This is the first in a three-part series about our biggest campaign to date, around the new German documentary DIE KINDER DER UTOPIE (Children of Utopia). Over the coming weeks, we’ll be providing behind-the-scenes insights into a campaign that we’re excited, proud, and a little nervous about.
Germany likes to think of itself as a leader: pragmatic, progressive, rational. But one area where Europe’s biggest economy is falling behind is inclusive education. In contrast to many other countries, the practice of including disabled children within mainstream education only really got underway a decade ago.
Since then, the practice of segregating children with disabilities remains deeply ingrained in many parts of the country. Although the highly federalised nature of government means experiences vary greatly depending on what state a child is born in, in 4.9 per cent of students in Germany studied at special schools during the 2008 to 2009 school year. Eight years later, the figure was 4.3 per cent — a mere 40,000 fewer children.
Inclusion – a human right still being questioned
The slow pace of this change has not gone unnoticed, but many Germans would argue that there is still a deep indifference and in some cases outright scepticism towards the concept of inclusive education.
DIE KINDER DER UTOPIE (Children of Utopia) is a film aimed squarely at challenging this. Following the experience of a cohort of pupils at an inclusive school, this painstaking documentary charts the lives of one mixed class from childhood to adulthood.
For director and producer Hubertus Siegert, it was also clearly a labour of love, on a subject dear to his heart. But there was an obvious problem. In the crowded and competitive field of German documentary films – with more than 70 new feature docs released in cinemas every year – how could this film stand out? How would this vital contribution to an ongoing nationwide debate reach a mass audience?
At the Mittendrin offices. From left: Ben Kempas, Tina Sander, Eva Thoms, Christine von Kirschbaum, Hubertus Siegert, Suse Bauer, Raúl Krauthausen
For a 'quiet' documentary like this one, the reach of conventional film distribution would be too low, a fact that the team who joined Siegert quickly realised. Early on, Hubertus invited Ben Kempas of Film & Campaign to thrash out the best solution to maximise the film’s impact and utilise the fact that his observational film doesn’t really discuss or judge the issue as such.
Their idea was to use the film as a ‘space for reflection’ and create a volunteer-driven nationwide night of debate, with film screenings taking place in every major city. In the months leading up to the big event, an additional story universe would build up audiences in anticipation and help recruit volunteers.
The solution that emerged sought to look beyond the typical funding sources for ‘impact distribution’ – by approaching a range of different organisations instead.
A wall at SUMO Film's office during Ben's first brainstorming session for DIE KINDER DER UTOPIE
Hubertus and Ben were joined by celebrated activist and social entrepreneur Raúl Krauthausen, and journalist Suse Bauer, also producer of Krauthausen’s own TV show. Cologne-based inclusion charity Mittendrin became the host organisation for the campaign (full team details here).
Funding outside the box
With this new backing and profile, things began to develop rapidly. Over the course of a few months, a range of sponsors from corporate social responsibility funds and foundations, to lottery-funded equality charity Aktion Mensch, had committed major contributions to the project.
For a film like Children of Utopia, with modest production resources, the results of this new approach were unprecedented.
Ben immediately felt that this finally provided the opportunity to demonstrate the potential reach and impact independent films could achieve if they take outreach campaigns seriously:
“At my talks and workshops, I always say that budgets should allocate just as much money to marketing and outreach as they do to production. That might seem like an impossible ask for many independent projects. But this is what Hollywood do, and ultimately, that’s who we’re up against.
And all of a sudden, here I find myself being the chief strategist of a campaign with a budget that is twice as high as the film’s production budget. It is great to finally have the opportunity to work on a European documentary with direct access to the level of funding that allows it to reach a mass audience and achieve significant impact,” says Ben.
When your campaign budget is twice as high as the film's production budget
But it wasn’t just the level of funding itself that was crucial to finding a means to upscaling Children of Utopia’s journey out into the world for the first time. Ben notes a crucial difference between traditional distribution funding and these alternative sources:
“We were genuinely surprised by the rapid and positive response rate. Usually when you write funding applications, for some impact funds, you feel like you write dozens of applications before one gets granted. But here, utilising the brilliant existing relations brought to the table by Mittendrin and Raúl, the willingness of these funders to get on board and get things moving was really impressive.”
As a result, the team were able to move rapidly towards realising their plans for a major event to launch the film simultaneously all across Germany. With funding completed at the end of November 2018, by mid-December the campaign was ready to launch.
Screenshot of www.DieKinderDerUtopie.de
With Film & Campaign proposing and developing a new 'cinema on demand' model using our experience with NationBuilder campaigning software, there was no way of predicting what the level of interest in the film would be.
However, the response from the target groups turned out to be unprecedented too. Rather than a small trickle of volunteers to act as ‘ambassadors’ for the film in their town or city, within a few weeks, hundreds of groups and individuals all over Germany were registering in order to bring the film to their community. In turn, individual RSVPs rapidly rose into the thousands.
“It was astonishing, I’ve never witnessed a documentary campaign like it. It quickly became apparent that this would be our biggest project yet,” says Ben.
“Usually, when launching a campaign you need to put a lot of effort into motivating people. This was the opposite. There was a hunger out there, suddenly we realised we were looking at new questions of scale that I’ve never encountered in twenty years of working on independent documentaries.”
Overwhelmed by demand yet limited by resources
Of course, this direct funding model for the outreach campaign is not without its own challenges. In particular, in contrast to the field of commercial marketing, there is a fixed level of funds that isn’t responsive to the immediate, massive, demand.
While managing this level of interest and ensuring that the project is able to play its full part in the national debate around inclusion, it was perhaps easy to miss the biggest challenge of all.
Unlike Tugg or Gathr in the US or OurScreen in the UK, a cinema-on-demand model had never been rolled out in Germany. With an agreed ‘Aktionsabend’ (a ‘Night of Action’) fixed for 15 May 2019, there will be no second chance to ensure that the model worked. All over the country, more than 15,000 people have already committed to seeing the film and taking part in post-screening debates...
Next week, in Part Two, we’ll look at how we made ‘cinema on demand’ happen in Germany – even though there was no existing platform for it.