‘Call To Action’ Films Are Winners

As traditional film ceremonies like the Academy Awards or Screen Actors Guild Awards recognize films based on traditional filmmaking elements, the Lights. Camera. Help. Festival (LCH) in Austin, Texas has a slight reconfiguration of these criteria.

The nonprofit film festival bestows awards for efforts based on their “call to action,” or how the film motivates people to help a cause. Started in 2009, LCH has recognized nonprofit filmmakers, even though the partnership between films and nonprofits has been long-standing.

Most of the films recognized by LCH have yet to crossover to the mainstream. And the trend of nonprofits looking to film is not new, Smile Pinki, a documentary produced by the nonprofit Smile Train, won an Academy Award in 2009 for Best Documentary (Short Subject). The Spitfire Grill, in 1996 was financed by the Walls, Miss., Sacred Heart League. With a budget of $6 million, the film was eventually bought for $10 million by Castle Rock Entertainment, which was the largest amount an independent film had received. It ultimately grossed almost $13 million. The film also ended up winning the Audience Award at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival.

More recently, the Washington D.C., Save the Children finally showed a 1969 documentary created for the organization that had been banned for 42-years. The film documented the charities’ work in Africa. For LCH then, the challenge comes in repackaging nonprofit filmmaking as something that can be used by the smallest organizations with a limited amounted amount of resources.

LCH Co-Founder and CEO David Neff said the festival tries to put a focus on under-praised independent filmmakers, working to get an organization’s mission out to the public. “I think for us it’s all about showing people your mission,” said Neff. “It is also about film replacing print that no one takes the time to read. Nonprofits like and understand what these films are about. What they don’t understand is how these films actually get made.”

Running this past July 28 through 30, the festival included 26 films shown throughout three nights. More than 250 films were submitted, including documentary features, shorts, narrative features and cartoons. Festival passes were available for $13 per night, or $28 for all three days. This year the festival was able to sell out Thursday night while having “great attendance” the other two. LCA said 300 people attended. This year’s winners included: Meet the Digits, benefitting Ronald McDonald House Charities of Austin; A Read on Inside Books, representing the Inside Books Project; and, On Coal River, a documentary produced by the Coal River Mountain Watch.

It has been difficult to attract an audience, said Neff, as movie-goers were not familiar with the festival and there was the challenge of combining a charity event with a film festival. “It has always been a struggle because we are so new, and many don’t understand what we are about. But once they come, they are hooked,” he said.

Aaron Bramley, LCH’s director of education and communication, said the real advantage has been their social media push, putting all their information of the online sphere. Their Twitter handle “@NPFilm” has almost 650 followers and their Facebook page has 621 “Likes.” “It’s been a huge social media push,” said Bramley. “We have social media press releases, as well as traditional posters. But, social media is where we are at because it has really leveled the playing field with cause-related films.”

In addition, this year the festival was aided through celebrity participation. One submission in particular was A Public Service Announcement not approved by AJWS for the American Jewish World Service. Produced by producer/director/writer Judd Apatow, the public service announcement (PSA) featured the talents of Tracy Morgan, Brian Williams and Jerry Seinfeld.

As for revenue, the organization is not grant funded and generates income strictly through a general donation program and through earned revenue. They hold classes for nonprofits on how to create, film and edit productions. Revenue for LCH has been coming in slow, but from their expansion has been able to increase this year. According to tax information, the organization brought in almost $6,000 in Fiscal Year 2010. From filmmaking classes and memberships, they brought in $3,333.

However, in 2009, the organization only received $1,455 in contributions. Organizations such as Mobile Loaves & Fishes, Ronald McDonald House of Austin and Heart House have all taken advantage of the LCH’s services. For Jan Gunter, communication’s manager of the Ronald McDonald House of Austin, the classes were a great opportunity to finally get a grip on the filmmaking process. “Even though we are part of a global brand, locally we run on a very tight ship which LCH was very cognizant of,” she said. “The classes were very practical for someone who is a budding filmmaker. They teach you about audio production, the editing process and even what camera you should by depending on your budget.

The organization has yet to produce its own video. But understanding the merits of video, it had a local creative studio create their award winning Meet the Digits production. The video was both in honor of its 25th anniversary and a chance to experiment with a new communication form. So far, the video has had no definite impact on fundraising activities.

“It’s a two-minute video with a very clear call to donate,” said Gunter. “For us, it’s a video to drive donations in part of a larger campaign. We should show the video at all of our events, specifically, at our premier fundraiser and gala. From the video, we are able to share a story in a way that wouldn’t have been done otherwise.”

As for future festivals, Neff hopes to add a night, perhaps one with a theme. One idea kicking about is kids’ night.

For judging the films, Neff uses a model that awards a film with dynamic call to action and satisfying structure. “We are looking for films that are going to encourage people get of their seats and want to do things,” said Neff.

Andie Redwine and her production company, By the Glass Productions, partnered with the Wellspring Retreat and Recovery Center to create a narrative film, unique for the types of films usually created for nonprofits. “The organization helped a lot in the sense we contacted them to see if they would read the script,” she said. They also let us come out and spend some time and help us understand their process.” The Albany, Ohio organization specializes in assisting those who have been victim of religious abuses. Illustrated in Redwine’s Paradise Recovered, the filmmakers decidedly felt the film would work best in a narrative form and connecting with the audience.

“One, your audiences is the nonprofit,” she said. “We decided it was important to have an education film, and so this just seemed like a nice fit. The challenge in a narrative piece is to not dictate what people are supposed to think, whereas in some PSAs (public service ads) where they ask people to do things specifically.”

Similar to the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Austin, Wellspring has used the film for its anniversary celebration. Like LCH, Wellspring is doing a film festival featuring content that has been made for them over the years.

Neff said LCH is now including various resources for filmmaking on the festival’s web site and keeping a blog on best practices on filmmaking and anecdotes about nonprofit filmmaking. Yet the emphasis of their mission remains on the film festival.

“I think the main is that we have had a very detailed committee structure that helps us run the event,” said Neff. This past year, we’ve tried to rely a lot more on volunteers and have been building our board of directors. We just hope we can have Austin live up to its nickname as the ‘third coast of filmmaking.’” NPT