Station Spotlight: WXXI’s Indie Film Movement

During the PBS Regional Meeting in Baltimore last Fall, I had the pleasure of meeting some of the staff from WXXI | Rochester. I was oblivious to their amazing efforts in the wonderful world of Indie film; my eyes were opened listening to WXXI’s team share their experience during the Super 7 Session about PBS’s Multiplatform Independence Film Initiative.  They provided me their corporate support colleague’s name – Alison Zero Jones – as I was very interested to find out how they leverage this platform with sponsors.  Below is my interview with Alison.  

  1. How did WXXI become an Indie Film leader in your community and beyond?

Partnerships. Over the course of several years, various teams at WXXI & the Little Theatre have worked diligently to weave our community into the fabric of our screenings and panel discussions. Countless community groups, regional leaders, experts, directors and citizens have served on panels and assisted with the promotion of these events, particularly via social media. Film-focused events have ampIMG_0031lified the life of our brand. We are convening, educating and working to inspire people in ways unique to the film/group discussion dynamic.

Our partnership with the Little Theatre has been a real boon to the station as well, allowing us to broaden our offerings and serve a greater portion of our community (the Little Theatre entered into a parent-subsidiary relationship with WXXI Public Broadcasting in 2012). The Little came with built-in indie cred and a crackerjack staff which we are so grateful for.

And internal partnerships are critical. So many departments collaborate on the production of these events so communication is king. Quite often, television, education, membership, events, news, Little and underwriting departments are all in on the wrangling. It takes a (well-oiled) village.

  1. What types of films do you screen?  Only indies?  Do you package events around these screenings to have a deeper engagement with your community?

MVPIn addition to presenting independent and international films, we host screenings of PBS programming (from Downton Abbey to Indian Summers to Independent Lens / Indie Lens Pop-Up productions), films created/curated
by local talent and more. Many of these events are paired with post-film discussions, and the Q&As are moderated by station talent and local notables. Panels are curated to ensure representation of a variety of viewpoints, and we’ve had many noteworthy participants, ranging from Rochester’s mayor to interviews with acclaimed directors via Skype.

These film-focused events have enabled us to provide another platform for community
dialogue, where people feel connected to both the content and each other in a way that is unique to the shared in-person experience.

These events IMG_2535help deepen engagement – no doubt. They give our work “legs” and drive curiosity across channels. The screenings we pair with events (i.e. post-film discussions) increase the quality of the interactions with our brand, in ways that are often more personal and meaningful. We find that even for sponsors, the in-person exchange enriches their experience of connectedness with the good work their marketing dollars are helping support. It’s one thing to know your business is benefiting from the “halo effect” of public media sponsorship, but another to really feel it.

All of our attendees, whether they’re panelists, audience members or sponsors, walk away with a better idea of our organization’s focus, and have a clearer sense of our brand’s personality.

Agencies are also looking for opportunities for their clients to serve as content area experts. Increased brand credibility and trustworthiness are often the result of publicly supporting and helping (financially) facilitate meaningful, educational discussions centered around their organization’s topic of interest. These special event sponsorship opportunities provide clients with solid social media fodder as well, and we try to supply our clients with ideas on how to maximize the benefits of their sponsorship in this space.

  1. What promotional efforts are done?  How do you create demand in your market?

AmStNickWXXIOur creative services team supports the work of the initiating department’s event. We produce easy-to-share digital content, e-newsletters, extensive social media outreach, posters & flyers for distribution at key community sites, screen ads for display in the theatre, TV/radio spots, special event promos, print ads for our Program Listings Guide, and more. The level of promotion varies event to event.

Panel curation certainly helps in creating demand for seats at our special event screenings. People will flock to the theatre (even in wintry Rochester weather!) for facetime with a person of interest. Panelists can also be very helpful in driving traffic to the theatre if they’re invested enough (and they usually are). Our membership team is also brilliant when it comes to incentivizing people to attend our screenings, and they often devise fundraising tactics that creatively connect with the programming at hand. For example, their work surrounding our screenings of the first episode of Downton Abbey’s final season. This included Downton-themed brunches at a posh local restaurant, and period dress costume contests with all sorts of prizes.

I also think the consistency and quality of our programming, and high level of activity, has benefited us.

  1. How are these screenings/events packaged and sold to sponsors?  Do sponsors have involvement at the in-person events?

IMG_3430We rarely sell a screening/event sponsorship on its own – it’s almost always bundled with other media in the mix. We are able to leverage increased investment levels and enhance client engagement through these partnerships. Initially, this was a slow road. It was a challenge to convince underwriters to spend a little more for event sponsorship. But we found that once a few key clients were on board, others followed, and our earliest sponsors are now our repeat sponsors. They’re hooked! Events often create long-lasting, powerful impressions, and these lingering feel-good vibes cling to the sponsors that make them possible. These types of screening/event sponsorships are also excellent opportunities to get creative, have fun, and not be bogged down by the abundance of restrictions upon us.

And yes! Sponsors do get involved. We’ve had underwriters welcome guests, serve food, run tastings, serve concessions, supply props, send staff in “uniform” to volunteer day of, provide gifts to attendees and more. We also offer opportunities for signage and are always open to any creative ideas our clients might have.The Little

  1. What are your top 3 lessons learned from these events and maximizing your sponsorship dollars?
    1. Event sponsorship opportunities are best positioned for efficacy and appeal when part of a multi-platform package.
    2. Share ideas and best practices. Talk to your peers. Use myPBS! Meet with other stations in your region on occasion to compare notes as a group. I’ve found that public media folks are some of the most generous in the media landscape, and are always willing to help, talk about what worked and what didn’t.
    3. Not every opportunity you put out there will sell.  That said, absolutely go in for the pitch each time. Talking about screening/event sponsorships is great fun, and a wonderful way to connect with prospects and clients. And invite them to these events so they can experience what it is you’re so excited about firsthand.
  1. If you’re just starting screenings in your market, what one piece of advice would you give to others? In pursuing sponsors?

I’m big on trial runs, so if at first you want to offer the opportunity to one of your devoted underwriters as a “bonus,” I say go for it. This will allow you to more clearly define deliverables and logistics, and lay a clearer groundwork for future screening/talkback sponsorships. Having a case study under your belt makes crafting a story that sells a whole lot easier.

Alison Zero Jones | Director of Sales & Marketing | WXXI Public Broadcasting + The Little Theatre
Lauren Cummings | Associate Director, Corporate Support, Station Relations | PBS

One thought on “Station Spotlight: WXXI’s Indie Film Movement

  1. Beth Reply

    It was so great to see The Little get a burst of new life with WXXI’s help!

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