Case study – key challenges:
- How do you make a film stand out when it is one of dozens of climate documentaries released that year?
- How do you keep your film relevant when the context is changing by the day due to current political and economic turmoil?
- How do you encourage people to watch a heavyweight film on the big screen at a time when cinema audiences are worryingly shrinking everywhere, especially for documentaries?
Weekly jour fixe of the campaign team for 'After THE OIL MACHINE'
- Film director: Emma Davie
- Producer: Sonja Henrici
- Executive producers: James Marriott and Terry Macalister
- Campaign strategist: Ben Kempas, Film & Campaign
- Content writer: Chris Silver, Film & Campaign
- Outreach coordinator: Rachel Caplan, Film & Campaign
- Databases and event publishing: Aga Slawinska, Film & Campaign
- Education pilot: Amaya Bañuelos Marco for Macrobert Arts Centre
- Publicity: Alex Rowley, AR:PR
- Theatrical Distribution: Ged Fitzsimmons, Cosmic Cat
- Support for theatrical distribution: Screen Scotland
- Graphic design: Propaganda B
- Website build and online publishing: Film & Campaign
- Video production and livestream events: Film & Campaign
About the film THE OIL MACHINE
THE OIL MACHINE is a landmark documentary by Emma Davie about the challenges and complexities of transitioning away from fossil fuels, specifically North Sea oil & gas.
Premiering at Sheffield DocFest in June 2022 and at IDFA in Amsterdam in November 2022, the film has united critics and audiences who have praised its remarkably broad remit and range of contributors. Voices from the oil industry urging new North Sea developments are juxtaposed with those of young activists involved in the school strikes movement. Investors managing multi-billion-pound pension funds set out the stark prospects climate change poses to their balance sheets, while climate scientists explain the truth behind phrases like ‘net-zero’ and the urgency of meeting the Paris Climate Agreement’s goal to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees.
The whiteboard during a campaign development workshop for THE OIL MACHINE
Creating the campaign
We began working with the filmmaking team in December 2021, six months prior to the film's Sheffield Doc/Fest premiere, by organising a series of campaign development workshops. This allowed us to plan for an impact campaign that reflected the scale and the urgency of the film’s core themes and enabled producer Sonja Henrici to successfully raise funds for this.
We completely redeveloped THE OIL MACHINE's artwork and added an 'After' sticker to all campaign activities
Our campaign, launched in October 2022 in time for a UK-wide release, is called After THE OIL MACHINE for three reasons. It’s about
- sparking discussions immediately after watching the film;
- exploring all that’s been happening since filming (the Russian attack on Ukraine leading to an energy crisis, the soaring cost of living, and COP27); and
- sharing calls to action to move beyond oil.
For example, a key contributor in the film is Steve Waygood, a responsible investor at AVIVA who has joined our campaign to
- discuss the film at a panel event with audiences in the finance sector;
- provide a web video update on how current economic uncertainties relate to the climate crisis; and
- encourage people saving for a pension to move their funds away from fossil fuels and towards more sustainable options, providing tangible steps for doing so.
Within six weeks of launching the film in the UK, we surpassed almost all of the project’s targets. Pairing film screenings with lively panel discussions, take-home action steps, and expansive web resources, the campaign actively engaged audiences to draw the connection between their day-to-day activities and choices for a sustainable future.
London premiere at Picturehouse Central, with Terry Macalister, Ann Pettifor, and Tessa Khan. Picture: Ben Kempas
Adapting to rapidly changing context
This campaign couldn’t have been more timely, as its launch coincided with the new UK Government’s rush to offer 100 new licences for North Sea oil and gas exploration. The public was facing many dramatic developments in energy security, prices and supply, and the cost of living, against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine and the impending COP27 UN climate conference.
Although these developments made the documentary appear very topical, so much had evolved around the issues since the film was completed in early 2022. How could we keep the conversation up to date and emphasise the film’s relevance? We would need to look for creative ways to reframe the film’s narrative within this new context.
To make a start on this, we produced a series of catch-up interviews with key participants from the film to address urgent issues as they unfolded. These online sessions helped bring the content up to the moment, as well as driving engagement on our social channels and website. They even caused some ripples within the industry itself, such as when RMT Union’s Jake Malloy spoke candidly about the possibility of future strikes by oil and gas workers – and our interview promptly made headlines in Energy Voice.
“We’re talking about survival of humanity. But it’s very hard for people to see that when actually they’re struggling to survive just on a day-to-day basis.”— The Oil Machine (@TheOilMachine) November 26, 2022
— our film’s contributor, #GreenNewDeal economist @AnnPettifor in our catch-up interview ‘After #TheOilMachine’.
Getting audiences into cinemas in a 'theatrical crisis'
Another vital component in keeping conversations current was producing a diverse range of thought-provoking panel discussions at cinema screenings across the UK. This provided not only the latest information for audiences but also a compelling draw to get people into the theatres. At a time when post-pandemic cinema audience numbers have been dwindling across the UK, and several cinemas have closed completely (we miss you, Edinburgh Filmhouse), we’ve seen that carefully curated and supported events can draw sell-out crowds.
The film launched formally in cinemas on 3 November 2022, on the eve of the COP27 UN Climate Change Conference in Egypt. At over 230 screenings since, the appetite for collective film events has been clear. People are keen for opportunities to come together to watch, share, and analyse our addiction to the oil machine with others. We’ve seen that our events with post-screening panel discussions have drawn crowds everywhere, including several sell-outs, which — according to our partners at Picturehouse — is almost unheard of for cinema screenings of environmental documentaries.
Most notably, audience numbers at events with guest speakers or community partners were six times higher than at regular screenings.
We welcomed over 150 speakers from diverse professional and personal backgrounds to illuminate the realities of the oil machine and motivate audiences to take action. We worked with exhibitors to produce post-screening discussions at over half of cinemas, connecting audiences to ideas and actions.
Panellists in-person and online include oil workers, young activists, politicians, scientists, artists, and finance experts, including the film’s contributors Sir David King, Tessa Khan, Dylan Hamilton, Ann Pettifor, Steve Waygood, and Professor Kevin Anderson. Many events also featured director Emma Davie and executive producers James Marriott and Terry Macalister. An online screening was introduced by well-known columnist for The Guardian, author, and activist George Monbiot.
Tonight, After #TheOilMachine, an audience member who identified as oil company employee pointed out that there was a role to play for their industry in transitioning to renewables.@TessaKhan’s reply: “It’s very rarely the incumbent industry that disrupts itself.” pic.twitter.com/wBYtIdam2t— The Oil Machine (@TheOilMachine) November 8, 2022
Alongside these events, we provided advice and resources to over 100 groups across the UK to organise their own community screenings and local discussions. Public interest in hosting screenings continues to grow. They can still be booked here.
Helping people decode the machine…
To help audiences uncover more of the complexities of the machine, we produced a resource section of the website for each of the six stakeholder groups in the film:
Each page expands on their role in the film with more in-depth information, links, and current updates.
Alongside these stakeholder portraits, we created online resources to encourage audiences to take action on climate. This includes concrete steps to ‘Make a Difference’, with actions recommended by all of the film’s stakeholder groups.
A key aim of the campaign was to make it as easy as possible to take action by organising community screenings and discussions to connect people in their area. To help them, we created a range of resources for hosts of screenings that are easy to access on the film's website. These were designed to help those who may have little or no previous experience in event organisation or promotion, and include a discussion guide to help start and structure conversations around the issues.
… and move beyond it
THE OIL MACHINE is a powerful film because of its collective credibility and diverse range of voices brought together within a single narrative – it’s not an advocacy film in the conventional sense. It has been our campaign goal throughout to bring people together to find common ground. At a time of great turmoil within the energy sector, we’ve seen divergent groups coming together, for example climate activists and union organisers. While workers have often found themselves impacted by activists’ radical demands and direct actions, they are now aligning around common goals, and our campaign has helped foster these conversations and connections. Through our extensive community outreach, we’ve also built connections and community capacity, supporting groups to host or join lively events and give essential local contexts to global issues.
Beyond this, we’ve also witnessed positive wins in climate activism at a time when the campaign was opening up the energy conversation with the public and empowering them to move beyond their cinema seats. Pairing screenings with lively debates and take-home actions engaged audiences to think differently about their relationship with fossil fuels and how to put pressure on our leaders. During the core phase of our campaign, the Scottish Government happened to voice strong opposition to new North Sea oil and gas licences (22 Nov); and the UK regulator delayed its decision to greenlight the massive new Rosebank oil field over concerns about climate impacts (12 Dec). In addition, opposition leader Keir Starmer said there would be no investment in new oil and gas fields in Britain under a Labour government (19 Jan). This only further demonstrates how up-to-date and urgent the topic is.
Keeping the conversation going
Beyond the venues and online screenings, our dedicated social media campaign has helped to bring even more people into the oil machine conversation, reaching over 100,000 individuals online.
Our videos have been played over 51,000 times, with the best-performing clips including one from our London premiere with Tessa Khan, and one from an introductory chat with George Monbiot at our first online screening.
The campaign's most-watched video on YouTube is our catch-up session with Professor Kevin Anderson, which has been played over 4,000 times across channels.
Above all, this campaign is showing that audiences are keener than ever to attend collective screening events where they can explore complex issues together, make new connections, and learn ways to make a difference. The energy and commitment of the 'After THE OIL MACHINE' campaign is providing exhibitors, communities, and individuals with the resources to do this.