By Joanna Raczkiewicz, Harmony Institute
Over the last twenty years, the number of documentary films produced annually has grown exponentially. According to Numbers.com, a site that tracks the US box office revenue and movie sales, documentary films account for 14 percent of all films released between 1995 and 2015, placing it as the third most widely produced genre. Those numbers don’t account for the fact that docs are commonly distributed via broadcast television, cable networks and, more recently, online meaning the actual number films released is likely much higher.
Despite this impressive rise in number of documentaries produced, few documentary producers and fans will be surprised to learn that volume doesn’t correlate with earnings. In the same twenty-year period that documentaries captured 14 percent of the market, they made up less than one percent of market share. It’s no wonder then that investors eager to profit from financing films steer clear of the genre.
Documentarians have thankfully learned to look elsewhere for funding. Many philanthropists and mission-driven organizations working for social change see the value of documentary projects as going beyond strictly financial. Whether communicating fundamental truths of human experience, or putting complex issues into personal context, these funders have realized that documentaries can engage and move audiences as few other forms can. (Empirical studies back this up, suggesting that narratives like those experienced by documentary audiences have a “privileged status” in human cognition, information processing, and recall.)
According to a 2013 Foundation Center report charting US grantmaking activity from 2009 – 2011, foundations are increasingly supporting media-related work across multiple fields, from citizen journalism to communications infrastructure. Accompanying this trend is a growing emphasis on accountability and data-driven measurement among philanthropic organizations, with terms like “impact investing” and “outcome-oriented” philanthropy gaining currency over every award cycle. This push towards metrics to measure program effectiveness is passed on to grantees—documentarians among them.
The problem is, grantsmanship and impact measurement aren’t skills usually associated with filmmakers and creatives. The imperative to articulate achievable goals; identify appropriate metrics; collect and analyze data; and report on outcomes is daunting to many filmmakers, many of whom cite a lack of time, resources, and training needed to do the job. Others oppose the idea that creativity can be quantified, regardless of whether they believe their project has the potential to change minds and spark social change. Setting baselines, distinguishing between causal and correlative measures, tying indicators to theories of change—this is the work of social scientists, not auteurs, after all.
At the Harmony Institute, we devote our time to studying the mechanisms through which narrative media contribute to positive social change. We conduct basic research to test social science theories of influence, develop computational methods to mine online discourse and behavior, create evidence-based tools for practitioners, and advise on strategy and evaluation.
Our work in the field has taught us the value of starting the impact-planning process early. It also inspired the creation of StoryPilot (currently in beta), an online platform designed to empower storytellers to embrace data and metrics to advance their art.
There are number of initial steps you, documentarians, can take to effectively incorporate metrics into planning and fundraising for your project. Addressing the questions listed below will go a long way toward helping you set concrete, measurable goals.
● What inspired you to develop or produce the film? Was it a particular experience or relationship? Are you building on prior work? Are you addressing an issue or social problem that you feel hasn’t received the attention it deserves?
● Who are you making the film for? What audiences do you want to reach? Why? What do you want them to take away? How do you want them to feel after watching the film? What, if any, actions do you want them to take?
● How is your project unique? Are you presenting a new perspective? Telling a story in a new or unconventional way? If you’re focusing on a specific social issue, take some time to explore how others have treated similar subjects. (Check out StoryPilot.org to explore the landscape of recent social-issue documentaries.)
● Why are you the best person to tell the story? Do you have specialized knowledge of the subject or access to data and resources that other may not?
The next step is to translate your answers into measurable goals in order to identify appropriate metrics—i.e., the data, information, and tangible evidence you’ll collect to gauge your progress toward their achievement. Keep in mind that the metrics are most effective when chosen and applied on a case-by-case basis, custom-fit to a particular undertaking.
At the Harmony Institute, we often hear media makers saying they want to “change the conversation” or “raise awareness” around a particular issue or injustice. These are valid ambitions, but not yet measurable goals. As detailed in the Impact Playbook, an impact manual for filmmakers and change-agents, a key activity in any measurement project is to establish baselines, or reference points against which you can measure change. For example, as detailed in a study of the film Gasland (Vasi, Walker, Johnson, Tan; American Journal of Sociology, forthcoming,) we were able to observe and quantify shifts in public discourse around the issue of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) by comparing and analyzing mainstream and social media before and after the film’s release and award nominations.
Regardless of whether you’ve set your sights on creating a transportive experience for your viewers; changing their comprehension of, attitudes towards, or behaviors around an issue; or achieving broader systemic change on a policy level, instruments for collecting and analyzing outcome data abound, each with its strengths and weaknesses.
If this sounds overwhelming: don’t despair. There’s a vibrant, and growing community of individuals and organizations serving the field, and myriad excellent, free resources to help guide your way (a handful of which are listed below).
Together with our colleagues in the field, we’re committed to maximizing media impact—which brings me to a final thought on garnering support for your next project. Approach potential funding opportunities as more than a means to an end. The vision and values that drive philanthropic investments are realized through their grantees; thoughtful application of metrics will help ensure mutually beneficial outcomes.
The following offer a few points of entry to the many resources in the field:
Guides: The Impact Playbook, The Impact Field Guide and Toolkit
Tools and resources: Media Impact Funders (AIM), Sparkwise, StoryPilot, TRASI
Harmony Institute: @HInstitute, The Ripple Effect blog
Joanna Raczkiewicz is Manager of Research, Strategy and Development for the Harmony Institute.