Realscreen’s Trailblazers: Impact Partners on balancing artistic vision and bottom lines

Last year proved to be a rollercoaster ride in many ways, and the non-fiction/unscripted content industry has certainly experienced its share of peaks and valleys over the last 12 months. ...
January 24, 2018

Last year proved to be a rollercoaster ride in many ways, and the non-fiction/unscripted content industry has certainly experienced its share of peaks and valleys over the last 12 months. With Trailblazers, realscreen salutes those behind some of the high points, profiling individuals and companies that — through innovative and brave approaches to their work — have been behind some of the more inspiring projects to emerge in 2017.

We continue our look at 2017′s Trailblazers with a profile of Impact Partners below. Profiles of our other Trailblazers are rolling out throughout the week.

Historically, documentaries have been perceived to be of great societal importance, though the rising tide of the “golden age of documentary” has not quite been capable of lifting all boats to commercial success. Thus, it’s often difficult for filmmakers to dig up enough financing for their projects.

Enter Impact Partners. In the 11 years since its launch, the investment firm, led by co-founders Dan Cogan and Geralyn Dreyfous, has altered the documentary landscape through dedicated support offered to storytellers addressing pressing social issues while propelling the art of cinema forward.

Through Impact’s model, filmmakers and investors work in tandem to “achieve mutually beneficial goals of telling powerful stories” while “raising awareness about critical issues facing our world today,” according to the company.

Led by executive director Cogan, the New York-based film fund provides backing to projects in various stages of production and post-production, financing 10 to 12 films per year with an average of US$30,000 to $700,000 per film.

Beyond investment, the firm becomes advisors to individual filmmakers and advocates for the films, providing creative mentorship and avenues to new technologies, non-profits and external networks. In the process, the doc financier has created a robust marketplace for standout storytellers to obtain funding in order to further ignite social change through impressive outreach and engagement campaigns.

Perennially a supporter of front-running documentaries, the company has had a hand in 2018 Academy Award shortlisted documentaries including Jennifer Brea’s Sundance-awarded, autobiographical Unrest and Bryan Fogel’s athletics doping investigation Icarus. The company has also played a part in Myles Kane and Josh Koury’s Voyeur, featuring Gay Talese; Dan Sickles and Antonio Santini’s acclaimed vérité love story Dina; Hope Litoff’s personal essay 32 Pills: My Sister’s Suicide; and Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau’s Trophy, which takes an in-depth look at big-game hunting, breeding and wildlife conservation.

Projects on tap for Impact Partners include Morgan Neville’s forthcoming Fred Rogers profile Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and an untitled documentary set to expose systemic abuse and harassment in the entertainment industry from Oscar-nominated and Emmy-winning directors Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering.

How do you find a balance between the vision and the integrity of the filmmakers and the bottom line for the investors?

We see seven to eight hundred projects a year and we get involved in only about 10 to 12 of them. That tension between doing something that stands alone as a great piece of cinema and also doing something that makes sense from a commercial perspective is a balancing act that we try to find in each of those films. Budget isn’t particularly important.

We’ve done films as inexpensively as US$200,000 and as expensively as $2 million. The issue is: does the budget make sense given the place that film can have in the market?

Why have docs become such an important form of media now?

The last 15 years have seen both the rise of documentary film and the decline of traditional newspaper reporting. I don’t there’s an accident there. Whether it’s Laura Poitras doing the Edward Snowden story in [Citizenfour] or Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering exposing sexual assaults in both the military in Invisible War or colleges around the country in The Hunting Ground — 15 years ago you would have expected those to be in-depth investigative pieces in major newspapers, and now they’re documentary films. I think there’s a reason for that. Newspapers have contracted what they’re able to do and documentary filmmakers are able to tell stories that reach a massive audience and then expose them to the human, emotional and dramatic situations that these stories find themselves in.

These films help punch through in a culture that has much too much information because they have powerful human drama at the center of them, as well as being deeply reported, thoughtful investigative pieces.

What do you see as the prime challenges facing the doc industry in the year ahead?

As the marketplace has matured in the last few years we’ve seen prices for documentary content go up. What you’re going to see is more financiers entering the space thinking that it’s profitable and you’re going to see more filmmakers with budgets that are huge and unsustainable.

I do worry that investors and filmmakers will start putting too much money and too big budgets into a space and that many of them will get burned and that will, in the long run, lead to less money coming into the space.

  • Our “Trailblazers” feature first appeared in the January/February 2018 issue of realscreen magazine, which is out now. Not a subscriber? Click here for more information.
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