Your Film is Coffee

By Emily Best

I want to start a Fair Trade Filmmaking movement. I have been shouting this from the rooftops, but I understand that talking to filmmakers about getting paid better is like praising virtue and condemning vice: it’s too easy. 

Fair Trade Filmmaking does not start when someone spontaneously decides to pay the filmmaker more than the sales agents, distributors and exhibitors. In the age of direct-to-audience distribution, that’s the really easy part. And while of course the notion of “Fair Trade” is to pay and treat the creators better, more importantly it is a way to engage the consumer in the process of fairer practices. But there is a big catch: the product has to be really good.

I walk down to the end of my block, passing three delis (this is New York, after all), because the local coffee shop serves Fair Trade coffee. I make the extra effort to travel farther and pay on average $2 more per cup because I feel better about my purchase. But more than that, this coffee is friggin’ delicious. 

I know that films are not coffee, but the ‘fair trade’ experience has to be the same: the consumer experience is as important a factor as the worker (creator) experience. In plain terms: consumers will not put their dollars towards a product with a Fair Trade stamp if it tastes like crap. And if the consumer does not spend dollars to consume, nobody gets paid a wage at all. 

That means a Fair Trade agreement comes with a BIG responsibility for the creators. In order to make a Fair Trade film, you have to be prepared to produce really high quality products. 

While technology is making it faster and cheaper to generate films, it’s getting harder and harder to find those films across the hundreds of viewing platforms. There are LOTS of delis, so you have to find that one great coffee shop, the distribution outlet you think best attracts your film’s audience. And that outlet has to be known for having good coffee.

And here’s the filmmaker’s advantage: The film business-as-usual is more exclusive and risk-averse than ever. Only 37 specialty titles were released from studios this year. The rest were...well, vampires and superheroes. There’s clearly a place (and audience) for those films, but you don’t HAVE to be one of them. The internet has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that audiences are willing to seek out and pay for the content that matters to them.

And here’s where your film is NOT like coffee: nobody wakes up in the morning craving something they don’t know exists. The attraction and engagement of your audience has to start before you even offer your film for sale. It’s why so many coffee shops now feature stories and photos from the farms where the coffee is produced: to show the consumer the care and skill with which these real people are creating the product. A personal connection to the creator motivates the consumer to make the extra effort. Ok, your film is still like coffee.

Obviously, film consumption is not as simple as coffee consumption. Tastes differ vastly. You must find YOUR fair trade audience, educate them as to why they should get involved with you. Empower them to support the stories and projects (and people) that matter to them. Then you have to give them a product they love. They will make the extra effort for that. That’s a fair trade.

EMILY BEST is the founder and CEO of Seed&Spark, a startup to build truly independent community in which she would like to make moving pictures. Before producing Like the Water, the project that inspired it all, Emily produced theater, worked as a vision and values strategy consultant for Best Partners, ran restaurants, studied jazz singing at the Taller de Musics, tour guided and cooked in Barcelona, and before that, was a student of Anthropology at Haverford College.