Special report: Making movies that make an impact

Realscreen talks to filmmakers, distributors and programming execs behind issue-driven docs about the evolving relationship between filmmaking and outreach.
June 11, 2015

Issue-driven documentaries have the ability to affect social change, but that potential is magnified by a successful and smart social impact campaign. Realscreen talks to filmmakers, distributors and programming execs about the evolving relationship between filmmaking and outreach.

During a panel on impact investing at this year’s Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, funders and strategists tackled how a film’s potential to instigate social change is being considered much earlier in the process.

What kind of doc is best suited to a social impact campaign and when should filmmakers start thinking about creating one? That depends on who you ask.

“If you feel the film is going to make you want to slit your wrists because it’s too damn depressing, that’s not going to work,” said Steve Cohen, co-founder of impact media non-profit, Chicago Media Project, and a member of Impact Partners, during the panel. “If the film can show a way in – even if it’s a relatively small way in – that is going to work because we can see a way that the film is going to propel the larger issue.”

Producers, distributors and funders of documentaries are finding that affecting social change and making money do not have to be mutually exclusive goals. Increasingly, investors are eyeing issue-driven documentaries that are both entertaining and actionable. Thinking about impact early can pay off when a documentary is finished because NGOs and foundations that bought in can then help with petitions, screenings for activists and organizations, educational components and lobbying.

Last year, Participant Media and eBay founder Jeff Skoll teamed up with the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television to launch the Skoll Center for Social Impact Entertainment with a US$10 million gift. In the U.S. Midwest, Cohen’s Chicago Media Project helps connect third-party organizations with content creators interested in similar causes, and in 2011 the Ford Foundation pledged $50 million toward social-issue documentaries.

On the network side, cable nets such as Discovery are once again scheduling docs; Participant launched Pivot, a socially-conscious cable channel aimed at millennials; and CNN has upped its investment in docs and scored a break-out hit with Blackfish, a doc that triggered a wave of negative press, and class-action lawsuits accusing SeaWorld of animal cruelty.

Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Paul Allen’s Vulcan Productions is teaming up with Discovery Communications and social impact firm Picture Motion to craft a social campaign around Discovery’s global broadcast of Racing Extinction this fall. And on the distribution side, 20 Feet From Stardom and Citizenfour distributor Radius-TWC has hired an in-house social campaign director, Dan O’Meara.


According to BritDoc’s Impact Field Guide and Toolkit, the top two problems filmmakers have are, not surprisingly, lack of funding and finding time to raise money. The trick is finding the funders who not only believe in a film’s issue, but its narrative approach.

At the Hot Docs panel, Cohen said Impact Partners invests in 15 to 20 documentaries each year on an equity basis. Criteria includes subject matter, the film’s narrative style and whether it could have a social return. “If it’s simply a polemic type of film we’re going to pass on that,” he said.

BritDoc and Sundance surveyed 200 doc-makers and found conflicted attitudes around the filmmaker’s role in social change campaigns: 79% agreed “filmmakers are benefiting from the growth in outreach campaigns” but 76% also agreed that “filmmakers are increasingly being pressured into becoming campaigners as well.”

The majority – 55% – felt that art and story should come first and “social change agendas get in the way and can undermine a work’s integrity.” (29% disagreed and 16% neither agreed nor disagreed.)

Filmmaker Kirby Dick’s last five films have been social issue docs, including The Invisible War, which helped put the issue of sexual assault in the military on the public and political radar. Although he is aware of a film’s potential to affect change, his primary goal is to make a powerful film.

“I find people who invest also want the film to be a really good film,” he says.

how to dance in ohio

HBO’s How To Dance In Ohio

“There’s something very artful about undertaking challenging investigative journalism and I think audiences sense that. The revelations that come in response to ground-breaking journalism add to the cinematic experience.”

Dick and producer Amy Ziering are in the midst of a social campaign for The Hunting Ground, a doc investigating institutional cover-ups of sexual assaults on U.S. college and university campuses. It opened in cinemas in February.

In tandem with the theatrical release, distributor Radius-TWC undertook 450 screenings on post-secondary campuses to get school presidents and administrators to see it and hopefully meet with activists and sexual assault survivors. During one week in April, there were 20 campus screenings per day.

Dick credits Radius-TWC with orchestrating the strategy, which is unusual for a first-run theatrical release.

“Partially they are committed to the issue and partially they see it as, in the long run, financially beneficial,” he says. “We’ve seen that with The Invisible War – once a film engages the public on this level, it can have a long life on Netflix and other ancillaries.”

Radius-TWC has run social impact campaigns for six of 10 documentaries it has released, beginning with Jacob Kornbluth’s 2013 film about income inequality, Inequality For All. The distributor spent between US$125,000 to $175,000 on a social impact campaign, which broke even, says co-president Tom Quinn , thanks to $1.2 million in tickets sold.

His company will pay seven figures to acquire a feature doc and commit more “bandwidth” to pushing a social campaign than it would for a star-driven fiction film – as long as it is also entertaining.

“Every filmmaker needs to ask the question, what is it you want to have happen to your movie?” says Quinn. “If the film is solely in service of the issue then don’t sell your film for a million dollars, because if you sell it for a million dollars you’ve put another party in the position of having to recoup on that million-dollar investment.

“There are a lot of movies out there that have an energized base of activists who are willing to come out and support it,” he adds. “We would rather work on a film that can function as both: as a rallying cry for the base, but also something that is informative and can function as a movie.”

Inequality For All met that criteria because it translated economic statistics and data around its issue into understandable terms.

It was also a polemic that posited an argument people could discuss and debate with friends.

“Films that are frankly more nuanced and journalistic and are not on a single issue, they tend to be a little harder to organize a social action campaign around,” says Dan O’Meara, Radius-TWC’s social impact campaign director. “That doesn’t mean that over time it can’t have an impact; it’s just that during the time of the release it’s hard to affect group sales.”

At HBO, the film comes first and the social impact comes second, whether it is a commission or an acquisition. The network airs 25 to 30 docs per year, of which around 20 usually have social impact angles.

Social issues of the day, such as mental health, income inequality, national security and gun violence are top of mind when execs are commissioning.

“I don’t think we are necessarily weighing the filmmaker’s ability to put together a social campaign when we are evaluating a film,” says the premium U.S. cable net’s SVP of documentary programming, Nancy Abraham. “We are evaluating it on the basis of what would make a great documentary film.”

Abraham looks at social impact as an alternative marketing campaign as the network relies more on editorial coverage than paid advertising to drive viewership.

Execs take cues from the filmmaker’s level of interest. Some are too busy, some have moved on to other projects and some arrive with robust social strategies, funding partners and third-party organizations for execs to coordinate with.

“We’re definitely filmmaker-driven,” she says. “It’s not something where we say, ‘Give us the film and we’ll come up with an outreach campaign and tell you what it is later.’ It’s not like that.”


A company with a different approach is Vulcan Productions, which conceives projects with impact as an end goal, and then finds the filmmaker who can best tell the story. The company has been working with director Louie Psihoyos on the campaign for Racing Extinction, which looks at the endangered species trade and the causes of mass extinction.

The director was nearly done shooting when he teamed up with Vulcan during Sundance 2014 to think about how the film could drive impact. They held a work-in-progress preview screening at the Tribeca Film Festival last year to gauge audience reaction.

vulcan productions'  body team 12

Vulcan Productions’ Body Team 12

“It’s very rare that we would come in after a film was made,” says Vulcan vice president Carole Tomko. “We take our philanthropy, our technology, our innovation units and attack a problem from all of those angles.

Then we overlay the content piece to ask how can we emotionally connect with an audience to get them to think about this in a very different way? How do we use storytelling in a different way?”

The company, which also worked on Ebola doc Body Team 12, is driven by a combination of impact and ROI. To measure success Tomko looks at audience awareness, “which is super hard to measure,” as well as third-party polls, TV ratings, adoption across schools, legislative change and whether or not business practices have changed.

The desired endgame for Racing Extinction is legislation around climate change. When a goal is political, Vulcan will begin the process of partnering with grassroots organizations up to a year ahead of when a bill is likely to be brought before the U.S. Congress.

The social impact campaign will last a year after Discovery’s global broadcast this fall, and encompass 10 to 15 initiatives that will utilize Vulcan’s philanthropy group and program specialists on ocean, endangered species and climate change.

Dick estimates that filmmakers can expect participation in social impact activities to tail off up to three years after a premiere, but before an issue takes on a life of its own, the filmmaker is the face.

“I want to take on a film that is so ambitious that there’s a possibility for failure and I cannot see the end at the beginning,” he says. “When you’re dealing with major social issues that have not been covered in film, they are challenging. You have to use all your filmmaking skills to make a successful film.”

  • This story first appeared in the May/June 2015 issue of realscreen magazine, which is out now. Not a subscriber? Click here for more information.
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