We founded Full Spectrum Features in 2015. One of the passion projects that was developing at the time was a story about Japanese American incarceration. I was very interested in telling stories about Asian-American history that are often lesser-known. A lot of people asked me, "why are you trying to do this as a for-profit project? This seems like the type of thing that you could get foundation support for." That had not occurred to me before.
In terms of Full Spectrum's purpose, it's built into the name. We want to represent a wide range of identities and stories, and communities. I never found my home in a more narrowly defined identity-based group or organization. Our identities are very complex; it's gender, race, ethnicity, country of origin, age, ability, sexual orientation. But when we go out into the world, the film festivals are "the queer femme film festival," "the black film festival," "the Asian American film festival." I always found it slightly disorienting because - and I do not want to disparage the power of finding community with people with shared experiences - but for a lot of us, our shared and lived experience is one that is much more intersectional and complicated. I wanted to build an organization that reflected that worldview.
The program is a partnership between three nonprofits: Full Spectrum Features here in Chicago, the Northwest Film Forum, based in Seattle, and the LuminalTheater, based in Brooklyn. The idea is to see what several organizations can accomplish by combining our networks across the nation in terms of what kind of value we can bring to the filmmakers. We are using Our Right to Gaze, a collection of narrative films by black filmmakers, as a test. The intent of the program is not just to put another curated shorts program out there. There's certainly value in doing that, but a lot of the work we're doing is also trying to push on the systems and structures that prevent folks from going to that next level and continue to sustain their careers.
We send our filmmakers out into the buzzsaw, which is the world of independent film, and they are totally unprepared for that. What we are doing is running into that buzzsaw with the filmmakers and seeing what might make going out into the world with your films a little bit less painful. One of the big challenges is most independent movie theaters and venues that screen these types of films are volunteer-driven. They have very small budgets. So they, often unwittingly, or uncritically, or both, exploit the filmmakers. Someone has put tens of thousands of dollars into making a three-, five-, 10-minute short film, usually on a credit card or their own money. When they go and present that work into the marketplace, the marketplace tells them your work is worth $0. That is the typical model. It's not as if these festivals or these venues have bags of cash that they're holding back. So, it's a challenging nut to crack because equity is not just about money.
First, we can book more screenings with our three different networks and three different coasts. From the marketing and branding side, together, we add more credibility and visibility. Because of COVID, we're booking this as a virtual cinema event with theaters. Brian Kahn, who is our main staff behind this project, and another for-profit company called Circle Collective have successfully booked over 50 theaters around the country, which is the greatest number of theaters that we've ever booked ourselves for a program. Even just the number of bookings alone is a success because the filmmakers can put that on their resume, "my short film did a 50 city theatrical tour," which I do not think most short filmmakers can say.
With the grant, we now have some cash to pay the filmmakers for this program. They have all received somewhere in the range of a thousand dollars for their participation. But we are thinking deeply about what other kinds of value festivals or artists' institutes can give to the filmmakers. There's a lot of things that these places can provide that do not cost money. Just to cite one example, we premiered our first feature film at a major film festival that begins with an S. The festival programmers were delighted with the film. The director of the festival got up and said glowing words about our movie. I asked the festival people, "can we quote this person because it would be hugely valuable if I could take just like three words, attribute it to this person, and then go to the press or other festivals." They said absolutely not. This is a big festival; I didn't want to ruffle any feathers, so we didn't quote the person, but it stuck in my brain. It would be really valuable if your head programmer or someone gave a little puff or a blurb that the filmmaker could use for marketing. Or you could provide a letter of support that commits to potentially screening the filmmaker’s next work at your festival or venue. Then that filmmaker can use that letter to go to a funder to get a grant because funders want to see the things they fund get out there in the world.
These are the things that we are trying to test in this project. Something that is valuable, tangible, and does not cost the festival any money. We want to talk to the venues and the festivals and say, we understand you can't pay the filmmakers money. We've taken care of that part. But if you really want to support the filmmakers, here are some really easy things that you can do which will help a lot.
As you would expect with any new initiative, there are successes and then also some challenges that came up, some that were unanticipated. I would say the big success is just the sheer number of bookings and interest in the program. The filmmakers so far have been absolutely thrilled. They are just excited to be in the program, excited to have this pretty remarkable accomplishment. And then obviously, they're happy to get paid.
A quick anecdote that I think says a lot about how the industry is structured and where sort of the basic baseline is, and what filmmakers’ expectations are. We accepted the filmmakers and notified them that we wanted to include them in the program. In the email, we told them the basic terms of the arrangement and what we're going to try to do with the films, including the screening or licensing fee. One filmmaker wrote back and said, “I just want to clarify, are you paying me the money, or am I paying you the money?” And that just floored us that they thought we would be charging them a thousand bucks to be in the program. That just shows where the standards are on this.
I'm glad you asked because there's another major component to this program that I credit to Brian Kahn, the main captain of the ship from Full Spectrum's side. In addition to the actual program, the screenings, the screening fees, and any other kind of income value, we want to approach this as a collaborative design process. We have not quite fleshed out exactly what the next steps will be, but we're going to set up a phone call with each filmmaker and have a conversation with them. We want to ask them, what is the next thing for you, and what can we do to help support you in that? So, okay, you're trying to do that. I know somebody here, let me make a phone call or an introduction for you. Oh, you want to do this other thing. Let me write a letter of recommendation. Here is a grant that you can apply to, I'd be happy to talk to the program officer, and I'll read a draft of your grants to try to get your project set up at this foundation. I do not know of other sort of film programs that do that, and maybe it's a unique position we're in because we're a nonprofit that does all these other things.
Many festival directors and programmers love films, but they also love filmmakers, and the vast majority of people I think are genuine in their expressions of goodwill. They're also genuinely unaware of what to do. So asking them to do more, in some ways, is asking them to do something that they don't know how to do. What I try to communicate to a lot of folks is hopefully, they can adopt some version of what we're doing. Instead of assuming what the filmmakers want or need, talk to the filmmakers and ask what kinds of things do you need to advance your career? What kinds of things do you think we could provide in terms of value, other than money if that's not on the table?
I would love to learn more about what other people are doing to provide value to artists for their careers that are not monetary because so many of our organizations are working from a place where we can barely pay ourselves. So what else can we do to support these artists that are not money, and that is not this sort of fleeting exposure. Surely there has got to be a whole set of other things we can do. I would love to hear, even from other arts disciplines, what are more collective types of value that we can create? Is there a space for collective action and or collective benefit? If we put on our collective action caps as we think about this set of problems, we will come up with different types of solutions? And this is really where the spirit of the three organizational partnership came from because any one of our organizations could only provide some portion of this value to the filmmakers. The fact that all three of us are doing it together as a whole, we can offer an exponentially greater amount of value to the filmmakers.