Stronger Together:
How Partnerships Power Doc Impact

By Jessica Clark

Research Director, Media Impact Funders

Want to make a difference? Make a documentary—or so it seems.

Nonfiction filmmakers have reached an unprecedented peak of influence in the last few years, shining an unsparing light on issues such as food safety, rape in the military, and genocide, and scoring both awards and policy victories. What used to be an idiosyncratic practice has evolved into a thriving field, with studios including Participant Media, Brave New Films and Kartemquin Films now reliably releasing productions that draw a bead on social problems.

However, films alone can rarely make the case for change. Instead the most effective docs depend on partnerships to amplify their reach and compel viewers and the powerful to act. BRITDOC’s new Outstanding Partner Prize as part of the Impact Award celebrates these often unsung heroes—individuals and organizations who collaborate with filmmakers to make a difference.

The inaugural winner, United Way, was nominated by the production team for American Promise — a documentary that takes a long and personal look at the black male achievement gap. A network of nearly 1,800 community-based chapters throughout the U.S., the organization helped the team organize a national Google hangout, supported local chapters in hosting screenings, and connected the filmmakers with parents, students and teachers in locations across the country to stimulate dialogue.

At Media Impact Funders, we organize events and curate the latest research on the field to help foundations and their media grantees understand these dynamics and make their productions pop. Here are just a few of the other ways we’ve seen documentary partnerships shine.

Funders themselves can become some of makers’ strongest partners, providing not just financial but strategic support. In a recent event we held at Philanthropy New York, director Orlando von Eisendel described how crucial it was to work with The Schmidt Family Foundation’s 11th Hour Project as his documentary, Virunga, transformed from an idyllic profile of an endangered world heritage site into a risky undercover investigation revealing corporate and government corruption. The Bertha Foundation also stepped up, providing support for legal advice as the campaign mounted a global call for divestment from oil and gas company SOCO International. The goal: to drive the corporation from Africa’s oldest national park, home to the world’s last population of mountain gorillas.

In that same event, Fledgling Fund President Diana Barrett spoke about the role that her foundation played in bolstering outreach for Gasland—a film that launched an ever-evolving campaign that’s a testament to the potency of effective collaboration. Fledgling has served as a lynchpin for several recent social docs, offering not only dollars for engagement, but sharp campaign advice.

Gasland was a 2012 selection for the BRITDOC Impact Award. Director Josh Fox and his team take organizing seriously. Not only have they partnered with numerous established environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club to spread the word about the dangers of fracking, but helped to spawn the hundreds of small grassroots groups that formed in the wake of local screenings. The sequel, Gasland, Part II, harnessed this energy to engage policymakers in both drafting water safety legislation, and putting pressure on the EPA to reopen cases highlighted in the film. Fox’s most recent production, the Solutions Grassroots Tour, pulls in a new type of partner—renewable energy companies, which are offering alternatives for communities seeking to kick the fossil fuel habit. Read more about this ambitious strategy in the case study we crafted for our 2014 Media Impact Festival.

Mounting this festival allowed us to take an in-depth look at the many different types of relationships filmmakers are forming to move their stories beyond the screen. We partnered with BRITDOC to feature their 2013 Impact Award selections, and convened our own committee of impact and documentary experts to select and showcase five additional films.

In addition to traditional circuits of film festivals and broadcast outlets, filmmakers are partnering with a new breed of “impact producers” to develop contexts for screenings that mobilize stakeholders.  For the After Tiller team, this meant working with Film Presence to connect with reproductive rights organizations, which helped to host screenings in locations where late abortions had been banned.

Advocacy organizations also often make strong screening and education partners for filmmakers seeking to reach key audiences. For the Bully team, this meant working closely with Facing History and Ourselves (FHAO), which developed a screening guide and online workshop provided free to educators. FHAO also hosted both screenings and anti-bullying summits in several cities, with an estimated 25,000 administrators, parents and teachers participating as of mid-2014.

Targeting local communities can also help documentary campaigns to spark partnerships that can lead directly to policy change. For example, weeks after screening A Place at the Table, West Virgina Senate Majority Leader John Unger sponsored the Feed to Achieve act. Passed into law less than two months later, the bill made West Virginia the first state in the country to offer all elementary school students free breakfast and lunch. A public/private partnership combines additional federal funding with private donations and grants to pay for the expanded nutrition program.

Understanding documentaries in this way—as hubs and catalysts for combined action rather than heroic isolated narratives—takes the pressure off of producers to do it all. It also makes films more attractive investments for funders who may also be supporting other organizations concerned with the same issues.

So—want to make a difference? Seems as though making smart partnerships may be also be just the ticket.

Find out more about combining
great art and great impact.