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Miss Homeless: cold vrs warm start

December 20, 2010

Miss Homeless premiered in 53 premieres in 13 countries on October 17th, the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. Through our website we turned the premiere of the film into an international event of solidarity. In this article, I give some background on the project and some thoughts on the do’s and don’ts. We consider our project a nice success but I’m convinced it had more potential if we took a ‘warm start’ in stead of a ‘cold start’…. Hopefully your project will benefit from our lessons learned.


Miss Homeless is a docu-fiction feature film directed by Daniel Lambo and was shot without a budget. Most of the actors are homeless who improvised scenes taken from their real life. The film portrays women struggling in the margin of society and their fight to be heard in a world that doesn’t seem to care.

Daniel started shooting the film with actress Tracee Westmoreland (Nicole) without a script but a simple concept: Nicole, an American actress, decides to live amongst the homeless of Brussels in order to get the lead in the movie of her husband.

When mingling with the homeless people in our neighbourhood in the centre of Brussels, they told her about the Miss Homeless pageant competition. This was an innitiative by a small organization (Chez Nous) to bring attention to homelessness and the weak position of women in particular.

So Tracee ended up helping to organize the event (in reality) and Miss Homeless became a major storyline in the film. It even became the title of the film! A beautiful example of how fiction and reality blend.

An alternative distribution

When a first cut of the film was screened last April, the feedback was simply great. Not only where the homeless who participated in the project very proud, the various filmmakers who attending the screening were also enthusiast. We understood this project had some potential.

We asked for support to enable us to post produce the film a professional way and we started thinking about a unique way to launch the film. You simply know that this little film, this labour of love, wouldn’t survive in the traditional distribution model. Even with a theatrical release, we would hardly reach a couple of hundred people. A couple of thousand at best. Internationally probably the festivals and then what? With Small Gods, the first Potemkino feature film, we followed this traditional path which is very nice indeed, but you’re just one of those many small, but great films. How to stand out? How to find our audience? But mostly, how use this film in a context of solidarity and help to bring this issue to the attention of a broader audience? We didn’t want to preach to our own choir.

Also, as a producer, my focus has been shifting toward the potential of internet and the innovative ways of storytelling and distribution it offers. For more on this background, see Where is Gary? and The Content Circle.

Call to action

The first idea was to launch a European competition for street musicians. The winner would deliver the soundtrack of the film and win the ‘Miss Homeless Soundtrack Award’. It  would be awarded on October 17th, the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty at the Ghent Film Festival. It was a perfect match because the festival has an international reputation for it’s focus on soundtracks. It seemed like a solid plan but then came the reality check.

In practice the whole concept was quite complex. It needed a lot of explaining and organisation. The idea was to activate organizations who work with homeless people but the call to action was simply to complicated. It wasn’t ‘sticky’. Also, it would require too much effort from our side and we simply didn’t have the time or the means to do so. So this plan was a no go… .

Still, October 17th seemed like the ideal date to have the premiere. So, why not simply invite anyone to organize their own première that day as an act of solidarity? ‘Organize your own premiere’ is a simple call to action and with a title like ‘Miss Homeless’ the context of solidarity and subject are obvious. Both the call to action and the title has a strong ‘stickiness’ and the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty offered the ideal context.


Here we need to note that both the pageant competition and our film got a lot of opposition from organization who though Miss Homeless is exploitative. Of course I respect their opinion and understand the sensitivity. Personally, I agree the film could have gone much further content wise. On the other hand, because a heavy subject is treaded ‘lightly’ and with humour, the film open to a broader audience. Our plan was to offer a tool for organizations to discuss the issue, to bring it to the attention of the audience and press. We wanted to ‘empower the communities’ to set up events around the film.

Whatever our good intentions were, as a result of this sensitivity our film was not supported by the international network of organizations on poverty. Nevertheless, we also had received very positive feedback, so we were confident to continue. But it was all grassroot from here on. The website was launched on August 20th, 8 weeks before the premiere.

It was a simple website with the trailer and a intro-film showing Daniel who explained the call to action. We also added a map showing the confirmed premieres. Three was an application form for people who wanted to see the film. We would send them a link and password so they could see the film on Vimeo. This way they could choose to premiere the film or not. The Miss Homeless Facebookgroup was linked to the site and of we went.


The growth was slow but steady. We quickly had about 150 friends in our group, but these were mostly people in our own network. To make the news about our project travel, we needed at least 150 friends more. Only this way we could connect to the network of social and socio-cultural organizations. So we went email harvesting on website  about homelessness and poverty. This was time consuming but efficient. We reached 300 friends in 2 weeks but more important: 1500 trailer views, 87 application to see the film and 15 confirmed premieres.

At that moment we started to inform the press through the press agent we always work with (and who did it for free). The press wasn’t interested at all. Nothing! Homelessness is not a relevant subject when it is still warm outside.

But we continued. One month after the launch of the Facebookpage, we had 366 friends. Apparently good friends because we also had over 2000 trailer, 229 film requests and 39 premieres. Most of them were in Belgium and the Netherlands because that’s where we aimed our mailings at. But the news started to travel and it went faster.

The premiere

By October 17th we had 500 friends, 3000 trailer views and 53 premieres. Finally we also got the attention of the press. In the week running up to the premiere, Daniel and Tracee where invited to the most popular talkshow in Belgium and had interviews in two major newspapers. On the day of the premiere there was also a lot of press coverage from the local press, not only at our main premiere in Ghent, but also many of the 52 other premieres got good press.

In total about 3.000 people attended the premieres. The film had also been subtitled in 7 languages through our site. On the Facebookpage many pictures and even video’s of the local events were posted. We were all very proud of what we achieved but still, we could have easily doubled these numbers.

Cold start vrs warm start

The biggest problem was the lack of ‘hubs’. Together with ‘stickiness’ and ‘context’, these are the three main building blocks to reach the tipping point as described in the book by Malcolm Gladwell. I think this model applies really well on viral marketing and communication. He defines hubs as people that are well connected and/or who’s opinion is respected in a community. We definely found many of them because that’s how it was possible to have so many request to see the film and so many confirmations of premieres. But connecting people takes time and we had a ‘cold start’.

A‘cold start’ is launching your call to action without any community yet (mostly Facebook friends). Your first Facebookpage is the call to action and this is simply not very efficient. You can not solve this by starting much earlier, because then you miss momentum. You need a ‘warm start’ by building a community around the subject that your call to action will be about. Definitely when it’s hard core grassroot and you hardly have press or large existing networks backing you, a warm start is essential.

During the production of the film, the director should have started a Facebookpage. The news of the progress of the film would have been the heartbeat of the page, slowly bringing a community to life. This community could then have been activated when the call to action was launched. Hence, a warm start instead of a cold start. This is the essential lesson we learned.

In the next article I will write about a new project Jean-Baptiste Dumont and I are launching in a couple of weeks. The hub will be the small but cool TV channel ‘8’. The stickiness will be the interactive search for the Flemish identity by a Walloon and the context is the fundamental political crisis in which Belgium finds itself today.

For the non-Belgians, this might all sound a bit bizar, but sorry, you’re not the target audience. But no worries, we have other stuff in the Potemkino-pipeline…. .


From → Films, Miscelanious

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