Beth Portello of social issue film distributor Cinema Libre Studio is no stranger to moviemakers trying to change the world. Along with her husband, independent director Philippe Diaz, Portello is currently crowdfunding on Indiegogo for To End Poverty!, the sequel to the pair’s critically acclaimed 2008 documentary, The End of Poverty? (available to view in its entirety here).

That campaign, which closes January 27, 2015, is raising an ambitious $150,000 to enable a fall 2015 release for To End Poverty! The documentary will present 10 real, actionable “solutions” to eradicate worldwide poverty, from providing necessities like shelter, healthcare and food, to implementing a basic minimum income. “With these solutions,” the campaign page states, “we hope to inspire citizens around the globe to demand that their public officials, corporations, educational institutions and aid organizations work on addressing the root causes of poverty, not just the symptoms, and to be motivated to make change happen.”

But in an age of increasingly multitudinous, fast-paced information exchange, how can social issue moviemakers quantify the impact their films are making beyond the screen? We asked Portello to undergo an extensive investigation for our Spring 2014 issue, where the following article was accompanied by an introduction by Oliver Stone. Think of it as a primer for a new generation of cinematic activists.


You want to change the world. You have a great idea for a documentary that will rip apart shrouds of socio-political injustice, uphold the cold, hard truth of the way the world works, and compel its citizens to stand up, go out and do something about it.

Whether an investigation into institutional malfeasance such as Kirby Dick’s The Invisible War (2012), or an advocacy film such as Josh Fox’s Gasland (2010), social issue films are often credited for the overthrowing of countless social justices. They are the first examples people look to when they think about the power of art to enact change, because unlike so many other aspects of our overtly commercial media culture, they are conceived in compassion, rage, and the truest parts of the human soul. In a nation that teaches us from childhood that loud speech is our duty in the face of injustice, our movie making society operates under this unwavering faith.

Copy of The Invisible War

Kirby Dick’s 2012 The Invisible War, oft cited as an exemplary social issue film for its impact on military sexual assault policy

The alternative is terrifying: that all our effort comes to nothing but a maelstrom of white noise, empty sound and fury, fairy tales of progress we circulate to help us get to sleep at night. But as any filmmaker who’s ever received a heartfelt “thank you” after a screening can testify, it’s not like that. We know that these films have impact, from stronger food safety legislation to new animal and environmental protection laws to the freeing of wrongly convicted prisoners.

Still, not every social issue film can point to results as tangibly gratifying as that. The Academy Award-winning, Hayden Panettiere-featuring, 700,000-Facebook follower-strong, did-everything-right The Cove seemingly made little difference to the two dozen dolphin hunters in Taiji who still nonchalantly go about the carnage that is their change-resistant industry. Yet by other yardsticks the film was a resounding triumph, creating a worldwide furor over dolphin hunting and inspiring still-expanding ripples of impassioned energy. As director Louie Psihoyos told The Wall Street Journal, “One person [Judy Bart] saw this film, became a vegan, and decided to get into film. She financed Blackfish.”

So is there a way for moviemakers—and the organizations that help them—to satisfyingly measure the impact of their work, somewhere between the hazy expansiveness of phrases like “raising awareness” and the minutiae of counting Facebook Likes? And if we can establish at least a tenuous grasp on a social issue film’s effects in the world, can we put together a practical guide to maximizing this impact, with the pooled wisdom of veterans from the trenches of cinematic activism? Here’s to trying.

The Changing Times of Social Issue Films

From the very first American newsreel movies by Pare Lorentz in 1936 to American Documentary’s seminal P.O.V. series that started airing on PBS in the late ’80s, social issue films have long been a mainstay of American culture—and while this article focuses chiefly on the feature-length, nonfiction variety, they come in all shapes and sizes. Even fictional narratives can be considered social issue films, such as Tom McCarthy’s The Visitor, which was at the center of its own engagement campaign (more on those later), about U.S. immigration detention, in 2007.

In this modern century, 2004 is often touted as a banner year for American social issue and political documentaries. Following 9/11, the contested re-election of George W. Bush, and the declaration of war in Iraq, audiences that year saw Fahrenheit 9/11, Super Size Me, The Corporation, Born Into Brothels, The Fog of War, and Control Room.

That same year, I was a co-founding partner of independent production and distribution company, Cinema Libre Studio. We released Robert Greenwald’s Outfoxed on over 200 screens and Uncovered: The War on Iraq on 100. Greenwald’s innovative model of enlisting members to help monitor Rupert Murdoch’s Fox programming, coupled with raising crowd-sourced funds to help with the release, and his innovative web-based house party screening model, brought both films into thousands of homes.

Also founded in 2004 was Jeff Skoll’s Participant Media, which has led the pack in the last decade with a roster of award-winning, big-earning and socially encouraging films, such as An Inconvenient Truth (2006), Darfur Now (2007), Standard Operating Procedure (2008), Food, Inc. (2008), The Cove (2008) and The Square (2013). Participant is known for its double bottom line: entertainment that inspires change.

In the decade since, the social issue documentary genre has continued to flourish. According to Box Office Mojo, documentary releases have nearly tripled in theaters since 2004. Tom White, editor of Documentary Magazine, posits that this spike is due in part to “the Sundance Documentary Film Program, particularly during the tenure of Cara Mertes,” “the development of a robust funding infrastructure” and a deepening level of “innate craft and artistry.”

Bringing a well-crafted film into a broader social campaign to do good is resonating more and more with funders and audiences. At the same time, new options for distribution have also enabled new methods of dissemination and better evaluation of a film’s reach. So how do we know if a film is making a difference?

Impact Evaluation—The Science of Making Change

Awards, audience demographics, social media activity, word-of-mouth feedback, legislation or policy change, rallies and other organized events, media appearances, donations to related charities, ubiquity on class syllabi—what data spells out a film’s role in social change most clearly? This is the question a growing number of experts are trying to answer. “We’re all in this dialogue,” says Shaady Salehi, executive director of Active Voice, one of the key players in shaping the movements around a film. “Policy change is sometimes the easiest thing to point to because there’s a bright line, but it’s difficult to have to hold every film up to that kind of standard, because of the complexity of the way our political process works.”

With the recent proliferation of social issue films, nonprofits have become increasingly involved in funding outreach efforts, which have crystallized into the vernacular as engagement strategies (when a film aligns itself well with an organization’s mission). And you need research numbers to get funding numbers. “Claims about making a difference are no longer sufficient; evidence of how much difference you’re making is now required,” Alnoor Ebrahim wrote in the Harvard Business Review (“Let’s Be Realistic About Measuring Impact,” March 13, 2013).

But as necessary as this evidence is to justify ongoing funding to foundation boards, the metrics of measuring this impact are complex and still in their nascent stages, borrowing methodologies from social scientists. Frustratingly, the process of ‘opening eyes’ is just nigh impossible to quantify. A film I produced called The End of Poverty?, directed by Philippe Diaz, screened at 47 international festivals, had a multi-city U.S. and French theatrical release, and has been seen by over a half-million on YouTube alone. Six years later, we regularly receive messages about the film and requests for educational or grassroots screenings. That is impact. But our goal to spread awareness about the global economic structure was challenging to measure and to develop actionable strategies around.

The communications specialists and grant organizations that bridge the gap between funders and content producers have been working hard to stay abreast. In recent years, the films that have been most clear-sighted in assessing their contributions to social change have been bolstered by outreach plans with multi-tiered engagement strategies funded by media grant-making organizations. These campaigns are often developed and implemented with the strategic assistance of communication specialists such as Active Voice, Outreach Extensions, Working Films, Fenton Communications and Fitzgibbons Media (links available below).

Organizations such as the Center for Social Media, Media Impact Funders, the Fledgling Fund, The Knight Foundation, USC’s Lear Center, Ford Foundation and NAMAC (National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture) are leading efforts to both quantify and qualify the long-term societal impact of social issue films. Production companies are jumping into the fray, too, with Participant Media’s soon-to-be-unveiled The Participant Index (TPI), which will study almost 100 titles in collaboration with the Lear Center. Thus far, one of the best-known studies of impact evaluation is the PUMA Impact Award, in partnership with UK broadcaster Channel 4’s BRITDOC. This award endeavors to annually recognize social issue documentaries that can provide evidence of impact across such arenas as public awareness, capacity building, and corporate, political or behavioral change.

The Fledgling Fund founder, Diana Barrett, acknowledges the limits to evaluation endeavors: “Even though we have a lot of data through the Internet and social media, we want to make sure that we hold on to the smaller, anecdotal stories because those are powerful. It may not be as easy to capture that in terms of a hard number, but there is a lot of impact that happens in screenings and community events.” As part of their analytical efforts, the Fledgling Fund has developed a “Dimensions of Impact” framework based on analyzing films that made a tangible impact.

Fledgling Impact Diagram

The Fledging Fund posits social change as the end of a chain of actions

For now, the subject remains a new and exciting frontier. “Nobody has a clear answer on it, and it’s being approached in different ways,” says Salehi. “We see the impact of any given film as existing within a greater ecosystem. So there are all these other factors at play.” The good news is that there has been significant thought put into how to design a project from the outset to give it a good shot at making waves. The following critical questions and case studies should serve as a primer.

Best Practices for Maximum Impact

Yes, it should be said—a bigger budget will likely lend itself to bigger impact. It’s something to keep in mind when looking to the documentaries cited as inspirations by almost every movie maker we surveyed: Super Size Me, An Inconvenient Truth, Bully and The Invisible War. Each were boosted by extensive financial and strategic support, from grant organizations like Impact Partners and the Sundance Institute to eventual distributors like The Weinstein Company.

On the subject of funding: The Center for Social Media’s study, “Social Justice Documentary: Designing for Impact,” reports “a shift over the last 15 years from an understanding of documentary films as a source of reliable information on hidden injustices to central nodes embedded in strategic campaigns designed to inform, motivate and engage viewers.” As a result, “organizations have become much savvier, and they want media more specific to their own work,” says Salehi. To obtain funding in today’s climate, then, a movie maker needs to understand what the funders want out of their relationship. (One great resource: Ellen Schneider, the founder of Active Voice and current head of the Active Voice Lab for Story & Strategy (AV Lab), has developed the Prenups, a downloadable guide for media makers and funders to “tie the knot” in the most effective manner.)

Yet besides funding, our subjects suggested other reasons why those paradigmatic films worked as well as they did: a strong grasp of a goal, for example. “In The Invisible War, there’s one culprit and that’s the military,” says Salehi.

“It was a clear understanding of what that issue was, or an effective play on emotions,” says director Sue Wilson about the same movie. “It employed the one thing any documentary must have to truly effect change: it embarrassed the subject of the film into action.”

Hundreds of lesser-known, lesser-funded films have changed laws, saved lives, improved medicine, eradicated harmful environmental practices and more. These results lie at the intersection of smart storytelling, effective partnership and network, and a goal-driven outreach plan. Richard Robbins, director of female education call-to-arms, Girl Rising, says, “A great campaign can accomplish a lot even with a mediocre film. And a great film can accomplish things in the absence of a great campaign. But true impact requires both the film and the campaign be great: strong, well-integrated, and flexible.”

The following recommendations and illustrations were culled from interviews with filmmakers (many from the documentarian community, Doculink) and campaigners (including Fledgling Fund’s Diana Barrett and Sheila Leddy), impact analysis reports like the aforementioned “Designing for Impact” (by Jessica Clark and Barbara Abrash), case studies on high-profile projects, and my own experience in working on over 150 social issue documentaries with Cinema Libre Studio.

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