Powerful partnerships can enable you to maximize your film’s reach and revenue. Partnerships can give you the control, flexibility, and connection to your core audience needed to thrive in our New World of Distribution.
I first learned how to build partnerships during the distribution for Age of Champions, my documentary about the Senior Olympics. Since then I have refined these tactics while helping other filmmakers build their own partnerships. This report is the first time I have analyzed, integrated, and shared my strategy for creating powerful partnerships.
For Age of Champions partnerships were more important than distributors. Our unconventional strategy of prioritizing partnerships felt risky at first; soon it became our biggest strength. Of the $1,543,000 we grossed during distribution, only about $64,000 came from our distributors. The remainder came directly from the promotion and support of our partners.
We connected with many partners during distribution but only six significantly helped us increase awareness, impact, and revenue. I call these game-changing allies power partners.
Power partners can take many forms: an advocacy group with 50 state chapters; a Fortune 500 company that supports causes aligned with your film; an Executive Producer that backs you financially and opens doors to more support; the organizer of a national conference of influencers.
After reflecting on my many experiences with power partners, I’ve found that whether you’re building a partnership with a nonprofit, company, or advocate, there are ways to increase your chances for success.
Here are my eight rules of engagement to harness the power of partnerships.
Rule #1 — The earlier you approach potential partners the better
Your goal should be to connect with power partners before your film is finished. You can start getting partners onboard with a teaser, your track record as a filmmaker, and a compelling synopsis and vision for distribution.
By reaching out before your premiere, you can make clear you are seeking a meaningful, mutually beneficial partnership. This will increase the likelihood they will get behind your film. Once they support your film, they are more likely to do so again and again — a key characteristic of a power partner.
After returning from our very first shoot for Age of Champions, I started making calls to companies and organizations I thought would make good partners. At first I reached out to ‘get our film on their radar’. Many weren’t interested but a handful felt our film complemented their work and asked ‘how can we get involved?’ Some of these early partners provided funding like Proctor & Gamble, the maker of Fixodent. Others like the National Council on Aging, a nonprofit for professionals working with seniors, ended up inviting us to their conference where we connected with other partners. Another early partner, the AARP, donated $25,000 towards production. Over the next two years, their support grew and they ended up becoming our most important power partner.
Rule #2 — Identify your potential allies
Develop a hit list of potential partners that you think will be excited about your film. Organize them by issue area. Prioritize a few leads that seem promising. Rehearse your elevator pitch and reach out.
If you’re getting a positive response, deepen your research to more nonprofits, companies, and other types of potential partners in that area. When potential partners in an issue area don’t respond enthusiastically, shift your focus. Be prepared to repeat this process several times. I’ve never been right on my first guess.
For Age of Champions I created a massive hit list of potential partners organized into the issues areas at the core of our film, including senior athletics, aging, and healthcare. I whittled down our initial list by emailing and calling a handful of folks in each area. 300 organizations became 100 then 25 promising potential partners. I first assumed partners in senior athletics were our best bet. Wrong. After several weeks of outreach and a few test screenings, I learned that the senior health world loved our film. I elevated the potential partners in that area and increased my outreach to them. By the end of our distribution, I had developed meaningful relationships with six power partners — five of whom were in the senior health area.
Rule #3 — Analyze each partner’s potential and limits
An effective partnership leverages the strengths of a partner and respects its limits. Some partners have large networks they can mobilize. Others have deep pockets. If you aren’t focusing a partnership with a Fortune 500 company on financial support, you’re missing an opportunity. If you ask a nonprofit partner with 50 state chapters for funding, you’ll be disappointed. Occasionally a partner that can raise awareness can also write a check.
You can also build linked partnerships, which bring together multiple organizations with complementary strengths. Imagine you’ve got a nonprofit partner that has a valuable national network for raising awareness but can’t provide any funding. At the same time, there’s a company or foundation that has resources but no network to promote your film. If those organizations are interested in a joint collaboration — bullseye.
During outreach for Age of Champions, we connected with the nonprofit that represents thousands of senior centers across the country. National Institute of Senior Centers (NISC) felt that many of their members would want to host a screening of our film. The problem was they have limited funding. To move this partnership forward, we reached out to the Harrah’s Foundation, which supports programs at senior centers. We submitted a grant request to the Foundation highlighting NISC’s desire for our film and received $10,000. We ended up getting our film into cash-strapped senior centers that really wanted our film, while getting paid by a linked partner willing to write a check.
Rule #4 — Determine the win-win
Partnerships must be mutually beneficial. You need to show every potential partner how they will benefit from working with you. If they see your partnership as an opportunity that will gain them goodwill from their members or customers, or contribute to a cause important to them, they may become a power partner.
The more they have to gain, the more supportive they will be. Do they have an annual conference where you can give an exciting keynote presentation (see my prior Bulletin on conference strategy)? Do they have an ongoing program that your film can support? Do they provide a service to a community that will want to screen your film? How can they use your film to accomplish their goals?
While at a conference, I met the VP of a physical therapy company that provides services to senior living communities. He told me that they were looking for new ways to earn goodwill from the residents and staff at 30 communities they work with. I suggested that we create a branded community screening toolkit they could gift to these communities. It would be a new way they could underscore the importance of staying active, while earning goodwill from their clients. They purchased 30 branded kits for $330 each, which included a video message from the founder of the company, a logo on the DVD, and some printed physical therapy guides they created. Our partner benefited from this new way to interact with their clients. We had our film screened in 30 more communities and were paid to make it possible.
Rule #5 — Craft your pitch
You need a pitch. This is a concise and compelling description of your film and your vision for distribution. Partners want to support a film on a topic they care about that will resonate with the people they want to connect with. Your pitch should clearly state why your film is right for them.
You need a pitch deck. This is a written document that helps you begin substantive conversations. I’ve had success with a simple two-page format. It should combine strong images from your film, quotes from relevant influencers endorsing your film, and concise copy outlining your film’s story, its message, and your distribution plans.
You need a website. You want to convey the information in your pitch and pitch deck so that a prospective partner can understand why your film is a good fit for them and how it will impact the world. Here are links to a two-part series of Peter’s Bulletins covering some best practices on creating an effective website (Part 1, Part 2).
During my two years pitching Age of Champions, I was constantly reworking my tools. I remember feeling like a stand-up comedian. Every pitch I did on the phone or via email was an opportunity to test my material. I learned which words and phrases resonated with my partners. The way I pitched my film varied based on the issue area or type of partner I was speaking with. How I communicated with the association of university gerontologists and kinesiologists differed from my calls with the marketing team at a healthcare company. The more I customized my tools, the more effective I was.
Rule #6 — Lead the Conversation
Filmmakers must lead the conversations with potential partners. Many promising partnerships never get past: “we’re interested in your film but will get back to you on how we can get involved”. Other times, a partner will make a suggestion that is easy for them but nearly useless to you. i.e. “we’ll post your trailer on our social media”.
You can combat this by getting specific about your win-win partnership ideas. This will help you establish a partnership on your terms rather than agreeing to what is least inconvenient for your partner. Sharing your ideas, ideally over the phone rather than email, will help you learn what is possible. By listening to their response and refining your pitch, you can develop a winning partnership.
One of our most important power partners for Age of Champions was LeadingAge, an association for professionals at senior living communities. When I reached out and shared our trailer, I received an enthusiastic response and was able to schedule a call with one of their top-level staff. Before the call, I did some research and learned that they have a massive conference attracting over 8,000 of their members. When we got on the phone, they offered to write an article about our film in their quarterly magazine and post our trailer on their blog. I made a counter-suggestion that we present a clip of our film and do interactive Q&A at their annual conference. They agreed. I ended up presenting in the main auditorium to their thousands of attendees. The ripple effect from word-of-mouth reverberated for months, generating hundreds of grassroots screenings and well-paid speaking events. See my prior Bulletin on conference strategy for more details.
Rule #7 — Pitch and persevere
Getting a partner to commit takes patience and persistence. Even the best pitch has to be delivered to the right person at the right time to be effective.
Your goal is to deliver your pitch to the decision-maker, who may be the VP of Marketing at a company, the executive director of a nonprofit, or the head of programming for a conference. Whatever their title, they are busy and we are competing for their attention against work deadlines, their kid’s soccer practice, and everything in between.
We win this battle for attention if we are willing to call and email again and again with pleasant but persistent reminders that we have a great opportunity to share. If you aren’t breaking through, diversify your outreach and try the second or third in command as a way to get the conversation started. If you’re convinced that you may have a meaningful partnership on your hands, continue the polite persistence.
After setting my sights on AARP as a potential partner, I tracked down the contact information for the AARP headquarters in Washington DC. I practiced my pitch a few times and called the main phone number. I left a short message for the director of the national brand office and sent an email. After not receiving a response, I spoke to a couple other staff in the office. They all said the director was the decider. Two to three times a month for the next six months, I would either call or email, never getting a response. My messages evolved from, “I’d like to share some details on my film…”, to “I understand you’re busy so I thought I’d check back in…” And from there, “please forgive my following up but I’m hoping you have a few minutes…” Finally, I received an email response. I scheduled a call and had my first conversation with the decider at what would become my most important power partner.
Rule #8 — Start small and grow
Starting small and delivering on what you promised can be the first step in a meaningful partnership. Even if your film is in perfect alignment with their work, a collaborator often won’t initially be willing to write the large check or agree to a prominent endorsement. Building trust comes from doing what you promise and meeting or exceeding their expectations.
Share the positive feedback you receive for your initial collaborations. Show your partner that your film is resonating with the people they care about. A quote or testimonial from a colleague or relevant influencer can go a long way to helping you grow your partnership.
Initially I pitched AARP on sponsoring a 20-state semi-theatrical tour. It was my dream partnership but they turned me down. I scheduled a follow-up call and pitched them on sponsoring just one event in a city of their choice. We ended up doing a special screening event in Austin, TX with a Q&A. The Texas state AARP director was ecstatic about the response and gave a positive report back to headquarters. Then I pitched AARP HQ on two more events in priority cities. Two more home runs. Finally, I went back to HQ and pitched them once more on the 20-state tour of the film. This time they agreed and cut a check for $100,000. Months later, after a successful tour, AARP ended up supporting us again by underwriting our PBS broadcast. All told, we grew our partnership with AARP into over $180,000 of revenue and priceless awareness to their millions of members.
Partnerships were our most effective tool to increase awareness and revenue. For this report, I compared the revenues we generated from partnerships to revenue from our conventional release of Age of Champions via film festivals, distributors, a national PBS broadcast, and streaming on Netflix. Only 4% of what we grossed came from sales and acquisition deals by our distributors. All of the other revenue, from PBS underwriting to live events to educational sales, resulted from our win-win partnerships.
In my work helping filmmakers connect with their own power partners, I have seen again and again the effect partnerships can have. With some films, the difference between a failed distribution strategy and a remarkable success is just one power partner.
Filmmakers I’ve worked with have generated significant revenue from win-win partnerships with companies like Google, 23andMe, Purina, and PricewaterhouseCoopers. Others have connected with core audiences by partnering with organizations like the American Heart Association, James Beard Foundation, and Future Farmers of America.
Power partners are more than a mouthpiece or a paycheck; they are members of your distribution team. Like all good teammates, their support will grow your ability to maximize awareness, impact, and revenue.
Partnerships helped me and many of the filmmakers I work with transcend the tired, old norms of distribution. We used partnerships to supercharge our distribution. By following the eight rules of engagement you can too.
Illustrations by Sofia Lacin.