At Good Pitch Chicago last month I bumped into a filmmaker who I met briefly some years ago. When he recognized that he knew me he said, “Oh! I’m going to be in NY sometime in the next several weeks and we should get together. I want to talk to you more about this impact producers movement.”
“Movement,” I nervously thought to myself, “there’s an impact producers movement?”
Some of you may be wondering this same thing. You may have noticed that the term seems to be bubbling up in more spaces and places in the documentary film community. But what does it mean and where did it come from?
For the answer you should probably look to a major trend in the field over the last decade. We all know that most documentaries are largely funded by foundations. We also know that foundations are focused like a laser beam on impact. What it is, how you create it and how you measure it.
Good or bad this emphasis has put pressure on filmmakers to create full-blown social change campaigns for their documentaries. And right or wrong filmmakers have been deemed responsible for this work. Some like Patrice O’Neill, Pamela Yates and Paco de Onis, or Lee Hirsch take to it like a duck to water. A great many opt to outsource their campaigns to firms like Active Voice, Working Films, Purpose or Participant Media. Others just want to tell a great story and move on to their next film, thank you very much. (God bless you filmmakers. Tell your truth!)
However, the perceived demand for this campaign work has become great enough that the market produced another option: the independent service provider. Or what some of us are now calling an impact producer.
Credit where credit is due: the brilliant women at the BritDoc Foundation coined the term. One year ago I was honored to take part in their Impact Producers retreat at Osea Island in the UK. The retreat was a revelation. Over the course of four days the BritDoc team described a good chunk of the work I do, and my role on film and media campaigns. But it is a role that is still largely misunderstood by so many in the field because of its relative newness. Frankly, it was gratifying to have myself reflected back to me. It meant someone, and in fact a really important someone in the industry, actually got it.
BritDoc will release a free online course based upon the material presented at Osea Island. The course is designed to help individuals produce campaigns for documentary films. Though the final version is in development and may differ from what was presented last year, the responsibilities of an impact producer were described at the retreat as this: strategic leadership, financial management, partnership management and evaluation. What falls under these broad categories may be up for debate. However, discussions at the retreat identified the following tasks:
I’m grateful to BritDoc for laying out what seems to be the first accurate description of the high-level commitment required to produce social impact film campaigns. Essentially, an impact producer is an executive director of a lean impact type start-up. This is NOT your mother’s outreach coordinator.
What is implicit in this list of responsibilities is a key part of what Borderline Media does and what all impact producers must do, first and foremost, to be successful: research and analysis. This includes stakeholder analysis, market research, a review of all sociological and behavioral studies on the subject matter, research into the history of the social movement(s) related to the subject matter, and a review of public opinion data, both historical and contemporary, on the subject matter. It’s like taking a 15-week, masters level course in your final year of graduate school. And it must be done before you can define campaign goals, write grant proposals, recruit advisory board members or anything else.
Why is this important, initial step not more clearly articulated in any of the white papers or studies about documentary film campaigns? I suspect the assumption across the industry is that this work is, by definition, conducted by the filmmaker during production. After all, we’re talking about documentaries here, right? This isn’t just storytelling; it’s journalism. Facts. Context. But the creative process of documentary filmmaking is different from the creative process of strategic campaign design. The research and analysis at production is right for the film’s narrative, but likely not rigorous enough to mount a successful social change campaign.
This begs the question. What are some ways impact producers approach their work differently? Some examples:
Are there different schools of thought among stakeholders working on the issue your campaign addresses, and if so what are they? For example, if you are designing a campaign for a film about deaf students, do you understand the difference between Deaf and deaf? The film itself may tell the compelling personal story of a deaf student, and do a great job at it. Yet, a campaign advancing legislation for deaf people must pay attention to the nuances between these two terms or risk not being a credible resource for movement leaders in the Deaf community.
Who are your core and secondary audiences for your campaign? Does race and ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class or political affiliation play a role in this? (Hint: yes) Even if your film’s subject is not traditionally considered a black or Latino or feminist or gay rights issue, all these things matter. A lot. Social issues affect everybody. White people care about the criminal justice system. Black people care about gay rights. And so on. The trick is understanding how and why people connect to the issues. Old school identity politics can make compelling topics for films. However, change and innovation become possible when we acknowledge the full complexity of individual human experience.
Finally, and most important, where does the film fall at the particular historical moment? Is it introducing relatively new ideas into the public consciousness like Gasland did for fracking? Is it offering up a new perspective on an issue with which the public is familiar, but perhaps un(mis)informed, like Gideon’s Army did for public defense? Perhaps there is widespread public awareness, but significant division over an issue, and the film aims to humanize much like Who is Dayani Cristal? does on immigration. Or maybe the film comes at a tipping point after decades of organizing work by grassroots advocates, like The Invisible War with sexual assault in the US military.
Each of these scenarios requires a different type of campaign. Only by understanding how the film fits within the larger scheme of things can you even begin to understand the potential impact your campaign can have. Or the methods or metrics needed to track that impact. The job of an impact producer is one part sociologist, one part behavioral psychologist, one part historian, one part activist, one part publicist, one part fundraiser, one part program evaluator, etc. Clearly, no one person can encompass all these skills, but a great impact producer knows how to put together and lead a team that does.
And, no, your office intern can’t do this.
Jennifer MacArthur is the founder and principal of Borderline Media and the co-founder of the Impact Producers Group. She lives and works in Brooklyn USA.BritDoc Gasland Gideon's Army Good Pitch impact Impact Producer The Invisible War Who is Dayani Cristal?