Fans of POV will recognize Lucy Winer as one of the directors of Rate It X (POV 1988, with Paula de Koenigsberg) and Golden Threads (POV 1999, with Karen Eaton). For more than 30 years, Winer has been making acclaimed documentaries about social issues spanning sexism, gay rights and HIV/AIDS. For her latest film, Kings Park, she’s decided to tell her own story, about being committed to Kings Park State Hospital in Long Island as a teen and what she discovered when she returned to the shuttered institution 40 years later.
As Winer tells us in this interview, she’s wiser after releasing many documentaries the “traditional way” and is turning to a new model for making a living as an independent filmmaker.
POV: How did the experience of making your previous films influence your distribution choices for Kings Park?
Lucy Winer: Our previous documentaries have been successful, but in each case, once we were done with the upfront work of launching the film, we had little involvement with distribution and outreach. In the case of Kings Park, we discovered that we wanted to stay involved. For me personally, the bringing of Kings Park into the world has been as rewarding as the making of the film.
I’ve been at this – making documentaries – for over 30 years. Back when I started in the early 80s, very few films could be made, let alone reach the public, because the requirements for production and distribution were so stern. You had to have a television broadcast, you had to have some kind of theatrical distribution, and you certainly had to be very present in festivals in order to reach the public.
We were lucky. Our first documentary feature, Rate It X (a bitingly satirical look at sexism in America), was released theatrically in this country and overseas, and broadcast on the first season of POV. We were invited to most of the “important” festivals and we got amazing reviews in the national press. The film went on to become a classic in women’s studies. We achieved our primary goal, in that we made a real impact with humor, and got people to look at the insidious effects of sexism. But sadly, financially, we never managed to break even.
POV: Did you go into your latest film with an idea of making money? Which is another way of asking, how can you make a living making documentaries?
Winer: The motivation behind Kings Park was definitely not to make money. Having said that, we certainly did think about how to recoup our investment and pay for all the time it took to make it, and the efforts of the team who made it happen. When we first completed the film, our assumption was that we would try our best to maximize our initial impact through festivals, get as much press attention as possible, and then go on to distribution and broadcast. That isn’t what happened at all.
Although we did appear in festivals, and we did get some wonderful reviews, it right away became apparent that the biggest demand for the film was going to come from the world of mental health. This is a huge world and incorporates many different audiences, including consumers, advocacy groups, mental health professionals at every level, policy makers, universities and colleges, hospitals and clinics, government agencies and the criminal justice system.
Because the history of mental health care has been so ignored, there’s a real passion among all these groups to learn about the past and see how this history has impacted the crisis in mental health care that we face today. So what happened with our film was that we went very quickly from festivals to national conferences, from national conferences to more regional organizations, institutions and centers. Also, there wasn’t only a demand to screen the film, there’s also been a demand for me to come and speak with the film.
Given this turn of events, we made the decision early on to self-distribute, and I think for us, it’s been the right decision. In time, we may change our minds, but there are huge benefits in going your own way, if you’re able. For us, the learning curve has been huge, and we are still figuring it all out, but it’s been enormously rewarding.
Because the film is an outgrowth of my own recovery process, I often tell audiences when I go out to speak that meeting with them and sharing the film is, in fact, the last phase of the healing process that the making of the film has afforded me.
POV: So finding a niche and educational sales played a bigger role upfront?
Winer: Yes and it’s all been fairly counterintuitive for us as filmmakers. With previous films, we waited to begin educational distribution until the end of the process. Our first aim was to reach a general audience. Time will tell if I’m right, but in this instance I feel we will be better able to reach a general audience out of the partnerships and community building that’s happening right now with the educational outreach. Some would say that we should have been doing this kind of networking from Day One. To some extent we did, we formed relationships in the community from the start of research. But for the most part, it was all we could do to simply make the film.
POV: Have you found an industry in speaking? With selling DVDs as a product of speaking?
Winer: The fees from speaking do allow us to meet the overhead for outreach and slowly pay off our production debt.
To say a bit more about the possibilities of speaking with the film, a lot of people I’m asked to address — people, for instance, who work in hospitals, or in government — don’t have the luxury of watching a film that runs an hour and 48 minutes, as is the case with Kings Park. In one instance, for example, I was invited to address the annual meeting of State Mental Health Commissioners from across the country. In terms of affecting policy, this was an incredibly important opportunity, but the sponsors of the meeting could only allow 75 minutes for my presentation. The solution – which we arrived at together – was to have me screen highlights from the film and speak between the segments. It was a huge hit!
I started the talk by saying, “If you had told me, when I was a girl of 17, sitting on the floor of the dayroom of Ward 210, that I would be here today, addressing all of you, I would have thought you were messing with me, and not in a good way!” Immediately that remark created a bond, which is incredibly important when you’re asking people to examine their assumptions and attitudes. It also creates interest in the movie, so people want to purchase the film.
As a footnote to this story, this approach — speaking and sharing segments from the film — has become the basis for a series of trainings we’re developing that will ultimately be turned into a stand-alone video and facilitator’s guide. This will allow us reach viewers whom we’d be unable to reach with the feature film.
POV: At what point should a filmmaker realize that festivals have served their purpose, or that traditional distribution won’t be there, and now its time to go bundle yourself as a speaker?
Winer: I would say, don’t try to hammer your film into any pre-fabricated idea of what its life should be. Sure you need to plan and be pro-active. But leave room for the adventure to happen.
POV: What’s your guidance to another filmmaker who might similarly be seeking out policymakers who can influence the issue of their film?
Winer: I ask myself, “What’s the best set of actions I can take today?” This film has a mission to affect change in the world of mental health care, so I feel like I’m in service to that mission. I need to go where we think I can be most effective, and where we can reach the widest groups of people. The joy I feel when I’m out there is a real marker to me that I’m on the right path.
Overall, I think it’s important to ask yourself, “Why did I do this? And what is it that I’m hoping to achieve?” In 1985, as a young filmmaker, I thought that if we could ever get a great review in The New York Times, I would be satisfied for the rest of my life. Sad but true. Well, we got two great reviews in the Times, and the very next day my only thought was, “Now what?” It’s not that it didn’t make a difference to get this kind of positive feedback – it did, of course. But on the level that sustains you, it really didn’t. So what are you really after? What’s really going to carry you through?
POV: Are there any ways in which technology or social media is helping to create relationships or engage audiences?
Winer: One thing that may be heartening for digitally incompetent and/or shy people like me to hear is that we began distribution without knowing these tools. Of course we learned the basics as fast as we could, but always remember that the tools need to be appropriate to the people you’re trying to reach. We’re using email, and that has been successful for communicating with our audience and supporters.
POV: Your thinking around this film is for it to have a long life, which is to say this is your job right now and will be for a while?
Winer: I think that’s a fair assessment. This is my job right now, so I’m not in the mindset, as I have been in the past, of getting Kings Park out there so I can move on to the next project. That’s not where I’m coming from. I’m getting to do what I want to do, and what I love to do. I never imagined that I could love doing distribution and outreach so much.
Lucy Winer’s Kings Park continues to screen at festivals and special events across the country. Paradigm Shift NYC is hosting a screening and discussion on Thursday, May 23, 2013, in New York City. Check kingsparkmovie.com for information about future screenings.