A SMALL ACT – The Little Things Count

Guest post by filmmaker Jennifer Arnold. How much do the little things count when it comes to staying visible?

My first documentary feature, A SMALL ACT (www.asmallact.com ), opens at the Quad Cinema in New York today. I started the film three and a half years ago with very few resources. DIY filmmaking is hard. We all know that. You have small budgets. You have small crews.

So how can you stand out when you have very little? The biggest lesson I learned while making this film is to leverage any small triumph into something bigger. Use every resource and relationship you have, no matter how small they are. Eventually, all those small things can add up.

Trust me, I started out with nothing, but this film has already been seen by almost a million people and it’s actually changed some of their lives. As this blog points out, there are well over 38 (are you up to 76?) things wrong with indie film today, but that shouldn’t stop any of us. Indie film is daunting, but you can still start small – who knows where you’ll end up.

I promise I’m not going to make this post into a big ad for the film, but the plotline sort of parallels our distribution journey, so bear with me for a moment. A SMALL ACT follows Chris Mburu who was the top student in his Kenyan village, but without money for school fees he had little hope of a future – until a total stranger, Hilde Back, sponsored his early education through a “sponsor a needy child” campaign. She paid roughly $15 dollars a term to keep Chris in school and unbeknownst to her, this tiny contribution paved the way for Chris to go all the way to Harvard Law School. Today he’s a human rights officer for the United Nations. Chris decides to find his sponsor and thank her by starting his own sponsorship program to educate a new generation of kids in his village. There’s a lot more to the story than that, but the core idea is that it only takes one small act to completely change the course of your life (or your film) and there are programs out there that can give us DIY filmmakers a real chance.

We started production as a crew of two. I wrote, directed, did sound and produced. Patti Lee shot the film, produced, did on-set assistant editor work and also cooked lunch for the postproduction crew everyday. We had two great investors, Jeffrey Soros (producer) and Jane Huang (executive producer) but we were still editing the film in the garage with no idea how to get the film done, let alone distributed, and then we got our first (of many) lucky breaks.

We got into IFP’s Spotlight on Docs, which is part of Independent Film Week. I think people probably know what that is, but just in case, it’s a market where filmmakers pitch unfinished projects to distributors, sales agents and other helpful people. It was here that we met Lisa Heller from HBO (another lucky break) and Louise Rosen our foreign sales agent. We wanted the film to be theatrically released, but we also wanted maximum eyes on the project – we got both. I should also mention that the first time we applied for Spotlight on Docs we were rejected, so for anyone out there who hasn’t gotten into this (or any of the other programs out there) – keep trying!

We got a lot of momentum from Spotlight on Docs; we also started making pre-sales (to HBO and ABC Australia), which allowed us to finish our budget. Originally we hadn’t planned on applying to Sundance that year, but with the little momentum we had, we decided to give it a shot. Not only did we get in, we premiered in documentary competition and once again we were the little guys. There were 16 films in competition, I think half of the other filmmakers had won or been nominated for Academy Awards. They all seemed like massive big shots to me. But we had HBO behind us, something that was leveraged from a short meeting at Spotlight on Docs. We had good word of mouth; yes, I asked all my friends to please spread the word about the film. We ended up with standing ovations. Bill Gates and George Soros both showed up to screenings. Roger Ebert wrote a wonderful piece about our film and WAITING FOR SUPERMAN and – the most exciting thing of all – audience members, though totally unsolicited, started handing over donations to the education fund featured in the film.

Over the course of Sundance (10 days) $90,000 dollars was donated to the fund. This was our next lucky break. A lot of people started talking about the impact the film made. Sundance Documentary Fund (which had given us a grant) invited me to attend the Skoll World Forum and talk about film and social impact. A trailer for the film was shown at a TED event. HBO helped launch a major outreach campaign. Each good thing led to the next.

We did a limited theatrical release in April and a HBO broadcast in July. Viewers donated $400,000 dollars to the Hilde Back Education Fund and pledged another million for new students as the fund expands. This got even more people talking, and little by little, we decided to broaden our release into something bigger.

We’re launching the “What’s Your Small Act Campaign?” which is a mix of community screenings and a slow rollout in traditional theatres. We’re starting with the Quad and if our numbers are good we’ll expand. Once again we’re the little guys. There are a lot of great films out there right now and we’ve got no P&A money and no team of people. But being little has worked so far. We’ll see how it goes this week!

A SMALL ACT has been selected by the NYTimes as "Critic's Pick".  You can view the trailer here.