Impact Partners Executive Director Jenny Raskin on Financing, Fellowships, and Following the Filmmakers’ Lead
From 2018’s feature doc Oscar winner Icarus, to 2019’s Independent Spirit Award for Best Documentary recipient Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, to the Sundance Grand Jury Prize nabbing Of Fathers and Sons and Dina (in 2018 and 2017, respectively), Impact Partners has been behind some of the most critically acclaimed nonfiction work of recent years.
The company’s winning streak, however, actually goes back a decade, all the way to 2010’s Academy Award for Documentary Feature recipient The Cove. And Impact Partners itself goes back even further. Founded in 2007 by Dan Cogan and Geralyn Dreyfous with a mission to bring about social change through cinema (and without sacrificing artistry), Impact Partners recently raised veteran doc producer and director Jenny Raskin to the role of Executive Director.
And since Raskin was in Park City with the company’s slate of five Sundance-selected features — Kim Snyder’s Us Kids, Matt Wolf’s Spaceship Earth, Jim Stern’s Giving Voice, Hubert Sauper’s Epicentro, and most controversially, Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick’s On the Record — Filmmaker decided to pick Raskin’s brain about everything from the current documentary landscape to equity investing to supporting filmmakers who find themselves in the media’s crosshairs.
Filmmaker: Over the past 13 years you’ve brought a whopping 49 films to Sundance. So how has the market for documentaries — and the festival’s relevance to it — changed over time?
Raskin: Over the past 13 years there have been highs and lows in the marketplace for documentaries. Of course more recently there has been an increased appetite for documentary content, which is wonderful. But since we’ve been in this for so long, while we do try to adapt and pivot our sales strategy to the marketplace, we’ve also tried to remain true to our core mission: making great films about pressing social issues that work as entertainment. We’re in it for the long haul, and have ridden out challenging years before, and I’m sure we’ll do it again.
Filmmaker: Your current Sundance slate is quite topically diverse. So what are you looking for — and just as importantly, not looking for — in any potential project?
Raskin: We are very open in terms of content and even style. We are looking for projects with a strong directorial vision that feel unique and surprising. We tend to fund more character-driven films, but have also funded historical films and archive-based films. Mainly, we are looking for films that resonate with audiences in a powerful way, that somehow tap into the energy of the times we are living in, and that have a strong directorial vision.
Filmmaker: Can you discuss your equity investing model? What exactly makes it different from the financing structure at other companies?
Raskin: Impact Partners has a very unique model that is quite different from other documentary financing companies, as far as I know. Impact Partners is made up of 43 individuals and family foundations that are interested in investing in social issue documentaries. Every month or so we present a film to that group and recommend an investment level that we think makes sense. In a written report we share all that we love about the film, and what the risks are, artistically and financially.
Each Impact Partners member decides if they want to join that film. Those that join split the investment. So each of our films has an individual group of investors that are actually providing the financing. Once we come onboard we are executive producers of the film. We become part of the team, helping out where we can in the creative process, and are actively involved in determining the sales and distribution strategy. We also have a development fund now, through which we can support filmmakers at the very earliest stages of their projects.
Filmmaker: You launched both the Impact Partners Emerging Documentary Producers Fellowship and the Impact Partners Producers Salon a few years back in response to what you perceived as a dearth of support for producers. Do you feel that the industry’s focus on mentoring directors comes at the expense of aspiring producers?
Raskin: There is absolutely room for both the mentoring of directors and the mentoring of producers! We just felt there was more work to be done with the latter. And we were not alone of course. Many other organizations are now recognizing the crucial role that producers play in documentaries. We are just now taking applications for our fourth cohort of producers fellows. It’s been a pleasure to work with and mentor so many talented folks. Hopefully they’ve found it helpful to have a safe space to ask all the questions you feel you are supposed to know the answers to, and to meet with industry leaders and producers.
Filmmaker: It goes without saying that Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s On the Record is the most controversial film you’re bringing to Sundance this year (and all the more so now that Oprah seems to have disavowed it). So how are you handling the gossipy media coverage? Is there no such thing as bad publicity? Do you ever worry that the buzzy nature of Sundance risks overshadowing the films?
Raskin: We are following the filmmakers’ lead, and their focus has been on ensuring that the women in the film are supported. We believe in Amy and Kirby as journalists and as storytellers, and the only goal we all have with the press is to make sure that the film and the women and their stories are never discredited. This is particularly important before the film has even been seen by critics and the public. We are looking forward to the premiere on Saturday, and for the chance for people to see the film themselves and decide what they think about it.