by Sheila Ganz
By the time I finished my first documentary “Unlocking the Heart of Adoption” and was ready to launch it, in January 2003, I had attended numerous workshops on film distribution. I learned about contracts, that everything is negotiable until you sign on the dotted line and that lots of documentary filmmakers had been ripped off by educational distributors, because they went out of business or for other reasons. It made me think twice about going that route.
But I did send my 56 minute film, about the lifelong process of adoption for adoptees, birthparents and adoptive parents in the same race as well as transracial adoptions, to educational distributors. The one that accepted it told me that I would get 15% of every sale. Fifteen percent on a film that had taken me years to make and for which I still owed thousands—not quite a eureka moment!
I made the film because I want people to know that adoption is more than a one-time event. Adoption can deeply impact everyone involved: adoptees, birthparents and adoptive parents; each person plays an important role in the birth/adoptive family; and that the best solution to this complex situation is openness and honesty.
I suffered a lot of emotional ups and downs during the making of the film. Everybody in the film has a moving story. At the promptings of an advisor, I decided to include my story as a birthmother who unwillingly relinquished her daughter for adoption in 1969. I searched for and found her, when she was nineteen. The film and all of the people in it mean a lot to me and I wasn’t ready to let go of it so easily or cheaply—15%, imagine!
While making the film, I got used to being in front of an audience at work-in-progress screening and fundraisers. For people who think public speaking is scarier than dying, try public speaking and asking for money. I decided to see if adoption agencies in the San Francisco Bay Area would let me screen the film to their staff and then perhaps buy a copy. That summer, I showed it to ten agencies and they all bought it. I was on my way to self-distribution.
I decided to see if adoption agencies in the San Francisco Bay Area would let me screen the film to their staff and might possibly want to buy it. That summer, I showed it to ten agencies and they all bought it. I was on my way to self-distribution.
Doing a Mailing
A friend gave me a list of addresses of adoption agencies around the country. I designed a two-color post card and had 500 printed. As a Film Arts Foundation fiscally sponsored project, I had access to their non-profit postage status. I sorted the post cards by zip code, brought them to the main post office bundled according to their instructions. But alas, I did not make many sales.
An adoptee friend and award-winning web designer, Denise Castellucci, offered to make a website for the film for free. I was thrilled. Denise created the website and did updates for me for about four years. This really helped me to get the word out about the film. She also created a Guestbook page where people could leave comments.
I email everyone who leaves a note. Many are searching for missing family members. I have a hard copy list of search and support groups and send them the information. Several times, I have heard from people who were helped by this. Denise also helped me to create a Paypal account, so I could sell VHS tapes and eventually DVDs on the website. This launched the film for home video sales.
Then a couple of things happened. First, Denise was having a baby and didn’t have the time to help me and I was accepted to the first round of Digital Directions Fellowships at BAVC. I took the HTML class. All in all it was a great opportunity. A couple of months later, I received a grant for distribution. It took me a month to completely re-design the website, which now includes a Resource page for people who are searching along with interesting articles.
People had been asking me for years to put a sample of the film on the website. Once I had my own FCP system, I had a chance to do that. I edited a five minute trailer of the film and put it on the website. This has helped me to make sales.
At one of the distribution workshops, someone gave me a short list of reviewers for public libraries. The main one is Library Journal. I contacted them and sent the film. They printed a review and included the film’s website. A distribution company for public libraries contacted me and we cut a deal that I would get 66% of sales they made. I made a bunch of sales through this company.
The film was also reviewed in adoption newsletters and I made a few sales from this. I didn’t know of an email list of adoption agencies, so I went to the National Adoption Clearinghouse website where agencies are listed by state. Then I hand copied and pasted the email for each contact person into a word document. It took days, but it really paid off. I started selling to adoption agencies.
Creating a Workbook and Discussion Guide
From documentary filmmakers and feedback from adoption professionals, I learned that there are ways I could make the film even more helpful as an educational tool. I wrote a Workbook that includes a chapter outline of the film, discussion guide with quotes from everyone in the film, a description of the people in the film, overview of adoption in America and reading list of books written by and for adoption triad members. I discovered that this was a great selling point. It also helped me to make sure that adoption agencies purchase the film at the professional rate. Individuals do not get the Workbook.
Some professionals asked to preview the film before buying it. That seemed reasonable. I charge a $20 preview fee that is deducted from the total price upon acceptance. Then I send them the Workbook. I give them two weeks to preview the film. Some take longer, but with follow up, I either make the sale, or they return the DVD.
Doing a Mailing to Niche Marketing and Conferences
“Unlocking the Heart of Adoption” screened at several film festivals, but the largest and most successful audience I had was national and regional adoption conferences. The film includes three mixed race transracially adopted people, Debbie, a Japanese American woman, Paul, a Filipino American man and Martin, an African American man with Hal, his Caucasian adoptive father. Their stories are powerful and poignant and opened the door to a variety of conferences.
I was invited to screen the film at the Midwest Adoption Conference, Korean Adoptee and Adoptive Family Conference, Adoption & Culture Conference, Concerned United Birthparents Conference and New York University among others. In 2004, I screened the film at the Child Welfare League of America Conference. There I met a professor from the University of Tennessee, who asked me to do a joint proposal with her for the Council on Social Work Education Conference. We were accepted and in wintry Chicago, I made more connections. And I obtained a list of all of the college / university social work departments in the country free of charge. Now, I had my hot list!
Selling to Colleges and Universities
The list consisted of professor, department, college, address, phone and fax number. I decided to write a cover letter and fax the department chair along with an order form flyer. I had a really good long distance deal from the phone company and hand faxed each one. It took days. Then a filmmaker friend told me about an online company that gives you a fax number and a flat rate per month to fax 1,000 pieces. This has worked out great.
I also bought an email list of college professors in different departments and acquisition librarians. It took some time to weed out the people who would most likely purchase the film. This has also proved fruitful.
In 2005, the National Educational Telecommunications Association accepted the film to air for three years. They let me have a fifteen second tape offer at the end of the film. Transit Media is my fulfillment house. I was sad when the film was no longer on the airwaves and applied to get the film on a cable station. I am pleased to say that The Documentary Channel recently acquired “Unlocking the Heart of Adoption.” It will begin airing in May 2011, for two years and they are letting me keep the fifteen second tape offer.
While it’s great to make solid sales of the film, what continues to be rewarding for me is to know how much my film is appreciated by individuals and professionals. Numerous adoptees, birthparents and adoptive parents have thanked me for telling their story. I have had adoption agency professionals who bought the film 3, 4 and 5 years ago tell me that they use the film in every round of training. University professors in psychology and women studies tell me that they screen “Unlocking the Heart of Adoption” in the first class of the semester to open up discussion on the issues.
Eight years later, I am still selling the film to individuals, adoption agencies and educational institutions in the US and in other English speaking countries. My dream has come true “Unlocking the Heart of Adoption” is making a difference in people’s lives!