The Rise of the Political Filmmaker by Marty Lang

Marty Lang –  Filmmaker/Professor/Journalist

The title of indie filmmaker infers many roles. Worker. Leader. Psychiatrist. Conflict mediator. (And many times, financier.) When my friends and I decided to make my feature directorial debut, Rising Star, last summer, I knew we’d fill all those jobs, plus plenty others. But an interesting thing happened as we went through fundraising, prep and production: we also became politicians. We didn’t know it as it was happening, but looking back, we didn’t treat Rising Star like an indie film.

We treated our film like a political campaign.

Strange, huh? It seems weird when you think about it, but indie films and political campaigns have a lot in common. They both consume the lives of the people working on them, they never have any money, and working on them doesn’t guarantee a successful result. We can learn a lot from the way political campaigns reach out to people, and how that outreach translates into dollars and production support. Things like …

1. Keeping it Local. Ever heard the phrase “All politics is local?” It’s definitely true. During campaign season, you see people waving signs on street corners and knocking on doors, and you get phone calls supporting this or that candidate. When you go to the polls, you remember those personal interactions. As filmmakers, we can’t forget how important those personal interactions are. Utilizing social media will be an integral part of any crowdfunding campaign, but eye contact and shaking hands are just as important. During our Kickstarter campaign, we sent out more e-mails than I can remember, but we also spent time every day calling people, and going out to talk with people. I invited people over to my house to explain what our project was, and how they could get involved. Our producer, Matt Giovannucci, met with his local Unico chapter, and was able to raise money by meeting with their officers. The numbers back this up: our social media director/producer/lead actor, Gary Ploski, determined that of our 176 Kickstarter backers, we knew 146 of them. That’s 84%. That’s huge.

2. Helping your community. Politicians make their name in part by volunteerism, by serving on boards of non-profit organizations, or preparing meals at their local homeless shelter. This engenders community goodwill, and gives a positive connotation to their name. Filmmakers can do the same thing, helping their local communities, while increasing the public profile for their projects. I’m a film professor, so I wanted to offer something education-related to Hartford, Connecticut, the city where we shot Rising Star. We found the R.J. Kinsella Magnet School for Performing Arts, a K-8 school that was looking to increase its classroom offerings. I taught filmmaking classes at Kinsella for their 7th and 8th grade multimedia students before and after production. We also had Matt, and other crew members, come in to teach, and we helped the students write and shoot their own short movie. We had a blast, the kids loved it, and the school diversified their class offerings. Did we get paid? Nope. Did it help us? Absolutely. We wanted to shoot at the Mark Twain House in Hartford, but couldn’t get anyone to talk with us. I mentioned that to Kinsella’s artistic director after our second class, and he told me he had worked with the marketing director of the Twain House at his last job. A few phone calls later, we had permission to shoot there. The good karma came around back to us.

3. Working with your local/state government. When politicians want to garner support among voters, they’ll look for endorsements from others working in government. Think a gubernatorial candidate getting a thumbs-up from a sitting senator. This is a strong way to demonstrate a candidate can get the job done. And so it can be for indie filmmakers, too. Getting support from local and state government can be a big aid to your production. We were able to utilize our state film commission to help find and secure locations, and the Mayor’s Office of the City of Hartford got us free permits to shoot on any city street. Hartford’s Economic Development Department also referred us to grants we were eligible for after meeting with them. These people have serious titles, yes, but don’t be scared of them – your taxes pay their salaries. Working with government can also lead to dollars for your movie. Our state offers the Connecticut Film Industry Training Program, a workforce development program that trains state residents to work as crew members on film and television projects. I was able to get the list of program graduates, and e-mailed them to tell them about Rising Star. A number of them became Kickstarter backers, some became volunteer P.A.s on the film, and others actually became crew members. And to top it all off, the director of the FITP thought enough of our film to pledge $500 on Kickstarter.

4. Going green. Government is embracing all things environmentally friendly, whether by offering tax credits for buying electric cars, or encouraging recycling. Helping save the earth is a priority for just about any politician. Filmmakers can do this, too. We actually had a Sustainability Planner, Ali Berman, working with us on Rising Star, and she came up with eco- friendly plans like using biodegradable plates and silverware on set, and incorporating the environment into the film’s story. Ali wanted a sustainable character in the movie (and Gary wanted to engage online with a new community), so they asked me if I would change our lead female character, Alyza, into a vegetarian or vegan. This would make the film’s story eco- friendly, since eating those types of diets puts less strain on the environment, and it would allow Gary to reach out to the online veg community. I said if our fans decided she should change, I would do it.

And so began “The Alyza Challenge,” a Twitter campaign Gary ran.  He asked our fans to tweet #VeganVegRS or #OmnivoreRS to the movie’s Twitter feed, depending on what they wanted Alyza to eat.  The challenge caught fire online, being featured on ELEVEN vegan/vegetarian and eco-friendly blogs and news site.  We also had so many fans wanting Alyza to be vegan, I called the challenge off a week before it was suppose to end.  And I rewrote the script to make her a vegan character.  So in addition to helping the Earth, being green turned into great press for us, too, and revved up our fan base.

5. Utilizing volunteers. I know this sounds obvious; many of us have made films entirely with volunteers. But political campaigns utilize volunteers as well as anyone, given how little money they often have to work with. They can recruit people by offering them involvement in the political process. Guess what? Filmmakers can recruit people just as easily by offering them the chance to be in show business. You’d be surprised what types of help you’ll be offered if you ask for it. Once we began fundraising, Gary suggested we create a Google Doc, populated by a form on our Facebook page, that fans could fill out if they wanted to help us. In any way. We had 159 people respond. We found a still photographer in that group, as well as a family that let us shoot in their house. We also got some amazing offers: one woman offered us a flock of sheep we could photograph, a classical violinist offered to play for us in the movie, and a tradesman offered us welding and excavation services. You never know what you’re going to get.

So try thinking like a politico when you start your next movie. It could help you in every phase of your project. As for us, we’re in post production on Rising Star now, so we’re looking for champions to get behind us as we prepare for our distribution.

I hear Connecticut’s new governor is a big movie fan … You can learn more about Rising Star by visiting our Web site, Facebook page, Twitter page and Youtube page.

Marty Lang is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Film, Video and Interactive Media at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut. He wrote and directed his first feature film, Rising Star, in October 2010, and it is currently in post-production. He is also the Assistant Director of the Connecticut Film Industry Training Program. He loves traveling, UConn basketball, and pugs. Follow him on Twitter, too!


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