By Juan Carlos Piñeiro Escoriaza
director, Know How
A film written by and starring youth in foster care about their own lives? That’s Know How, a project that found me five years ago and in May came to fruition in both theaters and on TV. But it was a long road to get there.
A little background: Each year a non-profit called the Possibility Project helps a group of foster care youth create an original musical play from the stories of their lives. I went to one of their first shows when I was in high school, and after college volunteered to film some of the New York City performances. Years later, having recently finished my first feature documentary Second Skin, I received a call from the founder — they wanted to make a movie.
In June 2010 we sat down to discuss what a film based on their musical Know How Plus Equals might look like.
It was an ambitious experiment in alternative storytelling, not a documentary and not fiction. This was to be a hybrid of true stories from ordinary foster care youth that would be written and acted by them (and, since music was the right outlet for their emotional stories, sometimes sung by them).
At my job in Participant Media’s Social Action department, I analyze this kind of pro-social content on a daily basis, and projects like this have two purposes — to entertain and also effect social change. The most successful projects are ones that employ a multi-platform distribution strategy that allows for audiences to find entry points into the content from wherever they normally consume their media. At the same time, more platform releases provide more opportunities to publicize the film. Well before releasing Know How I knew to treat every milestone as a way to engage with a community, bring in more supporters and drive awareness.
In fact, I see more films starting their social action campaigns well before their release dates. Participant acquires movies sometimes to help elevate existing campaigns — a documentary called That Which I Love Destroys Me about the PTSD epidemic among returning armed service members) was a part of Participant Media’s year-long, multiplatform initiative Return the Service, and was released both on Pivot and streamed for free on TakePart for a limited time months later.
Know How was never going to be a movie theater blockbuster. We knew early on it would have the most reach through television. The project came to the attention of Participant’s TV channel Pivot, which is also dedicated to entertainment that inspires and compels social change. Pivot reaches over 45 million homes and draws the younger audience we hoped to target. All of that coupled with a passionate community of our own comprised of folks across the nation explains why television is the most effective vehicle for distribution.
An enormous piece of any distribution strategy is timing; in the case of issue-based material it’s especially important, and to be most effective it should probably coincide with a larger cultural moment. May was national Foster Care Month, so we were able to lock into the news cycle by setting a premiere for May 27. We were freed from having to recoup our approximately $275,000 budget on the film since we financed it largely with grants and Kickstarter, but with Pivot on board we had a platform to have a national social action campaign to change the foster care system.
This idea of social return on investment (SROI) is far from new, but is taking on greater importance today. Films like The Cove, Girl Rising and An Inconvenient Truth bring awareness, expose injustice and drive activism with the goal of effecting change on social issues. Successful ones – shown on big or small screens – can activate audiences to take action, and may direct donations to the organizations the films spotlight.
Ultimately, Know How is a movie I hope will reach a wide audience. We want to make sure folks in the system who work with youth — caseworkers, lawyers, judges — watch it and have a chance to engage in dialogues with youth about what can change. And in the end, perhaps legislators will rethink our broken foster care system. The future of our medium relies on a second screen experience, and social issue content is on the forefront of that burgeoning industry. As we continue to innovate and iterate on these new platforms we’ll find new ways to engage and involve people in these prosocial messages. More opportunities means more chances to change lives, just as we hope Know How will.
Juan Carlos Piñeiro Escoriaza is a filmmaker based in Los Angeles. Know How, his second film, was named IndieWire’s Project of the Year in 2014. It premieres on Pivot TV on May 27 at 11 p.m. EST.
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