Sarah Mosses is the Founder & CEO of Together Films, the leading social impact entertainment company in Europe. She manages a team of impact distribution and marketing professionals across London & NYC to secure profit with a purpose for her filmmakers and film festival clients. Together Films have recently worked on impact campaigns for titles including Oscar Nominated For Sama, multi Emmy nominated The Tale (starring Laura Dern) and were nominated for the Best Documentary Film Campaign at the Screen Awards for Unrest. Sarah expanded the TF mission to deliver marketing campaigns for leading film festivals, including the Human Rights Watch Film Festival (London & NYC), Athena Film Festival (NYC) & DOC NYC (NYC). A skilled fundraiser, Sarah has raised over £4M to support impact production and distribution in recent years from a range of non-traditional finance sources, and has recently launched a Foundation arm of the business to support further non-profit work. Together Films expanded to deliver technical solutions for the film industry during lockdown and will launch a sales agency to sign global rights for a slate of high impact theatrical titles in 2022.
What attracted you to Inside Pictures (IP)?
We have gone through some major changes at Together Films over the past 18 months and I wanted to get some guidance from a professional development course in order to continue our growth journey. The uniqueness of IP, is that it was the only programme I could find that really spoke to the importance of the business of film. Plus, a lot of my work to date has been in documentaries and I feel like there’s value to my own development from learning alongside those who are working in fictional films and TV series.
What is social impact entertainment?
Social impact entertainment is content that both serves to drive commercial intent and has a societal purpose underlying it. This might include stories around women’s rights, human rights or environmental change. It’s exciting to be able to work on these types of films, because not only can you say: “Great, this film premiered at Sundance”, we also get to say: “we helped to change this law” or “this community feels more empowered because of our work”. It’s profit with a purpose, with audience engagement at heart of everything that we do. For those interested in the space, we highly recommend the Skoll Center for Social Impact Entertainment report “The State of SIE”.
Why is having a data strategy a good thing for filmmakers?
We believe in data-driven strategy and activation in order to hit the targets that we need to. When you fail to plan, you plan to fail, and therefore filmmakers should be conscious of the data points surrounding the types of content they are aiming to create. What are the audience trends for that genre? Which market are more eager for sales for those stories? If innovating, what evidence can you find to support your thesis?
A large proportion of the industry are unaware of the value of the data they already have within their organisation, or simply don’t use data as part of their pre-planning processes. Take time to review more than just your Box Office revenue (the single more important data point for most film industry professionals). Where did your film reach? What was the reaction (not just trade reviews)? What conversation did you start? Embrace data as a fun part of the planning and evaluation process.
A film campaign might be going to 10 markets (cities), because they’re the 10 markets they always go to, but their data might suggest different markets instead. We had a film called UNREST, which we released in 2017. The filmmakers (Jennifer Brea and Lindsey Dryden), because they’d done a crowdfunding campaign had 1000s of data points on who’d gifted to their campaign, who was going to follow their newsletter, who was following them on social media etc. When it came to releasing it in the UK, we could geomap their existing community by postcode to assess which cinema targets would be most likely to sell out. We used this data as part of our booking strategy with Picturehouse in order to hit higher screen averages than just going to the major cities.
Together Films now have a whole strategy and evaluation team that considers what should be the KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) for our film campaigns. It’s not just – what’s the box office? Or number of downloads? We want to know what’s the increase in the number of petition signatures on a campaign? Or number of letters sent to a Member of Parliament? We analyse that post campaign to see how effective our work was, and to see if the film had the desired impact. We always say, you can never say it was the film alone, but you can definitely say the film contributed towards successful outcomes. The film is part of a wider communications ecosystem that include press, NGOs, ambassadors, influencers and funders. Each party contributes their part to achieve the desired outcome.
We’re absolute geeks in our jobs when it comes to strategy and planning. We cannot guarantee success (no-one can), but we can try to implement a data led strategy that will lead to positive outcomes. During the pandemic it was important for us to be able to realign our expectations and find new routes to engagement (such as virtual events) to hit some of our goals. We would love to see more data led approaches with other film organisations, and it’s something that we advise a number of our clients on.
What are the fundamentals about raising money for social impact production and support?
There’s always been, for want of a better expression, wealthy people wanting to put money into film. Usually, it is on an investment basis, with the hope of a return, but always with the knowledge that you may not get your money back, but you’re doing it because you love the medium. In the social impact space, there are many foundations/philanthropists, who want to support the film primarily for its impact potential, sometimes additional for commercial benefit, but usually on a grant (non-recoupable) basis. We’re talking about the likes of The Ford Foundation in the US, the MacArthur Foundation or the Oak Foundation. These foundations understand that alongside funding Human Rights Watch, to raise awareness of human rights, they could fund a film, and spread their message to a new audience.
The Ford Foundation has an initiative called JustFilms, specifically focussed on their film funding priorities. However, many Foundations don’t necessarily have a big sign saying ‘we fund film’, and so you have to be clear that the outcomes of your release campaign align with the foundations core principals (this might be for example ‘raising awareness around sustainability in supply chains’).
Our approach is to tell them we want them to support, not only the production of the film, but also the impact campaign (understood as the distribution and marketing of the film to core audiences), because when the film comes out, it’s going to hit their KPIs around social change and/or enablement.
I highly encourage everybody who’s working in this space to start exploring this funding route immediately, because you might find new money that is non-equity, non-investment and/or non-recoupable. Foundations and/or philanthropists may want to support the mission of your film because it supports their aims and objectives too; whether or not there is a commercial return in their favour.
You’re adding sales to Together Films in 2022. Why?
We’ve been feeling on our side of the industry, for a couple of years, that a new kind of sales agent could be beneficial for social impact entertainment titles. We hugely admire the work of many of our colleagues in the space including Roco Films, Autlook Filmsales and Dogwoof. They are some of the best in class. For us, it’s the logical next step in the evolution of our business and how we can take steps to becoming a full service impact studio.
We were part of a study with colleagues in the US over the last year on the intricate relationship between distributor/sales agent/platforms, and where impact fits into those negotiations. Sometimes a sales agent is not as aligned with the impact campaign planning as much as the commerciality of a project. This can sometimes lead to tensions if you wish to for example offer a limited free window to schools across the US. More often than not, it is the non-theatrical window (and the ability to monetise non-theatrical screenings) which is so important to impact campaign planning, and this can become a point of conflict in some deal negotiations.
The hope is that with a small but manageable slate, probably six to 12 titles a year, we can really focus on delivering ambitious global campaigns that deliver on the commercial requirements of the investors, and the impact aspirations of the filmmakers (and their philanthropic supporters). Our acquisitions will be based on the most important issues of that year, whether it’s refugee rights, climate change or female empowerment. We aim to be a full lifecycle partner with the filmmakers; from film festival debut through to theatrical release, TV broadcast and beyond, where possible. This way we are able to match our work on the impact side, which we know has had commercial benefits for previous titles, and then share in the added value and financial returns that come from our successful campaign.
What’s been the greatest impact on you/your company from COVID?
In the first week of lockdown, we had an independent feature about sexual assault about to open in New York at the Film Forum. COVID starts, everything locks down. I stayed awake for 48 hours building a virtual theatrical platform. This meant we could flip that release from being a cinema event, to being a digital release with online Q&As. The release was featured in Deadline as only 3 releases using what is now known as the ‘Virtual Theatrical’ release model in that first lockdown weekend.
The week after, loads of people wrote to us asking for advice. I partnered up with my good friend, Christie Marchese, in New York (Picture Motion and Kinema) to run a webinar about how to use digital screening tools. We thought 20 people at the most would be watching us. Nearly 1500 people tuned into that first episode. There were people from Sundance, BAFTA, BFI and Sheffield DocFest… And then it became my life for six months. We called the series ‘Digital Perspectives’ and every week on a Monday night I went live at seven o’clock. We had a variety of guests on to help people to navigate to digital screening solutions. For example, the YouTube team explained how you do YouTube Live. We interviewed the teams at Array and Participant about the launch of the digital education toolkit for When They See Us. Even the Oscars joined us, when they were trying to work out how they would change the Oscars regulations as theatres remained closed.
Requests to work with us just went through the roof. I gained so many new virtual friends. I think I doubled my professional network in three months after 12 years working in this industry. Finally being a geek was paying off. We grew from five people to 15 people in about six months. We had to hire staff in New York in order to keep us with requests to work with us. We added new clients including the Athena Film Festival and the Documentary Producers Alliance.
I’ve always done presentations for partners, but it’s weird to think, if I hadn’t decided to go live that Monday in March 2020, how different things would have been during the pandemic for Together Films. I don’t even know if we’d still be here, but COVID transformed our business in a positive way. I found my voice, and found that people really wanted to listen. We helped our audience generate hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue that might not have happened if people hadn’t found a way to pivot.
Post-COVID, what happens to the changes and innovations, you engineered in response to COVID? Do we revert back to the physical film ASAP?
Many aspects about the virtual screening experiences are really beneficial for access to wider audiences. We moved The Human Rights Watch Film Festival (NYC) online using the Shift 72 as the platform. When people bought a ticket, we got their IP address, and we could map the IP across a map of the USA. We had viewers in every single state across America – watching films about women in incarceration and feminist rights. Crucially from a data positive basis, as the festival, we also had their name and email address. When the festival is in a physical cinema, you don’t always get their email address. The amount of information and data that we could see was amazing.
The other shift we noticed during the lockdown, which is something that Brian Newman has written about frequently too, is the role of festivals in the ecosystem when they are not longer limited to a single venue or screen. A festival screening might be the only distribution a title gets in a certain territory. So many films, even at Sundance never get picked up for distribution meaning that 300, maybe 500 people, see your film at a screening. When everything switched to virtual/hybrid planning we saw nationwide access, regional tours linked with festivals, digital availability. Why wouldn’t you make that festival moment more of a distribution platform for the titles that might not ever get picked up. That’s something I hope we keep going into the future. Those titles can embrace wider access opportunities at festivals to reach larger audiences.
A big lesson for me; I don’t think we need to feel the pressure, as an industry, to travel as much as we used to. I miss going to all the festivals, don’t get me wrong, but for nearly ten years, I used to travel overseas every two weeks, minimum, for my job. I’ve been on one business trip in a year and a half. And yet my business has grown considerably. I now understand the reach that we can have from my sofa, in the comfort of my own home, without causing unnecessary stress on myself or the planet from travelling so much.
It has also given me so much more freedom as an employer. We are now a fully remote operation. I’m hiring staff in different places – team members are in Bristol and Sheffield and Brighton and New York. It doesn’t matter where you live anymore, I can hire people from anywhere. I hope that more companies embrace this mindset. Talent is everywhere, we shouldn’t be so London/LA centric in terms of hiring anymore. Obviously where there is a physical shoot location involved it’s different, but for core operational staff, as long as you have a Slack account and Zoom login, you should be considered the same as everyone else. You can have a better work life balance (something I’m constantly striving for), living in other parts of the country or just having the flexibility to work from home. We have a focus on mental health and wellbeing at Together Films, and flexibility around working locations has been a key benefit to our team. Along with access to free therapy for all staff who join us!
It’s a Sunday afternoon, it’s raining, you’ve nothing else to do that day, what film are you putting on to relax with?
I bloody love SISTER ACT 2: BACK IN THE HABIT (1993), I’m not gonna lie. It is my favourite film in the world. Whoopi Goldberg brings the joy of music to a class of students and they sing harmonies on repeat… I used to be a music teacher, when I was younger, for like 10 years on the side. Consulting is just another word for teaching, and I love to teach. I love to see people finally understand a concept and succeed in their chosen field (or instrument). As I now work on really serious human rights films day to day, when I want to chill out I put on a happy musical film. And Sister Act Two is my go to… Lauryn Hill is the main character and when they finally perform ‘Joyful Joyful’ at the end of the film, you can’t help but smile.