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Niche Guys Finish First

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, December 19, 2012

On location along the coast of Oregon shooting
b-roll of beach for "a NORML life".

Niche Guys Finish First
By Doug Ross

Back in ancient times after graduating from the University of Texas at Austin with a degree in Radio-Television-Film, I set out to master all the positions within video production. When I began working in television over 30 years ago, the basic camcorder and personal computer hadn’t been invented yet. Since that time, I have regularly learned new skills as an editor, technical director, writer, camera operator and producer. Who would have predicted that you would need to be multi-skilled to be competitive in today’s market? My diverse work as a producer includes corporate, commercial and non-fiction productions for History Channel, PBS, and History International. I was a producer in government programming with NASA-TV, USPS-TV and founded Honolulu Municipal Television. It’s been a long road but has been satisfied with the results.

Two years ago, I was contacted by a friend, Rod Pitman, Executive Producer of Hempsters Plant The Seed, who wanted to find a story within some raw footage from a hemp and marijuana conference in Berkeley, CA. Upon review I saw it needed much more additional shooting to be able to tell the real story about medical marijuana. Even though I don’t use marijuana, I looked at this project from the scientific and human view. Patients who have exhausted all conventional treatments were in chronic pain and desperate to receive medicine, no matter its legality. Before we shot one frame, we discussed how this was going to be marketed. Would we slog through the thousands of film festivals hoping for recognition leading to a distribution deal? We decided to go another route. We would narrowcast instead of broadcast our program using a transmedia storytelling approach, using several Internet sites to provide easy access to the video.

A few weeks ago, I was told our documentary, a NORML life had gone viral, having shot from 77,976 to a record breaking 875 on the iMDB Moviemeter Charts in just one week. What was behind this surprising (and surely welcome) news? I like to think we intended it from the very beginning.


On location backstage at HempFest in Seattle, WA where we interviewed medical marijuana patients, doctors and activists for "a NORML life".
We felt the documentary was perfect for a niche audience, the cannabis market, where the activist group NORML (Nationally Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) has over 3 million members with chapters worldwide. We reached out to the hemp community at HempFest, ASA (Americans for Safe Access), marijuana activist and individuals with local radio and television programs. We knew going in that we had a built-in audience that would respond to our documentary as a "commodity of choice." However, the audience needed to be able to access the video quickly, cheaply and easily.

I began by interviewing NORML officials and activists in the Washington, D.C. that helped us prepare for the larger production. Next it was on to a West Coast road trip interviewing patients, doctors, dispensary owners and activists. We captured the rest of the story in thirteen days and I edited the project over a few weeks.

With the film placed on multiple platforms, we worked to build buzz using social media on Facebook, Twitter, blogs and niche websites. The platforms of choice to access the documentary are iTunes, Netflix, Amazon.com, Facebook and in our case, the NORML.org website, as well as other high-traffic cannabis related distribution platforms. We made a distribution deal with Cinema Libre' Studio, the distributor of Fuel, Robert Greenwald’s Outfoxed and Oliver Stone’s South of the Border, which gave us providence with national and international markets. The idea was to aggregate as many distribution platforms as possible using metadata, which connects and traces database information from Webpages, digital images and Websites. Google pioneered the SEO [search engine optimization] strategy used to push our video to the top of search rankings. This helped create buzz on a geometric level, which gives the documentary the best opportunity to go viral. Unfortunately there are no manuals or websites that instruct a Producer how to connect all these sites to advertise and distribute your video. However, The Long Tail, written by Chris Anderson, comes close to describing a similar method.

Producer Doug Ross interviews Dr. Frank Lucido at his clinic in Berkeley, CA. Dr. Lucido is a medical marijuana activist and writes recommendations for patients.
There has never been a better time than now for independent producers to reach their audiences by distributing videos through social media and Internet platforms. Viewers have many options to search for niche subjects then download, view or purchase DVD’s. In the past, film festivals provided the golden seal of approval for distribution deals if the producer sought broad theatrical exposure. Today, you have more choices and tools available, but of course, the real skill remains the ability to tell a compelling story with the content you’ve acquired.

But if you’re an independent producer serving an attentive audience, niche distribution strategy augments traditional distribution increasing the opportunity for your financial success.

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