Ben Kempas of Film & Campaign in Edinburgh makes films about campaigns or runs campaigns for films. The story began when he made his documentary Upstream Battle in 2008. It focused on four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River in Northern California/South Oregon that were decimating the pacific salmon river stocks. Directly impacting the culture of the Native American tribes who fed off them, the documentary followed their fight with the utility company for the dams to be removed. The documentary won many awards and screened at over 30 international film festivals.
“All of a sudden I had a film that kind of really lent itself as a tool for people to talk about this issue, but back then, you know this is 2008/2009, there wasn’t that strong a framework to release films in a more unconventional way...There were film festivals, and there were a couple of broadcasts but I always felt that we didn’t exploit the film to its full potential from what you would today call Impact Distribution.”
Kempas started researching into all the tools available for documentary filmmakers to get their film to an audience. In 2011, he was inspired to apply for the newly created role of Producer of Marketing and Distribution (PMD), working for the Scottish Documentary Institute (SDI): the first PMD in the principality. It was here he would put his research to the test.
The term PMD came from the book Think Outside the Box Office, written by Jon Reiss. In the book Reiss wrote, “I would argue that from now on, every film needs one person devoted to the distribution and marketing of the film from inception, just as they have a line producer, assistant director, or editor.” Reiss coined the name and the PMD was born.
As a PMD, the role required knowledge of self-distribution, crowdfunding, public relations, social media, producing additional online content as well as running events: everything and anything that connects a film with an audience. Kempas also became immensely knowledgeable in NationBuilder, a software programme that supports people in running these kinds of campaigns.
Stating that he prefers wherever possible to delegate specialist tasks to professionals in the respective field, such as publicists, he says, “there’s this feeling among documentary filmmakers...that you’ve got to do everything yourself, but you don’t.”
From his PMD experience, Kempas has garnered great wisdom for further projects and continues to be humble. “I am no expert. With every project, I start from scratch, you know, and I fail. I mean, oftentimes something doesn’t work out. It’s a lot of trial and error. It’s more about trying it in the first place.”
The campaign as a PMD that he is still proud of today was for the documentary I Am Breathing, while working for the SDI. It tells the story of a man dying of motor neurone disease. “There we faced the big challenge of having a beautiful film, about which people may think, “Oh this is going to be such a depressing subject, I’m not going to go to the cinema to watch it.” So we came up with a huge community screening strategy all organised around one, what we called a global screening day, which coincided with the worldwide awareness day for this disease. We ended up with over 300 screenings in about 50 countries.”
The PMD contract in Scotland was limited, but Kempas discovered that the demand for this kind of work across Europe was big. He decided to take the plunge and set up his own company Film & Campaign in 2014. “The principle by which we live is basically that every film needs its own campaign, so we can’t really apply a standard strategy and run every project through that strategy. It really starts with a blank sheet of paper every time.”
A simple strategy such as producing journalistic content to engage readers with the issue and letting them discover the documentary would take only a week or so to prepare. Much larger projects can span years.
This kind of work can however lead to more unusual things. The BUGS documentary explored the value in eating edible insects for its sustainability and reduced environmental impact. Film & Campaign produced the online content on the BUGSFeed website, starting four months before the film’s premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2016 and ending six months afterwards. It has been their biggest project to date.
“In terms of filmmakers that are maybe interested in this field of what impact their films have, they kind of need to define for themselves where they stand in relation to this type of activist work...I think both [being an artist or being an activist] are a bit of a myth and it’s more of a fluid process. Every artist is an activist to some extent.”
Film & Campaign provide support to production teams in running campaigns for films and can be contacted on their website.