While many social issue filmmakers want their documentaries to make an impact at the national level, because of the decentralized nature of the United States, sometimes films can have the most impact at the state and local level. A recent WIFV/Docs In Progress Documentary Roundtable focused on this topic.
by Kathy Dismukes
Caty Borum Chattoo and Will Jenkins presented Movies & Grassroots Community Engagement: Documentary Films & State and Local Public Policy in the United States. Their report provides perspectives from 15 policymakers, filmmakers, and advocacy leaders who successfully contributed to policy agendas on the state and local levels, with the help of documentary films. It is the second of a two-volume investigation about the role of documentary films in legislative and regulatory change and influence in the United States. (Volume 1 focused on the federal level.)
It was a treat to be with Borum Chatoo and Jenkins in person. Their passion for filmmaking, pride in its impact to date, and hope for its potential for future change came through many times in our hour together. Here are the report’s strategic recommendations, paraphrased from the report and in some cases expanded upon, followed by some additional tips that came out of the discussion.
LOOK FOR MOMENTUM ACROSS THE COUNTRY AND AT ALL LEVELS OF GOVERNMENT
Looking for state and local engagement options opens a much wider range of potential opportunities to find momentum on an issue. State and local advocates and policymakers are navigators who can point you in the right direction.
CHOOSE ASSOCIATIONS & ADVOCACY PARTNERS WITH STRONG LOCAL TIES.
Partnering early with the right advocacy groups and associations that focus on the social issue at the heart of your film is critical. National groups, however well known, may not have a presence over time in a state or local area. Look for groups with local reputations, contacts on the ground, and staying power.
UNDERSTAND THE ISSUE’S POSITION IN THE POLICY PROCESS OF EACH STATE OR LOCALITY.
When developing a public policy impact strategy for a documentary, it is crucial to understand the current status of the issue it explores. Has legislation been proposed already? Is this a new issue without legislation? Is existing legislation not being enforced? Which party controls the state legislature?
FIND THE RIGHT POLICYMAKERS.
When evaluating particular state and local officials to help support the efforts of your film, consider these factors:
a. Committee assignment and/or jurisdiction over the issue;
b. Local angles of the film and connection to a state legislator’s district or a specific locality;
c. Established long-time commitment to a social issue;
d. Level of seniority;
e. Track record of policy successes.
CREATE STRONG RELATIONSHIPS WITH POLICYMAKERS’ STAFF.
State and local policymakers often have fewer staff than their federal counterparts; some offices have only one or two people. As a result, staff often have even more authority and responsibilities. Relationships matter, and remember that a staffer is both a policy expert and a gatekeeper at the same time. Be persistent but respectful.
FIND EFFICIENT WAYS TO REACH POLICYMAKERS.
State and local policymakers are usually members of regional and national associations, so they attend a variety of conventions, forums, and other gatherings. These opportunities can present more efficient ways for film teams to engage them.
UNDERSTAND A STORY’S UNIQUE VALUE – BUT ALSO KNOW THE FACTS.
Policymakers and their staff are already armed with facts and statistics. What they often don’t have is precisely what a documentary film team can offer: a compelling, intimate, human story that brings an issue to life and captures emotions. But knowing the facts of the issue is important for establishing credibility with policymakers.
PREPARE DETAILED POLICY SOLUTIONS.
State and local policymakers often rely on advocacy groups and outside experts to draft legislation and policy provisions for them to consider, adapt, and often enact. Filmmakers should work with their advocate partners to prepare detailed policy solutions to have at the ready for receptive policymakers.
PROVIDE DIFFERENT OPTIONS & FORMATS FOR VIEWING.
Because policymakers and their busy staff receive so many requests for their time, it can be challenging for them to watch an entire film. A full suite of versions for policy engagement includes
a. 2-minute trailer to capture initial attention;
b. 5-10-minute trailers or scene clips for small meetings;
c. 20-minute cut for a larger meeting and Q&A;
d. Full-length film for public screenings.
LEVERAGE EARNED MEDIA COVERAGE.
Articles in newspapers and magazines, coverage by TV news outlets, and even awards amplify a message outside state capitols. Media coverage is a tactical tool that can raise awareness of a supportive public who can mobilize to tell state and local officials how they feel about an issue. For a social-issue documentary it is not only an entertainment publicity function, but also a grassroots coalition tool.
Additional key takeaways from the discussion:
Planning – Don’t wait until you have a finished film to start thinking about its potential impact on public policy. One screening on the Hill is unlikely to move the needle. While making clear that you will maintain creative and editorial control, reach out to organizations, individual leaders, and more at the very beginning. These advocates can help your project throughout its life cycle and beyond.
- Taking sides – Legislators they interviewed said over and over again that the most successful documentaries that led to legislative change were not overtly partisan. They hewed to traditional methodology and used a balanced, journalistic approach that didn’t provide a baked-in solution.
- Call to action – Filmmakers should be careful with how and what they ask in terms of a call to action for audiences, who can come from all across the political spectrum. If at the end of the film viewers are asked to visit the film’s website, they can self-select there by location, issue, demographic, or other options. In cases where there are several issues (e.g., environmental, social justice, human rights), you can create several shorts from the longer film that focus on a specific issue for a particular audience. Your advocacy partners and legislative champions know what to do from there.
- Timing – Today’s political climate makes efforts at the state and local level even more important, and the timing couldn’t be more opportune.
MORE ON THE SPEAKERS
Caty Borum Chattoo serves as Executive in Residence and Co-Director of the Center for Media & Social Impact at American University, senior strategy advisor to Participant Media, and board member of Working Films. Her documentary features include Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price and The After Party. She also produced a TV documentary and transmedia series (Stand Up Planet, starring Hasan Minhaj), an environmental justice documentary series, and PSA campaigns on issues ranging from global poverty to climate change to HIV. She was also a longtime collaborator with TV producer Norman Lear. Complete bio at https://www.american.edu/soc/faculty/chattoo.cfm.
Will Jenkins worked for 10+ years in communications and policy at both houses of Congress, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the White House, where he worked with producers to plan interviews and events with President Obama and senior officials for documentaries airing on PBS/Frontline and Showtime. Working with the Sundance Institute, SXSW, and Tribeca Film Institute, he shared social impact and public policy engagement strategies with media makers, and he developed AFI’s Political Bootcamp for Filmmakers. A producer of videos on social and political issues, he also serves on the board of Working Films.
ABOUT THE BLOGGER
Kathy Dismukes is the founder of Pintail Productions, a new enterprise focused on creating hella cool content for companies, organizations, and individuals. She is also an impact producer and consultant specializing in fundraising, partnership building, and community outreach for films and nonprofits. A Women in Film & Video member since 2007, she served for two terms on WIFV's board of directors, including as Treasurer and VP of Development.