hardship, a lot of ups and downs over the years, but there’s a scrappy, small film community here, and a lot of it grows out of the Wright State film program, where Julia Reichert and I used to teach,” Steve Bognar said during the Ohio Road Trip. Their festival film was 9to5: The Story of a Movement, an oral history of secretaries’ labor actions in the 1970s, which inspired the Jane Fonda movie and Dolly Parton song.
Washington, in turn, was revealed to be the “third-largest producing center in America”—a surprise to many— according to Patricia Aufderheide, founder of American University’s Center for Media & Social Impact. “Some of that is Nat Geo, Discovery, public broadcasting, and all the networks. But a lot of that is government, nonprofits, think tanks, and everybody who needs to make something that looks good to make their argument. So one of the ways for independent filmmakers to survive is to do a lot of this contract work and float your project over years.”
Despite the media sprawl, “Documentary in DC is actually a small, lovely community. Most of us know one another,” added CMSI Executive Director Caty Borum Chattoo during the DC Road Trip. “We’re a close regional community, but we’re very tapped into the national scene.”
What came into focus with Chicago was the importance of Kartemquin Films as a hub. The nonprofit founded by Gordon Quinn and made famous by Hoop Dreams had three co-productions in the festival: Finding Yingying, by Jiayan “Jenny” Shi, about the disappearance of a Chinese student from the University of Illinois campus; Unapologetic, by Ashley O'Shay, which focuses on the Chicago-based Movement for Black Lives from the perspective of two abolitionist leaders; and The Dilemma of Desire, by Maria Finitzo, which explores the clash between gender politics and the powerful imperatives of female sexual desire.
Diane Quon, a producer on Finding Yingying and The Dilemma of Desire, told the Road Trip audience, “Kartemquin is definitely a hub. Because of that, it’s a very close community. I started in the documentary world just five years ago, and it’s because I was able to network and be at Kartemquin that I was able to meet all these other filmmakers.”
Quon met Jenny Shi at one of Kartemquin’s rough-cut screenings for their Diverse Voices in Docs mentorship program, and was impressed with the strong vision of this first-time director. As was typical when filmmakers appeared on the Road Trip, Shi described her film and its genesis: How she heard about Yingying’s disappearance when she was a journalism student at Northwestern in Chicago, and how she travelled to Champaign, Illinois, along with other international students to join the search and help out—in her case, by documenting events with her camera. She also talked about documentary ethics and the challenges of convincing Yingying’s family to stick with the film as the murder trial dragged on.
Quon gave two thumbs up to the Road Trip concept. “I loved the idea of recognizing that these films come from all over the country, and getting a better sense of who these filmmakers are and the places they work from,” she said by phone.
A Marketing Toolkit
Critical to the success of the Road Trip, and to DOC NYC overall, was spreading the word coast to coast. For that, the festival wisely tapped into the networks that regional organizations and filmmakers had already developed. “For every hundred films, there are a hundred different communities interested in those films,” says Powers. “As a festival, we will never have the expertise to reach all of those communities.” But the filmmakers did.
So the festival hired a marketing firm, Fever Content, to give filmmakers an assist. “They put together a package of graphics and tips on best practices to spread the word through social media, email blasts, and all those tools,” says Powers. Fever Content also held a Zoom orientation prior to the festival, where they gave filmmakers marketing advice.
“They provided a file for each film, with different assets that you could post right away,” Quon says of the toolkit. “They were already created, and they were beautiful. The links are right there, and all the hashtags. Sometimes you forget to put those on when you design your own. I thought it was amazing that they did it for every film.”
Director Karla Murthy took those tools and ran with them. “Help Plant Trees in Youngstown,” read a post on the Facebook page for The Place That Makes Us, her film about the revitalization of this Ohio Rustbelt town by a younger generation. The post continues: “This is the first year DOC NYC is sharing the tickets sales with filmmakers. So we decided to donate our share to planting trees in Youngstown.”
“That really helped our ticket sales and also got people super excited in Ohio to watch the film,” says Murthy, who also appeared in the Ohio Road Trip. “I’ve gotten lots of feedback from people in Ohio,” including a Facebook shout-out from Rep. Tim Ryan, who represents Youngstown. “And that’s really exciting because none of those people would have been able to come to New York to the festival.”
“Because this is my first feature film, I was pretty heartbroken that everything was virtual,” continues Murthy, who’d previously worked as a producer for several PBS news magazines. “All my expectations I had to throw out the window. But DOC NYC has been pretty amazing. They’ve been able to create a feeling of community. They had some Zoom meetings with everyone, and it felt very celebratory. And they’ve been extremely organized with how to help us promote ourselves digitally, giving us these toolkits.” In addition, she says, “They have a ton of Facebook Live events. So it felt like an occasion. Even the Road Trip leading up to the launch: There was this feeling of a countdown happening.”
About that silver lining, Powers says, “There are things we got to do this year that had been in the back of our minds for many years, like find a way to make our festival accessible outside New York City.” He says it’s premature to talk about what they’ll retain from 2020 once the festival goes back to normal.
But one change is certain: “We’ll keep the expansion of DOC NY PRO from an eight-day conference in November to being a year-round set of online offerings that you can access from anywhere in the world,” Powers says. “These normally take place during the festival, and you have to be in a New York theater to experience them. Starting last March, just a couple of weeks after the pandemic began, we moved to doing things online.” They hired Caitlin Boyle for the new position of Director of Industry and Education to administer these year-round professional seminars. “It’s been really gratifying to see people from six continents tuning in to get that education,” Powers says. And, he might add, to see a nation tuning in to DOC NYC.
Patricia Thomson is a longtime film journalist and a contributing writer for American Cinematographer.