A Place in the Middle



October 22, 2016:

(or How to Get on Netflix by Really Really Trying)

By: Dean Hamer and Joe Wilson

Making a documentary is a lot of work. But once the final frame is finished, how do you make sure that your film is seen and has the impact you're hoping for? What we found for our PIC-supported documentary KUMU HINA is that outreach, distribution and engagement are just as demanding, and as important, as the filmmaking itself.

The process began five years ago, when we were incredibly fortunate to meet Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, a kanaka maoli teacher, cultural icon and community leader who also happens to be māhū, or transgender. We thought her life and work would be a good topic for a public television film, and were delighted when she agreed to participate, allowing us to film every aspect of her life from teaching at a charter school to meetings of the O'ahu Island Burial Council to intimate moments at home with her new husband. Our mutual goal was to have Hina tell her story in her own words, creating a personal narrative that would organically inform and engage viewers about Hawaii's tradition of embracing gender diversity.

The first step in our outreach – letting people know about the film – was to identify the potential audiences. We expected KUMU HINA to have special appeal to Pacific Islanders, many of whom are struggling to maintain their identity and cultural connections amidst the pressures of living in a heavily westernized society, and to the LGBT community including māhū, transgender individuals, and anyone who falls outside the rigid confines of mainstream concepts of gender and sexuality. We also hoped that the film would offer opportunities to educate and engage a broad national audience by showing a side of Hawai'i rarely depicted in mainstream media.

Social media provides one of the most powerful tools for outreach because of its built-in ability to target networks of like-minded individuals. We started our efforts by establishing a Facebook page early on during the filming process, reaching out both to Hina's large network of friends in Hawai‘i and Pacific Islander communities, and to our own established LGBT networks from previous projects. By posting several times a week, both about the film and related news topics - ranging from the protests on Mauna Kea to Caitlin Jenner's transition - we gradually built up a following that has now, with the addition of Tumblr, Twitter and Instagram pages, reached some 20,000 supporters.

Blogs are another popular outreach medium, especially for topics that require longer explanations than a typical Facebook post or tweet. We focused our efforts on the Huffington Post, which has the advantage of including pages devoted both to Hawai‘i and to Queer Voices, again posting both about the film and related topics.

Our plans for distribution – getting the film out into the world – began with festivals, a time honored way both of introducing the project to the public and obtaining the notice and press that is key to success across platforms. Sticking with our strategy of starting at home, we decided to premiere the film at the Hawai'i International Film Festival, and were very fortunate to be picked as the closing night film for the Spring Showcase. With the support of PIC, and a wonderful performance before the film by Hina and musical contributor Kealiʻi Reichel, this turned into an amazing event, selling out the historic Hawai'i Theatre with a diverse and enthusiastic audience.

Over the next year, KUMU HINA played at over 100 film festivals around the country and world. While the absolute numbers of viewers at such screenings is limited, they play a key roll in generating buzz and enthusiasm. Among the many highlights were Frameline – the large LGBT festival in San Francisco, where KUMU HINA won the documentary jury prize – and FIFO Tahiti – the only Pacific Island documentary festival, where the film came away with both jury and audience awards.

The major distribution channel for KUMU HINA was, of course, public television, which has a long tradition of introducing viewers to new and sometimes controversial topics and ideas. We were very fortunate to have the film selected for Independent Lens, PBS's prestigious documentary strand which, by virtue of its reputation and Monday night prime-time slot on the national feed, attracts close to a million viewers every week. Despite initial hesitation from PBS executives, who thought the topic might be “too obscure,” KUMU HINA did exceptionally well, winning the audience award as the most popular film among voting viewers for the 2014-2015 season. This turns out to be the third PIC- supported film that has won the Independent Lens Audience award (the others are Nā Kamalei: Men of Hula and Heart of the Sea), speaking directly to the large demand of Pacific Islanders to see their stories on television.

While the PBS broadcast certainly reached the most viewers at any one time, other forms of physical and digital distribution are needed to make the film available on an ongoing basis; e.g., DVD, download, streaming and video-on-demand. Because there are now so many different platforms available, each with its own particular delivery and contractual requirements, we decided early on that it would be difficult to do it all ourselves, and began searching for an established commercial distributer to collaborate with. This led us to Passion River, a medium size distributor with an emphasis on social issue films, many on Netflix. Another advantage was their willingness to contract on a non-exclusive basis for educational distribution, an important consideration.

By the day after broadcast, the film was available to buy for home use on Amazon, rent or download on iTunes, or obtain for education use on Alexander Street Press, Kanopy, or our own website. It was also added to the inflight entertainment system on Hawaiian Airline, a wonderful way for visitors to learn about this little known aspect of Hawaiian culture.

Netflix was more difficult. The film was rejected at first, and again even after it won the Independent Lens Audience Award. Only when KUMU HINA was honored as best documentary of the year by GLAAD, the country's preeminent LGBT media organization, did Netflix finally make an offer – which was accepted with alacrity.

Engagement – connecting the film to action for change – is perhaps the most complicated yet important stage in the life of a documentary. Our aim was educational: to make the teaching of Kumu Hina available beyond her small Honolulu charter school to students, educators and families across Hawai‘i, the nation and the world. One obstacle that quickly became apparent was that although the feature documentary was well suited for college students in a variety of subject areas, it was too long, and in some senses too complex, for the most important target audience: elementary, middle and high-school students. This motivated us to cut a shorter version of the film, A PLACE IN THE MIDDLE, that focused on Hina's work with an eleven year old girl who aspired to join the school's all-male hula group. By telling the story from her point of view, and the use of colorful animation, we produced a 24 minute piece that kids enjoy watching.

A PLACE IN THE MIDDLE premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival and went on to screen at Toronto International, Tokyo Kineko, and children's festivals around the world, but the real work was making the film useful and available to teachers. We began by collaborating with several educators and experts in Hawaiian and gender studies to produce a discussion guide that includes background information about Hawai'i and māhū, discussion questions, lesson ideas, and guided activities. We linked the material to the Common Core Educational Standards – a key element for educators in today's world of standardized testing - and to the new Nā Hopena Aʻo native learning outcomes developed by the Hawai'i Department of Education. This was bundled with several additional resources, including a DVD and a Pledge of Aloha, and made available to educators at no cost through the support of PIC and the Ford Foundation.

We began the educational campaign at home by introducing the curriculum to local educators and families through a series of screenings and talk story sessions at public libraries, many of which are located in public schools, and a screening on PBS Hawaiʻi combined with a PBS Insights discussion on “How Can Our Community Better Understand Gender Diversity?” Despite the trepidation of some DOE bureaucrats, we were subsequently able to distribute the resources to every school in Hawaiʻi, where they have been well received by teachers and students and are now being used in K-12 classrooms statewide.

At the national level, we soon discovered that there was a real demand for resources about the hot-button issue of gender diversity, especially from a cultural and historical point of view. Online portals hosted by educational organizations have proven to be a convenient and efficient mode of dissemination. One of the most successful collaborations has been with PBS LearningMedia, a trusted source for educational media with over 1.8 million registered users; A PLACE IN THE MIDDLE is now the most frequently used resource on the transgender topic in their large collection. Similar collaborations were established with Teaching Tolerance, Welcoming Schools, Our Family Coalition, Not In Our Schools, and the Native Hawaiian Education Council, each with its own constituency and networks.

Perhaps the most important lesson we've learned through the KUMU HINA project is that there is no “one size fits all” solution that works for all films or all audiences. It's important to be flexible, and to be willing to work a little extra (e.g. cutting a new version of the film) to have the most effective outreach, distribution and engagement. We think it's well worth the added effort to bring beautiful and meaningful Pacific Islander stories to the public.

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