Case Study: Curt Ellis: King Corn

Blogs like Sustainable Table, Culinate and Sustainable Scoop seemed eager to help get the message out about the film. “Ian and I wrote for a few blogs, and Aaron did some too,” Ellis says. “It’s very easy for a film to become stagnant, and the blogs helped keep this sense of freshness going.”

When Curt Ellis began working on KING CORN, a documentary about the role that corn plays in the American diet and economy, he wasn’t sure who the film’s core audience was. Ellis was a co-producer and co-star of the movie, in which he and his friend Ian Cheney move to Iowa to grow an acre of corn. Ellis’ cousin, Aaron Woolf, was the film’s director.

“They always tell you, ‘Think about your audience from Day One, before you ever pick up a camera,’” Ellis says. “We weren’t. We were busy trying to figure out how to tell a really complicated story in a way that’d be relevant and interesting for our audience—whoever they turned out to be.”

But along the way, as Ellis and his collaborators began to conduct interviews, people introduced them to groups like Slow Food International, foundations dealing with agricultural and dietary issues and bloggers writing about sustainability and the environment.

“We realized that all those people are naturally interested in our film, and started connecting with that built-in audience,” Ellis says. Some bloggers, he says, suggested people who’d make good interviewees—or who might provide a promotional boost to the film when it was ready.

Finding New Audiences

The trio used the database program FileMaker to keep track of all the contacts they made during production, so they could reconnect once the film was ready for release. (It premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival in 2007.) Fortuitously, one of the people they’d interviewed, an Iowa State professor named Ricardo Salvador, had moved to a new job at the Kellogg Foundation, which helped chip in for the film’s outreach funding. (The team raised $500,000 in total.)

“I sent him a copy of the film because he was in it,” Ellis says, “and he said, ‘This is the kind of thing we really ought to get behind.’ They connected us with hundreds of organizations that were interested in what we were doing, and they had us screen the film at their annual conference and distribute DVDs to the 600 attendees.”

With their outreach funding, they were able to keep paying Caitlin Boyle, a researcher who’d worked on the film, transforming her into an “outreach producer.”

Much of the digital outreach consisted of working with blogs and emailing groups around the country to promote the film’s limited theatrical release in the fall of 2007. (They used a service called Constant Contact to manage their email campaigns.)

Blogs like Sustainable Table, Culinate and Sustainable Scoop seemed eager to help get the message out about the film. “Ian and I wrote for a few blogs, and Aaron did some too,” Ellis says. “It’s very easy for a film to become stagnant, and the blogs helped keep this sense of freshness going.” Whenever they could, they tied blog entries on their own site and to issues in the news, such as the farm bill wending its way through Congress, or discussions about the obesity epidemic.

They also created their own online version of an old-fashioned publicity stunt: Cheney and Ellis decided to go a month without eating any corn—no corn-fed beef, no corn syrup-laden soft drinks. They dubbed it the “King Corn Challenge,” and started it while their film was playing in theaters in New York and a half-dozen other cities.

Boyle, the outreach producer, said that when the film opened in a new city or festival, she spent days trolling the Internet for groups that might have mailing lists, or be willing to promote the film in other ways. “Probably a third of the people emailed back, offering to help us,” she says. “Some had a mailing list, or a bulletin board in their store, or a table at a farmer’s market.” In a few smaller cities, she used the community site Craigslist to find students willing to put up posters—in exchange for a small bit of remuneration.

Whenever she noticed a posting about the film on a blog that wasn’t already on their radar, she added it to her list of people to contact. The next time they had something to announce, she’d include them in the distribution. “Unlike newspapers and magazines, blogs seem to always be looking for content,” she says.

But a key to blog promotion, Boyle learned, is authenticity. “We just tried to have it not feel corporate and studio-like,” she says. “We tried to be personal.”

ITVS created a “Corny Corn Maze” game for the film’s companion site on PBS, which attracted traffic and provided players with niblets of information about corn’s place in the American diet. And ITVS put up prize money for a “mash-up” contest that invited contestants to edit a library of short clips and photos related to the film to make a statement of their own, using a Web-based editing site called EyeSpot. The winner received $1000, T-shirts, hats and additional “corn-free” prizes.

New Distribution Opportunities

A partnership between ITVS and AOL True Stories, an online portal for non-fiction film and video, put a streaming, 20-minute clip from KING CORN on the Web 10 days before the PBS broadcast. The page on AOL’s site featuring KING CORN racked up 100,000 visitors in just two days, and there were more than 60,000 views of the clip and a shorter trailer over the first two weeks.

While on the festival circuit, the KING CORN crew sold DVDs from Austin to Chicago to Sydney, Australia. “We always carry DVDs in person,” Ellis says. They use the service Neoflix to sell DVDs on their website, for $19.95 each. (After set-up fees of $238 and monthly service charges of $30 are paid, Neoflix takes about $2 per DVD, passing the rest along to the filmmakers. Filmmakers must supply the duplicated DVDs, but Neoflix handles order fulfillment and payment processing.) For the duration of their theatrical run, handled by Balcony Releasing, they removed the DVD from their site.

After the film’s PBS broadcast in April 2008, they were planning to release an enhanced version of the DVD with new extras, working with Docurama. Docurama's parent company, New Video, handled the movie’s digital release on Apple’s iTunes marketplace in the summer of 2008—an avenue the filmmakers hadn’t previously explored.

“Our sense was that the Internet download world isn’t as valuable now as it will be in the future,” Ellis says. “We also worried it would make our film look less valuable if we had it for sale on too many places on the Internet.”

Supplemental Material

Filmmakers’ website: The King Corn Challenge

PBS.org KING CORN website corn maze

PBS.org KING CORN mash-up contest

Podcast with KING CORN Director Aaron Woolf

Ian Cheney and Ricardo Salvador on the radio show “On Point”

IndieWire interview with Aaron Woolf