Outreach as a Central Element in Documentary Production

Outreach as a Central Element in Documentary Production

As collaborators for more than 7 years on social justice films such as Innocent Until Proven Guilty–about a successful academic program for juvenile offenders in Washington, DC–Katy Chevignyand Kirsten Johnson have stressed that envisioning outreach campaigns in tandem with the earliest stages of production is essential to success. Big Mouth Productions, founded by Katy Chevigny and Julia Pimsleur in 1997, continues to develop versatile, feature-length documentaries that have theatrical appeal but that can be used as tools to communicate about social justice issues and concerns.

Deadline, a verite account of Illinois Gov. George Ryan’s 11th-hour decision before leaving office to commute the death sentences of 167 prisoners on death row at the time, has been screened by and for advocacy groups in law schools, rehabilitation programs, and community forums around the country to raise awareness of death penalty facts and myths. When Ryan, a Republican and former staunch advocate of the death penalty, is confronted with the possible innocence of death row inmates in Illinois, as well as the results of 2 weeks of clemency hearings, he concludes just before his term expires in January 2003 that the criminal justice system in his state is deeply flawed and imposes commutation of all death sentences to life without parole.

Deadline was shown on NBC’s Dateline as well as theatrically after debuting at the Sundance Film Festival. It is now being used widely in outreach. “What is really unusual in this situation is the possibility of having this incredible mainstream NBC broadcast along with the grassroots, multi-level outreach plan that was in place from the beginning. We got to keep doing that, and then we got a big punch with 5.5 million viewers,” said Kirsten Johnson.

Outreach Funding and Staffing

A separate funding stream for outreach was supplied by the Ford Foundation, the JEHT Foundation and the Open Society Institute.

Deadline‘s outreach effort was initiated by Angela Tucker, an experienced coordinator, also signed on as associate producer. Angela and her team engaged anti-death penalty organizations around the country in designing communication strategies around the issue and to sustain new levels of activism. From the film’s inception, key stakeholders including the Legal Defense Fund, the Advisory Council, the Center for Human Rights, and the ACLU provided material and background and well as invaluable insight around story development.

The filmmakers originally intended to document the aftermath of Furman vs. Georgia, the landmark 1972 Supreme Court case abolishing the death penalty, by following the lives of original parolees, many of whom had achieved stable lives and professional success.

Prior to shooting, however, George Kendall, an attorney for 30 years with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, recommended that the film go beyond the 1972 decision and incorporate contemporary and complex perspectives of law enforcement officials tasked with implementing the death penalty at different levels of the criminal justice system.

“So that put the seed in our heads, and when we got the phone call from a friend in Chicago who said that the clemency hearings were open to the public and to cameras, we thought, well, we were thinking of including something about what’s going on today. So some of those early conversations with people who knew more about it than we did helped us to stay open to those early opportunities,” says Johnson.

A year would pass of unfunded development, but with the Jerome Foundation’s initial grant of $15,000, energy turned to filming the hearings and events leading up to and including the Governor’s decision. Armed now with such compelling material, the filmmakers were confident of the film’s viability, and shaped their approach to foundations and other potential funders accordingly.

Proactive Partnerships

Meanwhile, outreach partners at the Center for Wrongful Convictions and the Southern Center for Human Rights suggested unique strategies for employing short sections of the film to target select audiences. The Reentry National Media Outreach Campaign, which supports inmates transitioning back to their communities, wanted to screen a condensed 12-minute portion of the film featuring ex-offenders who share experiences of adjusting to life after prison, while the North Carolina Moratorium Project requested a segment tracking Gov. Ryan’s shift from a pro- to anti-death penalty stance as a model of psychological development that would influence legislators in their state.

Chevigny reflected, “We were delighted to have them come up with their own ideas about how they would use the film so that it wasn’t a matter of always saying to them, ‘and then you can use it for X.’ They often had ideas that we never thought of.”

Another choice designed to increase the film’s outreach potential is the shaping of the narrative, itself. A powerful clip featuring Larry Marshall of the Center for Wrongful Convictions, who not only indicts the criminal justice system in Illinois, but by extension, those of Texas, Florida, and other jurisdictions that may be even more dysfunctional, is placed at the end of the film for maximum effect. Chevigny and Johnson were careful to avoid a “neat” or facile story line focused exclusively on Governor Ryan, but instead wanted audiences to discuss the implications of these compromised systems for their locales.

Another major partner working on the outreach plan is Working Films. There will be screenings in seven target states, New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Maryland, Tennessee, New Mexico and North Carolina, where repeals and moratoriums are at issue. Working Films is helping to bring the films to North Carolina, New Mexico and Tennessee. Action begins with meetings with local activists and organizations, identifying their needs, and then helping them set up events that coincide with those needs.

Digital Outreach and Follow-up

In addition to nationwide screenings attended by filmmakers, featured advocacy organizations, family members of murder victims, and general audiences, Chevigny and Johnson are proud of a dynamic new interactive website, Deadlinethemovie.com, that allows visitors to click on a map of the United States to learn more about death penalty law and statistics in their state and to contribute time or money to local anti-death penalty organizations. The site also links to news coverage of cases and public hearings, and includes a questionnaire and an active blog for feedback about the film, marking the company’s first opportunity to monitor the impact of its outreach program.

Outreach and Broadcast Media

Chevigny and Johnson have also seen how the “symbiosis” between political activists and network and cable news can be leveraged to stage media-savvy events, such as Dead Man Walking, for which exonerated prisoners flew to Illinois from around the country to deliver a letter to Governor Ryan. The event was broadcast, and as a strong counter to scenes of distraught victims’ families, contributed strongly to the governor’s emotional perception of what was happening, according to Chevigny, and is an important addition to the film.

“The interplay between the media and real politics is really interesting,” says Johnson. “A lot of people are covering the governor’s decision. The fact that our film managed to exist and live means that we can keep reminding governors in states that have the death penalty that here’s someone who did something and you can still do something.”

Current Challenges and Recent Breakthroughs

Since the inception of the campaign, outreach has extended throughout the eight states considering repeal of the death penalty. Based in Syracuse, New York, during early Fall 2004, Angela Tucker screened the film for aides and associates of conservative legislators in the state whose constituencies may yield to efforts to overturn a moratorium imposed by the state Supreme Court. Deadline has also been screened for former Governor Mario Cuomo, a prominent anti-death penalty advocate, and the team is seeking support among key members of the state legislature.

The practically unprecedented opportunity to air their documentary via network broadcast occurred when Bob Wright of NBC approached the producers after the film’s screening at the Sundance Film Festival with an offer to air it in its entirety on the network’s prime time magazine program, Dateline. Edited for length and commercial breaks according to the filmmakers’ discretion, the film remains compelling and substantive for audiences accustomed to mainstream television viewing.

Reaching Out to Makers of Social Media

In 2000, Chevigny and other founders of Big Mouth Productions were inspired to apply outreach techniques and traditions to heighten awareness of social media generally, and to extend the life of individual documentary films through MediaRights. This extensive and informative site provides an online space for shared information and dialogue, guidance and tutorials on production and distribution, and descriptions of films covering the spectrum of social justice issues and their distributors. MediaRights is managed by Arts Engine, Inc., which is a non-profit organization funded by numerous foundations, including the Ford, JEHT and MacArthur Foundations and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Special thanks to the Annie E. Casey Foundation for making this interview possible.