Classic engagement activity

Impact Distribution differs from traditional distribution in that there is a level of engagement with audiences that goes beyond marketing. Connecting and engaging with strategic audiences serves the dual purposes of recruiting audiences and social impact. Audience outreach both intersects with and takes priority alongside the actual method of distribution.

Let's consider at a more granular level the classic outlets and activities that you will use to drive and augment your Impact Distribution plan. These include events, websites, social media, education, celebrities and lawmakers.


The power of live events is huge in Impact Distribution. They are highly valued by film teams as a tool but can be a source of friction with distributors. Outside of non-theatrical screenings, most distributors will agree to a certain number of special events or influencer screenings organised by the film team and their partners, as long as they are by invitation only and free for invited guests. But you may need to specially negotiate for many more.

Special event screenings can be invaluable for building contacts, getting your film's messages out to influencers, key target audiences and for extending the reach of your potential funder/partnership agreements. Work with your partners to create a target list of influencers, book or borrow a screening room get the invitations out.

Depending on the size of your list, it can be effective to curate a focused conversation in one community - say amongst business leaders, lawyers or civil servants. Screening in their own offices to make it easy, create an added incentive with a notable ‘host' or MC to conduct the Q&A. Make sure you are clear ahead of time if you have an ask of the room - contacts, funds, strategy advice.


Earlier in the guide we saw how the Ford Foundation's JustFilms worked with the Give Up Tomorrow team to help arrange for them to meet with The Innocence Project - which in turn led to the filmmakers working directly with them for part of the campaign.

The End of the Line held private screenings for the heads of businesses involved in the fish business. Here they could watch the film with friends and colleagues, at their convenience, followed by discussion. One such screening led to Pret A Manger founder Julian Metcalfe announcing publicly that the film had convinced him to go sustainable.

The No Fire Zone campaign strategy to maximise the film's impact in countries where Sri Lanka was having partial success portraying calls for human rights as a ‘western' agenda was driven by high level influencer screenings in key territories, working in collaboration with partners. There were multiple screenings in 27 countries over five continents organised into short tours of key regions ahead of political votes and events, often including parliamentary screenings. As a result of this targeted activity, many influencers of the UN Human Rights Council were made aware of previously hidden civil war atrocities. One year later, this resulted, in a UN Inquiry into Sri Lankan war crimes being announced, achieving the campaign goal.

Out in the Silence conducted town-hall-style screening events, often in public libraries to discuss the effects of homophobia. They reached over 1000 people in Oregon and In Pennsylvania, the film led to local anti-discrimination ordinances.

These events are so focused and effective, you can often find an individual or organisational funder to pay for them - remember to budget for your organising time, wine and snacks as well as the venue costs.


'Creating a website is only half the job, most of the work really happens once the site is launched as the website needs to support your film and campaign possibly over years. If you're getting the site done as a favour that's great, but think carefully about how the site will be supported after launch as favours are hard to continue over years

{% trans "Having a comprehensive web presence for the film and the campaign is essential. A website will act as a permanent home for people trying to find more about the film and a central resource for people who have seen the film and want to know more. It goes without saying but using the web and social media as an effective tool to further impact for a film is a huge and complex subject. You're going to encounter terms like SEO, PPC, Inbound Marketing, Re-marketing, A/B testing and many more. Get help from someone to navigate what you need and filter out what's not necessary. Needless to say it's important to have at least one expert on your team and try to budget for an external supplier or agency who can handle this properly. Make sure you get a second opinion, as the devil is in the detail.

Are your film and campaign websites the same? Should they be? Think about whether the campaign is going to have a life independently from the film or be handed over to a partner later on.

What happens to the campaign after the film's initial release?

There's no easy answer or rule, but having one website will generally make things easier. Recruiting thousands of followers for each of your separate websites, twitter and facebook feeds is time consuming. Duplicating content across two sites can cause search engine issues as well as splitting your vital google search ranking in half. It can also be confusing and hard for people to navigate between two sites. So think about whether you want to centralise your campaign and promotion efforts or across two channels.

The Interrupters film team had separate film (" %} and campaign sites " %}(" %}

Bag It centralised all their resources in one site - this was the place" %} to watch the film, download tools for becoming a bag it town and shop for merchandise or arrange screenings." %}

Ask the nearest filmmaker and chances are they'll say building the website was one of the most painful parts of the delivery process. There's lots to think about. Film and campaign websites have some unique challenges that can be hard to solve and often only come to light later down the road once a web supplier has been chosen. Asking the hard questions up front will mean you don't get a nasty surprise (or bill) later on.

Think about not just who will build the website but who will support the site technically for the life of the film and campaign? If you're getting a deal or a freebie then think carefully about how long that will last. You don't want to find yourself stuck with no technical support at a critical moment.

Getting a free service can end up being a false economy.

Social media

Social media has been a revolutionary force - quite literally in some countries - and is continuing to grow rapidly. If you're trying to find people to engage with around a topic, chances are they are already discussing it on social media.

Close to 1.7 billion people have active social media accounts

96% of 18-35 year olds are on a social network

200 million photos are uploaded per day to facebook or around 6 billion each month

Twitter is adding 300,000 users a day

Most people think social media being Facebook and Twitter but it also covers things like Instagram, YouTube, Vimeo, Pinterest, Google+, Tumblr, Flickr and even Slideshare. See Brian Solis's Conversation Prism in the Geek Out section for a complete overview. Or read Jeff Bullas' blog." %}

Contrary to perceived wisdom, Social media is not about getting follower numbers as a badge of honour. If you really want a lot of followers on twitter you can buy thousands of fake ones for a few dollars. Genuinely engaging an audience is best achieved by providing them with compelling material. Blackfish is a great case in point, with CNN Films Twitter following growing by 1000 the day after broadcast!

What to post

On a personal level social media is about engagement - just like a real conversation (you remember when people used to just talk to each other), it can't be faked. Authenticity and generosity are important when engaging with people. If you want to use social media but are overwhelmed with the task of updating each feed with unique content - pick the platform you enjoy and do it well. This is something you'll probably need to update long term - with information on the campaign, new screenings, and news on your film. Auto updates of the same content across many different feeds can be annoying, and it's also impersonal. Don't worry, you don't have to be on them all — just the ones that matter to you and your audience.

Think about how you post as well as what you are going to say. Using the right voice is hugely important on social media. Look at the Facebook and Twitter feeds from some of the films in our case study. Think about their tone, and how theirs relates to your film and strategy. Bag It uses an upbeat, encouraging, conversational tone - after all, the campaign is about building communities. The Invisible War and No Fire Zone's feeds are necessarily different, they carry gravitas, and, as they are focused on changing structures, invite engagement in other ways. If you're looking for more inspiration, search the pages and feeds of brands - think Innocent to British Airways. The online email service Mailchimp." %} created a whole site just talking about its tone on social media, there's some great ideas - it's in the Geek Out section. It can really help you refine your own tone of voice." %}

Finding people to follow with similar interests can sometimes work as they may follow you back. Either search for users, pick relevant hashtags and find users that way or look for lists of users others have made.

At a campaign level a social media strategy is driven by great content - the exponential power of sharing. The secret of getting your content shared by more people isn't always about making better stuff – sometimes it's just trying different things. Try asking for feedback from partners, influencers, and anyone else in your community (or who you want to be in your community).

As you browse Twitter and Facebook, you're likely to see images everywhere. There's data behind the reason why as Image posts get more views, clicks, shares, and likes than any other type of post including video.

On Facebook, photos get 53% more likes, 104% more comments and 84% more click-throughs on links than text posts. In a study Twitter found that of over two million tweets from verified users, photos have the greatest effect on retweets.

Managing the accounts

If you're trying out new things and experimenting make sure you're using analytics to record the results - test and measure - and then ditch what doesn't work and keep what does. If you don't measure you'll never know what actually works for your audience and so you'll never improve.

Often it's more effective to use your existing partners and other influencers with greater reach rather than growing your own list from zero - be that on Facebook, Twitter, blogs or on email

Think carefully about content as this also fuels two other big drivers of online traffic - guest blogging and SEO. Content marketing or inbound-marketing is the process of creating content that people find useful or interesting as a means to getting them to either share your message or take some action (like signing up to your mailing list or coming to a screening). During the production process of the film you'll have created no end of written content or come in contact with people who can help you to create interesting written content.

Task a savvy team member with looking after social media and website updates. But beyond that, think about who needs control of the site? If your distributor wants to control the film website, how will this work for the campaign? If your campaign partners need control of the site how will this work for your distributors? Will the technical solution you choose mean you are able to update the site yourselves and give access to other parties or will you need to go through a third party who might be unreliable or unavailable. What about distribution and campaigns over multiple territories or countries - can you support these and your campaign partners.

'Working on a site with multiple distributors and campaign partners across multiple territories is beyond most technical solutions out there like Wordpress. That's one of the reasons we felt we had to create the Assemble system, to solve this issue of the film website needing to do different things in different countries'

Remember to think about who owns the website, social media handles and most importantly any associated data like email addresses. Sometimes distributors assume they own all of this - but that may not be the best thing for the campaign or the film long term. Agree this up front and get it included in contracts.

If the web is an important part of your strategy, think about learning HTML, or even taking a brief course in programming basics. This will pay dividends when you start dealing with all those techies.


For many film teams, connecting with schools and school aged kids is key. If that might be you, think about whether you want to work with an Education specialist organisation who can help you develop Education tools to accompany your film.

Lee Hirsch and the Bully team worked with a variety of education materials specialists including Facing History and Ourselves, Harvard Graduate School of Education and Edutopia (amongst others) to develop a suite of resources for the Bully toolkit - including tailored materials for parents, teachers, students and also for anti-bullying advocates.

And in a similar but different example, The American Promise team worked with Teaching Tolerance (a project of the Southern Poverty Law Centre) to create a Professional Development Curriculum to help educators become more aware of the ways schools do and don't work for African American boys. With over 80% of educators in the US being white middle-class females, it was an invaluable resource to help them meet the needs of their pupils.


If your film deals with issues which are part of the educational curriculum, research the relevant curriculum guides online and identify the key learning outcomes - you can then develop materials or resources to help educators. This helpful article by Jessica Schoenbaechler breaks down curriculum guides for US school-age kids, but contains a lot of helpful info for those outside the United States, too:

Filmmakers considering a big educational component should attend educator conferences, digital media and learning convenings, connect with digital educators online, and/or attend librarian conferences -- before creating educational content. Learn from the source what educators are looking for, what they need so you're not reinventing the wheel or creating unwanted material.

Similarly, consider guides like Community Classroom by ITVS where resources and clips are collected and lesson plans/other resources are made available for teachers to use free of charge. If you'd like some ideas, have a look at the brilliant supporting materials developed for Island President.


Creating in depth curriculum guides costs real money as it will involve asking professional teachers to do real work, as well as design and getting clips prepared. If you want to go this route, you will probably need to raise a grant.

In the US there is much more of a developed educational market for schools and colleges. There are many distributors who consider the educational rights to films to be valuable and, like The Invisible War, you might carve those rights out and sell them separately.

In other countries, schools may be interested in using your film in the classroom but there are not established routes to get them films, even for free. You may need to get creative. In the United Kingdom, Doc Society started Doc Academy, as a free website for teachers by teachers funded by grants.


It can be incredibly helpful to have an appropriate celebrity help bring attention to your film, even if it's just appearing at your premiere to ensure your film gets profiled by the picture editors. But you may be able to go a lot further.

Research whether any celebrities are already interested in or sympathetic to your film's issue. Have they spoken about it before in the press or on TV? Have they attended public hearings or rallies on the issue? Don't just go for any famous name, look for one authentically connected to your story.


Rapper and activist MIA lent her support to the No Fire Zone campaign - having fled Sri Lanka's civil war with her family when she was 11, she was keen to promote and support the film's messages to her followers on Twitter:

Working with Celebrity Advocates

{% trans "MIA's involvement also helped bring other celebrity advocates to the issue:

Working with Celebrity Advocates

Supporting The House I Live In campaign, John Legend spoke out on the ‘war on drugs' on CNN and MSNBC, emphasising the need for a more common sense approach to drug policy.

Scenes from the film were also showcased in an exclusive music video premiering on CNN, which provided huge reach and amplification to the campaign.

Approaching celebrities without any prior contact can be difficult, but may be possible through one of your partnerships so ask around. If not, go back to basics - tweet them the trailer or website, invite them to a screening - send them a copy of the film.

They might be prepared to issue a statement of support. To put a quote on your film poster. To tweet about the issue to their followers. To host a special screening or Q&A. To give an interview on the issue with you or the subjects of your film.

Ellen's emotional segment with David and Tina Long, subjects of Bully, reached a huge audience during its transmission and has been viewed online over a million times since:

It's worth also having a look at the Harmony Institute study which looked at the impact of social media following the release of Bully (2012). The report looks at the massive amplification effect celebrities have on the campaign using social media.

Sometimes celebrity support of your film or issue can develop organically, or even take you by surprise - so be prepared to leverage that too.

Having watched Give Up Tomorrow, Martin Gore of Depeche Mode was so moved by the film that he made an appeal to all his fans to join the Free Paco Now movement. He also decided to wear his Free Paco Now t-shirt for every single date of the band's stadium tour, including two crucial dates in Madrid and Barcelona:

'The manager of Depeche Mode got in touch with us [saying] Martin had seen the docu and was outraged. He [asked] how [they] could help. We pointed him to the ‘Free Paco Now' campaign website. First thing [Martin] did was post a pic of himself in a [‘Free Paco Now'] T-shirt… on the band's Facebook page, which has 7.1 million followers. We are thrilled and amazed that Martin is doing this. On a personal level, having grown up listening to Depeche Mode's music, I am flabbergasted'

Marty Syjuco, Give Up Tomorrow

'I saw Give Up Tomorrow on PBS in the United States. I was appalled at the judicial system on view. The idea of anyone spending a large part of his life in jail for something that he didn't do doesn't, and shouldn't, sit well with me or anyone...I felt that I should do what I could to [call attention] to it, in the hope that something can be done. I first wore the shirt at the Barcelona and Madrid concerts — the first two shows after Christmas. After the show, a lot of Spaniards asked me about the T-shirt and what it was about. When I started to tell the story, they stopped me in my tracks, saying that they remembered hearing about the prisoner exchange but assumed that Paco was now out and free! This shows how easy it is to get forgotten and why I feel I need to keep reminding people'

Martin Gore, Depeche Mode

Law makers

'We made the film to help change policy'" %}

Kirby Dick, Producer, The Invisible War

'Seeing the transformative power that The Invisible War had on legislators was exhilarating and, as far as we know, unprecedented. During the first screening on the Hill, Senators and aides were transfixed and weeping. Anytime after that when Kirby and I passed through the halls of Congress we were repeatedly approached by legislators and queried and thanked. The film and its arguments completely dominated and changed the terms of the conversation around this issue overnight -- the idea of an epidemic of sexual assault in the military shifted from something hypothetical and alleged to something categorical and catastrophic. The issue went from being something persons had possibly heard about, to something that was urgent, unconscionable and in need of immediate legislative attention and response'

Amy Ziering, Producer, The Invisible War

Newly elected politicians or those with a special interest in the issue can often help push the campaign forward in the right way. If you can't get close to the policymaker themselves, try and reach and engage their team of staffers. Remember, advocacy groups can also help you reach policymakers too.

Arranging policymaker screenings months ahead of The Invisible War's theatrical release offered government officials a window of opportunity to react, take action and present solutions to the film's issues. By deliberately keeping the message bi-partisan and anti-assault rather than anti-military, the team were able to reach all sides of the political spectrum.

The result of this lobbying was the largest host committee ever for a film screening on Capitol Hill, and a ‘standing room only' screening at the Library of Congress. Leveraging their contacts to open doors at the highest possible levels, the filmmakers showed the film to members of the Obama administration and the State Department. For the first time in 30 years, General Mark A. Welsh, Chief of Staff of the Air Force, flew all AF Wing Commanders from bases around the world back to the Pentagon where they watched the film.

The No Fire Zone team focused their efforts on reaching high level policy makers all over the world to expose the truth around the genocide in Sri Lanka. Working with Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International to launch the film at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. Those present included over 200 diplomats and country missions. They documented the atmosphere and turnout on their Facebook and Twitter feeds:

No Fire Zone

Director Callum Macrae also recalls the reaction of some of those present at the screening:

'There was one African delegation who when they saw [the film] said to me afterwards ‘The Sri Lankans pulled the wool over our eyes'. There was a clear understanding, when presented with the evidence that the Sri Lankan government cannot be trusted to investigate themselves, and that they are engaged in a very hypocritical exercise when they pretend that this is about Western interference. And that had an effect on the UN vote. Just from one screening'

Callum Macrae, Director, No Fire Zone

The film team focused its efforts on calling the Sri Lankan government to accountability ahead of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), which took place in 2013 in the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo. Callum Macrae, who travelled to Colombo to cover the CHOGM as a member of the press, found himself mobbed by journalists at the media centre on his arrival. After watching the film Prime Minister David Cameron made a statement about his impending trip to the meeting:

'No Fire Zone is one of the most chilling documentaries I've watched. It brings home the brutal end to the civil war and the immense suffering of thousands of innocent civilians who kept hoping that they would reach safety, but tragically many did not. Many of the images are truly shocking... I will raise my concerns when I see President Rajapaksa next week in Colombo. And I will tell him that if Sri Lanka doesn't deliver an independent investigation, the world will need to ensure an international investigation is carried out instead'

He also took to social media, tweeting his reaction to his 2.5million followers, and including the Twitter handle of the President of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa.

And in perhaps the most extraordinary example of how a documentary worked with law-makers, in 2005 lawyers prosecuting an international genocide case approached filmmaker Pamela Yates to comb through old footage of her 1983 film to build possible evidence against General Rios Montt who spoke to her on camera three decades before. Thus Granito and its supporting outreach campaign tells the evolving story of working with lawyers to nail a dictator.

For more inspiration on this topic, take a look at this essay, drawn from a panel presentation at the 2010 AFI-Discovery Channel Silverdocs Documentary Festival. It's written by Will Jenkins who has worked in media production, social action and political communications for the last decade and currently works in the United States Congress. it's great guide to making an Impact on Capitol Hill with your film.

Made byDoc Society Made possible by: Ford Foundation - Just Film Bertha Foundation Sundance Institute Knight Foundation