The makers of this low-budget, high-impact film developed innovative ways to bring their campaign to the screen
By Rosie Lavan
PROJECT TITLE: THE AGE OF STUPID
SHORT STORY SYNOPSIS: It is 2055 and the Earth has been devastated by climate change. The last man alive looks back at documentary archives from the early twenty-first century and asks why mankind failed to act on the environment when it had the chance. These archives follow six real characters, including a Cornish windfarmer, Iraqi refugees, an Indian airline boss and an oil executive in post-Katrina New Orleans.
FORMAT: 90’ feature
PRODUCTION COMPANIES: Spanner Films; Passion Pictures
RELEASE DATES: 13 March 2009 (UK); 19 August 2009 (Australia and New Zealand); 21 September 2009 (global premiere)
AWARDS: Griersons Best Cinema Doc 2009 (Nominated); Middle East International Film Festival 09 (Jury Special Mention); British Independent Film Awards – Best Documentary (Pending); Birds Eye View Film Festival – Best Documentary 2009; Griersons – Best Green Doc 2008; Sunny Side of the Doc – Best Green Doc 2008; Sunny Side of the Doc – Film Most Likely To Be Cinema Hit 2008; Sunchild International Environmental Festival – First Prize. For Franny Armstrong: ITN – Women in Film & TV, Achievement of the Year 2009; Wild & Scenic, John de Graaf Environmental Filmmaker of the Year 2010
Franny Armstrong, creator and director of The Age of Stupid, already had two low-budget documentaries to her name when she set out to make a film exploring the oil industry through interlocking narratives. This initial idea was developed into a project which would take a wider look at the climate change threat. After three years filming in seven countries with her producer, Lizzie Gillett, Armstrong had a finished documentary, but she decided that for maximum impact the real stories they had collected needed to be couched in a fictional element. Oscar-winning Pete Postlethwaite was cast as an archivist and the last man on an Earth ravaged by climate disaster, introducing the true stories from the moment in history when people could have acted, but did not.
The focal point was the UN climate change summit in Copenhagen in December 2009: the aim was for as many people as possible to see the film before it began. They developed innovative ways to finance and distribute their film and kept the budget down to a modest £450,000, roughly a third of the cost of an equivalent feature.
The Age of Stupid was launched at eco-friendly, green carpet premieres in London, Sydney and New York, with the support of celebrities and political figures including Kofi Annan and then Climate Change secretary Ed Miliband. Armstrong has launched new campaigns on the strength of the film, Not Stupid and 10:10.
The audience was active from the outset. To avoid the obstacles traditionally faced by independent filmmakers, Armstrong and Gillett devised a unique structure for financing the film: crowd funding. They knew that the traditional commissioning route – seeking buy-in from film or television companies – would mean having to sacrifice the film rights and dilute its message. After careful legal structuring, they devised a way for people to invest in the project, selling stakes of £5,000 or £10,000 and welcoming smaller donations. Contributions from 228 individuals and groups raised the £450,000 budget. There was no advertising budget but a further £300,000 was raised for distribution. With their own stake in the film and returns promised for their support, these crowd funders became Stupid’s marketing champions, spreading the word on its release. Incentives, depending on the size of the investment, ranged from a DVD credit to premiere tickets.
Instead of carbon-intensive trips to international film festivals, Armstrong and Gillett hosted green carpet premieres. The first took place in a cinema tent in Leicester Square on 13 March 2009, and through linking up via satellite with 61 cinemas across the UK made a Guinness World Record for the biggest simultaneous film screening. Each local screening incorporated events with local speakers. The Australia/New Zealand premiere followed in August, and at the global premiere the film was beamed from a solar tent in Central Park to one million people in 63 countries.
There was a natural audience for the film in green activists, long used to campaigning tactics. Mutually beneficial relationships with NGOs were important in reaching the audience at home and internationally. Some 50 organisations around the world, including Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, helped publicise the film to their members.
Indie Screenings was another key innovation to grow from The Age of Stupid. This web tool, launched in May 2009, enabled the film to be seen across the UK – in venues such as schools, churches and community centres – as and how the local audience wished. Indie Screenings is still active: people request a screening, a licence fee is calculated, depending on how many people will attend and where it will take place. Everybody profits: with no middle men involved, the fee goes straight to the filmmaker and the group or individual hosting the screening is still free to charge an entrance fee.
The film’s website is the central hub for engagement. The first investors were recruited online and contributions to campaigning efforts are still made here. It seeks to answer all the questions The Age of Stupid raises, be they about film financing or the science of climate change. It also pays tribute to the “community of Age of Stupid Insiders” who have backed the project.
The Age of Stupid homepage
Watch The Age of Stupid online
Age of Stupid trailer