Pro Bono Australia explores how impact-led films, and the campaigns that go along with them, are increasingly being used as a tool to create social change, including insights from Documentary Australia CEO, Mitzi Goldman.
Impact films are claiming their stake of the social sector, competing for the same funding, platforms and partnerships, but industry leaders say it offers “immense potential” for not for profits.
Impact-led films, and the campaigns that go along with them, are increasingly being used as a tool to create social change.
That Sugar Film created a movement to help Australians build their nutritional literacy; Gayby Baby was included in school curriculum reforms to better support LGBTIQ+ students and families; and Embrace stirred international debate on body image, leading to director Taryn Brumfitt taking out the 2023 Australian of the Year award for her work.
While the effectiveness of impact films to drive action is evident, it has caused the already under-resourced social sector to become more competitive, with not for profits now contending for the same funding sources, platforms and partnerships as filmmakers.
Mitzi Goldman, CEO of Documentary Australia – a not for profit connecting documentary filmmakers with philanthropists and inspiring action on important social issues – said for-purpose organisations should see impact films “as a gift” to advancing their cause.
“I think the social sector is a really important beneficiary of these films. I’d love to see them becoming more strategic and learning how to work more closely with filmmakers,” Goldman told Pro Bono News.
“I stress the importance of the social sector and documentary sector working closely together hand-in-hand – there’s immense potential in that partnership – and not to see impact producers and documentaries as a threat, but actually as a gift to the social sector.
“There’s definitely a lot of benefit, a lot of mutual benefit, and if not for profits really understand that, I don’t think that they’d be afraid. I think they’d be knocking on our doors to find documentary filmmakers to work with.”
While Goldman acknowledges that an overlap in the goals of impact films and not for profits can create “anxiety about the same funders being targeted”, she argues any competition between the sectors is unnecessary and reflects a misunderstanding of the industry.
“It points to a lack of understanding and communication of what it is that an impact producer does. I don’t think a filmmaker should ever be in competition with [social service] organisations. In fact, what they need to do is to partner,” continued Goldman.
“Filmmakers are not at the coalface of the issues, these service organisations that are working in communities to alleviate these issues are the experts in the field. They’ve been doing this work for many, many years, and they’re often fighting for limited funds.
“What we’re seeing is that, where philanthropy has always funded some really important work in the community across a whole range of different issues, often that work is invisible. What a documentary allows is for that work to be seen and shared and replicated, and then for others to get on board and sustain it. That’s the work of an impact producer.”
The ABC’s executive producer of impact and partnerships Teri Calder agrees that while resourcing is limited, the benefits far outweigh the challenges when it comes to the impact of filmmakers working with the social sector.
“There are scarce resources and everybody’s competing for small pots of money – sometimes NGOs and documentaries might be competing for the same pot,” said Calder.
“However, when NGOs and filmmakers partner and collaborate, the benefits can be enormous. We’re the national broadcaster so we have to be independent, but there are incredible opportunities to use our documentary content to inform, educate and in turn, create real-world positive impact.”
Calder uses the example of the ABC’s social experiment documentary series Old People’s Home For 4 Year Olds, which follows the experience of older people in a retirement community together with toddlers to see if the interaction improves the lives of the elderly. The ABC partnered with not for profit Playgroup Australia for the show, including a call to action at the end of each episode.
Within five months of airing, Calder says Playgroup Australia’s intergenerational playgroups had grown from 40, built over five years, to over 100 with waitlists, thanks to the topic being spotlighted to a national audience, and as a result, communities better understanding the positive impact of intergenerational playgroups on mental health.
“There’s this amplification of a message, that many organisations may have been trying to communicate for a long time, through a piece of factual, high value, entertaining, informative, educative content, where the whole of Australia gets behind it,” said Calder.
More than just films
This value-add isn’t just limited to films – impact producer and founder of documentary consultancy agency The Dove Media, Felicity Blake, said not for profits can tap into a variety of artistic mediums to communicate an impactful message.
“If you want to be memorable and change behaviour, you have to tell a great story,” Blake told Pro Bono News.
“We’ve just learned from COVID that you can tell people pure facts and statistics until you’re blue in the face, [but] the thing they’ll actually remember is a meme, an urban myth, or a juicy anecdote.
“A piece of recorded media is an asset with real longevity. You can use it across many contexts for a long time, and it will raise awareness of your work throughout the community… It doesn’t have to be a film at all. Think about whose mind you need to change… Will they watch a film? What about a short video clip? A podcast? A comic?
“By working with impact experts to produce a strategy and a subsequent piece of media, you’ll create an incredibly powerful persuasive tool that helps you convene audiences, achieve your strategic objectives, and it can act as a money magnet.”
Investing in impact producing
While storytelling has been used to create social impact for decades, the impact producer profession and the community of practice and strategy that goes along with it, is a more recent emergence – and it is in high demand.
Impact producers can be involved from the outset of the film, helping to source funding for example, but most commonly join at the end of the production to carry out the associated impact campaign, which can include staging community screenings, communications and media liaison and securing partnerships across relevant sectors.
They also help facilitate interaction between filmmakers and not for profits, which may provide advice on the key issues of the film or access to individuals with lived experience that may want to share their story on-screen.
Goldman says advancing the profession is a key priority for Documentary Australia, which recently launched an impact producer professional development program to meet the needs of the sector.
“There’s a really huge need in the sector for impact producers, and there are very few of them out there. It’s become a priority for us to train up the next generation of impact producers,” said Goldman.
“It’s not such a new concept, but it’s been slow to build. I think there’s still a lack of understanding about what impact producers actually do. Awakening to the idea that this could be a potential career [is] certainly what we’re trying to catalyse.”