Now’s the Time To Establish Your Documentary Viewing Club

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There is a constant complaint among documentary fans: “We can’t find the film we want to watch at our local theater. And,no matter how often we request the manager to program documentaries, we can’t get the films we want to see on the schedule.”

That, unfortunately, is the reality of current film distribution. The situation may change in the future, but at present very few documentaries get wide theatrical releases — even though nonfiction film has constantly growing fan base. It’s frustrating for filmmakers, too.

Documentary fans who live in areas where movie theaters don’t show nonfiction films can usually find the titles they want to see on Netflix or via other streaming platforms. So the films are, in fact, accessible. But watching a compelling, informative and socially relevant documentary with other people — as one would in a theatrical setting — is a very different experience than viewing it in isolation. To be specific, when you watch it alone, you don’t get to talk about it and share your thoughts and opinions and observations about it afterwards. Viewing in isolation can be frustrating.

There is a remedy. It’s relatively easy and quite painless.

Form your own documentaries viewing club. And here are some basic tips about how to do it.

Step by Step

    The first bit of business is talk to your friends and family about documentaries, and find out who would like to join you for a weekly or monthly screening of a nonfiction film. In addition to family and friends, ask work colleagues, members of the PTA or your church group, school study groups, sports teams, frat brothers–you can find your own group of people, or enlist a group that’s already formed for other purposes. Find people who are enthusiastic and will stick with it.

Size Matters

    Keep your group small–for several reasons. First, decision-making about schedule and choice of film will be more manageable. Secondly, you don’t want your screening to be attended by so many people it might be misconstrued as ‘commercial’ or ‘public,’ and might violate the notion of fair use as established by intellectual property laws. (You know, you want to comply with that warning that appears on all DVDs about the DVD being used only for private viewing.)

Deciding On A Club Format

    Once you’ve got members signed up, decide together how you’re going to run your club–you can collectively choose and schedule documentaries in advance, with each member pitching in a small weekly contribution to cover the DVD purchase, maybe popcorn, too. Or you may decide to make individual members responsible for programming given dates, and let them surprise you with their choice of documentary for the scheduled screening. You can decide on an ongoing theme — documentaries about the justice system, for example — or select widely different subjects, or concentrate on the works of one filmmaker. You might also choose to present a double bill, featuring a documentary and a narrative feature about the same subject — it’s always very interesting to see how the doc and fic differ in storytelling style and substance.

Finding A Venue

    As for venue, you can decide to always meet at the home of the member with the biggest and best screen and sound system, or you can rotate the viewings at different club members’ homes. If that‘s neither of those choices is doable, try asking the local library, school, synagogue or community center–or a local business with a conference room–to allow you the use of a screen-equipped room for two hours a week, perhaps in exchange for being invited to enjoy your screenings with you.

Acquiring the Documentaries

    Most likely, you’re going to want to purchase DVDs. Yes, buying DVDs can be expensive, so why not share the cost among viewing club members? You can decide to have members each contribute a DVD for watching, or put money into a fund for the group’s purchase of DVDs. The amount each member will have to contribute for purchases obviously depends on how many people are in your group. But, it will certainly be less costly than the price of a ticket to a movie theater.
    Of course, you have the option of renting DVDs, but buying them will allow the group to begining to grow a documentaries library, which will prove to be a valuable asset and resource for group members and for your community–if, for example, you eventually decide to donate them to your local library or a neighborhood school. Or you can create a system for lending the films to or exchanging them with other doc viewing clubs in your area.

Obey The Law!

    Be inventive–but know that you MUST play within the parameters set by copyright and intellectual property rights laws (and by the FBI): Do not present public screenings, do not charge admission or turn your documentaries viewing club in to a commercial venture of any kind whatsoever. Really! It’s the law, and it applies to DVDs of documentaries and feature films, alike.

    That‘s why it‘s best to keep your club small in size, with five to eight members. If other people you know hear about your club and want to join, suggest that they start their own viewing club, and offer to help them set up.

Setting An Example For Others

    Successful documentaries viewing clubs have already been established and are active in locations as diverse as bustling glamour-clad Las Vegas and a small and quiet suburban town in New Jersey. Most viewing groups watch a documentary, then discuss it over refreshments. From time to time, they invite a local expert on the documentary’s subject to watch the film with them and comment afterwards. They have not–at least not to my knowledge–invited filmmakers to join them, but that’s a possibility, too. If you know of an accomplished or aspiring documentary filmmaker who lives in or has made a film about your corner of the country, reach out. You can support local documentary filmmakers with your viewing club.

You Can Make A Difference

    Documentary viewing clubs are fun. They’re interesting. They’re purposeful. Through them, you can expand your horizons, support filmmakers and the documentary genre. You can make a difference.

Documentaries are a passion–for the directors who make them and for the audiences who watch them (and get frustrated when they can‘t find them to watch).

Sharing your inspiring success stories and inventive doc-watcher solutions, or vent your ‘but-I-want-to-see-that-film-NOW’ frustrations here at Documentaries.About.com. Please feel free to join the forum discussions, send an email message or comment on the blog, and be sure to leave your valuable tips for others.

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