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Films Are Films: Measuring the Social Impact of Documentary Films

July 23, 2014

Movie-filmEarlier this year, the firm 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 festival in 2014. True/False is well-regarded 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 ambitions they had to capitalize on that potential, and their views with respect to measuring the social impact of their films. While True/False isn't specifically a social change film festival, 72 percent of the filmmakers who responded to the survey believed 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 the efforts of Participant Media, the film and television production company started by Jeff Skoll, to establish an index that would enable it – and others who invest in social change films – to determine which films "spur activism" and which do not. Based on my reading of the article, the Participant Index measures the ability of a film to inspire "emotional involvement" and "provoke action." So, while a film may generate an intense emotional response, if it does not also lead people who have seen it to take action, it would receive a lower score and, perhaps, not be as well received by potential funders interested in that particular issue.

It shouldn't come as a surprise that the filmmakers we surveyed expressed concern about anyone measuring the social impact of their films; indeed, two-thirds (66 percent) said they opposed the idea of using metrics to gauge the impact of their films. While I believe strongly in the value of measurement and metrics, I share some of their concerns. If, for instance, filmmakers and funders begin to weigh the "effectiveness" of films solely in terms of the actions taken in the short term by the audiences for those films, it could lead to the bankrolling of more didactic narratives about issues that lend themselves to relatively straightforward solutions. And that would be a blow to good storytelling.

My other concern is that the return-on-investment path down which many foundations and other funders of social change are headed – while paved with good intentions – will eventually lead to 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 they had no plans to do outreach to increase the social impact of their films. What were their reasons? More than four out of ten (42 percent) said they didn't have the time or the budget to do such outreach, while 15 percent said they didn't know where to begin.

Again, not a surprise. A few years ago, during a panel at True/False dedicated to social change films, I heard Steve James, the award-winning filmmaker of Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters, and the newly released Life Itself, about the late film critic Roger Ebert, tell those in attendance that, despite the social issues addressed in many of his films, he was a filmmaker, not an advocate, and that he felt strongly that he should leave it to those who know how to make change to decide how best to use his films to do that.

I agree with James. (More) foundations should invest (more) in outreach strategies for the films they invest in in order to better take advantage of the emotional impact a good film so often has. And while filmmakers may be involved in the development of these strategies, it should be advocates with knowledge of a particular issue – including foundations' current grant recipients, when appropriate – who design those outreach strategies. Last but not least, I believe we should measure the impact of THOSE investments, using metrics that assess REAL outcomes.

Yes, let's measure the emotional impact that films create: the anger, sadness, sense of injustice, and/or empathy and admiration for those who are suffering or those who are working against the odds to create change. At the same time, let's not dismiss films that do not, on their own, provoke immediate outrage or action as being somehow less important to social change work. Think of the stories that have introduced you to new ideas, new worlds, and new people. Think of the films that have challenged your deeply held beliefs. They are no less valuable in the grand scheme of things just because they didn't cause you to sign a petition or join a protest.

"Films are films," wrote one filmmaker in response to our survey. "If they deliver a visually interesting experience, spark conversation, and inspire people to engage in new ideas, they should be considered a success. 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."

That's something for which we should all be grateful.

Alison Byrne Fields is president and founder of Aggregate, a creative strategy group that works with nonprofit organizations, foundations, authors, and filmmakers to bring people and resources together to create social and policy change. This is her second post for PhilanTopic.

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