Good Pitch SF Recap: 5 Tips for Social Justice Filmmakers

Last week I was invited to join a roundtable of experts at Good Pitch in San Francisco. This innovative event, co-produced by the Channel 4 BRITDOC Foundation and the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program, helps social justice filmmakers get their next project made and distributed.

This is the third year of international Good Pitch events and it continues to build momentum. By the end of 2010 over 70 films had been presented at Good Pitch events in London, Oxford, New York, Washington DC, Toronto and San Francisco.

The central idea of Good Pitch is terrific. Each event brings the makers of a handful of promising films face to face with roundtables of experts handpicked to help them refine their pitch, identify community resources, and even secure funding. That means each table may have representatives from foundations, community organizations, distributors and filmmaker services groups, and so on.

I was excited to introduce the filmmakers to the possibilities of engaging volunteers. In recent years, VolunteerMatch has provided technology and tools to certain film makers — notably, for The Soloist film and also a documentary called The Way We Get By. We’ve also provided our Searchlite widget for an ITVS series on democracy.

In each case, the idea was to give audiences who are engaged by the subject matter direct access to relevant volunteer opportunities. For example, with The Soloist we worked with Participant Media to create an interactive live map of volunteer opportunities related to mental-health and homelessness. This was perfect alignment for the storyline of a Skid Row musician whose life and music are transformed by a journalist who decides to get involved.

Tough Work If You Can Get It

I love talking with filmmakers because of their passion, their skills, and the huge (some would say crazy) challenges they are willing to undertake.

Think about it. Filmmakers are often trying to do many of the same things that nonprofits are doing (engaging and inspiring large audiences) without the benefit of a team or institution behind them. They tend to jump from subject to subject for each film, too, which means having to identify and form partnerships with a new set of community organizations each time around. Meanwhile, socially involved filmmakers are also in some ways required to be  community organizers, digital and social media experts, and awesome public speakers.

And filmmakers often are doing all of this while simultaneously trying to create a moving, factual story that will stand the test of time and raise money to produce it. You think your job is hard?

Engaging Audiences is Just the Start

At Good Pitch my roundtable focused on American Village, a film from Mary Posatko and Emily Topper about a murder in Baltimore in 1972. The film’s message of the healing aspects of restorative justice for the community and for the people and families involved is powerful.

While my advice was initially shared with Mary and Emily, it’s also relevant for any filmmaker working to create social change.

  • Encourage audiences to partner with nonprofits to multiply their impact. That’s why volunteering is so powerful… it puts a revved up individual together with an organization that has the capacity and know-how to put those skills to good use.
  • Local volunteer opportunities are an easy way to help audiences turn their inspiration into action. Films about river clean ups can easily direct audiences to local environmental needs. At VolunteerMatch, we have free tools, widgets and RSS feeds that are easy to plug into a film’s website.
  • Find a way to make the impact of your newly-engaged audiences part of the evolving story. This is where sustainable programs come from. It’s not enough to connect audiences with opportunities to make a difference. It’s also important to complete the cycle with story sharing, impact reporting, etc. Think of this flow for the process: film making > screening > audience engaged > audience makes a difference > new audiences are inspired by the involvement of the first audience.
  • Volunteers can help you, too. Nearly all stages of film production and marketing can benefit from the involvement of skilled or non-skilled volunteers. Go beyond your audience for volunteers. At VolunteerMatch we see lots of production roles like videography and editing, as well as marketing and outreach roles like film festival volunteers, social media volunteers to promote films, and so on.
  • Consider fiscal sponsorship or partnerships to access more resources. It’s a lot easier to gain access to free or discounted services (such as VolunteerMatch) if you are part of a tax exempt organization. Research fiscal umbrellas like Tides Center to see if you qualify.

These are just some ideas to help filmmakers think about how volunteer engagement can help them get to their goals. There are a lot more on Twitter if you follow the #Goodpitch hashtag.