Monday, April 02, 2007
The Corporation Woman: An Interview with Katherine Dodds
If you’ve seen The Corporation on DVD, you might have already encountered Katherine Dodds. An energetic filmmaker and promoter, Dodds (through her project Good Company) was deeply involved in the marketing of that film, and she appears on one of the extras. The bulk of the interview below deals with her work on that film and her interest in promoting films that lead to social outcomes; to this end, videophiles might want to note that the webstore for Good Company’s site, Hello Cool World, stocks several of the most interesting documentaries I’ve seen, all dealing with pressing social issues.
A few “for instances:” they stock Winter Soldier, an absolutely essential film about the Vietnam war (right up there with Hearts and Minds and In the Year of the Pig), in which soldiers discuss atrocities they personally saw and committed. It’s of great relevance to understanding how America fights wars and is disturbingly relevant at the moment. Also connected to the 1960s, they also have Investigation of a Flame, a recent short documentary on the Catonsville Nine; it’s not a great work of film, but the radical priests Daniel and Philip Berrigan, who went to jail for their protests against American involvement in Vietnam, make fascinating subject matter, and the film will serve until The Trial of the Catonsville Nine and Emile de Antonio’s In the King of Prussia come back into print in some format. Other favourites of mine are the recent Manufactured Landscapes (the first shot of which, involving a tracking shot through a Chinese factory, is probably the single most compelling sequence in any documentary I’ve seen - certainly one of the most compelling I've seen lately) and A Crude Awakening (a very disturbing and important film about peak oil). Jesus Camp, about the Christian right and its indoctrination of children, is pretty chilling, too (make sure you’re familiar with the Ted Haggard scandal before you see it). I haven’t seen everything they stock – I haven’t actually caught up with Scared Sacred yet – but anyone with so many cool films at hand (including The Corporation, of course) has to have some pretty interesting things to say. In some cases, Dodds was also behind the grassroots/viral promotion of these films when they played theatrically, as is the case with the very engaging documentary by Gary Burns, Radiant City, opening on April 6th at the Vancity Theatre.
I talked to Katherine – Kat, for short – a couple of weeks ago, in the Chinatown offices of Good Company.
How do you choose films? Distributors contact you?
In part yes. We think of ourselves as selecting issues, and we have a fairly wide range of issues that we’re interested in. The films that we have been working on started quite specifically with relationships with two particular filmmakers.
The first of course being Mark Achbar of The Corporation (a film by Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbot and Joel Bakan, who also wrote the book of the same name), and then The Take,, which was made by Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein. So that’s why we started working on films with Good Company and Hello Cool World. I had done PR for a lot of documentaries before that, but it wasn’t turning it into its own mission, which Hello Cool World has become.
What was the Manufactured Landscapes connection?
The Manufactured Landscapes connection was that the distributor of that film, Mongrel Media, was also the distributor of The Corporation, so I had an ongoing previous relationship with them, through The Corporation’s release. They suggested this as a film we might like. I watched it. I particularly loved it, and found out that Mark Achbar also particularly loved it, so it made sense to champion it, so to speak. But they came to us fairly late. We prefer, actually, to start earlier if we’re going to work on a film, so we can help build the audiences for that film more than six weeks before its release date!
Essentially, the model began with working on The Corporation and that wasn’t a short term model. My involvement with The Corporation began almost ten years ago, when the film was just a germ of an idea. It was basically years in the funding, and then years in the making, and my role during those early years was as friend and communications consultant, and then as it became closer to being released I also raised the money for the new media component and became the producer of the website. And then moved into taking what money there was into publicity and leveraging it into what became a fairly substantial promotions budget for a documentary. What I did was somewhat unprecedented, because I was in the position of having produced the money that I then got to spend, and in fact “producing” the promotion component for the film, which isn’t usually how films get promoted.
It was done mostly online?
It was done on and offline, through grassroots, using the web as a way to reach those people and a way to communicate with them. So, when you ask mostly online – no, it was actually activating literally tens of thousands of offline people in hundreds of places across – mostly the US, but also Canada; Canada’s just smaller – who engaged their networks to literally poster, leaflet, hold separate autonomous events around the launches in various cities – the amount of things that went on, we never even had time to document. That set the bar, and we haven’t been able to do anything of that scope since, because there haven’t been the resources.
Resources doesn’t necessarily need to mean throwing money at it, either; it’s also time. I can’t stress enough that Mark and I had been involved with audience development with The Corporation for five years, so when Mongrel Media came to me five weeks before it launched in Canadian theatres, we had built an audience that was tens of thousands of people we could directly email at that time. I didn’t have that luxury with a film like Manufactured Landscapes, but we were able to re-engage our existing network, which included a substantial number of people who came to us through The Take.
What’s happening with The Corporation online now? It still has a strong presence.
Yeah. We’re probably in, version seven of the website. It’s evolved as the needs change. At first it was really just to collect data – we wanted to get people’s emails. We had that from the very first, very simple site. We had two agendas with it – to get people to sign up and to have a press kit with a password, so that we could actually monitor who was downloading the press kit and maintain contact. But we had, right from the very beginning, a box saying, “Tell me about other films or projects around similar issues.”. It’s really about the issues that we start from, not necessarily the film per se.
Have any of the other films gotten in contact with you through The Corporation?
Yup. The Corporation put us on the map. Aside from relationships that I’d built just through local networking, people hadn’t heard of Good Company or Hello Cool World. About a year ago, we made the decision to expand and brand HCW as part-and-parcel of The Corporation, as the vehicle to move towards action that we wanted to do all along, and we’ve come up with a mission statement for Hello Cool World that fits with all the projects we take on, and that’s ‘Ideas to Audiences, Audiences to Action, and Action to Outcome.”
Which ties in with the Campaign for Corporate Harm Reduction.
Can you describe that?
Very briefly, the Campaign for Corporate Harm Reduction is us saying that we want to find a way to sustain this network – this social network, in order to offer things back to those who have supported our launches. Post-launch, while I can say, ‘Yay, we managed to get money to launch the film,’ that money, after a year, was gone. So what we’re trying to do now is figure out how we can sustain the momentum of all these people who asked two questions endlessly, in the year The Corporation was released: and that was, “What can I do,” and “When can I buy the DVD?’ Now it’s pretty easy to buy the DVD, but we’re still, still, still getting questions, we’re still getting essays from people who have been moved by the film.
Tell us about house parties.
When the DVD launched we encouraged house parties to be registered on HelloCoolWorld.com , and we’re still getting feedback from these people. We’ve had 300 feedback forms filled out. We asked questions about what we can do about the corporation – the institution, as in, the problems that the film exposed. So what we’re trying to do with the Campaign for Corporate Harm Reduction is to review the feedback we’ve had in order to create a strategic response.
Specifically we had this debate concept going, which is really a faux debate, but what we’re asking people to do is to write about whether we should re-write, regulate, or reform the corporate institution. Really, those things aren’t mutually exclusive, but what they’re designed to do is to take this generic “What can I do?” and the band-aid answers to that, and try to get people, anybody, to try to think strategically in various directions; because it’s my opinion that we need to attack all of those areas. Rewriting would be the corporate personhood issue – rewriting the corporate charters. Don’t let corporations have the kind of rights they have. “Regulate” would be becoming more stringent in calling to account the regulations that exist already. Strengthen democracy – make the penalties higher. Better government, or however you want to put it. “Reform” would be taking the corporate “social responsibility” folks – this would be things like the business leaders of the future – and saying, “Okay, if you really do want a different kind of corporation, how can we make that happen?” It can’t be entirely voluntary, given the legal nature of the corporate charters.
And what comes after house parties & the debate?
I want to seek out more outcome stories, because I keep hearing inspiring things about what has happened because of the film.
I can give you two quick examples – and it was actually the rough cut screening that did it. When I was at Media that Matters at Hollyhock last year I met a human rights lawyer from Seattle who said, ‘By the way, I saw one of the rough cuts’ – this would have been one of the three and a half hour versions of the film. And he said, ‘I had some input into the Democratic Party platform for the State of Washington, and because of that film we put the issue of corporate personhood on, and it got passed, and it’s now part of their platform at a state level. And then recently, as in, less than a year ago, it came up for question, and the members voted it back.
So the issue of corporate personhood, at a state wide level in the US, is now part of party policy – the notion of the rights of corporations as persons, to revoke corporate personhood as one of the causes of harm. It’s one of the root causes of harm that the film presents. It’s not necessarily the only issue people come out of the film with, but corporate personhood is sort of something that a lot of fringe activists have been working on and it hasn’t been on any agenda. So having it on a state wide political agenda is huge, it’s major. Many campaigns could be fought to try to make something like that happen. I found out about it by accident, so... we would like to be able to look for those stories.
The second one is more at a different level, and that’s where we had all 56 Grade eights from Holy Name School in Essex, Ontario, write into the forum, which we thought was quite remarkable. Mark actually responded to each and every one of them, and I got in touch with their teacher, and we managed to get a little bit of money from the Atkinson Foundation, and we took a trip to Essex and spent two days with those students, and I’m cutting together a short piece that’s going to go online about that, in the next month or so.
There, what had happened was that the teacher, who had happened to see this film, just by accident, on TV Ontario, got very interested and decided to use it for curriculum for the entire year. The point at which his students had written was sort of at the tail end of the year, with his students having become really immersed in this film, and when we went and spoke to them, they had engaged with it at a fairly deep level, and this is 13, 14 year old kids, so... on one hand, we have party platform policy in the United States, state-level, and here we have grade eights in Essex, Ontario. The film elicited that kind of response, which I think is completely remarkable.
Really, everything we’ve done since, is about connecting films and audiences with the ongoing action that needs to be taken for something to make a difference, beyond it just making a difference when you see it in the film. That’s what makes us different: from the point of view of distributors, and even of filmmakers, their job’s been done. It’s a success, the film was made, it obviously did have an impact – there’s a lot to be proud of, but from my point of view at Hello Cool World, we now want to take that third part of our mandate and actually see some results from it. And I don’t see it as a six month project, I see it as a ten year project, just like the film – it was ten years from idea to launch; this is the same sort of thing.
One of the very early things that happened when the film was first launched, Tima Bansal from the Ivey School of Business, worked with Mark to create a curriculum that’s being used there with business students, that also went on to the educational DVD and it’s hardwired into there and there’s a Power Point presentation that you have to go to the Ivey school to get the code to access, so that students can’t get it – it’s for instructors. It’s free, but it’s controlled – it’s free if you have the educational copy.
So business students are grappling with the issues raised by The Corporation?
And all of these pieces are part of the solutions we want to promote through very different audiences – high schools students, future business leaders, anti-fascists, soccer moms, government policy writers, you see what I mean! We’ve promised – and someday, whether it’s at my own expense or not – I will write the framework for action that goes with the campaign for corporate harm reduction, based on all this feedback.
So these are the kinds of areas that I’d like to be able to have possibly different campaigns, but strategically linked, so that we could really try to get a sustained effort to try to change the nature of the institution. And why I call it the Campaign for Corporate Harm Reduction – it’s a little bit tongue in cheek out of the health field, but also that the problem is too big. The idea of rewrite-regulate-reform is that we’re engaging with the institution, that institution that does exist, whether we want it to or not – how do we change it so that less harm can be done by these corporate entities?
Out of curiosity, how did you feel about the Battle of Seattle as a model of dissent?
Well, the Battle of Seattle was the beginning of the whole “indy media” phenomenon. I was there. Mark had three different crews. I was running around getting tear-gassed – I got tear-gassed for the first time there. One of our cameramen ended up in jail with the keys to the car (laughs). It was very crazy – of course it was exhilarating. I myself noted at the time – which of course sounds like an over-determined thing to say after the fact – all these cameras, all these cell phones, all this media. It was the beginning of citizen media at the frontlines. However, I think the legacy of that is what we’re seeing now in general, which is that anybody can publish, but there’s still a lot of work required to actually have credible sources and to have a decent analytical framework, and to have strategic suggestions that don’t sort of just involve batting up against power. And I’m not opposed to batting up against power – I quite enjoy it from time to time – but I don’t think it’s going to change the institution when such hugely powerful forces are behind it. So I absolutely think there has to be a multi-pronged approach, and that’s where the future lies.
However, there’s never been the tools that there are right this minute. But now we have to face the root cause of our own disorganization, which is just the lack of any real unity, or of any kind of standing together of different factions of progressives, the left – however you define them – towards some sort of end. Which is why we’re often at a disadvantage with those who have no qualms about high-handed ideology and mobilizing people through it. This is where the crisis right now is, and this is, in a way, why I think The Corporation has a chance and is not done yet as a sort of mobilizing force, because what we saw was the coming together of groups that don’t work together around that launch. There were sufficient points of entry in the film itself for many different people to rally around it
Manufacturing Consent, which will be re-released in June with lots of cool extras, after fifteen years – the shelf-life of that film goes on and on and on, and I think The Corporation will too. It doesn’t have the mega push and notoriety of, for example, the Michael Moore films. We actually opened the same week in New York as Fahrenheit 9/11; we did get a lot of media coverage, but we were “the other film” and he was the main story, whereas in San Francisco, we were the main story. But we seem to be enjoying the “long tail effect.”
I think had we not had that particular competition for the same audience – we were definitely at a disadvantage, because to get Fahrenheit 9/11 onto 2000 screens costs millions and millions of dollars, like that’s just what it costs, instead of the couple of million that went into The Corporation for P&A, all told, from four markets. Even though it did very well, the moment where we might have been able to manifest more for less was a little bit subsumed by the Fahrenheit 9/11 phenomenon. But I think what we’ve seen since then is that there’s been no lessening up of the popularity of the film. It did extremely well on DVD, it continues to do well on DVD, and it has been downloaded off the internet half a million times, so that the growing impact of it is what I’m wanting to harness, and quite simply put, we need some resources to be able to maintain that effort. It’s been a volunteer effort for the last year on my part to keep The Corporation "continued campaign" going.
And people should send contributions to -?
They can go to the website, Hello Cool World or thecorporation.com, and donate. They can “donate for downloads” – we’re asking people if they’ve illegally downloaded it to donate, or they can go to the next button and donate specifically to the Campaign for Corporate Harm Reduction, and that money goes into sustaining Hello Cool World, which right now doesn’t make any substantial amount of money from DVD sales. We’re trying to widen our capacity to do that.
We have two things we want to sustain with Hello Cool World: one is the social network that we have – a fairly wide base, a fairly good base right now – and the capacity for our webstore to become an alternative distribution outlet. It’s not going to be exclusive – we are non-exclusive. At the moment we don’t have too many titles that don’t have distributors attached. Conceivably if we were in a solid enough position, we could help filmmakers self-distribute films, but what we can’t do, which is why they go to distributors, is offer them money up front, at this point. If we were able to generate funding to Hello Cool World – if Hello Cool World itself could become the draw for funding and funders – then we would be able to offer a lot more back to people.
But our allegiance really still is to audiences. That’s what’s different from distributors – it’s our audiences that are our asset, and it’s our audiences that are the reason we do it, and if we can’t connect the audiences and follow through with the outcome, because our audience is an audience that wants something to happen because of these films. They don’t just want films to happen, they want something to happen. I have two fairly large focuses; one is, of course, corporate globalization, and the other is sex and gender and the whole realm of sex ed, which we are dealing less with films around that, and more with non-profits, and we have some cool projects, like the Won’tGetWeird.com website and things like that. There’s no reason we couldn’t combine all of that.
If we had a more sustainable base we could do so much for people, because what we really, really excel at – and I think we proved it with The Corporation – we know how to develop and package and do outreach for campaigns. We could become a very mobile, non-exclusive social marketing engine for a lot of projects and a lot of campaigns. And to do that we will in the future be looking for ways to fund Hello Cool World – to fund it as an entity, not just the projects.
Let’s talk about some of your other HelloCoolWorld titles – a couple of favourites that you think people might profit from looking at.
Well, I really love Manufactured Landscapes. I think it’s a wonderful film. I think it’s really remarkable. I think it’s also got the potential to connect people to issues in a way that aren’t explicit in the film. There are some DVD extras that go in a little bit into the connection between Edward Burtynsky himself and what he’s up to in the film. Edward Burtynsky, the subject, of course, of that film, also has books – he’s a photographer – but what a lot of people won’t know, that isn’t obvious, is that he also received a TED Award – it stands for Technology, Entertainment, and Design - of quite a substantial amount of money, and he gave it to the worldchanging.com folks, who have put out a book, Worldchanging: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century, which they’re billing as a kind of high tech futuristic version of the Whole Earth Catalogue. It’s a great book, I think it’s a great project, I think it’s a great connection. We’re not selling that book right now, mostly because we can’t guarantee that we can sell enough through our store, but we have a link to Amazon – so if you buy it from Amazon through us, then we get a little affiliate cut, which you can do with Amazon.
Any other films you want to get behind?
I really think that everyone should go see Radiant City, which is not on DVD yet, and therefore not in our store. It’s on our campaign page – we’d really love to see this film do well, because we think it’s got some interesting things to say about urban sprawl, which is the message of it – but it’s also a very creative film. It’s one that Mark Achbar really loves as well. It’s quite different than all our other straightforward documentaries, but if you see it, you’ll see that there’s actually a connection to the issues that we’re dealing with, and there’s actually even a connection to Manufactured Landscapes. I mean, the real buzz right now, besides global warming, is urban sustainability. We have another film that will come out on DVD after this release that is called A Crude Awakening, and it deals with peak oil, and all of these films are starting to connect – but I think Radiant City has a wonderful quirky quality to it, that would appeal to fans of Canadian films...
And anyone who grew up in the suburbs.
And anyone who grew up in the suburbs. Which I didn’t, but...
But I’ve stayed out of the suburbs. I’ve managed to escape!
The other thing, campaign-wise, is that we’re working with Odeon on that, and they’re letting us promote it with some grassroots tools, where we can actually focus on some of the little message moments in the film and not even necessarily say that it’s a film. So – this notion of the viral “getting the message out” that’s sort of linking people to what’s going on, in that there’s a film release but there’s also something more, is part of what we’re getting to do with that project... It’s doing what we want to do, which is extracting out of the film, right?
You can see these things at Hello Cool World?
Yeah, Hello Cool World campaign pages. Follow the links to Radiant City and you’ll see all our little viral stuff that’s happening, plus the trailers. It would be great if you put one of the little viral things on your blog.