What is ME? Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME) is a systemic neuroimmune condition characterized by post-exertional malaise (a reduction in functioning and a severe worsening of symptoms after even minimal exertion). It causes dysregulation of the immune, nervous, and energy metabolism systems. The effects of MEare devastating enough to leave 25% of patients housebound or bed bound. MEis a spectrum disease. All people with MEexperience a substantial loss of physical or cognitive functioning, but there is a wide spectrum of severity. On average, MEpatients score more poorly on quality of life surveys than those with multiple sclerosis, stroke, diabetes, renal failure, lung disease, heart failure, and various cancers. It is important to keep in mind that the onset of MEcan be either sudden or gradual and the intensity and frequency of milder symptoms can sometimes increase abruptly. Symptoms can fluctuate significantly from day-to-day, but the unpredictable progression of this disease is be measured in years, not weeks or months. *From Unrest Discussion Guide
Jennifer Brea is an independent documentary filmmaker based in Los Angeles and founder and director of Shella Films. She has an AB from Princeton University and was a PhD student at Harvard until a sudden illness left her bedridden. In the aftermath, she rediscovered her first love, film. She is a Sundance Fellow and has been supported by the Sundance Edit & Story Lab, Sundance Catalyst Forum, IFP's Filmmaker Lab, and the Fledgling Lab.
An award-winning Director and Creative Producer, Dryden's films include Lost and Sound (SXSW) and Close Your Eyes And Look At Me (True/False), and as a producer Sundance award-winning Unrest, and Little Ones. Nominated Best Female-Directed Film (Sheffield Doc/Fest) and Best New UK Filmmaker (OpenCityDocs), she's a proud Queer Producers Collective member, a frequent mentor and guest speaker, and a Jacob Burns Filmmaker-In-Residence. One of the earliest to join Unrest, her passion for hybrid distribution began as an impact producer early in her career. She is currently producing Unrest, directing art films for Tate (most recently for Queer British Art), producing an ACLU documentary series and writing/directing her next feature.
Patricia E. Gillespie is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and Sundance Fellow. In addition to producing UNREST, she served as Line Producer on Sabaah Folyan's WHOSE STREETS, and is currently in production on her directorial debut, AMERICAN MONSTER, a non fiction series exploring the intersection of poverty and violence in the American South for VICELAND. In her spare time, she produces commercial content for clients like Johnnie Walker, Nike, and Adidas.
Alysa Nahmias is an award-winning director and producer of nonfiction and narrative films. Her documentary Unfinished Spaces won a 2012 Independent Spirit Award and numerous festival prizes, and was selected for Sundance Film Forward. It is in the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art. Nahmias recently produced the Sundance award-winning Unrest directed by Jennifer Brea. Her producing credits also include the documentaries Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil LeClercq, Shield and Spear, and the fiction feature No Light and No Land Anywhere.She is currently directing a new documentary about American artist Jesse Krimes, who clandestinely created a remarkable large-scale mural while incarcerated for six years in U.S. federal prison.
Deborah Hoffmann received an Academy Award nomination in 1995 for her documentary, Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter and again for Long Night's Journey into Day in 2000. She was the Executive Producer of the 2016 Oscar nominated short Extremis. She is also a widely acclaimed editor of such classic documentaries as the Oscar winning The Times of Harvey Milk, Ethnic Notions, and Color Adjustment. She has received two National Emmys, a Peabody, a DuPont Columbia Award, and a Rockefeller Fellowship. Deborah was a lecturer at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism from 2000 till 2009 at which time she had to resign due to ME/CFS.
As an ME patient and activist, Jen Brea knew there was an important place in the world for her film. Early in her illness, Jen documented her journey and became a part of an online community of fellow patients in order to build deep connections which she needed to help herself survive the illness. In dialogue with other people with ME, Jen began working to elevate public awareness of this profoundly complex disease. By capturing her raw personal experience, Jen created a transcendent documentary. As two of Jen’s producers, Lindsey Dryden and Alysa Nahmias, describe: “Its artistry, intimacy and emotional arc transcend the medical subject matter. The film’s themes - love, family, adapting to unexpected circumstances, the power of care and empathy - are universal.”
From day one, it was a continuum of support that breathed life into this film. Back in 2013, Jen ran a Kickstarter campaign to fund the creation of the film, then named Canary in a Coal Mine, and shortly after received her first grant from the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program. From there she went on to become a Documentary Film Program Fellow and also took part in their editing lab. Once the film was on the brink of wrapping, Jen was invited to Sundance Institute’s Catalyst Forum, where she was matched with investors who could assist with production, impact and finishing funds. And with her finished product in hand, Jen went on to premiere her debut feature, now known as Unrest, in competition at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.
In contrast to most films that premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, the Unrest team went into the festival with hybrid distribution in mind. Because of Jen’s deeply personal connection to the film and the ME community, and the importance of aligning distribution with their impact goals, the Unrest team knew their voice and efforts were the best way to deliver the film to their core audience, and they wanted to work with distribution partners who agreed with this approach. Though they had a few all rights offers on the table from the Festival, the offers that were most appealing to them were the ones that would allow them to maintain creative control and realize their bespoke vision. As Alysa Nahmias explained, “We would have only agreed to an all rights offer if it was a strong romance with a distributor and an offer that allowed us to maintain control of the creative approach and messaging surrounding the release, among other factors.”
In the current distribution landscape, documentaries have more advantages than fiction films when it comes to splitting up rights. Often times, multiple distributors in a given territory will handle different sets of rights, rather than one company controlling all of them. At the Festival, Unrest was able to secure a global deal with Netflix specific to SVOD rights, and with Independent Lens specific to US broadcast rights, that allowed them to exploit other rights like theatrical, semi-theatrical, and TVOD prior to the SVOD and broadcast start dates. Rounding out their hybrid strategy, the Unrest team felt the Sundance Institute Creative Distribution Fellowship would help them structure the remainder of their release in a way that provided unique viewing opportunities in order to bring different audiences together on an intimate level and make the biggest impact. “One of the things that is unique about our audience is many people are too ill to go out and watch the film in theaters, and so we’re really excited to do events where we connect theatrical or semi theatrical audiences with people at home.” Jen said.
The Sundance Institute structured the Creative Distribution Fellowship to stack the odds in favor of the filmmaker. Since marketing and distribution funds were given in the form of a grant, the filmmakers had this money to budget without the added stress of knowing that amount would be recouped by any party down the line. For transactional digital distribution, all fellows have access to Sundance Institute’s digital distribution partner (who extended reduced rates) and Premiere Digital, an encoding house and aggregator. Through Premiere Digital services, filmmakers are able to deliver their films to an array of digital providers, such as iTunes and Google Play, for a one time flat rate. Lastly, our fellows receive 100% of the net revenue, after theaters and platforms take their split.
The team’s hybrid distribution vision was to create a strategic plan that married distribution and impact. In order to realize this vision, the team crafted goals for both distribution and impact that worked hand in hand. They wanted to ensure that these two areas didn’t operate in silos, rather synergistically in order to fuel their campaign. Like many issue driven documentaries, the goals for Unrest’s release weren’t financially motivated. They were driven by the intent to generate awareness, shift public perception and spark change, and to achieve these goals the team took the ambitious step of combining their distribution and impact strategies. Often times filmmakers keep these release strategies separate because historically distribution connotes financial return. Though the Unrest team felt confident they could flip this script and use both of these avenues to create a movement. The Unrest team was able to isolate a distinct combination of release options that not only catered to the needs of the patient community, but also reached new audience members to bolster awareness. This included a blend of educational, grassroots, impact, theatrical and digital avenues, particularly in the US and UK.
The Unrest team already had a head start when it came to audience identification for the film, since Jen Brea had spent years interacting with her community and building relationships. By the time Sundance Institute’s Creative Distribution team began working with the Unrest team in March 2017, they already had 14K active, engaged followers on Facebook and were able to identify their diverse range of personal connections to the global ME community. This preliminary audience mapping made it easier for the Unrest team to determine their multi pronged strategy for getting the film in front of their core audience and future fans.
Who is the target audience for this film?
How did the film envision getting the film in front of their core audience?
For Unrest, like other documentaries, a majority of the project was funded by grants. This is an advantageous position to be in because with grants there are no equity investors involved, expecting to be paid back with interest. This takes a little bit of financial pressure off of the distribution process. However, this does not diminish the high costs and significant amount of resources needed to distribute an independent documentary, especially one like Unrest trying to build mass awareness and change public perception.
In order to support their expansive release goals, the team put together a low six figure P&A budget. Their distribution needs were primarily covered by the grant provided by Sundance Institute and their impact campaign was largely supported by a kickstarter campaign they ran in August right before their theatrical release. Their total budget amounted to $260,000 which they used to cover their theatrical, PR, digital marketing, community screening and merchandise manufacturing costs, which included bringing on work for hire consultants to assist with strategy and execution.
In order to meet their goals, the Unrest team brought on teammates to manage theatrical and semi theatrical distribution, their US and UK impact campaigns, domestic and international marketing and PR and general operations. As you can see from the numerous members listed below, it takes a large team to distribute a cause-based documentary film. This team construction consisted of trusted consultants and the expansion of Jennifer Brea’s production company, Shella Films. Though it was an expansive team with multiple facets, the Unrest team felt this was the best approach for clearly communicating what the film was about and what they were trying to achieve. When asked about the reasoning for their team formation, Lindsey Dryden stated, “We've essentially built our own hand-picked team of independent experts (publicists, bookers, impact specialists, social media strategists etc), as opposed to handing over rights to one company that might have all these roles in-house, but whose day-to-day decisions we wouldn't ordinarily get to be involved in. It’s meant that Jennifer and the producing team’s deep expertise, from years of making this film and working with our community, can directly inform all the decisions we make.”
U.S. Theatrical booker:
Global Impact Director - Laurie Jones
US Campaign Manager - Erica Ales
UK impact producer - Lucy Wilson
Community Screenings Campaign Consultant - Film Sprout
Chief of Staff - Regina Clemente
Associate Producer - Laura Hess
Office Manager / Assistant to Jennifer Brea - Krista Abela
Marketing & PR:
Digital Marketing Consultant - Matt Delman
UK PR team - 4 PRs
SF Press - Karen Larson / Larson Associates
LA Press - Dish Communications
NY Press - Julia Pacetti / JMP Verdant communications
Creative House - Wheelhouse
Aggregator - Premiere Digital’s Quiver
Impact Strategist (US and UK): Jessica Edwards
CEO, Together Films: Sarah Mosses
Campaign Manager: Rebecca Ashdown
Campaign Coordinator & Digital Manager: Espe Moreno
Team Assistant: Isy Barrs
Intern: Lucy Wardley
UK Impact Producer: Lucy Wilson
UK Publicists: Sarah Harvey PR (Sarah Harvey and Hayley Willis) & Senso Communications (Penny Lukats and Steve Harman)
Campaign Team: Ian Darling and Mary Macrae, Shark Island Productions Pty Ltd
The Unrest team closely collaborated with their consultants to identify the best release avenues and timing that would help them achieve their goals. In order to generate significant media coverage, reach the widest possible audience and provide an array of different viewing options for their community, they felt windowing their release would be more effective than releasing day and date, meaning releasing on transactional digital platforms and theatrically at the same time. They carved out condensed windows for their theatrical, semi-theatrical and digital releases, which allowed them to create unique opportunities for each arm of their distribution strategy. For instance, allowing for a small theatrical window encouraged more meaningful press opportunities, which otherwise would have been hard to come by if they had decided not to release theatrically or release day and date. Carving out windows for their semi-theatrical and digital releases gave the Unrest team space to create tailored viewing opportunities for each timeframe, such as encouraging community members to hold ‘house parties’ during broadcast events, that cultivated meaningful community engagement and in return generated greater awareness, by bringing people together at a specified time and encouraging them to take action.
Branding & messaging of the film
“We wanted the film to appeal to audiences beyond those who are already documentary fans or activists in the ME patient community. We aimed to create branding and messaging that conveyed the medical mystery plotline, featured Jen as the protagonist, and highlighted the love story between Jen and Omar.” - Alysa Nahmias speaking about the marketing strategy for the film
In order to resonate with their core audience, the Unrest team felt there were three main areas of focus for the branding of the film - the medical mystery of ME, Jen as a character in the film and Jen and Omar’s love story. Starting with photos, they combed through the stills they had and picked out the images they felt conveyed at least one of these focal points. Before going into their festival run, the Unrest team wanted to have at least one polished key visual asset they could use when marketing the film. They isolated a still from the film where Jen is connected to an EEG machine that they felt portrayed the medical mystery and alluded to Jen’s emotional and physical journey. With help from photographer Jason Frank Rothenberg, they recreated this scene for a photo shoot, which resulted in their main key art image on their poster, and which they used throughout the course of the release. Post festival run, they conducted another photoshoot with Jen and her husband Omar in order to capture more assets that spoke to their love story. Platforms such as iTunes and Netflix require multiple marketing assets, so it was important to create as many assets as possible going into their release.
Digital marketing, which for most independent films entails using social media advertising to promote the release of a film, is one of the most efficient ways to reach audiences on a large scale. In order to maximize audience growth and reach, it’s imperative that independent films find and engage with their audience on social media. Digital marketing through social media ads can help film teams identify audience targets, reach large groups of potential fans and refine marketing materials by monitoring how people react to them on social media.
Unrest’s large social media following made this film a great candidate for digital marketing. For their digital marketing strategy and deployment, Unrest worked with 3rd Impression (3i). Their work included managing social media accounts, social media asset creation, and ad creation and management. During the planning phase, Matt Delman, CEO of 3i, mapped out a digital marketing strategy with the Unrest team that paired with each phase of their distribution strategy and windowing. With a digital marketing ad budget of $35,000 the team slated a digital ad campaign for three specific milestones of the release plan - US & UK theatrical openings, iTunes release, and the Kickstarter campaign for theatrical launch and impact funds. The team felt these were the most worthwhile areas of the release strategy to capitalize on audience reach, growth and revenue generation. 3i used the start of the digital marketing campaign to test creative materials and audience targets. This early optimization gave 3i refined audience targets and creative materials to use throughout the rest of the digital promotion of Unrest’s release, as we’ll see later in this study.
Jen and Matt collaborated frequently on the planning and execution of the digital marketing strategy. Unlike a lot of independent film directors, Jen has a background in statistical analysis and has a prior experience with social media advertising. This paired with her deep understanding of the nuances of the ME community, made her acutely attuned to this part of the marketing strategy. Jen worked closely with Matt, providing recommendations about audience targeting and messaging to help reach audiences more effectively. As Matt described, "It's refreshing to collaborate with artists like Jen because she has a unique voice and vision that we channeled into the creative assets. She has a really good understanding of Unrest's audience, which helped shape our messaging and overall approach."
Even though targeting audiences through social media advertising has quickly become a staple of independent film promotion, press is still the main driver for generating buzz and prestige and provides key content to promote through social media. To cultivate meaningful press opportunities, the Unrest team employed a PR firm in each of their four main markets, the markets they had the largest theatrical presence in - New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and the UK. With weekly calls leading up to the release, the Unrest team was tuned into every pitch the PR teams conducted and pushed for opportunities that weren’t included.
The Unrest team was able to augment their publicity team’s outreach by pitching to outlets and reporters with whom Jennifer and her husband, Omar, had preexisting relationships. (Both have prior experience in media.) On many occasions these pitches were successful. Additionally, a sample press release shared with patient organizers around the world created opportunities for local media coverage in smaller markets pegged to one-off theatrical or community screenings of Unrest.
Their PR teams also helped organize and promote press and influencer screenings, such as small invite only screenings at Crosby Street and Dolby in New York in mid September a week before their theatrical premiere, leading on strategy and sending out personal invitations to those they felt would be interested in reviewing and writing about the film.
For the Unrest team, press served a dual purpose - not only to make people aware of the film’s release but also to reframe the broader public conversation surrounding ME. As Alysa Nahmias explained, “We were working at the level of language, every time we went out to press we were trying to shift public perception.” The coverage they sought out highlighted Jen’s story, the science & history of the illness, and devastating consequences of decades of neglect , – essential for their success both in distribution and impact.
The overall digital marketing strategy focused on two specific parts of the distribution campaign: the theatrical release and the iTunes release. Drawing from initial audience identification strategy, Casey constructed 6 audience buckets to test with the first round of ads. During the first two weeks of the theatrical digital ad campaign, Casey gathered data on the running ads that helped identify and refine the target audience for the rest of the digital strategy. For example, although the modern architecture of Columbus, Indiana plays a large role in the film, the ads that targeted communities with this affinity didn’t perform well, meaning there was low engagement with the ads and a higher cost per result. They found that their core audience of arthouse cinema lovers were one of the most invested audience pools. The chart below shows the initial six audience targets and their average cost per result. A higher cost per result usually indicates an ad isn’t performing well, or resonating with the people who are seeing the ad.
For the iTunes campaign ads, Casey used two 20 second spots (clips specifically cut for social media use) of behind the scenes footage that Koganada crafted. These performed well and made the team realize that video content was performing better than still graphics. This was a lightbulb moment for Casey, “Using behind the scenes footage to refresh the campaign was a great learning moment.” Also, having Koganada, who knows the film best, get involved in the digital marketing process was unique, since directors often don’t participate in this part of the marketing process, and he helped reinvigorate the social media campaign with new creative that lifted the profile of the tail end of their digital marketing campaign.
Even though the team ran presales on iTunes, Casey felt it was best to promote their iTunes release once it was actually available on the platform, “It’s a much more enticing proposition to have something available right now.” Overall the Columbus team spent $24,000 on social media ads - $8,000 for their theatrical campaign, $12,000 for their iTunes campaign and the remaining $4,000 was spent on boosting posts, or putting money behind page posts in order to reach more eyes.
The film received glowing press, which helped elevate the profile of the film significantly. The PR teams mainly focused on the theatrical release, though some of their press team helped manage press that hit after their digital release, when the film was nominated for Independent Spirit Awards, Gotham Awards and made numerous end of the year top ten lists. They used their opening weekend event screenings, with cast and crew in attendance, to push as many reviews and press opportunities as possible. Though they thought they would have some traction with niche outlets such as Architectural Digest, most of their press came from more traditional outlets such as the New York Times. Their extended theatrical run gave them a longer than expected runway for press opportunities.
Though there’s no way to measure conversion on press, the film team felt it contributed significantly to their theatrical success because a large portion of their audience was the arthouse cinema loving crowd, who still put a lot of weight behind the reviews they read. In a recent study conducted by the Art House Convergence, 47% of arthouse cinema goers they surveyed said they learn about new films mainly through print reviews. Their total PR spend was $32,260, excluding what it cost to hire the local Indiana press team and what Landmark recouped for regional press fees.
Thanks to relationships capitalized on through Sundance Institute and their team of consultants, Columbus received special promotion through a few outlets. iTunes gave the film prime promotion twice during the course of their digital release and their theatrical run was promoted through the Arthouse Convergence network, a collection of allied arthouse cinemas around the world, which increased the amount of arthouse screening inquiries that came in beyond the specified 16 city run. The film was also given social media promotion on Sundance Institute channels at each important juncture of their release campaign.
Throughout its release, the film maintained a 98% on Rotten Tomatoes. This is an impressive rating and it’s rare when films can retain a score this high. The verdict is still out whether or not this has an effect on the financial performance of a film, but it most likely contributed to the general success of Columbus.
“It exceeded our wildest dreams,” said Michael Tuckman regarding Columbus’ theatrical release. With an initial 16 market release plan, 10 of which were guaranteed through Landmark, it was a huge surprise to the entire Columbus team that by the end of their theatrical run the film had hit over 200 theaters in 78 markets. This expanded theatrical campaign led to pulling in over $1,000,000 in box office revenue, which is quite rare for an independent film with a modest P&A budget.
The consensus from the team was that a multitude of efforts and outreach lead to the broad expansion of the theatrical release. Michael Tuckman conducted personal outreach to his exhibitor (theater owners) network and fielded individual theater inquiries that came directly to the team. Numerous booking inquiries came through the Arthouse Convergence Network. Casey ran a condensed two week theatrical campaign on the social media channels and after that window used information about the theatrical campaign (updates, press clippings, premiere photos) as organic content, posting this information to their social media pages, to keep their channels active and their fans updated about the expansion of the theatrical release. And as mentioned earlier, stellar press significantly contributed to their theatrical success. As Michael Tuckman stated, “The film [sold] itself more than anything else.” Good reviews and interview pieces helped connect the film with their audience and boosted awareness.
However, with an expanded theatrical run comes considerable costs, some of which weren’t fully expected. Each market a film plays in comes with associated costs such as VPFs (virtual print fees) and DCPs (digital cinema package) and most independent cinemas handle these costs differently. Also it takes a considerable amount of bandwidth to prepare and send deliverables to theaters, so the team had to bring on members to handle these tasks. Working with a limited P&A budget, with which they only initially budgeted for a modest 16 city release, the quick market expansion and numerous holdovers caused the team budgetary stress. To accommodate the expansion and lengthy holdovers in theaters like the IFC Center, that charge a VPF fee for every week the film plays, they had to think strategically about which markets they would expand to. As Michael Tuckman explained, “We were looking at every market, but we had to target theaters that didn't require print advertising and didn't charge VPFs or allowed us to play on bluray. We knew we had about 5 weeks to strike both while the film was still hot and before the major fall titles hit.”
Let's break down the financial outcome of Columbus’ theatrical run. Columbus made $1,014,533 in box office revenue. New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Indianapolis and Washington were their top five markets, which accounted for 48% of their total box office. Landmark recouped $9,250 from this revenue for regional PR costs and all theaters collectively took roughly 65% of the box office revenue, leaving the film team with roughly $355,000. A caveat with independent theatrical distribution is that each theater reports and invoices differently and at different times throughout the theatrical release, so it’s hard to give an exact percentage split. The Columbus team spent roughly $30,000 on theatrical deliverables, such as DCP creation and shipment, VPFs and poster shipment, which came out of their P&A budget.
Though they released on multiple platforms - Amazon Video Direct, Google Play, cable VOD and iTunes - Columbus’ most fruitful TVOD revenue stream is currently iTunes. There are a few different reasons why this may be the case. iTunes in general still seems to be the most popular transactional platform. They were also given prime promotional placement on iTunes throughout the course of their TVOD release. This type of promotion directly impacts sales, by placing the film in front of potential customers rather than them having to search for the title. Also, because iTunes is one of the most widely adopted TVOD platforms, the Columbus team decided to use their limited TVOD digital marketing dollars on promoting iTunes and mentioned all other platforms through organic posts, not paid ads.
With a mandatory 90 day theatrical window due to their Landmark deal and a SVOD live date slated 120 days after their theatrical release, Columbus had a four week window for TVOD sales before the film would be available for free to Hulu subscribers. The majority of their TVOD sales happened within the first two weeks the film was available for purchase. This trend happened with both of our Fellowship films. Many members of the independent film distribution community likewise feel that the rise of SVOD has condensed the amount of time a film has to capitalize on transactional sales. To date, Columbus has made (breakdown TVOD numbers).
Danielle, Giulia and the rest of the Columbus team have been involved with the release of the film for a year now. Overall to date, they’ve pulled in a total of $575,000 in net revenue- $345,836 in theatrical revenue, $170,000 in SVOD license deals and $54,000 through TVOD sales. They spent a total of $163,000 on P&A for the film. Below is a breakdown of what they would have netted working with a distributor in comparison to what they netted doing creative distribution.
Overall, in this example, more than twice the money came back to the filmmakers in this creative model versus a traditional distribution arrangement. Compared to the amount of P&A spend put into the release of the film, Columbus did exceedingly well theatrically. There are few films in the same budget range as Columbus that pull in over $1,000,000 in box office revenue. However, compared to handing a film over to a distributor, creatively distributing a film takes a significant amount of time and resources. The Columbus team was concerned with the lack of control they would have with a traditional distribution strategy, and were willing to put in the time to release the film themselves. And ultimately it paid off, not just monetarily but through the amount of distribution knowledge they gained. That’s not to say it was easy process, there were some crucial takeaways identified throughout the process, that the film team and their consultants identified along the way.