How The Video Project promotes and distributes educational media around the world
A still from “Nature’s Orchestra: Sounds of Our Changing Planet.” All images used with permission from The Video Project.
If you visit a movie theater today you’ll likely find a series of fast-paced Blockbusters that are made to overwhelm the senses and generate millions in revenue. Today’s hyper-active movie scene can leave you with whiplash.
But what’s the takeaway from each film? What can you learn from the narrative and apply to your everyday life? How can you be entertained and learn something valuable? These are the types of questions The Video Project has been asking for decades. The educational media distributor has been working to provide socially conscious media to audiences since 1983.
Founded by Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Vivienne Verdon-Roe and Oscar nominee Ian Thiermann, The Video Project is dedicated to distributing educational media and documentary programming on important social and global issues. Through collaborations with nonprofits, educational institutions and government agencies, the films are circulated nationally and internationally to libraries, colleges, public schools, businesses and organizations.
The organization’s collection “features award-winning programs for all ages, including Oscar and Emmy award-winners from over 200 independent filmmakers worldwide,” according to The Video Project’s website.
ivoh recently asked The Video Project’s President Steve Michelson about the ins and outs of educational media distribution.
Gloria Muñoz: From “The Age of Aluminum” to “How I Got Over” to “Big Voice,” The Video Project promotes work on a wide variety of topics. Could you describe the process behind selecting which films to promote and distribute?
Steve Michelson: Our acquisition process covers the globe as we attend festivals and are recommended films by a wide International network. Films from the United States and Canada are the majority but Denmark, the UK, New Zealand, Spain and many other places find their way to our door. What we look for first is a film which tells a compelling story. We prefer that it is properly balanced and not advocating only one point of view. It takes several weeks for us to review a submission as we also look at research on other titles that might cover the same subject. Additionally we consider the application of the film within the curriculum of specific courses taught at major universities. We want the film to be a good fit. There are many other considerations, including other distribution partners, awards and a motivated producer partner that adds to and creates value for a film. We acquire some 20-25 titles annually.
Muñoz: The Video Project distributes educational media to schools. In what ways do you believe access to documentary films and socially conscious media impacts teaching and learning?
Michelson: This world of educational media is changing somewhat, but the basic principles of why documentary films resonate with students and teachers is longstanding. Unlike narrative films, documentaries provide a direct and culturally explicit connection for viewers. There is a certain visual truth and emotional connection from a well-made documentary that no other media format can deliver in the same way. Motion pictures can uniquely combine many other art forms from photography to print to animation. The net effect can be extremely powerful, inspiring someone to change their life or to act in a way they hadn’t considered prior to seeing the film. What more can one ask for when considering teaching and learning?
Muñoz: Do you provide any supplemental teaching material for educators sharing films with their students?
Michelson: Many of our films have teaching and “discussion guides” that go with the film. Recently we launched the film “Nature’s Orchestra” about the work of Bernie Krause, PhD. The film was in production for several years but the Ted Talk Bernie did last year is approaching 1M views. The timing to release the film was important in this case following the Ted Talk to create a larger perspective of his work. As part of the discussion guide, we’ve developed a Nature Sound Walk experience for students. You can see it in the film, and we have now had several Nature Sound Walks along with screenings of the film. It’s a very popular supplement inspired ironically by the book “Last Child in the Woods,” which claims kids today are suffering from “Nature Deficit Disorder”.
Muñoz: What types of reactions have you received from audiences so far?
Michelson: We hear from viewers all the time. The main reaction is “why haven’t I heard about this on TV or via other media?” That is one of the main things that drives our work. Today some six companies control almost 90% of everything we see on TV, in print, on the radio, in theaters and even as “news” on the Internet. Documentary films by independent filmmakers are one of the most trusted forms of media these days. We now are adding an entire “engagement” effort with some of our “campaign” films. In that case we often have clear agendas to create conversations and to take action in specific ways to support the film. Often people see an inspiring film and want to know immediately “what can I do.” We want to make sure that they get that answer immediately by engaging them to do things to support the mission of the project.
Muñoz: In today’s fast-paced technological environment, what do you think audiences and media practitioners can learn from Slow Media?
Michelson: We are somewhat overwhelmed by media these days. It’s hard to focus and process the enormous amount of media we consume. Much of that media is pushed upon us by millions of dollars of ads and promotions. It’s hard often for films to get noticed, as we become inundated. Slow Media is an art of distribution that we practice on certain films that need a careful and thoughtful approach to the viewer. The long-term and consistent messaging we employ helps create attention around a film that might not be possible during the normal 30-60 day release window films today receive. We look for holidays and anniversaries and observe what we call “surf marketing” opportunities to ride the wave of public interest in a topic. Audiences often need five impressions before they will act or even watch a film. Slow Media guarantees that they will get those impressions over time.
Muñoz: What new film are you most excited about and why?
Michelson: “The Burden.” This is an incredibly important film. You can see our Lift the Burden campaign that is part of the film engagement effort. This film is a game changer on the subject of converting from fossil fuels. For people who might have thought that the need to do this was a liberal conspiracy, or thought the science wasn’t quite compelling enough, they no longer can retain that view. The fact that our military is leading the effort to transition away from fossil fuels is something they must support. The film won Best of Fest at this year’s Wild and Scenic Festival, and the head juror Chuck Jaffee wrote that it may be the most important film he has ever seen.
Documentaries can connect individuals to fundamental questions and offer new perspectives and solutions for social issues. Michelson is now the Executive Director of The Video Project’s new foundation, The Fund for Sustainable Tomorrows, which raises funds to support documentary filmmakers. As The Video Project expands, Michelson says the group will use the same careful distribution procedures to provide audiences around the world with meaningful media. Learn more about The Video Project here.