From Born into Brothels to Virunga:
What Ten Years Can Bring

Diana Barrett

The Fledgling Fund

The Fledgling Fund is almost 10 years old. Hard to believe, but true. In the film world, 10 years is a lifetime. To give you a sense of where we were back in 2005, the year Fledgling opened for business: Million Dollar Baby won the Academy Award for Best Picture and the first film we ever supported, Born into Brothels, won for Best Documentary. A year later, Brokeback Mountain won for Best Picture and March of the Penguins for Best Documentary.

It is interesting that these films, especially Brokeback Mountain perhaps, began to change the cultural dialogue in a way that has gradually led to momentous legislation or, as we might say now, impact. Here I want us to take a look at some of the changes in the field.

10 years ago, we routinely supported website development, community screenings and other activities that would expose audiences to a documentary film and move them to action, a relatively broad-brush approach in the absence of an effective means to target highly specific audiences. Today, targeting specific audiences has become much easier with a digital strategy, so much at the core of any strategic engagement plan today. Ten years ago, there was no digital strategy. None. No Facebook. No Twitter. Hard to believe. Yet, impact was achieved.

If we think back to Blue Vinyl, still active after 12 years - or films such as The Doula Story - we did see targeted and strategic campaigns but they were managed with the help of NGOs and other community contacts. Filmmakers knew how to find, reach and engage key audiences. But, it was somewhat like building a house without a power drill, possible but not easy. Today, we can reach hundreds of thousands of people with a click or perhaps two clicks. And so many other things have changed as well. Films can be downloaded, VOD is king or at least crawling with gusto toward that goal, equipment has revolutionized the making of a film and distribution channels have exploded.

That said, Fledgling asks the same basic questions when we consider which projects to support. Is the film itself strong enough? What is the filmmaker trying to do with this film? Is there a clear vision or do we need to work with her to hone a vision and a strategy that really works? Who are the audiences that should see this film? Is the subject such that our goal is to raise awareness? Or, are we going beyond awareness, trying to strengthen existing movements, such as those working on clean rivers or prison reform?

Depending on the answers to these questions, we can then work with and support the filmmaker and the team as they mount an effective outreach campaign that is aligned with the film. This means hiring the right people, tracking short-term and long-term milestones, and documenting impact over time to really assess the degree to which the original vision is being achieved.

Time, however, is fluid. Sometimes these are long-tailed messages that have to work their way into the cultural dialogue. A film on the challenges of parenting a transgendered child might not have found fertile ground in the public consciousness five years ago, but may today. A film on the environmental effects of single use plastic bags perhaps helped to begin a conversation that today has been translated into a ban on these bags in a growing number of cities, counties and states. A single film may not be as powerful as a portfolio of projects that each serves to amplify the message and may include multi-platform components to reach audiences in very different ways.

It is both easier and harder to work in the impact space today compared to 10 years ago. We certainly have easier methods to share and disseminate data. It’s easier to build awareness and to reach target audiences who will share their enthusiasm, bring friends, both physically and digitally, and raise money, alone or through crowd funding.

On the downside however, so many channels produce noise and all of that noise makes it harder for audiences to find the film they want to see and harder for filmmakers to really break through to communicate with their target audiences. We’ve gone from a broad-brush approach to finding and sustaining audiences to a far more granular, or highly-targeted, approach and this will only become more of an issue as we develop a range of ways to reach micro audiences. And, we cannot forget the value of seeing a film locally where important changes can happen at the individual, family, and community level.

So what’s next? Can we predict the future of social issue documentary film? And how far ahead is the future, by the way? Strategic marketing plans used to provide a five- or even a ten-year horizon. That’s gone; now they have to be flexible and able to be constantly updated and responsive to a rapidly changing marketplace. Outreach and engagement strategies for films will have to be totally adaptable to changes in the cultural conversation, to policy and regulatory changes, to digital possibilities that we can’t even imagine today. Impact Producers will need skillsets that are still evolving. They likely will continue to collaborate with experts who already have these skills.

But, when this new world is fleshed out we will still come back to the power of the table; the old fashioned but effective idea that when you get capable and committed people around a table, great things can happen. And well-crafted stories remain a powerful way to gather folks around that table.

We started at that table in 2005 – supporting efforts to bring filmmakers and NGOs together around an issue. While we have better tools available now, and even better ones without a doubt coming soon, it is still the power of a small group of committed, filmmakers, impact producers, audiences and activists, who will learn and teach us how to most effectively use a film for social change.

Diana Barrett founded The Fledgling Fund in 2005 after a career at Harvard University, where she taught in both the Harvard Business School and the School of Public Health.

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