Conversations about Impact in Documentary: Beyond Fear & Loathing

By Aufderheide, Patricia | CineAction, Winter 2016 | Go to article overview

Conversations about Impact in Documentary: Beyond Fear & Loathing


Aufderheide, Patricia, CineAction


The conversation about impact is an old one, as we know, thanks to the careful analysis of Brian Winston, particularly about the rhetorical games that John Grierson could play with funders and officials. (1) As soon as someone said, well, what good is art to this important policy issue? he argued that film was the most persuasive possible medium. But if someone said, Prove it, he said, This is art, its power is immeasurable. For many years, documentarians' funder pitches lived on that two-sided argument.

With the affordances of an always-connected, user-centric media universe, the conversation about is also a new one. We are all generating data all the time, after all, and it's all feedback for somebody. That data generation is both the fuel for businesses ranging from Facebook to Uber, and it is also a new tool of business management.

This data-rich media environment has had a big effect on social-issue documentary, especially because of its dependence on subsidy, whether from public or private patrons. Funders are far more demanding of better evidence of effectiveness, or, in the current parlance, impact, than in the analog era, when impact could be claimed without being shown. "Impact" has become a buzzword in documentary with the push to entrepreneurialize the documentarian. Practitioners funders as well as makers--chafe under the weight of quantitative metrics.

Impact conversations are currently mostly practitioner-driven. They usually occur outside academia, and often show a lack of awareness of research approaches in social science. They also lean heavily on knowledge of management practices in the nonprofit environment. Why that should be is worth thinking about. I propose that the shift toward a focus on extracting more information about the information funders fund is to some extent related to changes in management practices with the rise of Silicon Valley.

Some of the largest funders of media are also nerds, or otherwise leaders of the digital businesses that run on information. Thus, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation both funds media and impact assessment; the Skoll Foundation (fed by profits from eBay) funds media and establishes benchmarks for measuring impact. Crowdfunders as well want feedback and evidence. More traditional funders are being given mandates by leaders and boards to provide evidence of impact for media investments.

An "ecosystem of change."

The evolution of impact conversations is also related to the changes in the basic business models of social-issue documentary film. Documentary film has historically depended on relatively few sources to fund work: private patrons (Joris Ivens' rich Chinese Communist backer for Indonesia Calling; the family trust fund); public broadcasting (the Canadians' National Film Board is a gold standard); sweat equity (almost no social-issue documentaries make money, Michael Moore always excepted). With the neoliberal-fed decline in public broadcasting, the expansion of production capacity, and the proliferation of screens, filmmakers more than ever need to sell themselves and each project to a variety of investors, each of which has to be approached in terms of their own interests and investment criteria. Filmmakers as entrepreneurs need to have management skills and tools.

An "ecosystem of change," as the strategic consultancy Active Voice terms it, has evolved, especially in the U.S., over the last 15 years, building upon venerable "outreach" organizations such as Active Voice. Strategic consultants include such organizations as Aggregate, Borderline Media, Harmony Media, and Picture Motion. Social-change organizers at places like Art & Democracy and the Citizen Engagement Lab include media design in their strategic thinking. Commercial production funders of social-issue film include the Impact Producers Group and Cactus Three. Associations include the National Association of Media Arts and Culture (NAMAC) and the Indie Caucus. …

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