National Issues, Local Impact: How Indie Lens Pop-Up, Filmmakers, and PBS Stations Gather Communities

By Keena Levert from PBS SoCal and Danielle Orange from ITVS
Posted on October 17, 2018

Fueling films that spark conversations, and connecting with local audiences, is at the heart of our mission to bring impactful independent documentaries to public media. Indie Lens Pop-Up is the tool in which ITVS filmmakers, PBS member stations, and other local partners connect and engage with their communities. These events translate your film’s message into action. 

We asked member station PBS SoCal to share some tips and insight into what it is like to work with filmmakers and execute an Indie Lens Pop-Up Event. 

You’ve completed your film and it’s headed to public media for broadcast. What’s next? With over 350 members, working with local PBS stations to engage directly with audiences can seem like an ocean to navigate. When and where should you start? What are your engagement and impact goals? Who should you partner with? 

It is our privilege at PBS SoCal, covering the greater Los Angeles Area, to frequently work with filmmakers to facilitate face-to-face interaction between their content and various communities throughout our region.  Our station collaborates with roughly a dozen different filmmakers and production teams a year to produce outreach campaigns, screenings, and more for indie film series (Independent Lens, POV), PBS tentpole content (like The Vietnam War), ongoing series (like American Masters and NOVA) and local productions.  

We have a good pulse on what works (and what doesn’t) in filmmaker-to-station interactions.  Our recent work with Firelight Media and filmmaker Stanley Nelson in support of a screening of Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities, is a great case study for this specific type of collaboration. I will share some best practices we applied for that project, as well as lessons learned. 

Begin communication as early as possible. In the case of Tell Them We Are Rising, ITVS connected PBS SoCal with the filmmakers four months ahead of the target screening date. ITVS slated the film for inclusion in the 2018-19 Indie Lens Pop-Up screening series (which PBS SoCal had committed to producing locally). Knowing our two separate sets of plans, ITVS connected our camps and entrusted designing a strategy for outreach in Southern California to the collaborative efforts of our station and Firelight. Our early conversations centered around each team’s resources (those already existing and those needed), hopes for engagement/impact, desired scale, and target timelines, laying a strong foundation to build the project upon.

Be clear about what you want to accomplish. Defining the screening’s purpose is key, especially in a PBS station’s particular region. A station will better reach its own community with your content if they know your target audiences and how you’d like to impact and engage with them. Do you want to change perspectives, enlighten audiences with new information you’ve uncovered, or inspire action in a certain area? Pick a focused set of goals and then identify how your collective resources will be applied to accomplish them. 

Firelight Media communicated to ITVS that Los Angeles was a market in which they hoped to host a screening, and we recognized that while our region is located thousands of miles away from the nearest historically black college or university (HBCU), it boasts a strong local network of HBCU alumni and notable advocates. Therefore, a discussion centered on the HBCU alumni impact in our region from various perspectives - academics, entertainment, and social justice - made sense. 

Bring your expertise and ideas. As you plan to work with a PBS station, it is important to assess collective resources for the project. Be clear about what you bring to the table (e.g. deep knowledge about your film’s topic, access to the filmmaker(s), local or national partner organization support) and how it compliments the station’s resources. Keep in mind that the term “resources” includes more than just financial support. It also consists of elements like marketing materials, personnel, and existing connections or partnerships.

 The Inner City Youth Orchestra, founded and conducted by an HBCU alumnus, played for guests as they entered the event.

Bring your brand. With strong brand assets for a film, a station can use its platforms to support an engagement campaign, screening event, or broadcast. Deliverables like a logo, title treatments, a shareable trailer, or approved photos give the station tools to support your collaborative activities across several platforms. Without them, not only might promotional opportunities be missed, but the messaging around your film becomes less cohesive and may not stick with audiences. The Tell Them We Are Rising team shared a robust suite of brand collateral and combined efforts with our team to create and provide promotional materials as well as distribute them.  

Along with our own PBS SoCal brand assets, we also made sure to include Indie Lens Pop-Up branding throughout the campaign. Both organizations are part of ongoing efforts to establish PBS SoCal as a destination for high-quality in-person experiences and content. Indie Lens Pop-Up branding also connected us to the larger nationwide screening campaign happening in 60+ locations across the country. 

Better to focus on a few specific measures of success. Deciding how to evaluate success ahead of time takes the pressure off getting “everything” right. Attendance may be your measure, or perhaps connecting with new audiences, thought leaders or influencers is more important. 

In the case of our collaboration for Tell Them We Are Rising, the screening helped our station connect with a new audience (the local HBCU alumni network) and yielded one of our largest crowds ever for an indie film screening (over 250 guests). Making first-time connections with illustrious panelists Dr. Michael Lomax, Dr. Mary Schmidt Campbell, film producer Will Packer, and Dr. Melina Abdullah, was a notable benefit for our station as well. The attendance and social media support of celebrities like Erika Alexander and Glynn Turman added a level of excitement and credibility with the audience and facilitated a reach well beyond the theater’s four walls. 

                          Filmmaker Stanley Nelson speaks with guests at VIP reception.

                        Actors Erika Alexander and Glynn Turman greet guests after the screening.

Be aware of your limitations and potential challenges.  No event or campaign gets everything right, and try as you might to clear roadblocks ahead of time, some are unavoidable. Issues like holiday seasons, related events happening on the same day, or purely a lack of technical, financial, or administrative resources can present challenges. 

While we accomplished our Tell Them We Are Rising screening goals, the planning and execution included a few difficulties and compromises.  Our original plan included a second, more student-focused event in another area within our region that did not come to fruition. We had also hoped to secure local sponsors for the event but ran out of time and capacity to do so. We had to think on our feet when our scheduled moderator canceled four hours prior to the event! 

I can confidently say that successful filmmaker + station collaboration requires an attitude of anticipation (vs. reaction) and flexibility. This approach makes challenges in the process much more manageable and keeps your desired outcomes well within reach. 

When local PBS stations and independent filmmakers combine for impactful engagement, the result ultimately strengthens both –  each one vital to the other.

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