Case Study: Katy Chevigny: Election Day

Some filmmakers get bent out of shape. They don’t want you to take just seven minutes out of their film. But the film can be both a viewing experience for people at festivals and on TV, and also something that can be picked apart and used in a practical setting.” —Katy Chevigny

Producer/Director Katy Chevigny isn’t nostalgic for the documentary-making days of old. “I don’t know why we should be romantic about the old era. That was when your film showed on broadcast once, and if a viewer was out of town, it was tough luck for them,” says Chevigny. “We should be embracing the new era. There’s so much more capacity for impact and changing people’s ideas.”

Chevigny’s latest film, ELECTION DAY focuses on a diverse group of American voters heading to polling places around the country in November 2004. From the pre-production phase through the festival circuit and the film’s PBS broadcast, Chevigny and her team have been experimenting with new ways to connect with audiences. They’ve learned a lot, she says, about the importance of timing, like having a website and blog ready as soon as the film opened at its first festival and having DVDs available in time for the July 2008 television broadcast on P.O.V. (ITVS co-produced the film with PBS.)

“Most indie films are under-exposed,” says Chevigny, who also runs the New York nonprofit Arts Engine. “To whatever extent you can make it easier for people to find your film, you’re doing yourself and your viewers a service.”

Opening Up Production to Participation

The pre-production schedule for ELECTION DAY was tight: five weeks, leading up to the November 2004 presidential election. Chevigny and the two other producers who were working on the film crafted an email blast that they sent to nearly everyone they knew. “We explained, ‘This is the film we’re making, and here’s who we’re looking for—people who have interesting daily lives or life stories,’” Chevigny recalls. The email circulated like pollen.

“People forwarded it to their cousins in Florida and Ohio,” Chevigny says. “We got back dozens of intriguing, idiosyncratic stories.” She and two other producers followed up with a phone interview to hone in on the best ones. One contact came from a former intern who’d earlier worked with Chevigny; she hailed from a family of Oklahoma factory workers. Another, the owner of a Wisconsin pizza shop, came from a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend.

Finding New Audiences

As ELECTION DAY was nearing its debut at the South by Southwest Film Festival in 2007, Chevigny spent “several hundred dollars” building a website for the film, which included now-standard elements like a trailer, a blog, high-resolution images for the press, and an email list to provide interested visitors with information about screenings.

They also added a button for visitors who use Google’s online calendar service to manage their schedules. Those that click a button on the site that says, “Subscribe to the ELECTION DAY Calendar,” allow the team to beam information about upcoming events—such as screenings, TV airings or panel discussions—directly into their online calendar.

Chevigny and Co-producer Maggie Bowman also seized an opportunity to serve as guest bloggers on The Huffington Post, a highly-trafficked political site.

Chevigny and Associate Producer Jolene Pinder have been exploring the potential for “slicing and dicing” the film into shorter segments that can be used by various advocacy groups, either during live presentations to audiences or on their websites. That exposure could help raise awareness of the full-length film, they believe. “Some filmmakers get bent out of shape,” Chevigny says. “They don’t want you to take just seven minutes out of their film. But the film can be both a viewing experience for people at festivals and on TV, and also something that can be picked apart and used in a practical setting.”

New Distribution Opportunities

Though Chevigny’s nonprofit group has made some of its earlier films available on a digital download site called Caachi.com, there aren’t yet plans for ELECTION DAY to appear alongside them. “We’re still waiting for the dust to settle, in terms of the download arena,” explains Pinder.

But they prepared a DVD so it would be available for purchase by July 2008, when the film aired on PBS. They relied on Neoflix and Breakthrough Distribution, two services that help filmmakers replicate DVDs and fulfill Internet orders. (Neoflix, for instance, takes just 10 percent per transaction from each DVD sale, after a filmmaker pays an initial set-up fee and a monthly service fee. But filmmakers supply Neoflix with their own, pre-duped DVDs.)

“The thing I wish we had done differently was to have the DVD available at the premiere,” Chevigny says. “As soon as you have your first screening, people want to buy the DVD. If you could truck around twenty DVDs to every screening you go to, you’ll sell those.”

Working with PBS, they also made it possible for community groups, libraries and youth organizers to borrow a copy of the DVD (through P.O.V.’s Community Network) to hold their own screenings, and also supplied a discussion guide.

Pinder is also exploring a potential relationship with House Party, a firm that helps coordinate house parties to test new products or watch new movies. (NBC has used it to generate interest in Friday Night Lights and The Biggest Loser.) But that experiment may wait until their next film.

Supplemental Material

Katy Chevigny’s “Director’s Commentary” on the film

eFilmCritic Interview

Katy Chevigny and o-producer Maggie Bowman’s guest blog on The Huffington Post

Filmmakers’ website

PBS.org: P.O.V. Blog: Viewer questions for Katy Chevigny