Case Study: Patrick Creadon: I.O.U.S.A.

“The story of this film—the financial health of the United States—became the biggest story in the world. The Peterson Foundation took the film and ran with it.” —Patrick Creadon

Several months after playing the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, Patrick Creadon found an unusual buyer for his latest documentary: a nonprofit based in New York promoting fiscal responsibility. The film, called I.O.U.S.A., focuses on the precarious state of the country’s finances. With the economy turning into issue number one, Creadon’s atypical deal with the Peter G. Peterson Foundation wound up paying all kinds of interesting dividends.

The foundation’s single goal with the film has been to get it seen by as many people as possible—though staffers there say they also intend to break even, or possibly make a small profit from their investment.

“They’d been considering making a doc about this topic,” says Creadon, “and when one of the people we’d interviewed for the film, David Walker, the former head of the Government Accountability Office, took over as president of the foundation, he said, ‘That film has already been made.’” The Peterson Foundation spent about $1 million to acquire the film and another million or so on personnel and administrative expenses, according to Creadon.

While nonprofits often help to spread the word about a documentary, this was the rare case of a nonprofit taking the reins entirely. The foundation’s ownership of the film has meant that they’ve been able to experiment with unorthodox marketing and distribution strategies—including a live event at digital cinemas in 43 states, a Facebook page and access to a 30-minute version of the film for free viewing on the Web.

“The story of this film—the financial health of the United States—became the biggest story in the world,” Creadon says. “The Peterson Foundation took the film and ran with it.”

Finding New Audiences

Elizabeth Wilner, director of public affairs at the foundation, works with two other staffers on outreach related to I.O.U.S.A. Throughout the second half of 2008, they devoted “a considerable portion of every week” to it.

Facebook served as a key part of their outreach strategy. Working with Grassroots Enterprise, a digital marketing and communications firm in Washington, D.C., the foundation created a Facebook group for the film as well as a Web site that serves up a dozen short clips from the film—far more than most docs offer. (All of the clips are hosted by YouTube.) The site also allows visitors to select their state to find all of the screenings taking place there.

Wilner encouraged Creadon to set up his own Facebook account so he could use that social network to communicate with people interested in the film. “I told her, ‘I’m 41 years old. I’m not getting on Facebook,’” Creadon recalls. “But I started doing it. I’d hop on, and mention that I was going to be doing a Q&A at a film festival the following weekend, and that I’d love to meet people,” he says. “Then at every screening, 10 hands would go up when I asked people if they’d heard about the screening from Facebook.” The Facebook page attracted more than 3,500 “fans,” and it also includes photos from screenings of the film and news about the film, in addition to bonus footage.

New Distribution Opportunities

The Peterson Foundation organized a one-night-only theatrical event for the film; followed by the online release of a free, abridged version; and then, finally, a DVD and digital release of the complete film.

Creadon still sounds jazzed about the theatrical debut of the film, which took place in August 2008. Collaborating with Roadside Attractions and Fathom Events, a division of National CineMedia, Creadon and the Peterson Foundation helped put together a digital screening of the film that played in 359 theaters owned by chains like Cinemark, AMC and Regal. The screening was followed by a 45-minute live panel discussion that included panelists like famed investor Warren Buffett. Audience members could ask questions via email or text message.

“National CineMedia was really great about promoting the event,” says Creadon. “They ran a 30-second commercial for a month, on every screen they control. We’d have friends who went to see Batman, and they’d see our commercial before it.” Fathom predicted a turnout of about 15,000 for the one-night-only event. But more than 40,000 ticket buyers showed up.

ITVS included I.O.U.S.A. in its Community Cinema series of monthly screenings in the latter part of 2008, and the Peterson Foundation also made a screener DVD available to any community group or university that wanted to show it. “We loan them a DVD, and they organize the screening,” says Wilner.

Wilner also asked Creadon and his team if they would create a 30-minute cut of the film, suitable for an Internet release. That version was made freely available on the film’s official site, as well as on YouTube, Blip.tv, Vimeo and other video-sharing sites. On YouTube alone, the abridged version has been seen more than 100,000 times, and attracted more than 350 comments from viewers. Wilner says that the total views across all of the sites where this version is available have surpassed 200,000. While there was some concern about diminishing the demand for the eventual DVD and digital release of the full-length film, Wilner says, “Not everyone who wanted to see it was able. We were getting email and Facebook messages from people asking, ‘Where can I see it?’ So we decided the online version would simply enable many more people to see the film.”

But Creadon still has some reservations about making portions of the film so readily available online. “One thing that digital does is makes it a little more difficult to actually get people to go to the theaters to see these films,” he says.

The Peterson Foundation has handed home video rights to PBS Video, which will release a DVD in March 2009. According to Amy Letourneau, acquisitions director at PBS Distribution, a digital release at the same time will include iTunes, Xbox and Netflix. An ad-supported version of I.O.U.S.A. may eventually show up on Hulu, the video site started by NBC and Fox, which is building up its catalog of full-length features.

Supplemental Material

I.O.U.S.A. official site

I.O.U.S.A. on Facebook

Patrick Creadon, interviewed by Sundance

A.J. Schnack e-mail interview with Patrick Creadon

I.O.U.S.A. on YouTube