Documentary filmmakers in Australia have always needed to be energetic and creative in order to find an audience for their work – even more so if they’re trying to get their films off the festival circuit and into a general theatrical release. But South Australian writer/director/producer Sophie Hyde, along with her Closer Production teammates (Bryan Mason, Matthew Bate, Rebecca Summerton), is certainly at the forefront of hands-on promotion and distribution of her work. Life in Movement, released around Australia yesterday (12 April) and also available to view as part of Qantas in-flight movies, is a pleasingly poetic and intimate portrait of dancer and choreographer Tanja Liedtke. A feature-length film, gorgeously shot and skilfully edited, with an ultra-cool urban soundtrack, it’s a portrait of Liedtke’s life, her work, her untimely death, and the ensuing grief among those who knew her. Yet according to Hyde, the film is a tricky one to sell to audiences, requiring a strategy that harnesses the enthusiasm of those who have already seen it.
Nominated for two AACTA Awards earlier this year, Life in Movement was a very personal project for Sophie Hyde and her partner in life and work, Bryan Mason. Together the pair wrote, directed and produced the film, with Mason also performing cinematography and editing roles. (Incidentally, Mason also won an AACTA Award for his editing on another Closer Productions project, Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure). Life in Movement premiered in March 2011 at the Adelaide Film Festival, and was a hit at other festivals it toured. But festival audiences are known to be uniquely supportive of Australian films – a stance not always mirrored outside of festivals.
With a view to releasing the film, Hyde and Mason were keen to pick up tips at the inaugural AACTA Awards Luncheon in January, from fellow guests Bob Connolly and Sophie Raymond, the pair who had successfully self-distributed Mrs Carey’s Concert. A veteran documentary maker and self distributor, Connolly, together with Raymond, tapped into word of mouth popularity for their hard-sell film about a high school music department. The result was stunning, with the film grossing almost $1.2m and becoming the fourth highest grossing Australian documentary ever.
“Bob and Sophie did such an amazing release with Mrs. Carey’s Concert,” says Hyde. “They put so much energy into that release and it paid off. They’ve been really supportive of us, and of all the documentaries in competition last year and they talked to us about their experience working with music schools [to fuel word of mouth]. I think our idea of [harnessing] ‘champions’ probably came from the conversation with them.”
The ‘champions’ Hyde speaks of are those fans of the film who’ve signed up to help spread the word. In return these champions receive regular email updates, exclusive footage and fizzy ideas to assist in group bookings, promotions and discounts.
“The thing about Life in Movement is it’s really hard for people to get a hook on what it’s about,” says Hyde. “People look at it and go: ‘Oh, yeah, it’s about dance and it’s about someone who died’, and there’s not that straight, immediate interest in the concept. That first spark of interest is hard to ignite. But what we find is that people who have seen it really want to talk about it with others and they want other people to see it. So the champion idea felt like the right thing to do – formalising that impulse. We have almost no money to release the film, so if people like it and want to talk about it, then that’s really great for us. I only wish we had thought of the champions idea when we first released in festivals last year, because we’ve only been building the champions list up over the last few weeks, and it would have been better to do it earlier.”
In hindsight, Hyde also sees other drawbacks in trying to drum up new interest in the film so far after its initial festival buzz. “The film had quite a lot of press over the year that it was in festivals in Australia, and so a lot of media are saying ‘okay’ to reviewing it but they won’t do another feature on it now. But you know, when you’re first releasing at a festival you just have to go for it and get as much interest as possible while you can, and you can’t hold off. We may never have gotten a cinema release without that initial engagement.”
Life in Movement is being jointly distributed by Closer Screens (a subsidiary of Closer Productions) and the Brisbane-based Antidote Films (formerly Gil Scrine Films). “We’re trying to be a bit more in control of the rights of our films,” explains Hyde, “so we are co-distributing the film. Antidote do a lot of the dealings with cinemas and we do a lot of the grassroots campaign.”
Made for an astonishingly tight budget of $308,000, Life in Movement was funded by the Adelaide Film Festival Fun, the South Australian Film Corporation’s Educational Content Fund, and Screen Australia’s Special Documentary Fund (now Signature Docs). There were also small donations from private investors and the Tanja Liedtke Foundation. Hyde laughs as she remembers trying to make the budget stretch. “It was crazy. That’s the total budget including development funding. We shot a lot of the film on development money, because we had to, and it took us four and a bit years to do it.”
Those four years began the day after the sudden death of Tanja Liedtke, a 29-year-old dancer and choreographer who had just made big news in the Australian arts community for her unexpected appointment as artistic director of the Sydney Dance Company. For Hyde and Mason however, the obsessive, driven and sometimes tortured Liedtke had already proved herself as a fascinating and accomplished artist, with two highly regarded productions under her belt – 12th Floor and Construct.
“We had already been working with Tanja,” says Hyde, whose career has ecompassed extensive experience in filming performance and dance (including the Necessary Games trilogy of short films with Restless Dance Theatre). “We had an idea years before to do a documentary about Tanja. So we had some footage that we’d already shot for that and for some other work we’d done with her. And then on the day Tanja died, Bryan [Mason] was just adamant that we were going to make a film. And we worked on it straight away.”
The filmmakers were also incredibly fortunate that their subject had been an avid recorder of her own development and work, filming herself from her early awkward years at school, through to her elegant and quirky dance pieces. ”Using a video is something that a lot of dancemakers do,” explains Hyde. “Some of them probably just film their shows or rehearsals and then have a look back at it. Some of them film phrases, like, a movement, so that they can remember it. I think Tanja was kind of at the extreme of using video because she had a camera from when she was a child, and she would use it whenever she had an idea or a response, and there was so much footage. She used the camera through every stage of her process, whereas most dancers probably use it at very particular moments.”
Of course having so much footage can be both a blessing and a curse for the poor editor who has to shape it into 90 odd minutes of coherent beauty. “It was really hard to edit this film,” agrees Hyde. ”Bryan is the editor and also the co-director and he spent a long time in the suite without me, kind of trawling through footage and piecing things together and trying to put it in a linear structure of Tanja’s life. And that took a long long time, finding the structure, finding the right kind of way in and out of it. There were really long nights in the edit suite for both of us. It was hard, really, really hard. But it was amazing to do. It was a creative experience like the one Tanja’s going through in the film. I think we kind of replicated that experience ourselves, digging down into this work and trying to make it work and becoming a bit blind to everything else at periods of time. Yeah… 3am in the morning, you know, delirium. Our daughter was asleep in our house with us editing in the studio out the back!”
Out of the shed and into the world, Hyde is now keen to reach out and connect the film with an audience, one she conceives as including “both people who understand what it is to be a creator, as well as those who haven’t had that experience.” She’s keen to point out that it’s not just a film for dance fans and dancers, and that “a lot of people who really love it are very young, and one of the things they connect to is the great music and soundtrack by DJ TR!P that really ads to the whole experience.”
For Hyde, who identifies as an ‘artist’ herself, albeit a very collaborative one, part of the process of connecting with viewers and mobilising champions, includes an active presence in social media – from Twitter to Facebook and now, Pinterest.
“At first I didn’t really enjoy it and wasn’t sure what it would mean,” she says. “But recently I’ve realised I really, really want people to see my films. I know that sounds like a funny thing to say, but for a long time you’re just focused on making work, making the film. And then I suddenly thought, ‘I want people to actually see it!’ And I don’t want to just rely on somebody else. There’s that old idea that you hand over your film and someone else will release it, and maybe they’ll do an okay job of it, but maybe they won’t. Something shifted in me when I realised that social media isn’t about hassling people and saying, ‘Here I am, promoting my film’, but instead it’s about trying to engage a bit more outwardly; be a bit more open rather than head down, which I can be a lot. Now you can share your own work, and you can talk about someone else’s work too, and people are much more conversational now on social media. I enjoy Twitter and I’ve just started on Pinterest. I love that idea of just looking at images and sharing them with people. There is something beautiful about that.
Life in Movement released in Australia on 12 April.
Links & Further Reading
Sophie Hyde is on Twitter @sophhyde.
Watch a clip of Twelfth Floor choreographed by Tanja Liedke: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wiYxTA4lEpM