Picture Motion Mobilizes Indie Film Audiences to Take Action

Ziyad Saadi takes a look at how Picture Motion works with indie films to create customized, relevant social action campaigns.


Photo courtesy of The Bully Project.
Photo courtesy of The Bully Project.

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With the digital age of cinema now pushing the boundaries of film distribution, the possibilities with which filmmakers have been presented are growing exponentially. The ability to both reach and engage an audience in one’s cinematic work has therefore paved the way for important social issues that may otherwise go unnoticed to finally be discovered, dissected, and discussed by the general public.

One firm in particular has excelled in bringing powerful movies to the forefront of public dialogue. Picture Motion is a New York-based company responsible for outreach campaigns for some of the most acclaimed independent films in the past two years.

Picture Motion defines itself as “a team of social impact strategists that use the power of stories to accelerate change.” In other words, the company creates and relies on campaign strategies—ranging anywhere from social media to grassroots marketing—in which they team up with filmmakers, distributors, funders, and nonprofit organizations in order to ensure that their roster of films ultimately finds the audiences they deserve. It is a for-profit company that began when founder and executive director Christie Marchese noticed that there were many independent films that were not getting the social impact campaigns they needed to raise awareness for their cause and could stand to benefit from the technological advances that were leading to new methods of marketing and distribution.

With the upcoming premiere of the 2014 Sundance pick Rich Hill set to take place in New York City on August 1st, Picture Motion’s current work on its social impact strategy for the film will attempt to live up to its previous successes. Included in its past campaigns are films such as Fed Up, a thorough investigation of childhood obesity in America; Bully, an inspiring look at the troubled lives of high school students and the epidemic of teen bullying; and Fruitvale Station, last year’s Sundance award winner detailing the tragic true story of a young man shot down by transit police on New Year’s Day.

When it comes to the filmmakers, most approach Picture Motion once the movie is in post-production and in need of assistance with the film’s marketing and distribution. Marchese sheds light on the shift in distribution, stating that, despite the appeal of a theatrical release, “that’s not always a reality for documentary films. [But] there’s so many more opportunities to distribute your film. You can use VHX or Vimeo to distribute online, you can book your own theater, hire your own marketing team.” According to Marchese, “Most of the filmmakers we work with have already determined or are in the process of determining their theatrical, digital and broadcast distribution plans.”

However, where Picture Motion’s focus lies is in the film’s impact campaign, which consists of among other things, identifying policy makers and business leaders, booking national and international screening tours, and organizing grassroots screening events. Producer/director of Bully Lee Hirsch explains that “Bully already had the Weinstein Company attached before Picture Motion was on board; we were already a team of people working on developing the outreach campaign for the film before it was released… So Picture Motion came on board as sort of an added element to a team that included outside PR agencies, the distributor’s PR team, [and] our staff that was internal to The Bully Project.”

For the film Bully, Picture Motion set out to make bullying a national issue and reduce the stigma around being bullied. Overseeing the social media for the film, Bully’s Facebook page drew in stories from bullied kids who managed to find solace and support within the youth community online. The firm also oversaw all online partnerships and initiatives, which included an online survey and texting campaign with DoSomething.org, a photo share campaign with Love is Louder, and story sharing with Causes.com, all of which amounted to one of Picture Motion’s most successful campaigns.

For God Loves Uganda, which tackled the nation’s extreme injustices toward the LGBT community, Picture Motion collaborated with the organization All Out to support a petition to put an end to the “Kill the Gays” bill in Uganda, and shared the trailer with their members (amounting to over a million people). They also teamed up with social issue website Upworthy and scheduled three pieces of God Loves Uganda video content that ultimately obtained over a quarter of a million collective views, while also releasing a video through Thunderclap for International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.

As far as selecting filmmakers and projects, the process is surprisingly simple, with only one real criterion: Picture Motion must have passion for the project. Working on anywhere from three to eight projects at any given moment, the company requires that a member of its team feels very strongly about a particular issue in order to handle the immense pressure of the job. There are many factors to assess when considering a project, with each campaign having to meet strict deadlines that can be driven by anything from social and political issues tackled in the film to the actual distribution plan itself, and such campaigns require a lot of work.

The team at Picture Motion consists of eight full-time employees, referred to by Marchese as “Janes of All Trades,” due to their extensive knowledge in a range of fields that include film distribution, film marketing, film production, online movement building, political strategy, nonprofit management, impact strategy, journalism, public relations, and civic engagement—and due to the fact that they are all women. Each person at the company is required to have a vast knowledge of film distribution and principles of social impact strategies, as well as a creative mind to come up with the most effective marketing ideas for the films in question.

For their work on the campaigns, Picture Motion will typically charge a monthly flat service fee for a minimum of three months. The exact price depends on the scope of the project and how many of the company’s team members will be working on it, as well as how many of its services (e.g. online engagement, partnership development, grassroots screening tour management, etc.) they will be implementing and managing. Once the partnership between Picture Motion and the filmmaker is established, Picture Motion will survey every filmmaking team with a list of questions to aid in defining the campaign priorities and the financial obligations of the film.

With three offices (NYC, LA, and DC), Picture Motion makes an effort to meet with its filmmakers in person as much as possible, in turn strengthening the collaboration and the campaign itself. Partnerships with filmmakers could last up to two years, with the longest-running one being for First Generation (two years and three months). “When we work with filmmakers, it’s like a marriage. It’s going to be a long-term relationship,” explains Marchese.

From that point on, the company seeks out people and organizations that have extensive experience and expertise in the subject that a given film will depict, and then they start approaching organizations with plans for a partnership. Among the many organizations with whom Picture Motion has previously worked are GLAAD, Democracy for America, Big Brothers Big Sisters of America and Food Policy Action, all of which have helped Picture Motion raise awareness for past film campaigns. The extent to which an organization will be involved in a campaign varies depending on the scope and nature of each project, but Marchese, asserts that “you have to make sure [organizational partners are] getting something out of it as much as the filmmaker is getting something out of it.” For example, a partner’s work can involve buying a group of movie tickets and staking ownership over a screening where they get to have a panel discussion with the audience and get new members to hear about their organization, while Picture Motion helps the filmmakers fill the theater.

Some of the company’s films have not ended up in movie theaters or experienced traditional distribution, instead relying on grassroots screenings where smaller audiences consisting of universities or faith-based groups, for example, are reached based on the content of the film. But for the films that do seek out theatrical distribution, the company’s mission involves recruiting and engaging fans of the project by finding them online and encouraging them to help and support the film by attracting people of a third party who are not already on board. Online marketing is an especially important promotional tool for Picture Motion, who has used everything from an Instagram contest to increase helmet use for the campaign for The Crash Reel, a documentary about former professional snowboarder Kevin Pearce after he suffered a brain injury, to a Twitter conversation for Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare, about the perils of the American healthcare system, in which the hashtag #rescuehealthcare became a trending topic.

The funding for the impact campaigns comes primarily from foundations working towards social change, but the increase in box office caused by impact campaigns in recent years has led to them being included in distributors’ marketing budgets. A limited budget is, unsurprisingly, the biggest obstacle that Picture Motion encounters when determining the most efficient and effective marketing strategy. “You have to be really creative,” states Marchese, “which is why we use so many online tools and focus on the film’s website and mobile creativity and in-kind partnerships and events.” Fortunately, however, such limitations have led Picture Motion to many creative strategies that have proved quite successful.

Some of these successful strategies include the Fed Up campaign, from which arose the Fed Up Challenge that saw over 40,000 people sign up to try and cut added sugar from their diets for a total of 10 days. Those who joined were sent information that included recipes, ways to take action and helpful tips videos from Katie Couric, with the encouragement to share the information with as many people as possible. For The Crash Reel, Picture Motion experimented with BitTorrent and put together what the site calls a “bundle” for the project that included infographics and information about traumatic brain injuries, along with a clip of the film and some fun stickers from what was named the Love Your Brain campaign, ultimately procuring approximately two million downloads.

The true impact of these campaigns, however, is often hard to define or even quantify. Recalling a woman in Canada who hosted a number of screenings for It’s a Girl, a film about the killing of girls in India and China, Marchese brings up the point that “sometimes it just takes hitting that one person who’s a huge activist and advocate for the issue in their part of the world.” Often the ability to measure how successful a campaign has been is based on time. Campaigns for films like Fed Up and American Promise have already managed to educate people on sugar consumption and educational environments for young black men, respectively, but whether the campaigns have led to actual changes cannot be determined for some time.

Ultimately, the work that’s been done by Picture Motion so far has managed to grow, as creative marketing and non-traditional distribution methods have enabled films with low budgets and high cultural standing to find audiences. With a mentality of bringing people together, the firm has managed to reach out, encouraging the community to take part in their campaigns while facilitating the distribution process for filmmakers. Picture Motion is “really like an efficient part of a bigger team,” claims Hirsch.

Editor's note: two quotes originally attributed to campaign manager Emily Ho were changed to attribute to executive director Christie Marchese on 7/15/14.