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Creator and Artist Stories

Case Study: Building a campaign for a short documentary using YouTube, Facebook and other sites

By Heather Menicucci

Director, Howcast Filmmakers Program

Last week in our ongoing Howcast series on filmmaking in the digital age we talked about how the web is changing the traditional path toward film festivals. This week, we bring you an interview with filmmaker Sam Kauffmann whose films have screened at festivals all over the world and who is using the web to distribute his latest short documentary, ACT out against SAT.

I ran into Sam at the United Film and Video Association conference this summer. He was one of my professors at Boston University about 15 years ago, a time when we didn’t even shoot on video let alone consider “uploading” anything to the web. It was really exciting to talk with him about how our careers had evolved in this digital age.

How is the project different from your previous work as a documentary filmmaker?
ACT out against SAT is the first documentary I’ve ever made that uses an on-camera reporter to anchor the film. In all my previous documentaries I’ve purposely avoided using any on-camera talent, because to me the “talent” always gets between the audience and the subject. What’s different about this project is that I collaborated with my daughter Allie, who is 17 and a high school student. Not only does she have a really good camera presence, but she’s also going through the college admissions process and taking the grueling standardized tests.

What are your goals for this project?
Our goal is simple: we want people to reevaluate the use of these standardized tests for both scholarships and college admissions. We’re not saying all standardized tests are wrong, but that these are. Any tests that are so coach-able — meaning you can teach someone tricks — are inherently flawed. What happens is that people with money can buy the best coaches and get the best results. The results are based on economic class rather than merit. Seems sort of un-American, right? So we hope that people will see the film, study the material on our website and sign the petition to change the way colleges use these tests.

You’ve decided to use the web as your main distribution outlet—what is your plan of attack? Can you explain your model?
This is above all a campaign and the film is one part of it. The film is only nine minutes long for a reason; we wanted something that worked well on the web. In the past, I might have created a stand-alone documentary of 30-60 minutes to handle this topic. Now I think it’s better to make a much shorter film and combine it with a really informative website. We actually have four elements to the campaign: the film, the website, a Facebook page, and a petition. The hope is that the film will attract attention to the website; the website will provide lots of information and links to other sites; and the Facebook page will help us attract a much larger audience to both the film, the website, and the petition. This project will become bigger and more powerful when people add their stories and experiences to the campaign.

Can you tell us why you you’ve decided to approach distribution this way?
In 2007, I made a short film called Massacre at Murambi. It screened at over 30 film festivals all over the world, including Seattle and Slamdance. It was aired nationally on PBS. But its biggest audience has been, and still is, YouTube. More than 870,000 people have watched this serious film about a serious topic. Clearly if you want an audience for your short film, YouTube is the way to go. To try to make real change you need a good website, the power of social media and YouTube.

As a filmmaker who is experimenting with this model for the first time, do you have any advice for other filmmakers who are looking to use the web to distribute, promote, engage and launch careers?
I think it’s important to put together a small but dedicated group of people to help you do this. There is too much work involved to do all this by yourself. There are other people much better at some things than I am. My team includes my daughter, and current and former students, including some talented folks at Push Partners. If you don’t have money to pay, barter your producing, directing, shooting or editing skills in exchange for their skills. Stay together, stay loyal to each other, and as your careers advance, you’ll all benefit from each other’s success.

Next week, Howcast will conclude its semester-long series, a Modern 101 for Emerging Digital Filmmakers, with a video produced in conjunction with Tribeca Flashpoint Academy students and professors -- How is the web changing film school and the career paths of young filmmakers? Stay tuned!