Working at the Library of Congress in February 2018, the students on the Land Grant Films team began to understand that their project—a documentary about Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, tied to the milestone of Parton’s giving away her 100 millionth book—was a much bigger deal than they had realized.
“We were there getting our press passes,” remembers Kayli Martin (’21), the film’s assistant producer. “I thought, ‘This is what it’s like to be a professional journalist.’”
“I had never been to the Library of Congress,” says Abby Bower (’19), a producer and the writer for the project. “The building, number one, is huge and impressive and beautiful. Number two, we were treated like a professional media outlet. As a student setting up for an interview in the Library of Congress, with outlets like ABC and NPR around us, it was a totally mind-boggling moment.”
“We got to shoot everything,” says Brock Zych (’18), who served as director of photography. “We had free rein to go wherever we wanted in the Library of Congress building. I was running around all day. The folks from ABC and NBC, they were restricted.”
“We met a lot of people,” says audio recordist Ben Proffitt (’18), who helped the team capture interviews with elected officials and dignitaries.
“It was amazing,” says Story Sims (’18), the associate producer. “And the event was a lot bigger than we had expected.” Sims and associate producer Lindsey Owen (’19) ran one of the cameras as Parton presented the Imagination Library’s 100 millionth book, Parton’s own Coat of Many Colors, to Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden. Parton then read and sang the book to a group of children and told them a little bit about who she is.
Owen interviewed Brooke Boynton-Hughes, illustrator of Coat of Many Colors. “The moment I asked her what it means to her to be a part of the Imagination Library collection,” Owen wrote in a story for UT’s Torchbearer magazine, “she almost immediately started crying.”
After the ceremony, the group interviewed Parton, with Sims behind the camera. “It was the first time any of us had ever seen her in person before,” wrote Owen. “She walked into the room, shook hands with everyone, and asked all our names. During our interview, she was humble about the program’s success and admitted that she thinks children love her because she reminds them of a character in a storybook.”
“We all realized how lucky we were to be working on this,” says Sims. “It really was mind-blowing. Such a great real-world experience to be able to work on a professional documentary while a student. It was such a gift.”
The Little Documentary Group That Could
Associate Professor of Journalism and Electronic Media Nick Geidner founded Land Grant Films in 2013 to provide UT students with hands-on experience creating short documentaries to help local nonprofits tell their story and raise money.
“When I was an undergraduate at Youngstown State,” says Geidner, “I had the opportunity to help create a homework help show. It was real-world experience, and I came up with how we were going to do this. It aired all over Northeast Ohio and was nominated for an Emmy. I started Land Grant Films because I wanted students to have those kinds of opportunities, which they could put on their resumes and be proud of, and it’s been amazing for that.”
Geidner had the idea for the Imagination Library documentary when he realized his son Henry would turn five, aging out of the Imagination Library, around the time the library was scheduled to give away its 100 millionth book. Geidner gave the project a working title of 100 Million Stories, imagining an hour-long special that might air on East Tennessee TV stations. But as the students dug deeper, the project grew in scope. There was just so much to tell.
Parton started the Imagination Library in 1995 in her home of Sevier County, Tennessee, to mail children a book each month from birth to age five. Over the years, the program expanded to all 50 states and four other countries—now shipping some 1.3 million books every month. Each child’s library of 60 books begins with The Little Engine That Could and ends with Look Out, Kindergarten, Here I Come.
Once the group realized the depth of the documentary’s subject, it grew to 72 minutes and acquired a new name: The Library That Dolly Built.
The Very Hungry Videographers
“After being attached to this project for so long, I learned that good documentaries take time,” Zych says. “Not only did I get amazing experience with cameras, but I also got to work with an awesome team who knew so much about the organization, Dolly, and the right angle we wanted to approach this film.”
After graduating from Sullivan South High School in Kingsport, Tennessee, Zych went to East Tennessee State University for a year. “I wanted to major in videography,” he says. “I transferred to UT when I realized, hey, there’s actually a degree for that.” Zych joined Land Grant Films in 2015. “I got interested in what [Geidner] was doing,” he says. “I always love to learn more. I’ve always loved movies. It’s always been there.” At the time the program had only two documentary-quality cameras. From there, Zych watched Land Grant Films grow in equipment and potential. “My senior year, Dr. Geidner said, ‘We have this opportunity. Do you want to be director of photography?’” he remembers.
In the fall of 2017, Martin was a freshman out of Lenoir City High School double majoring in journalism and English. She joined Land Grant Films after the professor of her Introduction to Journalism class included it in a list of options for gaining practical experience. “I started doing research,” she says, “anything I could find about Dolly. We went to a printing house in Knoxville and saw how they print and distribute the books.”
Owen was a journalism and electronic media graduate student in Geidner’s Advanced Reporting across the Media class when she began working with the documentary. A graduate of Knoxville’s Bearden High, she had worked as an undergraduate at ETSU with the Buccaneers athletic department, assisting TV networks, getting some experience behind the camera, and doing video editing.
“Initially, I thought my part would be small,” she wrote in Torchbearer, “transcribing interviews and passing lenses or SD cards to the videographer. I was intimidated by the amount of work that had already gone into the production.”
“Dr. Geidner liked that I’m very OCD,” says Owen. “I set up scheduling, interviews, and pre-interviews. I went from behind the camera to asking questions. It made me like writing a lot more.” As an intern in UT’s Office of Communications and Marketing, Owen ended up contributing stories to the university news website and other publications in addition to her writing in Torchbearer.
Sims was in Geidner’s documentary filmmaking class in the spring of 2018. “He mentioned the Dolly project to the class,” she says. “I immediately went up to him and said I wanted to be a part of it.” Sims had grown up in Louisville, Kentucky, and moved to Knoxville before her senior year of high school at Webb School. “I didn’t think I’d like the move,” she says. “But it turned out to be my favorite year of high school.”
At UT, Sims decided to focus on video production after she shadowed a Jupiter Entertainment producer for a few days and fell in love with producing. “I’m very detail oriented,” she says. In fall 2014 she got in-class training as an assistant producer for the Vol Channel’s Sports Mecca, and she served as the show’s executive producer from January 2015 to May 2016.
Proffitt, from Maryville, Tennessee, excels in diverse roles as an athlete—he was captain of the tennis and cross-country teams at Maryville High School—an Eagle Scout, and a cello player who was part of the Scruffy City Orchestra during his time at UT. “I never was really, really good at one thing,” he says. “I love trying to help people find what motivates them. If I have helped them on their journey, I’m happy. It’s an ingrained personality trait.
“I was the sound man for a lot of the interviews. I was always a lot more into the visual side of things, but Brock is much better versed. I said, ‘I will do whatever is needed.’ It was interesting. I didn’t know that the Imagination Library existed before the project. So I enjoyed learning about it and seeing all the behind-the-scenes facets. It was interesting and eye-opening. And I can actually say that I know a bit about sound recording and mixing now because of it.”
In all, a rotating group of some 15 students worked on the film in various capacities from social media content production to videography to production assistant work, which included spending hours digging through the archives of the Mountain Press in Sevierville. Clinton Elmore, a lecturer in the School of Journalism and Electronic Media, edited the film.
Over their spring break in 2018, the documentary team headed to Louisville, Kentucky, to visit Visually Impaired Preschool Services and the American Printing House for the Blind, which creates braille layover panels for Imagination Library books. “We went to a preschool for the blind and saw how the books are used,” says Martin.
“These were some of my favorite interviews,” says Bower, a Knoxville Catholic High School alumna who had worked on Land Grant projects since her first year at UT. “I was not familiar with the American Printing House for the Blind, and I learned so much about what life is like for blind and visually impaired people. It was really cool that the Imagination Library and the American Printing House for the Blind worked together to make the program more accessible.”
The team watched the Imagination Library distributors load books onto 18-wheelers. They met with an affiliate program providing children access to books in the remote town of Cylon, Minnesota, population 350, where the mayor had signed up eight children for the program after discovering it on Facebook. Nancy Carlson, author of Look Out Kindergarten, Here I Come, told Owen that after a period of struggling to make it as a writer, she was able to make a living when her book was included in the program.
The team interviewed Parton again at her Dream More Resort in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. “We focused more broadly on her motivation for starting the Imagination Library,” says Bower. “We asked why she chose to print the children’s name on the books. She talked about her personal pride at getting mail as a young girl and that putting their name on it makes it personal, gives them ownership of the book, making it all the more special.”
“It was pretty incredible to think of what a gift of a book can mean for somebody and what it can do,” says Bower. In her years working on Land Grant Films and her nine months interning with WBIR-TV, she had worked mostly on shorter projects, so the documentary pushed her storytelling abilities to keep audiences engaged while weaving together multiple narratives.
To read the script, says Geidner, “We were thinking about getting an author, someone who would do the narration with the right tone and not overshadow the story. The Imagination Library Foundation suggested Danika McKellar. She had appeared in the Hallmark Channel special Christmas at Dollywood and also wrote the Imagination Library book Goodnight, Numbers. She was a joy to work with. It took no time and no convincing to get her on board.”
Geidner recorded McKellar at Serenity West Studio in Los Angeles. “Dolly happened to be in town and wanted to swing by the studio and surprise Danika and thank her for doing the narration,” he says. “Danika was completely floored by the idea of meeting Dolly Parton.”
Look Out, World, Here We Come
Bower did her Chancellor’s Honors Program capstone project for her degree in journalism and electronic media on the documentary and her writing process. “I learned so many professional skills and got to meet so many incredible people,” she says. She graduated in May 2019 and began a science writing internship at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
Zych’s director of photography credit helped him land a social media internship at Discovery Inc. in Knoxville, which led to a full-time job there as a digital video producer.
As a freelance videographer and photographer in Atlanta, Sims has worked as a set production assistant on Zombieland 2 and BET’s American Soul. “It’s 80-hour work weeks,” she says. “I’m looking for a full-time career in Atlanta. Doing documentaries was very different. But getting that real-world experience in college, I felt so much more confident stepping out into a professional set.”
Proffitt is working on a video career in car racing, an interest that dates back to seeing a photo of a car on his father’s flip phone. “It was one of the first iterations of the Audi supercar,” says Proffitt. “I started researching and appreciating everything about every car-related topic.” He interned at Car and Driver magazine and is now a video content contractor for Speed Digital in Charlotte, North Carolina, a freelance video producer with Motoriuous.com, and a freelance production assistant with Everyday Driver in Park City, Utah. He drives a sky-blue Honda S2000 convertible with a manual transmission. “I plan to hold on to it for a little while longer.”
Owen is now the communications specialist for UT ‘s School of Art, with a broad portfolio that includes announcing events and exhibits and writing stories about the school’s students, professors, and alumni.
Martin, now a junior, hopes to work for a magazine like National Geographic. “The experience did a lot for my confidence,” she says. “At the time it didn’t really register how big it was. But now I think about it and say this is what I’ll be doing for the rest of my life.”
Geidner and his wife, Shelby, have a second son, 18-month-old Sam, who is now receiving books from the Imagination Library. Henry, seven, continues to be a reader. “He’s reading long books now and reading to his brother,” Geidner says. “We recently read the first Harry Potter book together. I’m sure I’m going to be sobbing in the theaters watching the film. There are a number of shots of Henry and Sam in the film.”
The world premiere of The Library That Dolly Built was scheduled for a lavish event on April 2 in New York City, with Dolly Parton attending, tied in with the launch of the Imagination Library program in New York. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic put those plans on hold. The premiere is now set for the week of September 21 to honor the 25th anniversary of that first Imagination Library program in Sevier County, Tennessee.
“This group of students has been amazing,” says Geidner. “To see Abby, for example, come in as a freshman and see her grow and write the script for this project and see her graduate—that’s so rewarding. To see the friendships that they formed—they’re going to be friends for the rest of their lives. And to see where they’re going and doing great things. All those students who had this opportunity, these students are going to come back and help the next generation of students. In fact, Brock and Story already have. This is going to be the legacy of Land Grant Films.”