October 02, 2011

How Documentaries Have Become Stronger Advocacy Tools

Turn on your television to watch the evening news and you are bound to see a stream of commercials from the oil and natural-gas industry telling you that drilling for natural gas is environmentally safe.

The petroleum industry is pumping millions of dollars into a public-relations and advocacy campaign to gain access to natural-gas fields.

But if in the past year, you turned the channel to HBO, you might also have seen the documentary Gasland, which presents an alternate view of the industry, one in which communities are destroyed by the air and water pollution that results from the natural-gas drilling procedure known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.

The film’s director, Josh Fox, last month won the Emmy Award for best director in the documentary category for his film, which is perhaps most memorable for a scene that shows one grizzled character who lives near a drilling site lighting his tap water on fire.

What’s notable to people in philanthropy, though, is the way Mr. Fox worked with grant makers at the Fledgling Fund to galvanize a movement that greatly amplified the efforts of traditional environmental groups. Together, Mr. Fox and Fledgling developed an intensive outreach strategy through more than 500 community screenings.

They also created a Web site that serves up clips from the film, plus a wealth of supporting information backing up the provocative claims contained in the movie and myriad ways for citizens to get involved in their own communities.

As Gasland and other examples succeed in provoking citizen activism, organized philanthropy would be wise to invest more resources for documentary-film projects: communications that blend the credibility of investigative journalism with the emotional punch of a well-crafted film. While foundations have long underwritten documentaries, their spending has never been substantial. And what many foundations and nonprofit groups have yet to realize is that film, and the social movements they can stimulate, could be an important way to close the huge gap in resources created by the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling, which has expanded the opportunities for corporations to spend unlimited sums to advance their public-policy views.

Grant makers who finance documentaries will become part of a quiet revolution. Ford and MacArthur continue to stand as stalwarts in financing documentaries, but newcomers have joined the action, including the philanthropist Jeff Skoll, who has set a new standard for using film to influence social change through his Participant Media production company.

Two other powerful catalysts for change in the world of documentaries are Good Pitch—a collaboration of Channel 4 Britdoc Foundation and the Sundance Institute’s Documentary Film Program—and the Producers Institute for New Media Technologies at the Bay Area Video Coalition.

Good Pitch is a daylong forum in which filmmaking teams pitch their projects to a constantly shifting cast of grant makers, distributors, broadcasters, and nonprofit activist organizations. Watching the process are some 100 to 200 other people from those same types of organizations.

In the span of half an hour, the teams present the essence of their documentaries, and the potential partners assembled around a table offer questions and comments and often make commitments to support the projects through distribution and outreach agreements.

Experts in documentary film believe that Good Pitch has helped make producing and distributing documentaries more transparent and collaborative. To date, Good Pitch has presented 70 film projects to more than 800 potential partner organizations, resulting in a wide array of positive outcomes, including production support, distribution deals, and outreach partnerships, plus more than $3-million in other new funds.

Last week Good Pitch arrived in San Francisco with half a dozen film projects covering a broad range of topics. One plans to shows how a small group of AIDS activists infiltrated the pharmaceutical industry to help develop breakthrough treatments. Another hopes to explain how a group of Mississippi community activists have organized to fight the effects of rampant pollution and development.

Across town, the Bay Area Video Coalition has become the leading change agent in bringing documentary films into the digital age of activism through its Producers Institute for New Media Technologies.

The Producers Institute runs 10-day workshop that brings together accomplished filmmakers and technologists from leading Silicon Valley companies to develop digital media tools and applications that allow film audiences and other media consumers to engage in meaningful ways to share with policy makers and others their views on the issues raised by social documentaries.

Such online organizing tools enable a filmmaker like Josh Fox to make a profound impact in speaking truth to a powerful industry with a film like Gasland.

The Gasland Web site has received more than a million views, and the alerts on the site have led to more than 100,000 letters to members of Congress. The film’s Facebook page has attracted more than 60,000 activists who are constantly urging one another to take action and attend protest rallies and other similar events.

Industry has been fighting back, accusing Mr. Fox of inaccuracies and simplification of the issue. But that’s hardly the only punch from the industry as the voices against fracking grow stronger.

In an unusually blunt move, the natural-gas producer Chesapeake Energy withdrew a donation of $25,000 to the Morgantown Farmers’ Market after the West Virginia city banned fracking within its jurisdiction.

To top that, the company also withdrew a contribution of $30,000 for band instruments from the Wellsburg Middle School after that West Virginia community also banned drilling within its borders. Under pressure, the Wellsburg City Council rescinded its ban in September.

While it is unusual to see corporate philanthropy practiced in such a brass-knuckles fashion, that’s only a small indication of the lengths to which the industry will go to persuade communities and politicians to permit their untrammeled access to drilling.

Far more powerful, perhaps, will be the money the companies are putting into campaign coffers now that the Supreme Court removed limits on political-campaign contributions for corporations in the Citizens United case.

Instead of just wringing their hands about the edge that companies now have in the political sphere, foundations should realize that a small investment in documentaries and creative digital activism campaigns could help to bring some balance back into public-policy debates. 

Vincent Stehle is a regular columnist for The Chronicle of Philanthropy and a member of the Board of Directors of Grantmakers in Film and Electronic Media.