Since 1976, giant screen film releases have been accompanied by a variety of ancillary materials, including teacher’s guides, exhibits, books, and scientist presentations. As Hyman Field of the U.S. National Science Foundation noted, "Ancillary materials and educational outreach has always been among the criteria the NSF’s Informal Science Education Program considers when it reviews proposals…We’re interested in the learning experience extending beyond just seeing a film…We’re looking for a project that’s carefully designed as a total educational experience" (Germain, 2003).
Filmmakers and distributors invest time and money to create a suite of ancillary materials to accompany their films. But there has been no formal research that has considered whether these ancillary materials have achieved their goals or have an impact in either promoting lifelong learning or film attendance. In the 2005 The Big Frame article "Beyond Entertainment: Educational Impact of Films and Companion Materials,” Barbara Flagg noted that (based on summative evaluation studies of 10 giant screen films) it was difficult to show any value of ancillary materials among adult audiences, while gains among student audiences was significant for only 2 of the 10 films; but that although it was possible to see gains in the use of ancillary materials, it was both difficult and varied based on the kind of material used.
Surveying the Community
Earlier in 2015, the GSCA Lifelong Learning Committee and the Research Task Force joined together to consider the question of the value of ancillary materials. We recognized that in 2003 the need for such research had been discussed at GSTA (a forerunner of GSCA): “Considering the costs involved in creating educational materials, especially in the current economic state of the industry, perhaps more research is needed to ensure the materials are accomplishing their intended goal” (Germain, 2003).
It was clear that we needed to address this question to the educators and public audience who use these materials, but we first needed to understand how these ancillary materials were selected and developed, and the expectations for their use among the GSCA membership. To do so, we developed two matched surveys that included both multiple choice and open-ended questions. The Research Task Force survey was designed to understand how giant screen producers/distributors decide what ancillary materials to produce and their goals for the use of these materials; the Lifelong Learning Committee survey focused on the theater members to gauge their use and perceptions of the materials produced to accompany films.
At the end of May, an email invitation was sent to all GSCA members who identified as Production or Distribution (402), inviting them to complete the Research Task Force survey. At the same time, the same email invitation was sent to all GSCA members who identified as Theater (566), inviting them to complete the Lifelong Learning Committee survey. Follow-up invitations were sent in June and July, with the survey closing on August 6. A total of 30 Producers/Distributors started the Research Task Force survey, but only 15 (or 4% of all invited) completed it. Thirty-four theater respondents, or 6% of those invited, completed the Lifelong Learning Committee survey. A summary of the results of the survey to Producers and Distributors are included below, and the results from the Theater survey will follow in Part II of this blog post in the coming weeks.
What producers/distributors said
Among the respondents, all agreed that their goals for their ancillary materials were to extend film learning, reach new audiences, and encourage viewers to act upon the film messages. Other goals include providing a benefit to teachers so they would continue to book their films, making it easier for theater staff so they don’t have to create the materials themselves, helping teachers meet curriculum goals, and creating fans for future films.
More than 80% of the respondents said that they have produced websites, posters, educators’ guides and Facebook pages for their film projects. Twitter accounts, visiting experts, standees, radio spots, books about the film, lobby kiosks, brochures, building banners and giveaways or incentives (such as t-shirts, stickers, posters, etc.) were produced by more than 50% of respondents. Social media packages, including such content as YouTube shorts, Instagram and Twitter posts, photos, and infographics were also created to accompany a film product. All producers/distributors have used a website to disseminate materials or mailed copies to theaters for distribution. Facebook, file-sharing sites such as Dropbox or Hightail, partner sites such as NASA and 4H, and direct email to teachers were also used to distribute materials.
The majority of respondents indicated that they produced different materials for each film, basing their decision primarily on film content, intended audience, access to external funding/requirements of external funders, and budget. Several noted that they tried to consider what the audience would like related to the content, but that they also look at what has worked in the past and what the new tech trends are. Some producers noted that they also work directly with the theaters to understand what to produce through advisory sessions, and that they are seeing that some theaters are moving away from physical materials and towards digital and social media.
Given the historical tradition of the educator guide as part of the film package, it was not unusual to see that producers/distributors were uniform in the importance of including activities to be used before and after the film, links to the film website, links to other websites, suggestions for post-film actions in the guide, and links to learning standards (state, province, federal, national). Several respondents felt that post-film actions were critical to include as they were the way to engage viewers’ interest in the film content through activism or volunteerism for learning or call to action.
Interestingly, multiple producers/distributors suggested that educators’ guides should do more by including age group specific activities, ways to involve parents, links to online interactive materials, and ensuring that the guide includes information about why what they saw/learned is relevant.
Very few respondents indicated that they track who is using their ancillary materials. Less than 50% track downloads on websites or distributed at the theater. Some indicated that they correspond with theater managers, collect information via theater surveys, or ask teachers to evaluate the materials.
Implications and next steps
It was clear from the open-ended comments on the survey that producers/distributors felt that ancillary materials were an important component to the giant screen experience but that they did not have a process in place to gauge whether the materials achieved their goals. Creating a tighter link between producers/distributors and users would be valuable not only to assess impact of ancillary materials, but also to recognize the changing nature of what an audience wants and needs.
It was also evident that although the GSCA membership wants and needs research data, that they are still not committed to participation in research projects. The Research Task Force and Lifelong Learning Committee want to provide value to the membership, and we look to the membership to provide us with insight on how best to partner with you to provide you with results you can use in the production, distribution and exhibition of films.
Where do we go next? In a future blog post, Alan Nursall, chair of the Lifelong Learning Committee, will detail the results of the theater surveys. We plan to use the combined results to survey end-users through connections at ASTC (Association of Science-Technology Centers), and possibly the National Science Teachers Association. We will also be reaching out to the GSCA membership to ask you to serve as research participants by distributing surveys to your educational connections and audience members. Participants in this first survey suggested the following specific questions for this next survey:
- What are the biggest challenges that might prevent you from taking your class to see a museum film?
- Is a curriculum connection important for film-related educational materials?
- Do the materials influence your decision to book a trip?
- How does social media influence your decision to see the film?
- Is giant screen a motivator for students to want to learn more?
- Do they survey students to see if they were able to comprehend more about the topic after they saw the film?
- What type of film-related education activities work best in your classroom?
- What is the ideal length of an activity?
- Are you more/less inclined to use an activity based on a film clip?
- What topics would you like to see in giant screen?
- Do you mostly use printed or digital materials?
- Do you get the materials before/after seeing the film?
- Do you go to the film’s website for materials before/after the film?
- What do they want, how will they use it, what formats do they want? How much is too much? How much is sufficient?
- Do they use the activities, and when (before/after screening)?
- How do they get the materials and how much lead time do they need?
- What are the roadblocks to receiving or using the materials?
- If you have feedback on the materials, how would you like to give it?
Please feel free to leave your comments below.
Mary Nucci is a Research Assistant Professor at Rutgers, the State University of NJ. Her work focuses on issues relating to the communication and public understanding of science. She has served as a Board Member for GSCA, as chair/co-chair of the Lifelong Learning Committee, and currently chairs the GSCA Research Task Force.
The GSCA Research Task Force and Lifelong Learning Committee worked together to complete the ancillary materials surveys and will team on other potential work that enhances the GSCA membership. Click here for more information on their mandates and a list of their volunteer members.
Flagg, B. (2005). Beyond Entertainment: Educational Impact of Films and Companion Materials. The Big Frame, Spring 2005: 50-56, 66.
Germain, K. (2003). Educational Materials: Crucial Element or Costly Charade? The Big Frame, Spring 2003: 60-76.
Listed here are the basic questions included in the survey. Contact Kelly Germain at email@example.com for a copy of the full survey.
- There are a variety of ancillary materials produced for giant screen films. What ancillary materials have you created for your film projects? Check all that apply.
- If you create the same ancillary materials for each film please skip to Question 3. If you create different materials for each film, how do you decide what kinds of ancillary materials to make? Check all that apply.
- Which of the following do you think are important to include in an educator guide? [Measures: Very important, Important, Somewhat important, Somewhat unimportant, Not important at all]
- How do you disseminate ancillary materials? Check all that apply.
- How do you determine who is using your ancillary materials?
- What are your goals for viewers using your ancillary materials?
- The results of this survey will be used for a follow up to K-12 educators to understand how they use ancillary materials. Are there specific questions you would like to be included in this follow up survey?