Racing through the years: TIME TRIAL

Client portrait: How the people behind Cycling Films Ltd. started audience build-up five years ahead of the premiere of their documentary TIME TRIAL

This week, the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) saw the world premiere of TIME TRIAL, a Scottish documentary following controversial road cyclist David Millar.

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Around 1400 people packed into the Royal Theatre Carré for the premiere of TIME TRIAL in Amsterdam

As a subject, Millar would be compelling even to a director who isn’t as passionate about cycling as TIME TRIAL helmer Finlay Pretsell. He cuts a glamorous enough figure to be known as ‘Le Dandy’ to French cycling fans, and at the time of his retirement in 2014 was regarded as one of the best cyclists in the world, having worn the leader's jersey in all three grand tours. He’s also a divisive figure: the last ten years of his career as a cyclist were spent in very public mea culpa, after he was caught using performance-enhancing drugs in 2004, reinvented himself as an anti-doping campaigner after a three-year ban, and traced his fall and rise in a frank autobiography, Racing Through the Dark (2011). Almost every road cycling fan has an opinion about Millar; he’s acquired the sort of celebrity that means his smallest pronouncement causes ripples. Not just a compelling subject, then, but a potential box office draw.

Film & Campaign’s Ben Kempas was involved at various stages of the project – building and running its various websites and experimenting with an early version of 360° video – and we’d like to offer our congratulations to the production team, Cycling Films, and to the Scottish Documentary Institute, who initiated the project. 

Competing in the highest-profile competition in the biggest documentary film festival in the world is an outstanding platform for a world premiere and should open up a number of further screening and distribution opportunities for the film in the future. However, an advantage TIME TRIAL may have over the other fourteen films in the competition when it comes to the distribution stage is that there’s already an audience, dedicated, engaged, excited about the project and ready to the spread the word, awaiting this documentary.

This is a very unusual situation in the documentary world. Documentaries exist outside the star system; no matter how fine a previous work may be, or how many awards they might have won, it’s rare that there’s a large, bankable crowd of fans awaiting the next work from a documentary filmmaker. A documentary usually finds its audience through its subject matter; through people who are interested enough in the topic to spread the word. What the team behind Time Trial managed to do was identify an audience in advance even of the first footage being shot, and keep them engaged and involved throughout the filming process, converting them into advocates and even investors.

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Producer Sonja Henrici with sound recordist Doug Fairgrieve in the Dolomites

I spoke to Sonja Henrici, producer of the film and co-director of the Scottish Documentary Institute, about the unique ways they went about this.

“One of the advantages of taking a longer time to make a film is you can acquire fans along the way, and while cycling is a niche interest, it’s a very fertile niche, We began looking into potential audiences for the film in the very early stages of initial filming, round about 2011-2012. We knew there were certain advantages to making a film about cycling, and specifically about David. Well-known cyclists have very high numbers of Twitter followers – David had 40,000 Twitter followers at the time and has over 200,000 now – and so there was already an engaged possible audience there.” 

In fact, TIME TRIAL might be a very good early example of the Virtuous Circle. Virtuous Circle was an audience engagement project that the Scottish Documentary Institute, with funding from Creative Scotland, ran from 2011 to 2014, with Ben as their producer of marketing and distribution. Essentially using the principles of the virtuous circle as outlined by Kevin Kelly, the project posited the need to identify and reach out potential audiences from early in the production of a film, keep them engaged and involved in the process so that they’ll act as advocates for the film come screening and distribution. The final part of the circle, of course, is holding onto these contacts, building an audience database that can hopefully be brought on to a subsequent project. Ben worked with the TIME TRIAL team, using NationBuilder campaigning software to keep track of the audience as the interest came in. At the most recent count TIME TRIAL, through its various iterations, had accumulated more than 2,500 supporters and 4,200 ‘prospects’ (identified potential supporters) in NationBuilder, 5,100 Facebook page likes and 2,300 Twitter followers – all before anyone had seen the film.

“There was some trial and error to the process in the early stages as we discovered what would and wouldn’t work in terms of audience engagement,” says Henrici. “We worked out whether we wanted to do extra content that was a bit more bespoke – we’d thought at first we could offer a 360° film experience, shot from inside the peloton, where the viewer felt that they were in the middle of a cycle race with David Millar, as exclusive content and an incentive for funding, but after testing out the equipment we felt it wasn’t quite ready – it was very heavy and it was a lot to ask of David – you don’t want to push the boat in those early stages when you’re still building a relationship with your character.”

Instead, they stepped back and took a much simpler approach – a website created under the film’s first working title, Being David Millar, as a portal for sign-ups and logging early interest. The Support This Film page of the website didn’t simply function to collect email addresses, either – one of the TIME TRIAL team’s most successful ideas was to ask their potential audience members to identify roles they’d be willing to take on to help the film – all named after roles in a cycle race, to better appeal to that audience. So, ‘tifosi’ (as the passionate cycling fans who stand by the roadside are known) signed up just to receive updates on the film; ‘domestiques’ are both the riders who support the team leaders and people willing to promote or act as an ambassador for TIME TRIAL from social media accounts; ‘stagiari’ (the name given to amateur riders working within professional teams) are those members of the public who felt they could get more involved, from shooting mobile phone fan footage from the crowds during Millar’s races to hosting screenings of the finished film; while the Directeur Sportif – who manages a cycling team – is the honorary title given to donors and private investors.

A documentary film as investment opportunity

Documentaries using crowd-funding (with varying degrees of success) is nothing new of course; but here the crowd had been judiciously selected and invited. 

“Even before we’d properly started shooting, we launched the film as a project that people could invest in,” Henrici explained. “We invited people we’d identified as potential private investors, and we sold a further allocation of tickets over the website, promoting them through David’s Twitter feed and our own Facebook page – they sold out almost immediately, and this was in a very early stage. We had enough preliminary footage to show a little trailer and we also screened a short film on cycling by Finlay; give people a taste of cinema, give them some wine…  We’d done very comprehensive research on LinkedIn, which at the time (I believe they’ve changed things around again now) allowed you to cross-search by people’s roles and interests. Due to that initial research, we quickly realised that there was a high net worth crowd around cycling. It’s beginning to replace golf in many ways as the sport of choice for affluent people in their forties and fifties who are discovering it later in life and becoming very passionate. Because of that passion, we realised that we might be able to finance the film through private investment, and it worked. All of our funders are cycling fans. All this information was captured through NationBuilder – it’s very useful having one resource that holds all your social media data.  The more you have a profile of your followers, the more you can target them.”

Having identified and engaged with their investors largely using social networking, Henrici and Pretsell’s production company Cycling Films took the equally pioneering decision to register as an Enterprise Investment Scheme, an HMRC initiative offering tax relief to investors in smaller businesses and ventures, in order to mitigate some of the risk.

Meanwhile, those who weren’t in a position to invest could still get involved. “We didn’t just engage our potential audiences through sign-ups, or use the traditional crowdfunding model of getting sign-ups before production – we found ways of engaging the audience during production too,” Henrici explained.

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The director of TIME TRIAL, Finlay Pretsell, at a race in Italy

Pretsell and Henrici ran a campaign called #CaptureDavid, inviting those of their ‘stagiaris’ and the wider public attending Millar’s retirement races at the 2014 Tour de France and Glasgow Commonwealth Games to shoot footage of the races and the atmosphere – to capture the fans’ eye view just as Pretsell’s camera was recreating the rider’s experience.

“David was going to ride in the Tour de France one last time, and as, for the first time ever, the race was set to start in Yorkshire, we had a chance to work with a large number of cycle fans in the UK, to engage them in the film and even possibly incorporate their footage; photos they would snap of him. It seemed like a great opportunity to experiment as well, to see whether audiences would actually send us something.”

Pretsell even issued shooting tips and guidelines to potential camera operators through the website, where the footage was also to be submitted. As it turned out, in a twist that might even have elevated the final film, David was deselected by his team, Garmin-Sharp, just before the Tour began, over worries about his health. TIME TRIAL was always intended to cover Millar’s final year before he retired; it became, as Guardian journalist Richard Williams put it, “a more compelling study of the waning of an elite sportsman’s powers”. The #CaptureDavid campaign, reframed for the Scottish cyclist’s homecoming race in Glasgow at the Commonwealth Games, became a chance for fans to celebrate their hero one final time, using the hashtag to live-document Millar’s progress around the city.

“As it happened, we haven’t used any of the submitted footage in the final film – ultimately we went a different way,” says Henrici. “However, the public had clearly demonstrated that they were there, and were willing to get involved.”

“You don’t want to just keep on popping up saying ‘we’re still filming!’”

So, you’ve found your audience, engaged and involved them, and they may even feel a sense of ownership towards the film. But, given that production takes time, and even a finished film may not be available to watch for over a year, how do you keep hold of that audience? How should filmmakers keep things fresh?

“Well, the good thing was that, sure, we were generating new content, releasing some clips over social media, and David being in the public eye was constantly generating stories that we could share, but I think the key thing was that we were monitoring it,” says Henrici. “We always felt that, while we were still making the film and didn’t know quite what was going to be in it or not, we didn’t want to push our best stuff all over social media. David is very particular too; he needs to feel assured of the value and quality of the content before it goes out into the world, and I think this was an advantage to us in that perhaps it has stayed our hand at times. We’ve only released five very short videos of footage on YouTube – each of them has had a really good pick-up, with a couple of them receiving over 20,000 views. For a lot of those five years, though, things have been quiet, and that quietness has got to be as important a part of the strategy: only go out there when you’ve actually got something to say. If you don’t know exactly when the film’s going to be out, you don’t want to just keep on popping up saying ‘we’re still filming!’”

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The third generation of the project's artwork

Even now, following the world premiere, there are still opportunities for fans to get involved.

“Yes, we’re keeping it going!” says Henrici. “We may still do a crowdfunder, and excitingly we’ve been working with a major YouTube channel in cycling, GCN, to release the trailer – in the hope that we'll get good numbers that we can show to distributors to prove there’s an appetite for this film. People can still invest, too, and we’ve also redefined the role of ‘stagiari’ now that the film’s been made, asking people who want to get involved at that level to host their own screenings.”

Just in time for the IDFA announcement in October, Film & Campaign built the third version of the project’s NationBuilder-powered website, seamlessly transitioning from the previous theme called the David Millar Project. The graphic design for both iterations of the site as well as the film’s other artwork had been developed by Swedish designers Joakim Karlsson and Torbjörn Hedberg.

If you’re in Amsterdam you can still see TIME TRIAL at its last IDFA screening this Saturday. Keep up-to-date on the film’s progress at www.timetrialfilm.com.

Written by Kirstin Innes for Film & Campaign.
Photos by Ben Kempas (top) and Sonja Henrici.

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