Documentary Filmmaker Annie Roney on Finding Your Audience in the Educational Market

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Chris Dorr

Annie Roney is managing director and founder of ro*co films. After nine years working with a top industry distributor, Annie founded ro*co films in 2000 with two complimentary ideas: the belief that a well-told, well-researched and emotionally driven documentary can challenge the way people think about issues in every corner of the globe; and, to be entrusted with the distribution of these stories, ro*co needed to be in service to the filmmaker first and foremost.

Your company launched an educational division in 2009. What led you to focus on this market and what did your first efforts look like?

For many years, I was repeatedly asked if we would act as a sales agent for films in the US market, in addition to our work outside the US. The answer was always “no – it’s an entirely different beast”. I would refer the films to the usual suspects – the sales agents everybody knows. But two situations caused me to pivot:

1) There were a couple of films that I absolutely loved that were not getting picked-up by the usual suspects for domestic representation. Those films weren’t resonating with them, and I felt called to help in any way I could. With expectations managed, I jumped in and started pounding the pavement for domestic deals – pitching to theatrical distributors, home video distributors, broadcasters and educational distributors.

2) In the course of that new endeavor, I met with the owner of a well-known and revered theatrical distributor to pitch one of these films. He asked me if I considered partnering with one of the other known (male) sales agents. I replied that while I liked and respected them, the reality was we all chose to work with films we cared about and that resonated with us. And while often we shared the same sensibility around film, I came with more of a female sensibility about what films worked and what films didn’t.

The unnamed owner of this US theatrical company looked like he had just been punched. For a moment he was breathless. He said “My God, I only see films at film festivals with a sales agent attached, and they are all men!” He recognized in that moment that films that might better appeal to a female audience weren’t even being considered. That was another calling — one I hadn’t asked for or wanted – but I felt I needed to do what I could for films that were important to me.

So after signing on as the foreign distributor for Abigail Disney and Gini Reticker’s film “Pray the Devil Back to Hell”, I learned they had no US sales agent – and offered to help. We were looking at a myriad of opportunities for the film. In the course of that, a few offers for educational distribution came in.

I was astonished at how bleak the terms were for the filmmakers, as well as disappointed with the catalog approach to marketing them. I suggested to Abigail that we could probably do a better job for the film and with better terms if we collaborated and focused on an educational campaign.

I was right.

Abigail and her producing partner Gini Reticker had done a fantastic job of building a community with the film since their first premiere at Tribeca. We already had a great base to work with; we began researching every possible educator who could use this film on their campus. In some cases we bought data that we thought would serve the film.

We also knew there was great potential for community screenings. We weren’t ready to support those at the time, so we worked with Caitlin Boyle at FilmSprout who did a phenomenal job of booking the community screenings for the film. In the end we did thousands of screenings and sales. But that’s really not the end, because despite the home video being available, the educational DVD continues to be licensed to educational institutions and non-profit organizations — with no sign of stopping.

I didn’t want to take another film until I felt satisfied our success wasn’t a fluke and that we had the infrastructure built to accommodate more films. This was very different from what ro*co had done in the world of foreign distribution — we had entered a retail landscape with manufacturing costs, inventory, shipping, sales tax and customer service. We focused on the infrastructure and about a year and a half later we were ready to take on more films.

It should be noted that we no longer act as sales agents for films in the US – it really is a whole other animal.

What’s the size of the U.S. educational market, or to put it another way, how much can a documentary film make in this market if it does really well? Is it $100,000, $500,000 or more?

When we refer to the educational market, we are referring to more than just the sale of the public performance rights to colleges and universities. We also include the sale of the public performance rights to any community that might want to host a screening.

That includes non-profits, corporations, NGOs, churches, mosques, military bases, learning centers, etc. So, really, the possibilities are limitless. There is always more that can be done. That’s why we believe that having a focused campaign that identifies organizations that might want to host screenings is so important.

In general, we’d like to see a film we take-on produce 50-100K in sales.

Our most successful film to date has nearly reached a million dollars, including speaking fees. Why so successful? Largely, it is the right topic at the right time. It is a topic that truly affects us all: young and old, student, teacher, business owner, minister, man or woman. It is also consistently supported by an excellent social media campaign that engages on a daily basis.

Your company has steadily increased its capabilities in the educational market, most recently with the launch of a new web site. Explain what led you to create this new site and what it provides to filmmakers and audiences.

Over the past four years, we have seen the educational/semi-theatrical market grow and diversify, which has been tremendously exciting to watch. While the market used to mainly consist of visual media librarians at educational institutions, we have seen the semi-theatrical audience demographic grow significantly to include student groups, corporations, non-profit organizations, government orgs, religious groups, public libraries, community film series…the list could go on and on. So, after observing this shift, we wanted to update our site to reflect this new audience that was seeking out our films

While the previous site was easy to understand and navigate for a very niche audience of buyers, we knew that it could be confusing and complicated for an average citizen wanting to show one of our films for their community. So, with the new site, we make it much easier for people to learn about hosting a screening, find answers to questions, and to purchase the proper licensing to host an event. We have found that many people still think the only way to see or show a film is either in a commercial theater or in their home, so this new website helps us to empower people to take action, host an event of their own, and engage their community.

And the great thing is that our new website also includes highly sophisticated event planning and management tools, so once a public performance license is purchased, people can use our website to promote, organize, and execute their event as well as track rsvps. And because they use our website, it allows us to keep better track of where screenings are happening and also to stay in touch with screening attendees, keep them engaged, and possibly encourage them to host additional screenings in the future.

The new site also allows for a much higher level of content and contact management. We can now more effectively control each film’s page, which allows for easy manipulation of pricing, posting new information, and linking to current campaigns, articles, videos, etc related to the film’s message. Also, because we talk to so many different types of people each day related to so many different films or topics, we love that the new website allows us to better target, track, organize, and communicate with potential and current buyers for our films.

We can now, in one place (our website) communicate with people via email, Facebook, twitter, texting, and we can also encourage our supporters to recruit their friends and colleagues to host screenings of our films and get involved. So, our communication can now have this ripple effect, where we are able to reach people and communities in our periphery that we never would’ve reached before.

We know that our success lies in our ability to activate, broaden, and respect the growing community of people who take interest in our films, and the new website helps us to do just that.

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