Increasingly, the foundation community is asking the question, how can we have more impact with film? Quite often they are focused only on social media, and the implications are twofold: first, that past efforts to have impact through film have not succeeded, and second, that impact means more than eyeballs – in other words, that audience size isn’t enough and that some larger change also must take place. Let us realize from the outset that the first assumption is completely false. The second assumption puts forth a proposition destined for failure, and one that is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the relation of media to culture, the civic sphere and social change. That said, as many filmmakers and media organizations rely on foundation support, we must address this concern now, for although grounded in many false assumptions, the premise is ultimately true.
The independent media arts have had enormous social, cultural and political impact – but this story has been overlooked because it is one of baby steps and aggregate sums. The independent media movement started because individual artistic and socially important voices were absent from the media sphere. Today, independent media is ubiquitous and one could argue that it is one of the greatest success stories of arts and culture. We now have thousands of film festivals across the
Independent content has generated numerous television broadcast channels, led to syndicated television shows, and become a profitable sector for businesses who disseminate the work. The themes of the content are no longer just a niche industry –
It is also interesting to look at the impact of
I am being hard on this film – it has had an affect, but only as part of a cumulative process. Many such movies, coupled together, have subtle effects on our culture. The world knows about this additive effect, which is why many foreign countries try to limit the amount of
Still, what do we mean by having an impact? We need to disambiguate the term. What does impact mean? Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911 has had enormous social impact – millions saw the film. To this day, millions of people subscribe to Moore’s website and consequently become politically active in certain causes; millions of liberal, democratic voters watched the film and became even more cynical; democrats thought the hype around the film meant they were ensured of a backlash against Bush; millions of conservative voters voted for Bush because of the film. A variety of impacts. Likewise, MoveOn.org used to have a map on their website of what cities held house-parties for Robert Greenwald’s Uncovered: The Truth About the War in Iraq. It was supposed to show how far their reach was; unfortunately it coincided perfectly with the map of who voted with Kerry – their impact was on the “already converted.”
Something is working (baby steps, remember) because one of the more interesting changes – which should signal to the progressive community that something is working - is that those on the Right are copying the media movement of the Left and trying to finance, distribute and make social impact through media. You can see this in film festivals that launched this year devoted to conservative ideologies, and in Philip Anschutz’s company Walden Media, which makes media with “family values.” If the Right is copying the Left, why are progressive foundations convinced that the sky is falling? Perhaps because they feel the impact has not been big enough, or that it could be better. And here, they are correct. But, the problem has not been a lack of good ideas for having impact though media. Rather, it has been a refusal of the progressive community to fund, support and build new systems where it matters most – the dissemination of important media.
The Beginnings of Some Solutions
One can’t discount the power of knowledge. Audience – not just numbers of people but type of audience – is extremely important. Madison Avenue knows that to get someone to respond to a message, it must be ubiquitous – it must be everywhere and it must be repeated multiple times, for you may not be convinced to buy Crest Whitening Strips until the fiftieth time you’ve seen the ad. Advertisers also know that you must get to what are called trend-setters: that small group whose adoption of a clothing, product or lifestyle – or their political power to give a business an advantage – are a further key to mass impact. Translation: the number and types of eyeballs that see a film matter immensely.
Marketers know something further, and they are ruthlessly good at this – they know how to find out what the customer wants and what the customer doesn’t know they want but can be persuaded to desire. There is an old saying in the marketing world that a customer never desires a ¼-inch drill bit, they want a ¼-inch hole, and the drill bit is the tool that gets them what they want. Home Depot profits not because it markets drill bits, but because it offers tools to fit your needs. No one necessarily needs a tooth whitening strip – but they do want acceptance, a perception of beauty and ultimately love. Marketers know this, so they created a product that would fill these needs. Filmmakers then, should focus on what the audience wants; or, be willing to use the knowledge of what they want to make them think they want what you’ve got. Translation: The audience matters, and filmmakers need to start giving them the tools they need to get what they desire – which can also be of social import.
Last, marketers have discovered that customers want what they want when and where they want it, period. This “get it when/where I want it” attitude translates to pre-made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, drinkable and unspillable soups for the car, and myriad other products. Coupled with digital technology, this attitude is responsible for the spread of the iPod (one of the clunkiest interfaces ever, but a quick way to get to the song you want), TiVo (watch your show when you want it); and Slingbox (watch your media from your computer anywhere). Translation: There is no question that release windows will shrink, and possibly disappear, and filmmakers (and distributors) should be welcoming the change as it means more audience and more impact.
Independent media has, with few exceptions, ignored the lessons that Madison Avenue and