You might have spotted Impact Distribution experts and Huckletree West members Together Films causing a stir lately…
Unrest, their latest project, is director Jennifer Brea’s unflinching account of life with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME) and is garnering social media love from Lena Dunham and Gloria Steinem, international recognition at Sundance, SXSW and CPH:Dox Film Festival – and a sold out BFI screening in London.
We’ve long been fans of the brains behind the team. Back in 2012, we were captivated by Ping Pong, the story of elderly people using ping pong to beat dementia, forge friendships and go for gold. Then at Britdoc, Together Films founder Sarah Mosses managed the Impact Distribution campaign for the inspiring doc… so it shouldn’t be any surprise that her latest project is similarly must-watch. We joined Sarah and Campaign Manager Rebecca Ashdown in Huckletree West’s meditation yurt to find out about why it’s time for Unrest.
Hello, you two! Let’s take it back to the beginning: tell us all about Together Films. How did you get started?
Sarah: “I started Together Films in 2013 when I just left working for a film fund called Britdoc. Initially I kicked off with my friend Elizabeth who was working as a PR at the time, then Elizabeth wanted to go off and do some directing and producing. I wanted to get more geeky in terms of how we can really systematically help the companies we’re working with, so we transitioned from being more of a PR/Marketing service to a full time consultancy where we challenge how and why people market and distribute film. Throughout that process we’d been working with talented freelancers and one of them happened to be Beccy.”
Beccy: “I was working at London Film Festival for the BFI and I was saying ‘I really want to get into impact distribution and producing!’ I knew it was a field lots of people were doing in the US but not many were in the UK. About four people in the space of a week said “You need to talk to Sarah Mosses! She’s the Ping Pong girl!” and I thought “…What?!” We finally got connected and realised we had loads of similar interests.”
Looking at social media, it’s clear Unrest is resonating with audiences also experiencing unseen illnesses (the hashtag #TimeForUnrest charts their reactions to the film).
Beccy: “Exactly. What’s exciting is that with our Unrest campaign, individuals can host their own screenings.”
Sarah: “The levels of accessibility with this project are really important. People get in touch and say, ‘At my uni we have a disability group, can we bring the film to us and have a Q&A?’ Ticket prices might be a reason people don’t go to the cinema, so we essentially have to charge a license fee to the people running the screening. The average cinema has 20 people paying £10 per ticket, so we can say ‘what size is your venue? If 150 people can come, you could charge £2.’ What we’ve been championing for a number of years is to recognise that money as part of box office figures. They’re normally just cinemas, so we’ve been petitioning Rentrak, the monitoring group. With many documentaries, it might only ever be in 20 cinemas but it could be in 400 church halls, warehouses, marquees – or a yurt!”
Alongside Unrest, you’ve worked on headline grabbing documentaries, The Hunting Ground and They Will Have to Kill Us First. How do you choose which projects to work on?
Sarah:“What’s different about us is that we’re not a full time film distributor: a full time film distributor has to do a slate of averages. They have 10 films in a year, one needs to do amazingly, the other nine have to do okay. It’s like with a VC – you need one baby to do really well. You have to pick up films you’re maybe passionate about but not obsessed with. Whereas because our full time remit is a consultancy, we’ll work with a project and say ‘You’ve got great ideas, let’s refine them with you and you can go wild and have fun’. That leaves us to say, for this particular project, there’s something really interesting about it and we will release it in the UK only if we can do a case study around it.”
“For the type of work we do, you have to really fully believe in it and want to commit a lot of time, blood, sweat and tears into the project. If you’re pitching it to a niche audience, you have to be 100% invested in it.”
Sarah: “It’s funny, your business model part of your head is saying, ‘They can pay us for six months – that’s amazing.’ The other part of your brain is saying ‘I’m bored at minute twenty.” The project that we focus on is impact distribution strategy. It’s not just putting a film in a cinema and paying for a ticket: that’s strictly distribution, or how commerce and consumers buy a ticket. What we want to focus on is projects where it’s like: buy this ticket, understand more about this issue, sign a petition or go for a walk or call your grandmother (or whatever the ask is at the time.)
With Unrest, the team had lived in this film for four years, were super passionate but had thought really cleverly about the project. So there wasn’t that much refining strategy as a lot of it was there. We loved that the initial strategy conversation was really fun, we were saying “we could do a review of accessibility across the country!”. We’ve already had one cinema which has sold too many wheelchair seats and had to move to a bigger screen to fit more wheelchairs in. It’s really interesting.”
So, what happens when a project is over?
Beccy: “For the industry as a whole, the Unrest case study will be so valuable. There’s a real need and demand from audiences that venues be more accessible and distributors take disability into account.”
Sarah: “There’s a whole global movement around Unrest. The killer is if you’re doing this kind of campaign, you’ve built up a community of people who want to help you move things forward. One of the interesting things about this project is there’s a separate private Facebook group of activators within the network. That community doesn’t disappear when they finish watching the film. The virtual screening series opens things up. If you’re a homebound audience, you log on at same time as the cinema with 50 other people. That group gets put into a chat box so you can carry on talking weeks, months and even years afterwards. You can’t get that in the cinema!
“We talk a lot with our clients about exit strategies. So like a startup, who’s going to buy you out afterwards and take it on? Who’s managing that community when you get bored or need to do that next film? If it’s a campaign about a certain issue, should they hand it to an organisation like Greenpeace who already has an engaged audience? We can hand community management to a campaign partner who can fulfil those campaign goals on a longterm basis.”
Talk soon turned to the enduring real world impact of Ping Pong…
Sarah: “We devised a huge campaign to tour 2000 care homes across the UK, so I hired a ping pong coach to run it with me. There’s a scene in the film that suggests playing table tennis can reduce the effects of dementia. I wanted to prove this really worked but didn’t realise how long it takes to get medical approval! After working on the campaign for 2 years, Andrew was hired by Bounce, where he runs BAT (Bounce Alzheimer’s Therapy) where old people across London come to play table tennis. They’ve just got approval to do the medical trial to prove whether or not regularly playing table tennis reduces the effects of dementia.
Dementia is the most expensive burden on NHS because of cost. If we can apply a physical wellbeing treatment to say not only do you need to be active, it’s particularly the swifter hand eye coordination, increased blood level to the brain, and cognitive process of table tennis that’s more intense than playing bowls. You can essentially diagnose, ‘you should be playing table tennis once a week’. For a project that I watched the rough cut of in November 2011, 6 years later, there’s still stuff happening. It’s insane. The impact of that project can just run and run and run.”
We heard on the grapevine (okay, we were sitting right opposite you!) that you’ve sold out a BFI screening of Unrest. That must be a massive moment for you all!
Beccy: “It’s very exciting on lots of different levels. Personally as I used to work there on the events team and the first UK screening is at the BFI! We are really happy to have receive support from the BFI Audience Award. We sold out our first screening in a 134 seat screen without any marketing push which is incredible as it shows huge audience demand. However we’ve been moved up to a larger screen now and we have another 300 seats to sell! The film has been programmed as part of a strand called “Woman With A Movie Camera”, where the BFI for the last year and a half have been working to raise the profile of female filmmakers.
What’s exciting is that Unrest is made not just a woman, but a woman of colour who is disabled, a specific group of women who are overlooked in the film industry. It’s really exciting! Just yesterday the BFI changed its funding structures, with a 50% spend on female creatives, 20% on BAME voices and 9% on LGBT voices. What’s nice is that they’re using Unrest as a key diversity example the rest of industry should follow.”
Head here to find out more about where Unrest is screening.
Want to keep up with Together Films? Take a look at their latest projects, learn more about their work on Impact Distribution and find out how to host your own screening of Unrest.