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Out in the World: The Vital Role of the Social Impact Producer

Sisters on Track (courtesy of Netflix)

Often I read the news and feel jaded about what I find there, desensitized to very real issues. Then, as a viewer, I’ll watch a film, or see a moving play or artwork, and feel the urge to do something—to learn more, to do my part. 

As a filmmaker, have you ever developed the concept for a film, or been in the middle of production, and thought more specifically about the change your film could spark in the world? Have you ever watched and thought to yourself, “What can I do?” Answering these questions with concrete initiatives that go beyond traditional film marketing and publicity is what today is called social impact producing. 

I started in the film world nearly a decade ago working as a development director for several nonprofit organizations and NGOs that focused on underrepresented and underserved communities. A documentary filmmaker, Diane Paragas, came to my office while researching her first narrative feature film, about an undocumented Filipina girl who loves country music. I was intrigued, and that meeting started me on my journey as an independent film producer. Over the next several years, I produced a number of short narrative and documentary films until, eight years later, we were able to send the film that originally inspired me, Yellow Rose, into production. It was released by Sony Pictures Releasing in 2020. 

Producing all of these films, I found myself not only working on their business and creative sides but also thinking about the potential change and conversations they could ignite. I started to contact and work with NGOs, educators and other experts on the issues contained within the films, seeing how these movies could align with and support their work. I started to have discussions on how to take films beyond festivals and arthouses to the places and communities who needed to hear their messages. I always enjoy the creative and collaborative process of filmmaking, but these conversations about impact felt more natural to me, and I wondered how I could better define my role. It wasn’t until I started working on PJ Raval’s Call Her Ganda that I had a name for what I was now doing: social impact producer (these days, just impact producer.)

As a filmmaker, Raval has a strong understanding of social impact, and through him I have learned much. When I asked him why he thinks the role of the social impact producer is so important, he wrote back, “Filmmakers often connect personally to the issues explored within their films, which often enables them to push forward in achieving their creative vision. It can be greatly beneficial for filmmakers to work alongside an impact producer who can see the film itself, beyond the personal experience of the filmmaker creating it. When a film is able to walk away from the filmmaker and become a tool for the community to utilize and interact with, the film can reach a social impact beyond the vision of the filmmaker. In my experience, the impact producer can see this potential from the start. So, having an impact producer involved from the initial inspiration of the film onward can help a film reach its full potential.”

With their ability to train a focused lens on social impact and strategy, impact producers have become increasingly important, especially in the documentary space. Many funders want to see a fully developed impact campaign strategy before committing to a project. Films like Give Up Tomorrow (criminal justice system), Please Remember Me (health care) and Bag It (recycling) are wonderful examples of documentary films with strong impact campaigns that led to real fundamental change. Most recently, narrative features like Just Mercy marry drama to strong social impact goals.

As the Doc Society states in its wonderful online guide, The Impact Field Guide and Toolkit, films contain an artistic vision—the storytelling and stylistic elements contributed by the director and key creatives—but can also have an impact vision. The latter is how the film’s exhibition and distribution can be used to further a defined set of goals that tie into the subject matter of a film. In an ideal world, these two visions should complement one another. 

When I act as a social impact producer, I often spend time talking to a film’s director about their specific vision, both creatively but also its impact potential. In the case of Call Her Ganda, a film about the murder by a U.S. Marine of a Filipina trans woman, Jennifer Laude, the social impact team benefited from Raval’s consideration of social impact while he developed the creative elements of the film. He wanted the film to contribute to something concrete, like legislative change or support for organizations actively doing social justice work.

For those considering becoming an impact producer or involving one in their films, I’ll break down the elements of the position and its work.

What is a social impact campaign? 

A social impact campaign is an initiative, or several initiatives pieced together, that implements real-world goals having to do with a film’s subject matter.

While each campaign is different, the main goals are often to:

1 — Drive key audience members and stakeholders to watch the film and take action; 

2 — Bring these identified issues to the forefront of the cultural, social and political conversation and highlight the work being done around them, which comes about through key partnerships, often through NGOs and nonprofits; 

3 — Give a platform to those most affected by the issues within the film; and

4 — Create a pathway for long-term and effective change through different change dynamics (changing minds, changing behaviors, changing structures and building communities). 

When is the right time to hire a social impact producer? 

For Yellow Rose, because I already knew and understood the creative process, it was easy for me to also consider during production its potential impact, which started as bringing awareness around immigration issues, specifically around DACA and DREAMers. And as I watched audiences respond to this film when it was in release, I began to see how its impact could also be around representation in the media and creating a space for more stories with a lead character like Rose to be told. I was also able to tap into my experiences with working with the immigrant community and share those experiences with the cast and crew. For example, we visited support organizations like Casa Marianella, which serves as a home for displaced immigrants. 

With Call Her Ganda, I came on after the film was made as an impact producer, after the film was already in distribution. There were some advantages here, too. I found that the objectivity and outside perspective I offered by not having been involved in the production brought fresh ideas to the table. That said, the timing of hiring an impact producer ultimately depends on budget and capacity. If the filmmakers are interested in social impact, an impact producer is a worthwhile line item, even as early as the development phase. Or, an impact producer can be brought on simply as consultant during development, with their work evolving and expanding as the film approaches production. 

What are the skills of an impact producer? How do you build a team? 

Just like in any role, an impact producer needs to assess their strengths and weaknesses. Some skills that an impact producer should possess include:

→ The ability to create and assess a budget; 

→ The ability to devise strategy, objectives and activities;

→ Some basic knowledge of fundraising;

→ An understanding of distribution;

→ The ability to manage partnerships with NGOs, nonprofits and brands;

→  The ability to evaluate and assess the progress of the campaign as it goes (What’s working? What’s not working?); 

→  Experience in community organizing, outreach and engagement; and

→  An understanding of publicity and marketing.

But perhaps the most important qualities an impact producer should possess are ones that do not lend themselves to bullet points: passion, the willingness to share and to learn, and empathy. In fact, if an impact producer is not passionate about the film’s issues, they will be doing a disservice to the campaign and should pass the project along to an impact producer colleague who is. There are impact producers who specialize in many different issues and topics, such as immigration, environmental justice and LGBTQ+ issues. Of course, an impact producer may believe in a film’s message but not be an expert in the issues surrounding it. So, it’s important at the start that impact producers educate themselves on issues and consult with experts in the field.

The Planning Phase 

How does the process of developing an impact campaign begin? First, identify the social issues within the film (e.g., recycling, immigration, homelessness). Once those issues have been identified, the next step is to break them down and begin to assess the environment around the issues.

What is being said or written about these issues? What effective work is already being done, and how can the campaign support that work? What isn’t being done, and how can the campaign activate around those needs? What are the gaps? Who is an advocate for these issues? Who is an adversary? What are the general public’s perceptions about these issues? Are they even aware of them? Who are the stakeholders around the issues? Does a film have a particular perspective or viewpoint that is otherwise absent from the discourse surrounding an issue? Where are the places and spaces the film will have the most impact? 

The process of asking and answering these questions is what is referred to as issue mapping. 

Once the issues contained within a film have been identified and assessed, the next step is to identify the goals of the campaign. It’s important to understand the type of change the campaign is seeking to make. The Doc Society categorizes these into four change dynamics: changing minds, changing behaviors, changing structures and building communities. One is not more important than the other, and more often than not, an impact campaign is targeting more than one of these dynamics. 

Next, begin thinking about the steps needed to create this change. These are impact tasks.

One way to identify these goals is through a brain trust, which is essentially a meeting of the minds. A brain trust should include stakeholders like a film’s subjects or the communities directly affected by the issues (e.g., mental health, women’s rights) addressed within it. Ideally, these are people whose work can be elevated and supported through the campaign and who, in turn, can advise the film on these issues.

During the brain trust phase, partners are identified. These partners include NGOs, brands, individuals and public figures who can support the campaign by promoting, hosting events and bringing the film (and the campaign) to targeted communities. The campaign can support these partners by highlighting the work they are doing around these issues and driving people to action through their existing programs. 

Working with Subjects

Stakeholders often can include the subjects of the film. (I’m mostly referring here to documentaries.) But working with subjects can be a very sensitive process. The production of the film may have left them feeling vulnerable and exposed, and the impact campaign re-opens that door. Even if working with the subjects can help the campaign, assess how this can benefit or harm them personally. Filmmakers should be transparent, communicative and respectful. Many subjects are eager to further their involvement with a film, but there are others who don’t want to be involved, and that is OK. It helps to involve the director in this process because they have important insight and an established relationship with the subjects. 

Budget and Fundraising 

Just like a budget for a film, a social impact campaign budget goes through multiple passes. The first budget is the dream budget, the “ideal scenario” budget. And just like every other aspect of budgeting independent films, it’s important to be realistic about costs and have the ability to adjust if necessary. 

Consider these important factors:

→ The length of the campaign (e.g., one year, six months); 

→ What is needed to reach the goals of the campaign (e.g., community screenings, events); 

→ Who is already on the film’s team (e.g., writer, publicist);

→ How will the audience have access to the film (what distribution roadblocks exist)?; and 

→ What ancillary items are needed to accompany the film (e.g., discussion guide)?

In the independent world, I’ve seen budgets for impact campaigns range from very little (or nothing) to nearly six figures, sums that are highly variable and dependent on the kind of support (grants, donations) a film receives. 

Many times, impact producers raise funds for a film’s social impact campaign. A logical place to look first is the film’s existing funders. Chances are, the campaign already supports and elevates their work in some way, so they may want to continue and extend their financing. There are also a number of grants that support films and their impact campaigns (e.g., Open Society Foundations, the Doc Society), and these grants are often issue based. (Grant writing is a skill, so unless an impact producer is proficient at this form of writing an outside professional may need to be employed). I would also take a look at brands and private corporations that align with the social issues in the film. Some brands regularly allot a certain amount of funding to specific social issues. Then, there are individual donors and fundraising events. Crowdfunding is another option, but I don’t recommend it unless other options have been explored first. Given the amount of work involved, it may not be worth it. 

What does an impact campaign look like?

Depending on the goals and the budget of a campaign, each one will look different. The campaign’s duration will also factor into its look and feel. Most campaigns include community screenings, with thoughtful talkbacks and specific calls to action. Some will include college tours and educational components like a curriculum or discussion guide for educators to use in the classroom. Others will include very specific agendas, like targeting legislation. Last fall, I worked on an impact campaign for the short documentary film, Come & Take It, which was very specific and focused on civic engagement, activism and the vote. I’m currently working on the impact campaign for a Netflix original film, Sisters on Track. Before we launched the campaign, we convened a brain trust, where we were able to identify specific issues within the film. Defining those needs and goals within these issues (mentorship, education, youth athletics) has really elevated the campaign; as it progresses, we will be encouraging people to become mentors in their community, to create more opportunities through education and to invest in youth athletics (e.g., taking part in activities like the Colgate Women’s Games).  

Distribution

When implementing a campaign, much of the initial planning and timeline revolves around the film’s distribution. Does the film have a distribution plan? Does it already have a distributor? Ideally, the impact campaign should complement the distribution of the film, but this isn’t always the case. Sometimes, the needs of an impact campaign clash with the release plan of a distributor. For example, an impact campaign may target a specific audience whose location or ability to access the film falls outside a distributor’s rollout. So, how does a film team get this audience access to the film? How are the impact campaign’s needs communicated effectively to a distributor? Can the needs of an impact campaign dovetail with a distributor’s needs? One solution involves group sales and organizing in-theater events during a film’s release and screenings with stakeholders and community groups. 

What Social Impact Producing Is Not and the Call to Action

The social impact campaign is there to support the film, and one of the many goals is to drive people to the film, but it is not a film and marketing campaign. The goals are different. For marketing campaigns, measures of success include the number of impressions, likes, clicks or hits the film generates, and even the accolades it receives, whereas the impact campaign is organized around the call to action. 

Yellow Rose was released during the pandemic, when many traditional impact campaign tools, such as live events, weren’t available. But a year after the film’s release, its work continues, and I’m beginning to appreciate all that we were able to accomplish. Because of the streaming option, more people got to view the film. We had virtual panel discussions throughout the course of the year that touched upon the critical issues within the film. One in particular, with a group of high school students in New York, really moved me when the students talked about the film’s ideas around representation. And while there ultimately wasn’t the substantial financial support to create the kind of impact campaign I had originally envisioned, after much discussion and back and forth, we finally got the opportunity to work on a discussion guide that will be part of the collegiate and educational distribution of the film. It’s a solid start. Now that we’ve regrouped a little after a time of uncertainty, I feel a renewed sense of purpose and motivation to start thinking about the kind of conversations and action we can spark with the film, even with limited resources. It just takes a bit of creativity. 

The Follow-Up

Once a campaign is in motion, how is impact measured? Often this kind of data isn’t easily quantifiable, but it can still be measured. Surveys and questionnaires distributed at community screenings can assess an audience’s response. Follow-up emails can evaluate how the audience responded to the calls to action. Mechanisms like hashtags can be created to follow and track action throughout the campaign. Testimonials collected throughout the life of the campaign can also be used as part of the evaluation process. 

Conclusion 

I was on a podcast recently, and the host asked me how social impact producing would change as we emerge from the pandemic. During the lockdown, I talked to so many disheartened and discouraged filmmakers, I replied, and my message to them was always to keep creating and to keep that fire burning because one day the world will need these stories. It is a filmmaker’s job to tell them, and it is a social impact producer’s job to motivate people to take action toward real fundamental and long-term change. That space, where art meets education meets philanthropy, is where I live. And in that space, I play the long game. I listen to understand, so the work I do is not reactive but responsive.

The last year and a half forced all of us to take a step back. Now, it seems that filmmaking is making a comeback, but with even more socially conscious artists in the mix. I love this work because it constantly calls for me to grow and to learn. Envisioning, and sometimes re-envisioning, a film’s possible impact requires a lot of mental space, focus and awareness, but it’s a welcome challenge and a much needed one as society faces so many challenges ahead.

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