Creating Reel Change: Maybe a Single Film Can't Change the World, but Put a Social Action Campaign Behind It and You Have the Seeds of a Movement

By Jacobs, Donovan | Sojourners Magazine, November 2006 | Go to article overview

Creating Reel Change: Maybe a Single Film Can't Change the World, but Put a Social Action Campaign Behind It and You Have the Seeds of a Movement


Jacobs, Donovan, Sojourners Magazine


Movie and television directors, producers, and writers interested in saying something of substance to their audiences have often been confronted with a quote generally attributed to former studio head Jack Warner: "If you want to send a message, call Western Union." Despite this adage's implication that films and TV programs should avoid the political and stick to entertaining (and make their studios and networks gobs of money), a number of movies and TV shows over the years have dealt with vital issues and encouraged pro-social behavior.

Now--whether because of, or in response to, opportunities offered by newer media such as the Interact and cable television--a variety of untraditional film and documentary makers seek to do more than portray positive action on the screen. These companies and artists want to motivate their audiences to get better informed on their issues, volunteer to help the subjects of the movie or program, and even advocate for legislation that offers protection to victims and tries to right the wrongs portrayed.

Probably the most publicized of these filmmakers is former eBay president Jeff Skoll, who through his company Participant Productions has committed an estimated $100 million to co-financing and producing a slate of theatrical releases. These movies include An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore's documentary on global warming released earlier this year, and the current Fast Food Nation, about a marketing expert's odyssey to discover how his hamburger chain really makes its meat.

Participant's distinctiveness thus far hasn't been marked in Hollywood's traditional measures of achievement (four of the company's movies were nominated for Oscars in 2005 but have had mixed success at the box office). Rather, its chief innovation is creation of Internet-based campaigns for each film that allow viewers to join with established organizations to both make personal changes and call for social action in response to the movie's themes.

It's difficult to measure the success of these campaigns. Participant's October 2005 release of North Country (about a pioneering female coal miner harassed by male co-workers) was timed to allow audiences to support the National Organization for Women and other feminist groups in efforts to renew the federal Violence

Against Women Act (VAWA). North Country only grossed $18 million, meaning about 2 million people saw it in theaters. But if even a small percentage of that number demanded approval of the act, the film may have contributed to the bill's passage in January 2006.

THE TV INDUSTRY has long been criticized for shying away from socially significant topics. But in recent years, the rise of cable television has allowed newer networks to present programs on controversial and vital issues of interest to their targeted audiences.

MTV, which has a reputation for offensive and sexually explicit programs, has also aired documentaries (many starring music and entertainment celebrities) intended to inform and inspire its teen and young adult audiences regarding issues--including discrimination and sexual health--that often escape mainstream media attention. Last summer, MTV announced plans for a special to feature hip-hop star Jay-Z and his efforts to raise awareness of the lack of safe drinking water in several countries during his September international concert tour. MTV's Web site will offer ways for viewers to contribute to building "Play-Pumps," playground carousels that pump fresh water as kids spin them.

Lifetime Television has gained solid ratings with its heavily female viewership for a series of issue-based movies and miniseries, including A Girl Like Me: The Gwen Araujo Story, about a Latina mother who first opposes then supports her son's determination to live as a woman. Premiering last June, the movie was followed by public service announcements offering suggestions for encouraging tolerance and ending discrimination against transgender persons. …

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