The Documentary Distribution Toolkit How to Get Out, Get Seen, and Get an Audience
Author: Rachel Gordon
In recalling her days at Boston University film school some two decades before writing The Documentary Distribution Toolkit: How to Get Out, Get Seen, and Get an Audience, author Rachel Gordon reminisces on a particular statistic mentioned by her professor-out of every hundred film school graduates only two would be working in the industry just two years later. Not much has changed in those twenty years, with that ratio being roughly the same now, despite digital technologies’ apparent democratisation of the filmmaking workflow. Today, these technologies, though expanding platform options, create an ever-growing number of new rights and content destinations, and an even more complex environment for upstart independent filmmakers to navigate. The space between these two truths motivates the existence of Gordon’s comprehensive journey through modern documentary distribution.
Acting as a global how-to reference guide, The Documentary Distribution Toolkit presents a quadruple focus—providing diverse insights into the landscape of current documentary distribution, explanations on targeting the right audiences with your films, and the ins-and-outs of developing a sustainable career in the field. The book is set against the driving forces of:
1. Focus on what you can do
2. Work your way backwards
3. Relationships are everything
3. Money Matters.
Gordon herself has been a part of the documentary distribution landscape for over 20 years. With a career that started at the National Film Board of Canada, Gordon then worked on grassroots audience building for the International Monetary Fund. She has also worked as an independent filmmaker, whose short films have been screened at festivals across the USA and UK. With the book, Gordon draws from all these experiences—from creative to businesswoman – clearly and concisely, demystifying the process of documentary distribution along the way.
The book itself is divided into seven chapters, each representing a respective part of a documentary production’s life. Beginning with preparation, before diving into more practical topics including lists of «documentary organisations worth your time», educational facilities, academic professional development organisations, public broadcasters, and the specialty TV ecosystem, The Documentary Distribution Toolkit also includes breakdowns of seminal contemporary production realities. Such realities include pre-planning, crowdfunding, community building, and the streaming landscape. It does this through many case studies and interviews with filmmaker Alice Elliot (a frequent reference throughout) and representatives from organisations like ARTE, ZDF, Al Jazeera, , NHK, and more.
As chapter 1 prepares filmmakers to enter the professional documentary landscape through conversation with filmmakers and industry figures, it provides a broad overview of approaching the book’s mentioned markets. Documentary film is presented as a bilateral journey of production and distribution, respectively. Strategy is vital for distribution – in fully knowing what audiences you are trying to reach, both in their singular work and across an entire career. Gordon states that this self-awareness allows for an easier time connecting with like-minded individuals and organisations who may assist you across your career.
But doing so does not come by just walking into a room, announcing yourself, and all of a sudden, you’ve built a network of profit and exposure wizards. It is as much a strategic planning and execution process as fleshing out a storyboard. Research is vital here, as is personality. Targeting the correct figures and doing so with a flexible and friendly demeanour will always work in your favour. In likening the documentary industry to a global village, this community sentiment runs central throughout the text.
It is as much a strategic planning and execution process as fleshing out a storyboard.
Crowdfunding remains a sort of wild west of content creation. What started with a handful of platforms like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo has since expanded across industry, topic, and niche, each providing its own approach, payouts, algorithms, and opportunities. In speaking on crowdfunding, Gordon breaks down the process into its three phases: Preparing for Launch, The Campaign Itself, and Building a Long Term Audience. She does so through case studies involving four filmmakers who have utilised a crowdfunding platform to meet just these goals. Each filmmaker eventually learned the full-time commitment such an activity would require—Jane Barbara, director of Leia’s Army, mentions how a Seed&Spark representative broke down an annual salary equal to $47,000 for crowdfunding managers to be successful.
Further interviews come from Day Al-Mohamed, whose The Civil War Invalid Corps chose Kickstarter as their platform of choice; Nancy Frohman, whose The Wall’s Embrace was not successful via IndieGoGo despite offering invaluable learning experience; and Pakistani filmmaker Anam Abbas, whose Showgirls of Pakistan also chose IndieGoGo over Kickstarter, due to the former’s all or nothing payout policy. Through these four case studies that span the spectrum of crowdfunding approach and success, The Documentary Distribution Toolkit provides valuable insight on what can be gained and the actual costs of utilising crowdfunding. The intricacies of campaign results come from a full-on workload, strategy, and planning that lives well beyond the campaign’s end date, particularly those who rely on an ongoing Impact-style life for their films.
Crowdfunding remains a sort of wild west of content creation.
When browsing through any streaming platform—from Netflix to Mubi to Tënk—there is no shortage of non-fiction options. Some are more prominently displayed than others, with various levels of external success (i.e., Netflix Academy Award-winning American Factory, Icarus, or My Octopus Teacher).
Still, the question is, how does one get on these platforms? And then, is it worth it? What’s in it for the filmmakers if they have to sign away all their rights? Gordon looks at these questions [AND] found two answers to how filmmakers got on the platforms through her interviews – here with the likes of Joanna Bowers and Chanda Chavannes, who both utilised streaming specific distributors for their films, and Stavros Stavrides and Stephanie Black, who both put old films on Amazon with the intent of opening a new audience – as well as her own experience putting her short film In the Family Way online. Her key takeaways included that there must be a streaming strategy in place, much like both pre-planning and crowdfunding. Again, it is not just sending the film to Netflix, then they put it out there, and you are gathering millions of views. One must ask yourself what territories would be most impactful to target, what peripheral services (like subtitles or closed captioning) do the streaming options provide, and what offers the best opportunity to GROW your audience.
The comprehensive and diverse nature of The Documentary Distribution Toolkit makes such limited articles difficult as the book indeed covers a tremendous amount of ground and does so with a mixture of consistent focal threads, real-world insight, and extensive informational resource. But, if there is one message to take away from the book as a whole, it is the Think Local and Global ethos. Documentary is not a regional industry, but it often tells stories of regional consequence. So, at any stage of the modern documentary distribution process, one must always think about how their distribution strategy empowers its localized elements with how to present and market them as global issues.