films are films: measuring the social impact of documentary films

films are films: measuring the social impact of documentary films

Earlier this year, the firm that I founded—Aggregate—partnered with the organizers of the True/False Film Fest to conduct a survey of the filmmakers whose films screened at the Fest in 2014. True/False is a well-regarded documentary film festival, particularly among filmmakers who often talk about how well the festival organizers treat them and the obvious regard the organizers have for the art of storytelling.

The goal of our survey was to understand how these filmmakers felt about their films’ potential contribution to social change, any intentions they had to capitalize on that potential, as well as their views regarding measuring the social impact the films could have. While True/False is not specifically a social change documentary film festival, of those who responded to the survey, 72 percent believed that the film they screened at the 2014 Fest could contribute to social change.

As we were getting ready to share the outcomes of the survey, The New York Times reported on Participant Media’s efforts to establish an index that would enable them—and others who invest in social change films—to determine which films “spur activism” and those, seemingly, which do not. The Participant Index, based on my understanding from the article, measures the ability of a film to inspire “emotional involvement” as well as its ability to “provoke action.” So, while a film may generate an intense emotional response, if it does not also lead the audience to take action, it would generate a lower score and, perhaps, not receive the support of funders that want to invest in action that they believe will lead to social change.

It should not be a surprise to you that the filmmakers we survey expressed concern about measuring the social impact of their films: 66 percent were opposed to using metrics. And, while I believe very strongly in measuring impact, I share some of their concerns. If the “effectiveness” of storytelling is, for example, defined by actions taken by audience members in the short term, this could lead to a bias toward investing in didactic films (“This is how you should feel and this is what you should do.”) about issues with relatively clear paths toward resolution. And that’s not good storytelling.

My concern is that the path being taken by foundations and other funders of social change storytelling to demonstrate a return on investment—while paved with good intentions—has made a wrong turn.

Despite their belief in the potential of their films to contribute to social change, 56 percent of the filmmakers we surveyed indicated that they had no plans to do outreach specifically to increase the social impact of their films. Why? 42 percent said they didn’t have the time or budget to do so and 15 percent said they simply didn’t know how.

This was not a surprise. A few years ago—during a panel at True/False on social change films—I heard Steve James, the award-winning filmmaker of Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters and the newly released Life Itself, tell the crowd that, despite the social issues addressed in many of his films, he was a filmmaker and not an advocate. He felt strongly that he should leave it to those who know how to make change happen to determine how to use his films to do so.

What I believe is that (more) foundations should invest (more) in outreach strategies for documentary films to take (better) advantage of their emotional impact. Filmmakers could be involved in the development of these strategies, but advocates with knowledge of the issues, the influencers and the solutions—including foundations’ current grant recipients—should design them. And I believe we should measure the impact of THOSE investments, using metrics that assess REAL outcomes.

Yes, let’s measure the emotional impact of a film: the anger, the sadness, the sense of injustice, or the empathy or admiration for those who are suffering or who are creating change. But do not let us dismiss films that do not, on their own, provoke immediate action as being less than integral to social change. Think of the stories that have introduced you to new ideas, new worlds and new people. Think of the stories that have challenged your previously held beliefs. They are no less valuable to society because you didn’t sign a petition after viewing them.

There was an intriguing line in the New York Times article about the issues that were most likely to compel Participant audiences to take action. “Stories about animal rights and food production, it turned out, were the most likely to provoke individual action. But tales about economic inequality—not so much.”

In developing social change strategies to mobilize people to take action, one of the most important things to do is to understand where people are in relationship to the issue being addressed. Are they aware of it? Do they care about it? If they do care, do they understand the factors that allow it to persist or which led it to exist in the first place? If they do understand, do they believe that they—as individuals—have the capacity to impact those factors?

Sure, stories about animal rights and food production are more likely to provoke individual action—because people think they, as an individual, can stop going to SeaWorld or can start shopping locally. But ending economic disparities? Most audiences need a little help to believe they alone can do anything to have an impact on what most of us perceive as an intractable problem. Enabling people to understand how they could have a TRULY meaningful impact requires understanding the players and the policies that need to be changed. THIS is the job of the advocate: to take the baton from the filmmaker—who has generated the energy—and to share their knowledge and know how—to direct that energy wisely.

“Films are films,” wrote one filmmaker in response to our survey. “If they are a visually interesting experience, spark conversation and inspire people to engage new ideas, they’re successful. Films should not be reduced to advertisements, no matter how worthy the cause. They need to exist on their own terms. If they’re good, they’ll get people thinking.”

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1 Comment

  • David Martinez July 30, 2014 at 11:18 pm

    i have a lot to say about this, but i will just make a few points. firstly, though, thank you for taking the time to write this and to ask these important questions.

    1. social change takes time. political organizing takes time. besides filmmaking, i have been and continue to be involved in struggles for social justice. and i often hear: we want to know about a film, or a kind of media “that is actually making a change”. as in, we want to see it, right now. where is it? the same can be said of social activism. people ask, yes but was the arab spring a “success”? in the short term, no. but we shall see. and while these are valid questions, i also think they fail to think long term. or a more snarky way to look at it would be that at times it smacks to me of a very american tone that says: where is my cheeseburger? i ordered it ten minutes ago. or: i donated to this film. where are the “results”? i want my money’s worth!!

    by way of example, i have been involved with a group of political prisoners called the angola 3. one of them is now free, one is still in solitary and has been for the last several decades (yes, i said decades), and one of them is dead. there have been several movies made about them, countless articles, essays, radio programs, etc. did any of that help? i think we still don’t know, and yes we grow frustrated, and yet when someone wants to do another media piece, what are we to say? of course, do it.

    2. as regards “social outreach” i completely agree with you. these days filmmakers are expected to be cinematographers, editors, grant writers, sound designers, graphic designers, and PR people. adding to that the need to craft an outreach campaign or movement is asking a lot. i think foundations should help filmmakers partner with social movements and organizers. nothing infuriates me more than when wealthy donors “decide” what the “problem” is and propose a solution, ignoring the folks who are on the ground already working on the same issue. but, says the rich donor, “nothing has changed!” well, things take time. did the civil rights movement in the US end racism, today as we speak? doesn’t look like it. would it have been more effective had it listened to wealthy white people in the 60’s? i doubt it.
    let the organizers do the organizing. let the filmmakers do the filmmaking. and let the funders do the funding. all should work together and listen to each other, and over time, everyone will be the wiser. and maybe, just maybe, we might make some difference in the world. but it ain’t gonna happen overnight. just like in art, if you are involved in social change, you have to be in it for the long haul.


    david martinez

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