There are two strategic trends that are increasingly typifying the changing face of conservation filmmaking: the use of hybrid storytelling and digital distribution and amplification. Both tactics not only allow filmmakers telling conservation stories access to new audiences, but also enable them to encourage viewer engagement in their films, propel the narrative, incite action, affect change, and most importantly, generate awareness by way of word of mouth.
As pointed out at the Wildscreen Festival by Colin Butfield, director of public engagement and campaigns, WWF-UK at a panel he moderated on conversation called “The C Word,” conservation storytelling has changed dramatically over the last few years. He cited as an example an old WWF ad featuring actor Noah Wylie, of NBC’s ER fame, earnestly pleading with people to save polar bears. Past conservation efforts were too earnest, he said. Now, messaging has moved beyond the plight of the animals themselves to include the overarching issues and the human action working behind the scenes to affect change, a shift pioneered by films like The Cove and Blackfish.
“What’s really changed in the last few years is that a few filmmakers have spotted that you can tackle conservation issues head on and, in their heart, is human drama — the struggle for resources, corruption, excitement. They’re starting to find that in conservation films, or films with conservation as their subject matter, you can reach an audience far, far outside [traditional natural history audiences].”
In reaching new audiences, those filmmakers tap into viewers emotions, seeking to harness feelings of outrage around issues that demand urgency. They’re action oriented, created by passionate action-seeking filmmakers to whom the issues involved are anathema. Ultimately,affecting change is all about the ability to reach the widest audience possible, while inspiring with storytelling and then empowering viewers by showing them that, through human action, change is possible. And the approach is evolving further.
Austria-based prodco Terra Mater’s The Ivory Game, which had its European premiere at Wildscreen on Oct. 9, is the latest conservation film to typify this, both through a novel hybrid storytelling tack, which it employs to great effect, and partnering with Netflix for global distribution versus a theatrical release.
“Netflix, with 83 million subscribers and rising, has this ability to go into 190 countries, on a single day, and then you’re there 24-7. Anyone can watch it at anytime, so it was also a very strategic and great decision for the cause to put this out on Netflix and reach as many people as we could immediately.” — Richard Ladkani, co-director, The Ivory Game
The film focuses on the much-maligned and illegal ivory trade and the impact it’s had on the shrinking population of African elephants.
To tell the film’s story Terra Mater used spy and James Bond-ish storytelling tropes, borrowing techniques from dramatic scripted storytelling. The film, for example, starts out urgently as a central character, Elisifa Ngowi, a secret service consultant in charge of the fight against poachers in Tanzania, and his team of armed-to-the-teeth police frantically hunt for one of the film’s main villains, the vile ivory poacher known as Shetani, one of East Africa’s most-wanted elephant killers. In a tiny Tanzanian village, the police go door-to-door in the dead of night. The film then proceeds to jump around the globe following the activists and investigators as they risk their lives to infiltrate illegal ivory smuggling rings, the people on the ground who are prepared to take bullets in order to take the fight to the poachers, and the politicos working behind the scenes to affect change by affecting policy, all in a frantic effort to save the elephants.
Terra Mater CEO and The Ivory Game executive producer Walter Koehler, who sat on the “C Word” panel, talked about how the hybrid storytelling approach was a purposeful effort to present the story in the most engaging way possible and take the issue of ivory poaching to viewers beyond the traditional natural history audience.
“It was quite clear from the start that the best way of telling the story was how it’s a big crime story,” said Koehler. “I have to educate the audience who have absolutely no idea about what is going on [regarding the ivory trade].”
But these days, thankfully, efforts to reach an otherwise oblivious audience don’t have to stop with storytelling.
Terra Mater turned to a digital distribution partner in Netflix as another means of building immediate awareness around the issue; it’s slated to debut as a Netflix Original on the SVOD platform on Nov. 4. As one of the film’s co-directors, Richard Ladkani, pointed out during the film’s Oct. 9 screening at Wildscreen, Netflix provided the filmmakers the opportunity to generate awareness and reach audiences in a way that wouldn’t have otherwise been possible through a theatrical release.
“We wanted to get this film out to as many millions of people as soon as possible,” said Ladkani. “A theatrical release, which was the original plan when we started, would have delayed this for another six to eight months before it actually went to the screen and then television. Netflix, with 83 million subscribers and rising, has this ability to go into 190 countries, on a single day, and then you’re there 24-7. Anyone can watch it at anytime, so it was also a very strategic and great decision for the cause to put this out on Netflix and reach as many people as we could immediately.”
Netflix is not the only digital avenue the filmmakers will explore to spread the word. Once the film launches, Koehler said Terra Mater, along with partner Vulcan Productions and parent company Red Bull, will also be leveraging digital and social platforms to mobilize people to put a stop to the ivory trade. Terra Mater has also set a goal at the outset of production to bring pressure on China to set a firm date for outlawing the illegal trade in the country.
“We created a big website to steer the interest of the people,” said Koehler. “[After seeing the film] people will want to then say ‘What can I do? You told me we’re not helpless, so what can we do?’ And, there, social media really comes along.”