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Provocative Money Documentary Says No to Commercial Release

A documentary slated for release this spring, Money & Life, asks a provocative question: can we see the economic crisis not as a disaster, but as a tremendous opportunity?

As the engagement strategist for the film, I recently showed the Money & Life trailer to a colleague with many years of experience in documentary film. He asked if the production values of whole film were as strong as what he’d seen. I told him that the trailer was cut two years ago, and that the film – from a production value lens alone – had advanced leaps and bounds. He said, “I don’t understand why you’re not going for a commercial release.”

I respect his opinion a lot, and he had a good point. If we found a traditional distributor, they would purchase rights to the film, immediately repaying (producer) Katie Teague for the significant effort and expense she has put forward to make the film. More importantly, this route offers the possibility of massive reach, including national (then international) cinematic distribution, major coverage in the media and a very, very large audience.

But we had to ask ourselves – is audience size our key measure of impact for the film? We see the purpose of the film as creating a personal experience that inspires deep dialogue and change at the community and global level. If a million people saw the film in large theatrical venues, but then went home, alone, without dialogue and the chance to co-ordinate with their neighbors, is that real impact? If just one thousand people saw the film, committed to new courses of action and mutual support, that could start a cascade of change towards a just, resilient economy.

More importantly, can a film that asks challenging questions about money and commercialism authentically rely on that system to be seen and have impact? As we were asking these questions as a team, I had a chance to share a meal with about 10 supporters in the Bay Area, and we discussed this question in depth.  We also discussed the question with our marketing advisor at the Film Collaborative. And Katie took some soul-searching time.

The answer is a resounding “Yes to community.” We are now putting final touches on the community distribution plan, and we want to radically frame distribution as contributing to a gift economy. Katie will license the film under Creative Commons, offer digital downloads and streaming under a “pay according to your values or pay it forward” model. Physical copies of the DVD will be for sale at a low price point, but buyers will be invited to add a donation to help move the work of the film forward. We will offer suggested gifts for community and educational screenings, rather than require license purchases.  And this gift economy distribution will launch on May Day, 2013, after we’ve taken our premier tour in March and April.

A version of this blog was originally posted to Money & Life, and appears here with permission. To read the full blog, click here.

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Nathaniel James's picture

Nathaniel is a Seattle-based social entrepreneur, activist and strategist working at the intersection of philanthropy, community engagement, and 21st century communications.

Previous employers and clients include City Year, WashPIRG, MoveOn, Greenpeace International, Microsoft, the Media and Democracy Coalition, OneWebDay, and Mozilla. To explore new innovations in philanthropy, Nathaniel founded the Seattle chapter of the Awesome Foundation and recently launched Philanthrogeek, based on his experience with the 2012 Adventures in New Giving project. He serves on the boards of the National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture and The Prometheus Radio Project.

Nathaniel holds a bachelors degree from the Evergreen State College and a masters in Media and Communication Policy from the London School of Economics, where he conducted original research on Wikipedia’s social network structure. He is a Rockwood Leadership Institute Fellow, and has trained in strategic communications with SPIN Academy and Spitfire Strategies.