It’s one thing, from the standpoint of craft, to make a film. But my husband, Aron Gaudet, and I really became filmmakers when we learned how to think about the business side of the endeavor. And that is something that requires you to be every bit as creative.
In 2009, when we were finishing our documentary, The Way We Get By, we were having trouble finding a distributor. The documentary is about three senior citizens, members of the Maine Troop Greeters, who make themselves available, even in the middle of the night, to welcome service men and women at the Bangor, Maine, airport.
For many troops, this is the last stop in the United States before they head to war, or the first stop back on U.S. soil when they return. We were so moved by the work of the Maine Troop Greeters and truly believed families all across the country would want to know more about them. But most film funds and foundations supporting the arts rejected us. We had no choice but to use our entire savings to make the film.
Other filmmakers told us that’s the life of a documentary filmmaker. You put all your money in the film, and even work extra jobs to underwrite it.
My years at Notre Dame taught me enough to know that this was a terrible business model. There had to be another way that creative artists could be sustainable.
At the time, we were filmmakers-in-residence at WGBH in Boston, which supports the work of independent filmmakers. Harvard Business School was just down the street. I decided to see if we could get help there with the distribution of our film. Professor Anita Elberse consults on big Hollywood studio movies, although not usually on indie films. But some students in her class took on the marketing-distribution strategy for us as a case study. We had zero dollars for grass-roots marketing. To accomplish a successful self-distribution release, we would have to be strategic and creative.
The documentary was selected by the South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival for a March 2009 world premiere. We had to generate revenue to pay for marketing across the country before then.
The people in Maine are very proud of the troop greeters, so we looked for support in the Bangor community. We met with the Bangor Savings Bank. The only creative promotional work they had ever done at this point was a calendar. Putting their name behind this film would be a great reflection on them, we told them, and show their commitment to the community.
They were the right partners at the right time. They were amazing and so supportive. They did two important things for us. A lot of the theaters in Maine were older theaters that only played 35mm prints, which are expensive to make. The bank paid for the negative of the film print to be made and for five 35mm prints to play at different theaters. In return, they received tickets to the screening for all of their high net worth clients, potential customers, and loyal supporters. After the screening, they hosted a cocktail party. There were 15 screenings like this across the state of Maine.
In addition to that, they made 15,000 DVDs of the film for us. They kept 5,000 copies to hand out to customers of the bank later that year at Christmas, after the premiere and the screenings in Maine had all taken place. The other 10,000 DVDs were ours to sell at each of the screenings, which helped generate the income to release the film nationally. The bank had never done anything like this before. But finding a partner that was willing to support us in such creative and strategic ways basically powered the national release for The Way We Get By.
So much has changed in the digital distribution field since then. But lessons endure of how to think differently to accomplish our goals. And, perhaps most important, we learned how to advocate for this documentary that we believed, unconditionally, needed to be seen.