EXCLUSIVE: What does Where to Invade Next, Fruitvale Station, The Zookeeper’s Wife, Leonardo DiCaprio’s doc Before the Flood, Fed Up and Lion all have in common? It’s Picture Motion, a New York-based company that develops social impact and grassroots marketing campaigns for films. The company was founded in 2012 by Christie Marchese and joined one year later by Wendy Cohen. Both are former marketing executives from Jeff Skoll’s Participant Media.
Since opening their doors, they have shepherded through the grassroots efforts on scores of films — documentaries and features with very specific social impact messages. “I feel like I have activist ADD,” joked Marchese. “We’ve done over 80 films now.”
The idea for Picture Motion started while both worked at Participant. “Wendy and I always had this idea of this company and often talked about what our dream company would be.” Marchese left Participant and began consulting for independent filmmakers and ended up helping Righteous Pictures with The Last Survivor about the survivors of genocides across the globe and then Web, a story about Peru getting the Internet for the first time.
“I love documentary film because it is cinema as investigative journalism,” said Marchese. Soon, she began getting more and more projects to work on and then Cohen came and joined. When they first started they had three films to work on: all three were documentary films – It’s A Girl, Speak and Bully.
Documentarians take note. There are two things that Picture Motion has found that works best in helping to promote these kinds of films (and what they have had great success with). Finding the right non-profit partnership and having a grassroots distribution network.
Cohen noted that they have helped market films that cover such a wide range of topics — adoption in China, healthcare, climate change, education, homelessness, immigration, sexual assault, women in the military, the refugee crisis, gender politics, and economic, social and racial justice. They have covered such a gamut that it seems it would make them experts on these topics.
“We stay away from calling ourselves experts in any area, but we are experts in finding the experts,” said Marchese. “We really pride ourselves on our relationships. We have great partnerships with the issuary leaders, non-profits and activists on all the campaigns.”
How long do campaigns run? Some are one month and one campaign — First Generation — they worked on for two years. First Generation was about four high school students who strived to become the first ones in their families to go to college and thereby break the cycle of poverty. “We came on for two months at the beginning and as we worked, we learned … because the filmmakers themselves were experts,” said Marchese. “Eventually, Wells Fargo bought the digital distribution to the film and it was on the Wells Fargo website. It was funded by impact, driven by impact and Wells Fargo came in to have a recognizable brand and that gave it a distribution boost.”
On another project, the eight-part, original docu-series from Epix, America Divided about inequality in education, housing, healthcare, labor, criminal justice and the political system, Kellogg came in and supported it. Norman Lear executive produced the film and Marchese previously worked for a time with Lear.
“One of things that we pride ourselves most on is the number of filmmakers whom we have worked with,” said Cohen. “When they return to us, it’s a validation of our work and it’s so easy because you already know each other. Our company is all about relationships whether it be with filmmakers, producers or studios.”
One of those filmmakers who has come back more than once is documentarian Matthew Heineman (Cartel Land) who worked with Picture Motion on his Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare and is working with them again on City of Ghosts, which documents Syrian rebel journalists who are risking their lives to make sure everyone knows about the atrocities committed by ISIS in their country. One of these men had his father and brother executed to get him to stop, but he will not back down, determined to lay pure evil bare to the world and to fight the ideology of ISIS to the death if need be.
“One of the reasons that I worked with Picture Motion on both of these films is their understanding of the documentary landscape, and they understand in a way that a lot of people don’t. It’s so hard, as we all know, for people to get their films seen, to get people out of their homes and even to get the word out,” said Heineman. “They are able to tap into existing networks so that constituencies pertinent to the film are aware of the film and then are motivated to go. They use both traditional and non-traditional means to do so. They are constantly thinking and finding novel ways to mobilize audiences.”
On City of Ghosts, they identified and found a number of non-profits that were interested in helping promote the film and engaged them to move the needle, he said.
Picture Motion has also worked on many Nat Geo projects, including Before the Flood, Gender Revolution, L.A. 92, Hell on Earth and the Earth Live series.
“Over the past year, we’ve worked with Picture Motion on several issue driven films, including Leonardo DiCaprio’s climate change documentary Before the Flood, Katie Couric’s special Gender Revolution and Sebastian Junger’s decent into Syria’s unbridled chaos with the film Hell on Earth,” said Chris Albert, EVP Global Communications at National Geographic. “For us, it’s not always about driving ratings, it’s about amplifying important conversations on subjects that truly matter, though as many platforms as possible. Through our collaboration with Picture Motion, we’ve organized over 750 grassroots screenings to date, built several strategic partnerships with brands that share our vision and developed impactful social campaigns that have helped to advance social change.”
Picture Motion started working with National Geographic in 2015. “They have been the most incredible partner. We’ve organized over 1,000 college screenings for them across most of America. Each screening tour has a different goal, but it’s not just about raising awareness, it gives college students a discussion guide and give them very concrete ways to take action,” said Cohen.
And the work is continuing, now with HBO on the documentary Atomic Homefront about a group of St. Louis moms who rose up to fight to keep their children safe after finding out that radioactive waste was dumped into their neighborhoods; Magnolia’s Whose Street? about the Ferguson uprising, and Blood Stripe about a female marine who returned her deployment and how to get back to civilian life. They are also continuing efforts on An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power with Participant Media. Here’s the trailer for Whose Street? which opens this weekend: