PLANNING FOR THE UNPLANNED
How Talking Dogs Movies Did Not Prepare Me for Documentary Film
Most of my career has been spent writing or doing production rewrites on studio family comedies (my last credit was Disney’s Underdog). In this world, every story has a tidy three-act structure, the marketing plan is in place often long before I am hired, and I know my audience before I type “Fade in” (hint: they like poop jokes). So when I decided to make the documentary film #ChicagoGirl, about an American teenager in Chicago who uses social media to coordinate the Syrian revolution, I knew I had wandered out of my comfort zone, both in genre and subject matter. In our first production meeting, my seasoned documentary producer Mark Rinehart gave me some sage advice: plan for the unplanned.
Documentary film by its very nature is building without a blueprint, and during production, “plan for the unplanned” became our team’s mantra. The film’s main subject needs to push a shooting day because she has finals? Sure, we can adjust. Our final hard drive of footage is stuck on the ground in Syria? Sure (gulp), we will find a way to smuggle it out.
While #ChicagoGirl was my passion project, I knew that once we locked picture it was still a widget that had to be sold, and my goal was to reach as wide an audience as possible. Together with my sales agents, the team and I put together a detailed sales and marketing plan.
Because of #ChicagoGirl’s strong message and heroic protagonist, we wanted a world premiere at Sundance or Tribeca to help create buzz. Syria is a sticky topic for many Americans, so our potential buyer list was filled with buyers that attract politically minded viewers who care about human rights, like CNN Films or HBO.
The first hiccup in our master plan came when #ChicagoGirl was offered a premiere slot at IDFA in Amsterdam. IDFA is one of Europe’s most prestigious documentary festivals and one of the biggest doc marketplaces in the world. There was one problem: we would have to commit to IDFA before hearing from Sundance. After a flurry of late-night phone calls, I decided that because Syria was a hot topic now (and if we didn’t get into Sundance, would it still be a hot topic by the time Tribeca rolled around six months later, or the Austin Film Festival five months after that?), we would premiere at IDFA.
#ChicagoGirl had a great premiere at IDFA, winning their Doc U Award, finishing in the top 10 in audience voting out of more than 200 films and earning an invitation to screen in The Hague in front of an audience of politically minded heavyweights in the human rights community. For a target audience, it was a bull’s-eye.
At the Q&A afterwards, the first question came from a distinguished gentleman in his fifties who said, “I think it is very naïve to think that this American girl in the film has made a difference in the grand scheme of the Syrian revolution.”
Um, what…? This was not supposed to be the response from our target audience. But before I could respond, two sixteen-year-old girls in the back of the theater stood up and said, “Sir, she’s already made a difference, she’s using social media tools that you think are still a novelty, and if you cannot see that she is influencing the lives of those she is connected with, you can no longer be a part of tonight’s discussion on how we can help Syria.”
With that single statement I realized that the entire plan was wrong. I hadn’t made a film about Syria for foreign policy wonks; I’d made an empowerment story for millennials about making a difference in the world.
Quickly, we shifted our strategy to target festivals that had strong youth and educational outreach programs through which we could take the film into high schools and colleges. We looked to buyers who target millennials (many of them weren’t even on our original list of potential buyers). It paid off.
To date, #ChicagoGirl has played more than fifty festivals across five continents where it won numerous awards. It’s played for people from Amnesty International, the U.N. and the International Criminal Court. It played on an IMAX screen at the Austin Film Festival (seeing my film on the Bob Bullock IMAX screen was my biggest highlight of the festival circuit). Because of the festival buzz, our foreign sales caught fire first with broadcast partners like Al Jazeera. The film has now aired in nearly forty countries, which helped pave the way for our U.S. sale to the Fusion Network (a joint venture between ABC/Disney and Univision that caters to millennials) and our streaming deals.
Planning for the unplanned became more than just a mantra for production. It was also our sales plan. Because of it, #ChicagoGirl is reaching a bigger audience around the world than I had ever imagined.
Joe Piscatella tries to make the world a better place through documentary films and talking dog movies. You can find him on Twitter @jpiscatella. #ChicagoGirl is now available on Netflix.