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Screen Edge 2017: Producing for Impact

Wendy Levy and James Franklin are longtime friends of Doc Edge, speaking at a number of conferences and mentoring in labs over the years.

Back in the days they first participated in Screen Edge (when the event was still the DOC NZ Summit), Levy was at San Francisco’s Bay Area Video Coalition, Franklin the NZ end of UK-NZ design studio Pixeco. Both have moved on, and while it was clear years ago that both were strategists rather than practitioners, both are now higher up the food chain and putting those strategic skills to good use.

Levy is Executive Director of The Alliance for Media Arts + Culture, and has working relationships with the US’ most significant festivals, including Sundance and Tribeca; Franklin is Creative Director of UK/US-based BritDoc (which is also home to another Doc Edge alumnus, American filmmaker Sandi Dubowski).

Relationships and connections were a major plank in their session on Impact Producing, which Levy described as “a dog and pony show conversation”, given the pair’s familiarity with one another.

For the purposes of the session, the pair offered a working definition of an Impact Producer as a person who develops and implements the strategy to use a film to effect (or attempt to effect) social change. That person might or might not have another role on the production.

Levy suggested that the role had come into being in the US, partly in response to the funding mechanism (commonly philanthropic foundations) for documentary features there. “Impact producer”, Levy said, “is now an acceptable line item in a US doco budget.”

Virunga

While foundations certainly care about creating important documentary films, often as important as the films themselves is how the films align with the foundation’s objectives, deepen the public conversation and engage audiences to take action. Levy also noted that – as campaigns referencing films often don’t kick in until a film is released – that many filmmakers don’t want to be involved with the “impact”. They want to get on to their next production – and rightly so, Levy suggested.

A campaign can go on for years, Levy noted. The campaign around Granito, by 2011 Doc Edge guests Pamela Yates and Paco de Onis, has moved on from its initial goal of indicting Guatemalan dictator Ríos Montt to working with Guatemalan Mayans to record, archive and promote their stories.

In the absence of any recognised qualifications for Impact Producers, Levy suggested that strong relationships were an important credential.

As with other extensions to filmmaking, such as transmedia campaigns, the work of impact producing should begin early in a project’s life – well before it goes into production.

How do you assess impact? The possibly irritating answer is “it depends”, but that’s good news, Levy claimed. There’s no fixed target to aim at, which allows the opportunity to work with the stakeholders and determine what constitutes success.

Although the session concentrated on impacting producing for documentary features, Franklin and Levy noted that it’s also done with other productions. In the US, Picture Motion does it with narrative features. Some TV shows – Levy cited SVU and Orange Is The New Black – work with impact producers.

Also working in the space are companies including The Fledgling Fund and the UK-based Bertha Foundation – which has supported projects including Beats of the Antonov, Citizenfour and Doc Edge award-winner God Loves Uganda by Roger Ross Williams.

Another title from a previous edition of Doc Edge, Joe Brewster & Michele Stephenson’s American Promise, was used as an example of successful impact producing. The campaigns around it led to the creation of nationally-available resources for parents, students and schools to help improve the engagement of black students.

One of the challenges of such campaigns and outreach programmes is the risk of what Franklin termed “white people helicoptering in to save the day” – a challenge also noted in discussion around the Oscar-nominated Virunga, which used a number of celebrities to put pressure on oil company Soco to withdraw from activities in Africa’s oldest national park.

“I don’t know that there’s always an answer to that (helicoptering), but it is a problem in this whole area,” Franklin acknowledged. He did add that at BritDoc there was an effort to mitigate such risks as much as possible. He cited the Indonesian edition of Good Pitch, which BritDoc runs worldwide, as one example of ensuring that the funding and broadcast partners brought on were from the ASEAN region.

 

 

Levy noted that even if filmmakers weren’t interested in being actively involved in outreach campaigns and impact producing, they should have an understanding of the work. “Goals, strategy, all that dry stuff,” she said. “Even if your eyes glaze over, if you understand it you can at least have an intelligent conversation with the people who will do it for you.”

Franklin suggested BritDoc’s Impact Guide as a good place to start.

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