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The Art of Engagement: Working Films and BRITDOC Foundation Help Docs Create Social Impact

By Amanda Lin Costa

From Lee Hirsch’s 'Bully' (Prod.: Cynthia Lowen)

How do documentary filmmakers impact their audiences and create social change with their films? Working Films and the BRITDOC Foundation  are two nonprofit organizations that work to assist documentary filmmakers in maximizing the social impact of their work. They both offer "match-making services" to help filmmakers connect with social advocacy groups concerned with the topics addressed in their films. Based in Wilmington, North Carolina, Working Films boldly deems itself "one the nation's leading independent media organizations focused on the art of engagement." The London-based BRITDOC Foundation also focuses on engagement and "helping to build new business models for filmmakers to deploy." Both organizations have been involved in some of the most viewed, most award-winning, and most impactful documentaries of this generation. They both look to the future of documentary film as a time of purpose and social impact and offer various opportunities to assist filmmakers in reaching this goal.

Documentary spoke with Robert West, executive director of Working Films, via e-mail and Jess Search, chief executive of BRITDOC Foundation, via Skype about their respective missions and activities. 

Can you talk a little about how and why you decided to create Working Films?

Robert West: In the first document co-founder and Peabody Award-winning filmmaker Judith Helfand and I wrote together, back in 1998, before the organization had a name, funding and staff, here is how we described the conspiracy:

"FILMWORKS will transition social-issue documentaries beyond traditional distribution, broadcast and initial releases to further push their impact and potential.  This initiative will extend the relevance and long-term usefulness of documentaries, capitalize on the momentum and recognition from festivals and broadcasts, and develop coordinated, integrated and timely grassroots outreach and classroom projects. Our goal is to forge long-term, interdependent links between filmmakers, educators and organizers. Our unique focus is to create new partnerships to strengthen the outreach efforts of all participants and guide their initiatives through the long haul. Simply stated, our goal is to address the issues of our time by enhancing the usefulness of film and video in enacting social change."

Eleven years later, with the name switched around a bit, those lofty objectives are still in place and the challenge is still very present. Working Films started with a belief in the power of good storytelling. We are neither a production company nor a distributor. Our highest interests are tied to strategic and measurable outcomes. Our core methodology has remained the same, what we like to refer to as a "social change calculus": CONTENT + INTENT = CHANGE.

From Dean Hamer and Joseph Wilson’s <em>Out in the Silence</em>

Can you give an example of a successful social impact strategy that Working Films has been involved in?

All of our campaigns strive to balance the needs of the films' narratives and unique storytelling styles with the needs of the on-the-ground activists. Each engagement campaign had its own unique needs and goals for sustainability and reach.

One of our earliest campaigns, the My House Is Your House community action campaign, was developed around Blue Vinyl, by Helfand and co-director/producer Dan Gold. The goal was to jumpstart a three-tier consumer revolution: 1) educate the public about the toxic lifecycle of PVC plastic; 2) create a market-driven demand for healthier alternatives; and 3) work with major institutional consumers, like cities and hospitals, to create legislated purchasing policies that reduced POPS (persistent organic pollutants) as it pushed/frightened manufacturers to produce alternatives.

An example of this strategy working on many levels was after screening the film for construction and procurement employees at Kaiser Permanente, Kaiser committed to eliminating PVC in their building and renovation projects. After Kaiser asked their primary carpet manufacturer to provide PVC-free flooring, the factory introduced new PVC-free commercial products--a key market shift.  

How can filmmakers become involved with Working Films?

We know from experience that it is essential to start a documentary film's community and audience engagement strategy early on. For $250, we offer one-on-one grounded and strategic advice to ensure your documentary film or media project will have a measurable and meaningful impact.

Through our summit or strategy meetings, we bring together key stakeholders to develop a strategic plan for outreach, so a film makes a difference beyond its broadcast or festival tour.

You partnered with The Fledgling Fund to create a series of videos, IMPACT, about building film campaigns that spur social change. How did the idea for that series develop?

The Fledgling Fund has been a long-term supporter of our work. The series is intended to translate popular and often jargon/inside-the-field terminology into visual, emotional and narrative examples that make the ephemeral concrete, raise the bar and keep it raised and celebrate "wins." 

Are there any plans for future Working Film projects you'd like to share?

In 2009, in collaboration with two of our funders, The Fledgling Fund and Chicken & Egg Pictures, Working Films co-designed, facilitated and tested a new model for bringing together multiple filmmakers addressing the same theme or issue from a different, unique, story-driven point of view. Imagine the potential for synergy and zeitgeist. We call it Reel Engagement.

Filmmakers need to shift away from the competition created by film festivals and broadcast entities. NGOs need technical assistance as they attempt to navigate the new opportunities presented by nonfiction and social media. Both fields need to move toward collaboration and social change work as a long-term effort sustained by strategic communication and innovation.

Our goal is to create robust and interactive campaigns that are useful to the ongoing work for progressive change and designed to help filmmakers reach new and impassioned audiences. These interlocked audience engagement campaigns, built on long-term strategies, link all of the films as a package to the NGOs who are offering their constituents and targeted policy-makers story-driven solutions.

For filmmakers not familiar with the BRITDOC Foundation, can you give us an overview of the organization?

Jess Search: We work in many different arenas. We are documentary film funders. Some of our funds are only for UK-based filmmakers and some of our funds are open to international filmmakers. We have granted a number of American films, including Hell and Back Again, which was nominated for an Oscar. We are executive producers of that film as well. The funds we have that American filmmakers are eligible for include a documentary journalism fund, which we run with the Bertha Foundation. We also have an outreach fund, Connect, with the Bertha Foundation, and we've awarded that to American filmmaker Steve James (The Interrupters), as well as to films such as Brooklyn Castle (Dir./Prod.: Katie Dellamaggiore) and The Invisible War. (Dir.: Kirby Dick). All three of these films were part of The Good Pitch, which is an event we run with the Sundance Institute.

Can you talk about The Good Pitch and how filmmakers can become involved in it?

We did the first pilot in Oxford in 2008. It was an idea that was so obvious it had to be right: Run a pitching forum and invite the people that can really make a difference to that forum--not just the TV broadcasters that have a limited involvement in film, in that they can fund the film and show it to an audience, but also all the different organizations that could take that film and make it impactful. We were pretty sure the first one would be a big success, and Sundance was involved right from the beginning. The Fledging Fund and Impact came on to the pilot in Oxford and the Ford Foundation has come on since then. The next Good Pitch is in May at the Ford Foundation, with seven amazing filmmakers. For the Bertha Connect Fund, we gave funds to those three American filmmakers because we had worked so closely with them during The Good Pitch that we knew they were very smart, committed filmmakers.

I can say if you applied to Good Pitch and didn't get picked, you can apply again. Filmmakers shouldn't be discouraged. Many people pitch while in production and then again when the film is almost done. This can sometimes be over many years. There are many examples of films we passed on in other rounds but finally found the year it was a good match. The filmmaker must have an agenda and clear message of what he or she wants to accomplish. Otherwise, it's not suited for us. Kirby Dick wanted his film (The Invisible War) to be seen by the Army and wanted to see a change in the statistics of rape in the Army. If a filmmaker says, "I made the film and that's it," then there's nothing for us to help them with and no connections to make for them.

What a good time for filmmakers to approach BRITDOC in the production process?

We become involved at all stages, even at the very beginning. We got involved with Afghan Star (Dir.: Havana Marking) when they first wanted to go to Afghanistan and see if it was possible to make the film. We don't really like to get involved with filmmakers once the picture is locked. We're not a post-production fund.

Can you speak a little more about the journalism fund?

We look at the journalism fund on a weekly basis. We fund not just production but also legal or research work done around it. We also fund health and safety training, as these types of investigative projects often take filmmakers to sticky areas.

What is the best way for filmmakers to contact BRITDOC?

Please don't e-mail us, as we are a small team, but we have an excellent online application system. I will say, we've just begun our financial year and we have the most money we've ever had to give in grants: £1 million. The heart of the organization is about supporting documentary in all its forms. We want it to keep evolving, and you do that by working with many different kinds of documentary filmmakers. We're a film organization for all seasons.

Amanda Lin Costa is a writer and producer in the film and television industry. She writes a series called Truth in Documentary Filmmaking and is currently producing the documentary The Art of Memories.