Distribution Case Study: The Devil We Know
Written by Jess Fuselier
WHAT FASCINATED MOST ABOUT THIS STORY IS THAT IT WAS REALLY A MICROCOSM FOR A MUCH MORE PERVASIVE ISSUE: THE LACK OF REGULATION OF MORE THAN 80,000 SYNTHETIC CHEMICALS. MOST PEOPLE DON’T REALIZE THESE CHEMICALS ARE RELEASED ONTO THE MARKET WITHOUT ANY SIGNIFICANT OUTSIDE TESTING.”
When filmmaker Stephanie Soechtig (Tapped, Fed Up, and Under the Gun) first heard the news that chemical giant DuPont was poisoning the people of Parkersburg, West Virginia, and the residents were fighting back with one of the largest class-action lawsuits in history, she knew that she had the topic for her next film. Passionate about environmental issues and a mother of two young sons, Soechtig was propelled to make a film that would raise awareness for corporate injustice and the unregulated chemicals that exist in our homes and bodies.
Due to the success of her last films, Stephanie and her producer Kristin Lazure are invited to bring the project, The Devil We Know, to Sundance Institute’s 2016 Catalyst Forum, a program that connects investors and funders with film projects. The Catalyst team was struck by the film’s portrayal of the environmental scandal.
Explains Alana Hauser, then manager of Catalyst, now senior manager of Women at Sundance: “We knew that our creative investor community would appreciate this film’s timely investigation, and [given their past award-winning films] we believed this acclaimed team could deliver.” The film’s potential to “impact the course of environmental justice in the United States” would inspire passion within the Catalyst community.
During the Catalyst Forum, The Devil We Know is in the early stages of production. At Catalyst, they raise a total of $710,000 for the production budget—$310,000 in donations, $125,000 in recoupable grants, and $275,000 in equity. The final production budget ends up being $1,630,000—$875,000 of the amount raised is recoupable; the remainder is non-recoupable. With the financing they are able to secure through Catalyst, the team is able to move into full production for the film.
The team begins editing the film in May of 2017, while finishing up production, pulling together a solid cut in time to submit the film to the Sundance Film Festival in August. Once the team finds out the film has been accepted, they work hard to handle all outstanding post-production tasks, polish the cut, arrange for film publicity at the Festival by hiring PR consultant Renee Ridinger, and begin structuring an impact strategy for the film’s release.
The film premieres at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival and receives positive reviews and audience reactions. The film team hopes this will lead to discussions around potential all-rights deals with distributors. Roco Films is the first to come to the table during the Festival, discussing a deal for international sales for roughly $100,000. The film team and their sales agent Cinetic Media continue this conversation during the Festival, while waiting for any all-rights deals to surface. Unfortunately, no distributors come forward with a significant all-rights offer in hand.
A few months following the Festival, after a meaningful all-rights deal seems unlikely, Cinetic Media approaches Netflix to take SVOD rights for a price in the low six figures. Before finalizing the deal, Stephanie, Kristin, and their Cinetic reps work hard to negotiate a 90-day holdback with Netflix. They want to be sure they have a window to exploit TVOD sales, with the hopes of generating revenue to pay their investors back. Once this is agreed upon, the film team decides to take the Netflix deal and work with Roco on international sales.
Considering Creative Distribution
THE DISTRIBUTION PLAN
Setting Distribution Goals
WE FELT STRONGLY THAT THIS STORY AND THIS ISSUE COULD REALLY TOUCH A NERVE ACROSS ALL DEMOGRAPHICS. IT NOT ONLY SPEAKS TO ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH ADVOCATES, BUT IT SPEAKS TO PARENTS WHO WANT TO MINIMIZE THEIR EXPOSURE TO CHEMICALS, AND IT SPEAKS TO BLUE COLLAR FAMILIES WHO LIVE IN FACTORY COMMUNITIES. OUR JOB REALLY BECAME MAKING SURE WE GOT THE FILM IN FRONT OF ALL OF THESE PEOPLE.”
At the onset, Kristin and Stephanie outline four distinct goals centered around impact and one pertaining to financial return:
- Amplify the film and the underlying issues by forgoing a theatrical release and focusing on outreach and impact.
- Create a groundswell in the environmental health community and use this momentum to expand their reach to a larger audience of the unconverted.
- Turn the film into a movement and move the needle on this important issue.
- Recoup as much money as possible for their investors.
With these four goals, Stephanie hopes to combine a unique set of impact distribution tactics that will help raise awareness for this important issue that’s affecting large communities throughout the U.S.
Creating a Release Pattern
Identifying the Audience
Given her history of focusing on deeply rooted social issues as the subject of her films, Stephanie has extensive experience in mobilizing audiences around captivating non-fiction media. Through her work on her prior three films—Tapped, Fed Up, and Under the Gun—Stephanie has a loyal audience that she hopes will be champions of The Devil We Know throughout the course of the release campaign. She also aims to reach outside of her fanbase by targeting environmental-health communities that have a vested interest in this topic in order to expand her reach.
Stephanie uses her experience rallying viewers around issues during the audience-mapping phase to brainstorm who might be interested in the subject matter of The Devil We Know. Kristin and Stephanie start by identifying a few large interest groups that they hope will expand into other smaller, niche interest groups to target:
- Environmentally conscious community
- Mom groups focused on organic and nontoxic products and lifestyles
- Disease communities (those highlighted in the film)
- Firefighters (due to the chemicals used in the creation of their uniforms)
Using these four communities, they begin to research specific groups who have an affiliation with these communities that they can target through their outreach efforts. They also form outreach lists for communities who have been affected by the practices of DuPont Chemical, keeping these on hand for when they begin outreach for their nontheatrical tour and impact campaign.
Assembling a Team
THE DISTRIBUTION STRATEGY
Setting a Release Pattern
WE KNEW PEOPLE WOULD WATCH THE FILM AND WANT TO KNOW HOW THEY COULD REDUCE THEIR EXPOSURE TO THE TOXIC CHEMICAL AT THE HEART OF THE FILM, AS WELL AS OTHER UBIQUITOUS CHEMICALS. WE WANTED TO GIVE THEM THOSE TOOLS IN A WAY THAT DIDN’T FEEL OVERWHELMING OR COST PROHIBITIVE.”
Digital and Other Ancillary Releases
WE WERE FORTUNATE TO BE CONNECTED WITH A NUMBER OF INDIVIDUALS AND FAMILY FOUNDATIONS IN THE ENVIRONMENTAL-HEALTH SPACE WHO BELIEVED IN THE FILM AND OUR VISION FOR OUTREACH AND IMPACT. THEY WERE INCREDIBLY GENEROUS WITH US, AND WE WANTED TO STRETCH THOSE DONATIONS AS FAR AS WE COULD TO EXPAND THE REACH OF THE FILM.”