“I was told repeatedly not to make this film”: In The Spotlight… Debbie Howard
We all know that getting a film made is not easy. But once you’ve achieved that part, what about the Herculean effort needed to get it out into the world?
Over the last few years WFTV has been keeping a keen eye on the progress of Still Loved, the debut feature-length documentary from former WFTV mentee Debbie Howard (above centre). The film explores the complex reality for families surviving baby loss. It’s a brave and moving documentary but – because of its challenging subject matter – it’s not an easy sell.
Undeterred, Debbie has used a number of different strategies to build an audience for the film and make sure its important message does not go unheard. So WFTV decided to catch up with her shortly after Still Loved‘s DVD release to find out how she’s done it and what tips she would pass on to fellow-filmmakers trying to get their film seen.
“From the very beginning I was told repeatedly not to make this film. People said ‘There is no audience. People won’t watch it. It’s too sad.’”
Q. Can you tell us a bit about how you came to make this feature?
I’d made a short film previously called Peekaboo, which looked at stillbirth. During the research and making of that film I came to realise the enormous stigma and silence around this subject so decided I wanted to make a feature documentary next, because people’s own real stories are so much more powerful. I wanted to give those families a voice. I’d already made a lot of contacts during the making of Peekaboo so the transition to Still Loved was seamless.
Q. At what stage in the process did you begin to think about the audience for the film, and how you would reach them?
From the very beginning I was told repeatedly not to make this film. People said “There is no audience. People won’t watch it. It’s too sad.” I certainly knew it wasn’t a commercial film and it wouldn’t be an easy sell. But I didn’t let this put me off. This was a documentary that was desperately needed and I knew from my knowledge of the statistics that there was actually a large international audience for this film. No one had made a feature doc about stillbirth before and to me, that is the whole point of documentaries, to raise awareness and challenge taboos.
Q. It’s a film with a very clear social issue at its heart. How have you used that to engage people and create a wider impact for the project?
I guess that for as much resistance there was towards the film from the industry, there was enormous passion from the baby loss community themselves and they were my core audience. I worked very closely with them, building good relationships via social media. We crowd funded throughout the three years of production. This grew our target audience and built our social media, as well giving us financial support for the film. These people have become powerful advocates for the film and worked very hard to support us and help promote the film.
Q. How did you find your distributor and can you tell us about what they’ve done for you and the film?
At the 2015 Berlin Film Festival, my Producer Colin Pons and I met with Cat & Docs to discuss Still Loved and they seemed very keen. We met with them again at Sheffield Doc Fest later that year and they confirmed that they wanted it. However, because it’s difficult to convince people to watch Still Loved in the first place, it was probably more of a struggle than they anticipated. They made a couple of international broadcast sales but not very much has happened so far, though they have reassured us it will in time. They have a lot of films to look after and if something is a very hard sell I suppose it falls to the way side. But I didn’t give up. We had split rights for the UK and I’ve been trying to negotiate with UK broadcasters myself, but sadly no one has taken the film yet. Most broadcasters are anxious about showing it, either because of the difficult subject or because they think it’s too niche. I’m hoping this changes soon.
Recently we have signed a contract with Dogwoof for their Pop Up Cinema strand, which will help the film to reach a wider audience. They have an incredible catalogue of films and it will be part of that collection which will go out to film clubs and universities, etc. Anyone can book a screening of the film this way. We’re just about to set this up so it’s an exciting new phase for the film.
“I won’t pretend it wasn’t a lot of hard work, but it really paid off and was certainly worth it.”
Q. You held a number of sold out screenings for the film in cinemas around the country. How did you secure those slots and what was the process like? Did you have to do a lot of leg work yourself and how have you gone about engaging a broader audience?
In October 2016, carefully timed for International Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month, we independently released Still Loved into cinemas across the UK for one-night-only screenings followed by Q&As.
The gatekeepers at many cinemas told me again, “there is no audience” and most turned us down. We had just six direct screenings with cinemas themselves. So we worked with Ourscreen to book screenings at many of the cinemas that had told us no one would watch it. All of the screenings were very busy, many moved us to bigger screens and several sold out completely.
I won’t pretend it wasn’t a lot of hard work, but it really paid off and was certainly worth it. We hired publicists Multitude Media who were brilliant. We also had PR help from Tommy’s Baby Charity. Consequently, we had fantastic publicity and brilliant reviews in the press including a four star review in The Guardian. This felt like an incredible achievement. The audience response to the film was overwhelmingly positive. As well as our core audience of those affected by baby loss, we had a very large number of midwives, student midwives and health care professionals, bereavement councillors, funeral directors and people that just appreciate documentaries. It felt like the Q&A’s afterwards were also very helpful for the audience.
Q. You chose to make the film available via Vimeo On Demand. What made you decide to do that, and how easy/difficult was it to use the platform?
I had attended Distribution Rewired at Edinburgh International Film Festival in 2016 and it was incredibly useful to look at all the different VOD platforms and models of distribution. What I liked about Vimeo On Demand was that you get to keep 90% of your revenue. This is much higher than other platforms. So I decided to use it for the initial phase, to make the film available to the people that were already waiting to watch it. It was extremely easy to use and we have had a lot of sales through it. People have the option to either stream or download as they wish. We have also just sold to a Chinese SVOD platform, after I attended iDocs Film Forum in Beijing last November.
Now we want to reach a wider audience so are looking at using other platforms as well, where we will get less revenue but a higher volume of sales. We are working with Under The Milky Way who will get Still Loved on as many platforms like itunes, Amazon, etc as possible. We have also just this week released on DVD, so people can buy their own copies. We offer Still Loved either for private use or for group screenings with an Educational License.
Q. What has been the biggest challenge for you in getting your film out there?
Without a shadow of doubt, the subject matter. People just don’t want to talk about baby loss. As Alice Jolly wrote in our review in The Lancet:
“As writer James Baldwin says, ‘Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.’ That sadly tells you all you need to know about why the rate of stillbirths in the UK remains stubbornly high.”
The stigma that surrounds stillbirth has made it very hard for us to get people to watch the film. But when they do watch it they say everyone should see this. It’s not what people expect, and it really opens their eyes. I remember one student midwife at a screening told me that on her way to come and see the film she was angry, because she knew she would be faced with images of dead babies and she didn’t want to be. But afterwards, she said she was glad that she had seen those images, because she realised that there was nothing to be scared of. These are just little babies like any others. They just didn’t survive. She said she felt relieved now because she would know how to handle it when she is faced with her first stillbirth.
“The relationship with your contributors is crucial. I worked really hard to maintain a very close and respectful relationship with all the families in Still Loved.”
Q. What, if anything, would you do differently if you could?
I have learned so much during the last four years while making Still Loved. I think I would have got a distributor on board earlier and tried harder to get a commission because selling a completed film has proved to be extremely difficult. There are so few slots available for completed films. Especially challenging ones like this.
Q. What has been the most surprising thing you’ve learnt from your experience of getting the film made and seen?
The relationship with your contributors is crucial. I worked really hard to maintain a very close and respectful relationship with all the families in Still Loved. This was really hard at times because their grief was still raw, but it was absolutely vital. Working with the right crew is also paramount. Our core team were producers Polly Perkins and Colin Pons, DoP Emma Dalesman, assistant producer Emily Axon and editor Joby Gee.
Learning how much the film has helped some people has been absolutely wonderful too, and made the struggle worthwhile. I have received so many messages from families who have watched the film and it’s deeply humbling to read these and see what an impact Still Loved has had on their lives.
Q. What one piece of advice would you give to other indie filmmakers who have a film and are struggling to reach an audience?
Think about every angle of your film and the different ways you can be creative in finding your audience. Don’t be put off just because others tell you nobody wants to watch a film like yours. If you’ve done your research and you know your audience is out there, you will find them if you keep going.
It can feel incredibly isolating and frustrating at times, I’ve had many down points along the way to making Still Loved, but often silver linings have come out of those. For example, because we couldn’t get a TV broadcast, someone we didn’t know started a petition to get it on TV and so far over 31,000 people have signed it. This led to Will Quince MP asking to screen Still Loved in the House of Commons for other MPs. Things like this really help you to keep going, knowing how much support there is for your film. So don’t give up. Making this film has been an enormous privilege and I’m very proud of it. It’s good to remember, in the midst of rejection, why you made the film in the first place and let that guide you forwards.
A huge thank you to Debbie for sharing her experience with WFTV. If you’d like to find out more about the film and watch it online, please follow the links below.
More about Debbie Howard
Debbie Howard is an award winning writer/director. After twenty years as a professional actress she became disillusioned with the roles available for women so she set up Big Buddha Films ten years ago and started writing films with strong female protagonists. She always endeavours to work with at least a fifty per cent female crew. Debbie’s strengths lie in her strong sense of story and character and a passion for tackling difficult subjects head on.
Still Loved website: www.stilllovedfilm.com
Watch Still Loved on Vimeo on Demand: vimeo.com/ondemand/stillloved
Still Loved on Twitter: twitter.com/StillLovedDoc
Still Loved on Facebook: www.facebook.com/stillbirthdocumentaryUK
Big Buddha Films: www.bigbuddhafilms.co.uk
Big Buddha on Facebook: twitter.com/#!/BigBuddhaFilms
Big Buddha on Twitter: twitter.com/#!/BigBuddhaFilms
Big Buddha Films on Instagram: www.instagram.com/big_buddha_films