The spread of Vision Maker, a Nebraska-based Native American-focused media organization, has grown from rural roots to a worldwide reach through an updated website and more activity on social media.
Francene Blythe-Lewis, executive director of Vision Maker Media, influenced by her time with National Geographic, has pushed for Vision Maker Media to use the internet to share more stories. This comes as a change from their past model of placing films in Vision Maker’s archives and sending stories to broadcasting stations.
“Vision Maker is about reaching and supporting the storytellers in our communities out there and giving them an opportunity to tell the story from their perspective and their communities that matter to them,” Blythe-Lewis, a Lincoln native, said.
Vision Maker Media, based in Lincoln, was established in 1976 by Blythe-Lewis’ father, Frank Blythe, and has worked to empower Native people through film and media creations since its inception.
“We came up with a membership-based organization that would support us to start with and, in return, they (television stations) would get programming. In the end, when we asked for proposals for where to house our offices, Nebraska came out on top,” Blythe said in an interview with Rebekah Herrera-Schlichting, former assistant director of Vision Maker, on the podcast Made Possible By… in 2018. The offer for office space led to Vision Maker’s beginnings in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Launching an online film festival’s reach
Organizers adjusted what was normally an in-person film festival to an online format because of COVID-19. The event originally was to take place at the Ross Theater in downtown Lincoln. Project Organizer Alana Stone and members of the team considered remaining in person, switching to online, or combining the two.
“After we put together an idea template, we decided to go with the online option, especially as we had been building out our new website,” Stone said. “Once we published the trailers for the upcoming films, we got about 3,000 views in one day.”
“Media is technology. There are ways we can empower and we can advance the work we are doing,” Blythe-Lewis said.
Vision Maker Media’s updated website now hosts films and connects to Vision Maker’s social media accounts. The use of social media to broadcast about the ongoing film festival has increased the reach and engagement significantly.
“We have over 14,000 signed up worldwide for our film festival, which is just amazing. We’ve seen our Instagram metrics go up 84% since our film festival started. Our followers are blowing up,” said Charlie Perry, assistant director of Vision Maker.
Facebook, Snapchat, and YouTube have also spread Vision Maker Media’s message of sharing the untold stories of Native people. Live stream Q and As also receive hundreds of listeners live and numerous views on their social media accounts. The stories are also reaching audiences across the globe.
“On our updates system, we get information on what country you’re in, if you’re Native and other things. So we have people from Argentina, Brazil, New Zealand and Australia even,” Stone said.
Vision Maker supports filmmakers
Filmmakers, both Native and non-Native, seeking to tell the contemporary stories of Native people can contact Vision Maker Media in an open call every March via Slideroom to submit their proposals.
The organization’s board of directors makes all final decisions on the approval of projects and funding for filmmakers. By June of each year, Blythe-Lewis, Perry and their team decide on funding and provide up to $25,000 for the pre-production process. The pre-production process includes interviews, traveling, photography, and other preparations to create a film.
“We fund up to $100,000 for the filmmakers to finish their movies as well,” Perry said.
Films such as “Sisters Rising” by Willow O’Feral and Brad Heck and “Blood Memory” by Drew Nicholas, both shown in during the Film Festival, were supported by funding from Vision Maker Media.
Vision Maker Media assists from the beginning to the end of the production process to lessen the burden on filmmakers. Vision Maker Media’s website states that only 0.4% of shows and movies have a Native character portrayed.
“According to research done by Illuminatives, 87% of K-12 schools don’t teach anything about Native people after 1900. So it’s like we just don’t exist anymore,” Mary Kathryn Nagle, president of Vision Maker Media’s Board of Directors, said in an Activism panel hosted during the ongoing Vision Maker Media online film festival.
Support for Vision Maker Media’s future
Vision Maker Media’s mission is also shared with numerous supporters of the Public Broadcasting Station executive staff. Through the cooperation of external entities like PBS that make sharing Native stories a reality.
“It’s been a real blessing and awesome opportunity to be speaking to these people who have supported Vision Maker, know of Vision Maker’s work, and want to continue having a working relationship with us,” Blythe-Lewis said.
Vision Maker Media’s goal for the future is to continue focusing on social media engagement and building relationships with filmmakers and broadcast channels. The company has archived 40 films on the American Archive of Public Broadcasting in conjunction with WGBH and the Library of Congress.
“Our goal is to have all of our films archived with them. In the future, we will have links on our website to their pages and then you can see our full collection,” Stone said.
Vision Maker Media’s mission statement shares the organization seeks to share the stories that are untold and heal connections through the understanding of Native stories and conversations generated by them.
“No matter where you come from, what you’ll take from our film festival is that we have a lot more in common than we do differences,” Perry said. “It doesn’t matter what color you are, where you’re from, or what creed you have – we all have something we can agree on. We all love a good movie.”