In their monthly interview series, European Documentary Network focuses on one of its many members to show both members in the spotlight and the diversity of the EDN membership group. The EDN member of the month for December 2015 is Ben Kempas, founder of Film & Campaign Ltd. in Edinburgh, Scotland. EDN has talked to Ben Kempas about his company and its services and about the buzz around outreach and impact. This interview was first published on edn.dk.
EDN MEMBER OF THE MONTH – Ben Kempas
Before that, Ben worked as Producer of Marketing and Distribution at Scottish Documentary Institute where he ran the campaigns around films like I Am Breathing or Future My Love.
Ben has 20 years of experience in documentary production – mostly as cinematographer, director, editor or producer in Germany. His own films have one strong theme in common: they're all about people trying to achieve change. The most successful one to date, Upstream Battle, had its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival and won a number of environmental and human rights awards, playing at more than 30 festivals worldwide.
For 12 years, Ben also volunteered as a co-host of The D-Word, helping to grow the private online forum into one of the largest community of documentary professionals around the world.
EDN: Can you start by telling a bit more about your background and your road in to the world of documentaries?
BK: Making documentaries is a great excuse to satisfy my endless curiosity. I’ve always been running around with a camera – that started as a teenager in Germany in the late 1980s, where we’d film all sorts of events around us. Sometimes we even got paid for it! But it wasn’t until film school in Munich that I really began to understand the full breadth, intensity and creative potential of documentary film. In terms of my own films, they tend to reflect what interests me politically and socially. I’ve always been fascinated by people working to achieve change – be they campaigners fighting for Scottish independence or Native Americans taking on an energy corporation.
"A great excuse to satisfy endless curiosity"
I was only able to afford my costly documentary ‘habit’ because I was doing a lot of work for television – from editing comedy programmes to shooting ‘reportage’ docs. But for those independently made documentary films that we all love, things were looking bleak: they were lucky if they got a late-night TV slot and a few festival screenings – and that was it. At the time, there were very few producers who understood how outreach work would help films find new audiences, have impact on society, and also generate additional income. There are exceptions, of course. When I recently met Gordon Quinn, he said, “at Kartemquin we’ve been doing outreach for 50 years.” I’m now on a personal mission to catch up with Gordon.
EDN: What was your motivation for launching your own company Film & Campaign and what is the profile of the company?
BK: I was lucky in that the Scottish Documentary Institute was one of the first to understand the need to explore new strategies and tools for audience engagement. Back in 2011, they were looking to hire a ‘producer of marketing and distribution’. I had just moved to Scotland and told them, “I haven’t got much experience in marketing or distribution, but there are a few things I really want to try.” My ideas included the adaption of political campaigning software to identify and reach niche audiences on a larger scale – that’s actually why I keep doing a lot of work using NationBuilder to this day.
"Reach niche audiences on a larger scale"
So, I got the job with SDI and managed campaigns around films like I Am Breathing (Emma Davie & Morag McKinnon, 2013). As my role generated additional income, a 16-month contract turned into more than three years of work there. I started giving talks about what we had achieved, found myself invited to industry events all over the place, and got asked by many other producers if I could work on their projects: either in a consulting role, or managing a campaign around their film, or building NationBuilder websites for them. Which is exactly why I went ahead and set up Film & Campaign. As a tiny team of three, we now work for clients across Europe and North America. I also thought this would give me a chance to nurture my old filmmaking habit. But all the campaigning work has really taken off, and I’m enjoying it way too much!
EDN: Can you give some examples of projects you have worked with and the focus of the campaigns built around them?
BK: At the moment, I’m working flat-out for Danish Documentary Production on a web platform about edible insects. It is called BUGSfeed – you can have a peek at www.bugsfeed.com. This is to build up an audience that will hopefully eagerly anticipate next year’s release of the film Bugs. It’s so important to get folk on board early on in the process, so filmmakers don’t have to start from scratch every time a film gets released. It’s equally important that filmmakers don’t talk about their own film all the time –we’re engaging people through related content that’s only available from us.
We’re also reaching out to hundreds of experts and enthusiasts in the field. In other words, we’re nurturing lots of individual relationships through our unique storytelling, and these are the core ingredients for building a community.
EDN: If a producer or director has a “campaignable” film – at which point would you advice to start working with outreach and impact?
BK: You should really start planning as early as possible. Talk to potential partners, develop a strategy, and make a dedicated budget. Whenever possible, like with Bugs, we also start the audience build-up way before any wider release. That said, you can’t always publicly launch a campaign before the film has been finished. Some documentaries are investigative. Often, subjects need to be protected. And many docs change completely in the editing room. There needs to be space to continue to allow for all of this. It’s more important than any campaigning timeline.
EDN: What does in your opinion make a film “campaignable”?
BK: There is a general misunderstanding that a film would somehow need to be issue-driven in order to become the centerpiece of a campaign. That’s just wrong. First of all, there are many types of campaigns, from the old-fashioned advertising campaign all the way to impact-oriented work. Outreach can take many shapes – for example through technological innovation – all it means is that we’re trying to reach people outside the traditional, institutional reach of our industry.
"Films should not tell us what to think"
But most importantly, films should not tell us what to think. They should tell us a beautiful story that allows us to make up our own mind about things. While documentaries can be an excellent vehicle to bring awareness to a wider issue as part of an outreach campaign, they’ll always be at their best when they’re human, twisted, full of surprises. We love documentaries when they reflect life, not an agenda. Ambiguity is credibility.
EDN: This month you were part of the EDN organised Online Outreach and Distribution Workshop, where selected projects from Docs in Thessaloniki and Lisbon Docs participated. Can you tell more about the content of the workshop and how you worked with the participating projects?
BK: Ove from EDN and I offered a mix of talks, group sessions and individual consultations, which led participants from a vague vision on day one to detailed strategies in a presentation on day three. We had previously tried this format ‘offline’ in Turin, where it was quite easy to manage breakout sessions by putting groups in different rooms for intensive work on every project. We then went round, listening to the ideas unfolding and offering our input. But would this approach actually work in an online workshop, where participants would then retreat to doing their ‘group work’ in the distracting environments of their own office or even their home? I had been skeptical about that, but the results were really convincing. Even those folk who had insisted at the beginning, “my film is not for campaigning” – in the end they said that we had opened their eyes and they’d be pursuing their newly developed plan from now on. Ove and I were so happy with the results! He now wants to offer the format – both offline and online – to other regional screen agencies across Europe, and I think EDN members should totally get in touch with him if they can help facilitate this model where they are.
EDN: At the moment outreach and impact seem to be buzz words in the industry, and one could ask if it should not always be the focus to make just a good film. Can you offer a piece of advice to filmmakers being confronted with these demands of outreach and impact and how to work with it in a constructive way?
BK: I keep saying that all the characteristics that make you a good documentary maker are core ingredients of a successful campaign: thorough research, nurturing individual relationships, being able to listen, and good storytelling. And first and foremost, keep questioning your original mission. Be ready to change it all when things don’t work out the way you first thought.
What documentary filmmaking and campaigning have in common
Think of your campaign as another story that evolves from the story of your film. It may have the same protagonists or completely different ones. It will have its own plot points – call them impact goals or not.
If you don’t want to handle all this, there are more and more specialists who can do this for you. You just make the great film –without it, none of the rest would exist. But I’m warning you – campaigning is great fun. Quite addictive actually. Just like that filmmaking habit.