Whether you’re crafting a documentary, a non-fiction drama, or a fictional narrative feature, the potential to change the world is one of the most important driving forces behind any moviemaking. From Battleship Potemkin (1925) to Gandhi (1982), An Inconvenient Truth (2006) to Taxi to the Dark Side (2007), moviemaking activism can center on a wide range of catalysts for social change.

Today, with the democratization of moviemaking technology and distribution, and the ubiquity of social media, the possibilities for social activism—environmental, social, economical, or political—are greater than ever.

In 2003, shortly after graduating from film school at USC, Jason Russell, Bobby Bailey, and Laren Poole ventured off to Africa to document the Darfur conflict in Sudan. But they never got there. Instead, they wound up in northern Uganda and discovered an entirely different kind of tragedy: Namely, thousands of Ugandan children fleeing their homes every day to avoid abduction by Joseph Kony’s militia, known as the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).

The harrowing and heartbreaking stories they captured on film and assembled into a documentary became Invisible Children: The Rough Cut (2006). Using a grassroots social action campaign, the filmmakers began hosting screenings at high schools and college dorms across the country, engaged human rights organizations and religious groups, and even took the film to Capitol Hill.

In less than a year, their activist efforts led to the establishment of a non-profit organization, Invisible Children, dedicated to ending the proliferation of child soldiers, and restoring peace and prosperity to Uganda. Since its inception, the social campaign surrounding Invisible Children has become one of the largest of all time, with over 3.7 million advocates and over 123 million video views, including the recent follow-up online documentary, “Kony 2012,” which attracted vocal support from Oprah Winfrey, Angelina Jolie, and Ben Affleck.

Invisible Children is larger than any of the other films I’ve worked on since that time that have had massive distribution and marketing budgets (Food Inc., Waiting for Superman, Good Night, and Good Luck), says Carolyn Sams, former Communications Director for Invisible Children and current Director of Creative Services at GOOD.
In fact, Invisible Children has become the benchmark for all social action films in Hollywood today—a template that now involves the necessity of creating a social action plan.

Says Sams, “A social action plan is an innovative way to live on in the hearts and minds of audiences affected by a film so that over time, you can make real social change in the world.”

As an independent moviemaker trying to make a difference, no doubt you’ve probably thought about partnering with a nonprofit, making a discussion guide, and getting some PSAs out there. But how do you create something bigger and longer lasting that really gets the audiences’ attention?
A successful social action plan has these important characteristics:

Hot Issue

thecoveWhen you’re trying to invoke social change, the most important factor is discovering, and then developing the next hot-button, activism-galvanizing subject. Says Josh Fox, director of Gasland, “The things that address an immediate need in society are the most meaningful for people to come out and support, and that’s a conversation you want to have as an artist and as a human being.”

Once you have that meaningful idea, the ability to craft a social battle plan becomes much easier. In the case of Super Size Me, the great idea centered on the trend of obesity in the United States. The Surgeon General had declared obesity an “epidemic,” and two girls filed a lawsuit against McDonald’s, claiming the popular fast food chain was making them fat and sick. Meanwhile, McDonald’s emphatically denied the claim, saying their food was nutritious.

Even though the lawsuit failed, the criticism of fast food became the core of Super Size Me. Says the film’s director, Morgan Spurlock, “We knew we had something that captured people’s interest. We knew we had an idea that was media-worthy. And once that happened, our social action plan took off. Schools, government, and health organizations were much more willing and excited to talk to us and make things happen. They were pushing for school lunch reform and wanted to use the film as a talking point and a rallying cry for change.”

The key for filmmakers, says Sams, is “Not to get bogged down by all of the points you want to hit in the social action plan. Find a great story and tell a great story, because if you have a great story with a lot of passion and energy around it, you won’t need Hollywood dollars to make a difference.”

Central Goal

Once you have that hot issue, the next step involves the development of one central goal. Do you want to pass an important piece of legislation? Do you want to raise money for a non-profit? Do you want to advance education, enforce animal rights, or change a wrongful conviction?

An Inconvenient Truth (2006) took on global warming, Sicko (2007) promoted universal health care, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (2011) advocated the release of the West Memphis 3, and The Interrupters (2011) aimed to stop senseless violence in Chicago.

With scenes of flaming water faucets, the highly acclaimed documentary, Gasland, focused its sights on banning “fracking,” a controversial practice by the energy industry that releases natural gas and petroleum using pressurized fluid—a practice that director Fox claims is contaminating groundwater and causing health issues—especially in the area around the Delaware River Basin, where a legal battle is heating up between the residents, the gas companies, and the EPA.

Says Fox, “It began as an exercise in doing some investigative reporting so that people in the area had a sense of the other side of the story, i.e. what the gas industry was not telling them.” But the main goal was much loftier. “Even if we were to unequivocally ban fracking in the river basin or in New York State or in one or another region [we aren’t done]. It has to be stopped all over the planet.”

Time Table

Change doesn’t happen overnight. And unlike a typical marketing plan for a motion picture, which focuses around release dates and may only last three to six months, a social action campaign runs a lot longer—years, in fact, depending on the ambition of the central goal.

As a moviemaker, social action plans begin at inception and run all the way through a film’s release and beyond, remaining in the public’s consciousness for years. Super Size Me is the perfect example. The film was released in 2004, yet continues to be used in educational institutions all around the world.

Says Spurlock, “One of the greatest things we did [post-release] was to create an educational version of the film. The film was PG-13 and we re-edited and created lesson plans around it. As a result, not a week goes by that I don’t encounter a teacher in the United States who uses the film in the classroom as part of their core curriculum, whether it’s for health, social justice, or nutrition.”

Louis Psihoyos, Oscar winning director of The Cove, agrees. “Normally, a film is expected to have a window of a couple of months, but ours is not slowing down. People are discovering it two years after it came out.”

Even better, for social activist moviemakers like Psihoyos, the more films you make, the more impact and exposure your portfolio will have. Invisible Children continues to prove that, having created 10 additional films since its debut, from Go to The Rescue.

“We’ll do another great film [The Singing Planet],” says Psihoyos. “And people will go back and discover The Cove. There will be a third and fourth and fifth wind after we’re done with the next one.”

Activist Building

When it comes to building an audience for an idea or issue, social media has become an invaluable tool. We’ve seen the influence in the Middle East with the Arab Spring, the unwavering support in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the politics of the Presidential Election, and the assembly of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

“In this Facebook world and Twitter universe that we live in,” says Spurlock, “you have the ability to focus your films toward that specific audience, get them excited, get them engaged, and turn them into your greatest advertising and marketing resources.”

Social media has accelerated information exchange and connected filmmakers directly with their audiences. Sites such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and perhaps most significantly, Change.org, connect and empower individuals with detailed information, donation links, petitions, videos, and live chats—all in an effort to promote social causes online.

“The fourth act of Gasland is really after the credits finish and people in the community talk amongst themselves and ask questions,” Says Fox.” And social media tools like Facebook facilitate things more rapidly—petitions, letters to Congress, grassroots organizations, and all the things citizen groups have to do.”

For all its benefits, social media is not always the answer. In fact, one of the keys to sustaining momentum is good ol’ fashioned grassroots campaigning. Conferences, email lists, face-to-face connections, screenings at strategic events, and most importantly, adapting to the particular needs of your issue.

“Every film, every project is different from the last one,” says Spurlock. “They require a different level of attention, each with its own unique audience based on what the story is all about.”

When The Cove opened in Japan, there was a lot of talk about the slaughtering of dolphins. People were writing about it, but nobody had seen the movie. So, the social action team decided to send a copy to everyone in [the town where the film was shot].

“We sent someone with a few suitcases full of copies of the movie,” says Psihoyos. “It was a small act and maybe cost us around $5,000. But it generated tons of international publicity.” Later on, it led to a huge free speech movement in Japan.

Inside the DVD for Invisible Children, the social activists included another DVD and an envelope to pass along to a friend. Adds Sams, “Empowering people to be evangelists for your film is something that people forget to do. And yet, it can be so simple.”

Creating a social action plan around a film is not easy. It requires a thorough understanding of the key issues and activation points, a dedication to a single goal, a realistic time frame for activism and accomplishment, knowledge of social media tools to understand who your evangelists will be and how to reach them, and the ability to think outside the box and evolve along with the project.

Even then, you may not be able to save the world. You may encounter obstacles such as a lack of funding, lack of interest, corporate pressure, politics, or slow response. But if you persevere, you may be able to make a difference—informing, educating, evoking, and entertaining.

Adds Psihoyos, “It’s not about making a movie. It’s about starting a movement. You have about 90 minutes to move the audience emotionally and take them from wherever their center is to somewhere else—out of their seats and into action.”