Sunday, March 14, 2010

Re-thinking impact in film

I recently attended a think-tank, strategy session for an independent documentary filmmaker trying to have meaningful impact with his film. He did a smart thing - gathering about 30 really smart people (plus me, somehow) to talk about having an impact with film. This got me thinking about this question generally, and while this filmmaker was coming from the right place on this, I generally have a problem with this whole question. I have been thinking about this sense, and it led me back to a post I made on this blog in 2006. There might be one or two of you who read me now, but I figured most of my readers are new (the rest having left from all these long posts), and I think this post is still pretty relevant.  Plus, I've been busy this month and posting less, so this gives me something new/old. So, with some minor revisions, here’s some thoughts on the whole question of having an impact with film.

Increasingly, the foundation community and other funders of film are 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 support from those obsessed with impact, 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 US, independent film has become so big that it is now referred to as “indiewood” (and while this is changing today in 2010, it’s still relevant) and subjects that were once the purview of independent artistic voices are now mainstream. Aesthetic practices of the avant garde are so successful that advertising, Hollywood and even commercial news broadcasts mimic their techniques (albeit for different ends). Advances in technology and media literacy (or at least usage) have spawned an entire “amateur” culture of user-generated content that threatens business models. Training in media, once the purview of small, independent media arts centers, has resulted in films schools having more difficult entrance ratios than Harvard Medical School, and an entire for-profit cottage industry of training exists, with thousands of potential filmmakers spawned each year. The most popular traded files on the internet are now video files, and a large percentage are not Hollywood media.

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 – Hollywood is spending millions to duplicate themes that they used to never touch, and are seeing profitable results. And the world has changed as a result – innocent prisoners have been freed, films on global trade practices have changed global policy, election strategies have shifted in response to political films, entire social and political movements (MoveOn and house parties) have come about because of film marketing ideas. Independent films are helping to encourage society to ask key questions on the death penalty, the health care crisis, employment practices – the list is endless. Further, they lead us to question fundamental aspects of copyright law, licensing issues and net neutrality – all of which are essentially questions of control of content – but most importantly, the questions are being pushed most vigorously by the need for access to visual content.

It is also interesting to look at the impact of Hollywood movies. Billions are spent advertising these films, and their impact on culture is huge – financially, in the cult of celebrity worship and in how they shape our very goals as a society. But if one steps back for a moment, it is easy to see that their impact has also been incremental. For example, it has taken years of small steps to finally make a movie, Brokeback Mountain, that can show two lead gay characters and make money – but it still couldn’t win the Best Picture Academy Award ™. Politically, very few Hollywood films have individually made progressive, or other, social change. Good Night and Good Luck, a film on Edward Murrow and Senator Joseph McCarthy, should have sparked a timely national debate on the role of the press in exposing political inequality. There couldn’t be a better moment for this film to have an impact – our country is plagued with real, national events to spark a political movement for reform. The film was financed by Participant, Jeff Skoll’s company, with an explicit aim to make political change. The film has huge movie stars, deep pockets behind it, and indeed it made money, many people saw it, and the stars were on the cover of many a magazine and guests on many a show. Yet its net impact on policy, by any estimation, has to be considered nil. Nothing. We’ve heard Oscar speeches and press-recognition to the contrary, but beyond spawning a great Frank Rich article in the New York Times, no real change has come about (note: this paragraph is obviously dated to 2006, but I think the point remains relevant).

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 Hollywood films that can show in their country – such as through the French “foreign exception” or outright censorship and bans. Indeed, the MPAA was formed to ensure two things: first, that Hollywood business continued to make money without outside threats, and second, that American values were spread like wildfire around the globe. It is also why Hollywood movies shy from tough subjects or trying to effect change – they can have a far greater effect through subtlety while also filling their cash registers.

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, 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 (note, now in 2010, we also see them emulating the left’s political and movement building strategies). 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. Hollywood does this already. Independent films should start doing it more.

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 Hollywood have mastered. As mentioned above, independent media has been successful at times, and amazingly so considering its failure to utilize these tools, but overall its greater “impact” has been small. New technologies, new business models, rethinking and application of time-tested methods – all of these are needed to increase the impact of independent film.

Addendum - If you’ve even made it this far - we can see that release windows have definitely shrunk and we do have some new examples (like The Age of Stupid) to discuss when it comes to impact, but I’d argue that we still need to focus more on empowering the audience to affect change. Which I’ve been writing about a lot lately, and I’ll add more thoughts soon.


MTeplitsky said...

Brian, I made it to the end -- you can say your post made an impact, and back it up with this quantifiable comment!

As usual, wise post. I actually come from that Madison Ave/marketing background (oh my, used to SELL numbers at Arbitron) so can relate. Perhaps to discuss at The Conversation.

Brad said...

I think we sometimes misframe impact. To me, the screening and distribution is only a small sliver of impact. It's a platform to promote highly organized engagement on a community level that can go on for years, even decades (Trembling Before God). I think it always comes down to this: identify clear goals (ie, for Almost Home we want people not thinking about aging and caregiving to take an affirmative step to better plan for the day when those issues will be pressing); join with partners who can help you realize those goals; seek funding for the engagement, and: be able to measure the achievement of the goals. I think that Greenwald is a great example of a non-impact, preaching to the converted, unless you calculate how much he may have converted sentiment to action. And I think film fests are a very insular crowd that don't really produce much impact. It's just filmmakers, indie film lovers and the press that serves them. So...there you go. A few cents from me.