By Anna Feder
I have been a curator for over twenty years, starting at various film festivals and now as the director of programming at Emerson College running a film series that I founded almost seven years ago. The series, Bright Lights, screens 50 films a year for both an Emerson college and external community audience. While few colleges and universities have an exhibition program on this scale, screening opportunities are plentiful at institutions of higher learning across the country.
SADIE is a film that has many points of access for an academic audience. As a film with a 50% female crew, a female writer/director and producing team, and the story of a mother and daughter’s relationship at heart, women and gender studies programs were an excellent starting point for potential hosts. A character struggling with opioid addiction provided another way to frame the discussion. The film’s predominant theme, the impact of violence on youth (particularly girls), created yet another way to engage an academic audience.
We started reaching out to schools with a well-organized package with links to the film, a comprehensive discussion guide (including tips on hosting a successful screening) and several possible options for licensing the film with talent in person or available via Skype to suit a variety of budgets. I also made myself available to consult with schools on how to find funding, engage with internal and external partners and promote the event.
We started with a fairly robust list of institutions across the country, tapping in to relationships I have through the University Film and Video Association, the Art House Convergence and other professional contacts. That list was shared with the director and producers, who added additional contacts. We ended up with a list of over 40 schools (mostly colleges and university and a few high schools).
We began reaching out in the summer hoping to lock screenings for the fall semester. We spent a fair amount of time and energy trying to find the correct contact and then weeks of emails back and forth with faculty who were checking their work emails sporadically. In the end we were able to secure screenings at 17 institutions and have hopes of planning more screenings in the spring.
There were several challenges we encountered, from trying to identify who to talk to at each institutions, to dealing with varying timelines and the filmmaker’s changing schedule. Planning the academic screenings concurrently with the theatrical also made things a little more difficult. I would recommend to anyone planning an academic run of their film to do so after they’ve exhausted all possible theatrical screenings. As an exhibitor hosting free screenings in a robust film landscape with several art house cinemas and film festivals, I try not to screen films until after all paid screenings have happened in my area.
While academic screenings present a very real revenue source and exhibition circuit for your film, it is difficult to research who might be interested (and have the funds/motivation) to host a screening of film. For schools, these events require a significant amount of work, including audience building and sourcing funds for licensing and hosting visiting artists.
Companies like Swank and Criterion have cornered the market on licensing films for non-theatrical exhibition, particularly colleges and universities. The films that they are pushing range from Hollywood blockbuster action movies, to small budget, art house, social issue documentaries. They make it easy for schools to book a film with them, providing a blu-ray and materials to market the screening. In order to effectively compete with distributors such as these, I have long advocated for an academic cinema consortium that would operate a circuit for independent films (on South Arts’ Southern Circuit model). Filmmakers could apply to have their films chosen for the circuit and schools would pay an annual fee to license a group of films that would come prepackaged with filmmakers in person or on Skype as well as marketing materials, discussion questions and other resourced to enable anyone to host a successful event. Too many filmmakers currently must re-invent the wheel as we did, starting from scratch and spending a fair amount of time and energy doing so. Hopefully one of the larger funders of indie films (Cinereach, Ford Foundation, PBS) can be encouraged to put resources in to making this a reality.
In the meantime, if you are interested in forging a academic exhibition path for your film, I would recommend: 1) determining the points of interest where your film might overlap with traditional areas of study, 2) building out an easily shared submission packet with a link to the film, filmmaker bios, information about the film and what you can offer as a filmmaking team in terms of your time and participation, 3) creating a discussion guide with questions that might help hosts to launch the conversation post-screening, and 4) dedicating some time to coordination for each event, working with the school to help them successfully reach the audiences you’re targeting. Screening for an academic audience can be very fulfilling, as students tend to be a media-savvy and engaged audience. For the SADIE filmmakers, these screenings have yielded many of the best post-screening conversations of their screening tour, and have served to re-enforce their reasons for making the film in the first place.