Report by Jacob Roberts
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At the start of the "Change For Good" themed 8th Media That Matters (MTM) Conference, event founder, Pat Aufderheide warmly welcomed the attendees. Setting a tech-friendly atmosphere, Pat asked MTM guests to keep their phones on, to "keep connected and keep us connected to the people you know." Her request seemed to have stuck as the conference hashtatg, #mtmdc was a trending local topic on twitter for both days of MTM.
The 2012 Media That Matters conference, "Change for Good," featured conversations about how independent social change filmmakers can execute integrated campaigns that are strategic, action-oriented, and have enduring impact.
Meredith Blake, distinguished attorney, social entrepreneur, and Founder and CEO of Cause & Affect—a strategy consulting and management firm in the business of high-impact social change—elicited vocal responses from the rapt audience. Her keynote set the stage for much fruitful discussion to come on partnerships and effective engagement strategy. However, nothing else in the keynote address seemed to capture the audience’s imagination and pique their curiosity more than her statement that not only is promoting positive social change the right thing to do, it’s also a sound investment that can earn real returns for stakeholders.
To illustrate her hypothesis, Blake drew primarily from a case study of her own work on This Emotional Life. In addition to compelling television programming, her work on This Emotional Life came to life as a groundbreaking, multi-platform, practical campaign that offers real tools to improve one’s emotional self. The project focuses primarily on (1) returning soldiers and their families and (2) early attachment.
Before she talked about the return on investment her partners got from this project, Blake outlined why the program’s accompanying engagement campaign was so successful:
- Hard work: Blake’s team realized that many of the people most in need of their campaign’s resources may not watch PBS, where This Emotional Life originally aired or they may not speak English, the language in which it aired. Rather than write off this segment of the population, the strategists worked with partners to distribute documents, video modules, and multilingual materials through community centers and direct mailings.
- Strategy: To prepare for their efforts, Blake and her partners spent much of their pre-production time seeking and collaborating with partners. Before long, they were working with the federal government, private entities and NGOs to move their target audience from awareness to action. Two years after the initial airing of This Emotional Life, the on and offline tools are still in use while PBS re-broadcasts the original program (often without notifying Blake, et al, unfortunately).
- Adjustment: At the outset, Blake’s project had lined up financing from hospitals and the military, but that support tanked along with the economy. Recognizing that, on the way to achieving the outcomes they were looking for, the path from A to B had changed, they found new collaborators. Because many of its students are returning soldiers, Blake’s team joined with University of Phoenix. Making the case that it was a sound monetary investment, Blake and her crew recruited experts from the Department of Defense and the federal government to join the project as well. Additionally, while they were creating their offline toolkits, the team realized military families were experiencing problems with early attachment because deployed family members were often away for the earliest parts of their children’s lives. So, mid-project they re-tooled an early attachment toolkit specifically for military families.
Blake wanted her filmmaking audience to keep in mind that making a commitment to social impact can be a very good financial decision; it can drive an audience, bring in a new audience, build brand loyalty and earn media—and these benefits should be part of your pitch to potential partners. If the campaign is built correctly and thoughtfully, it can pay for itself. If partners do not see the benefit at the outset, keep them updated on your progress, and they may come to your side later.
Social change is hard work, Blake emphasized; it requires community. It’s long-term, ever changing and good business. We should talk about media that matters, but change that matters should be a part of that conversation as well.
Further developing the discussion on partnerships and adjusting to changing circumstances, the first discussion’s three participants, Michael Collins (Give up Tomorrow), Will Sylvester (Question Bridge) and Michelle Benham (Inside Story) shared their experiences with the partnerships that helped them get their projects off the ground, and how their projects changed along the way.
Benham’s project, dedicated to spreading awareness about HIV in Africa, took an unexpected turn in the earliest stages of its development: one of the partners told her and her team that, if they wanted to reach their target audience, they would have to make a fiction piece, rather than the documentary they had anticipated producing. And after that: more change. Benham and her team worked through “a ton” of focus groups and went through five different writers for their film.
The Give Up Tomorrow team achieved amazing success through their initial media efforts -- they were able to remove a wrongfully accused man from death row in the Philippines. But they realized they had more work to do. Collins related, the team felt they should work not just to ultimately free one man, but to end the death penalty as well. So they set out to make a film that would play worldwide in festivals and keep the conversation going.
Sylvester was representing "The Question Bridge", a video-mediated conversation among black males about black male identity, started with no concrete aspirations, other than to give black males a chance to question one another. After the team amassed their volumes and volumes of content, someone suggested it become a curriculum. So they made it adaptable to what teachers were already doing. After that, it became an iPad app, then an online conversation. The Question Bridge evolution has always been organic, building out at each stage.
As with Blake, the panelists all realized the benefits of persistence. Even if potential partners declined, they sent letters of support that helped earn grants. The teams kept organizations, which initially declined involvement in the projects, abreast of the projects’ progression and, eventually, some would change their minds. Collins told the audience to regularly think of new ways to bring potential partners into the conversation and remember that rejection is part of the process, so don’t let it discourage you.
While the panel acknowledged the importance of traditional, quantitative metrics of success, they also acknowledged there are some successes that are immeasurable. Collins has distributors all over the world to measure sales and partners to measure how many people take online action, but people with tears in their eyes after viewing his project are on a different scale altogether. When people see his project and understand the importance of investigative journalism or a fair judicial process, he feels that his campaign starts to take a life of its own. To him, the viewers and participants take ownership of the campaign themselves.
All three of the panelists felt the same: when the film is done, the project is not over; the outreach has just begun.
With many conferences, the post-lunch sessions suffer from an afternoon listlessness that follows a meal. Fortunately, the interstitial at MTM 2012 was entirely entertaining, provocative and engaging thanks to the presentation by Angela Tucker on Black Folk Don’t….
Tucker showed that a web series can be as attractive as any other form of media if done correctly. "Black Folk Don’t…" takes a look at stereotypes of black folk, of course, and the people who hold them. Will Sylvester coincidentally debunked in the first talk one of the "Black Folk Don’t…" topics: that black folk don't go to museums. Black folk flocked to The Question Bridge museum premieres. But before she got to the point where her web series was compelling audiences to laugh and re-examine their presumptions about black folk, Tucker first sought out the National Black Programming Consortium with her idea.
After overcoming the challenge of finding willing interview participants and making her first series, she is signed on for another season and two additional projects. (Apparently there is a video on the way to feature white folks’ preconceived notions of black folks, the mere idea of which spurred a din of uncomfortable and already embarrassed laughter.)
Tucker learned that a web series is a lot of work: it requires smart strategy and good production to separate your work from of the rest of the videos of cats and ‘fails’ out there. But, when you do, it’s a good way to draw in a new audience to your subjects, especially if a major outlet tweets or posts one of your videos to their blog (as Tucker learned directly when NPR posted a ‘Black Folk Don’t’ video to their Tumblr and Twitter pages).
Many people with important stories to tell are without the resources or know-how to tell them. Helping out these folks is what drives Liz Norton of Stone Soup Films, “a non-profit cooperative that produces and donates funding and promotional films for worthy organizations.” For people who might find the filmmaking process overwhelmingly mystifying, Norton and her associates demystify it for them and explain why telling their story is a good idea. Fortunately for us, the other two panelists in the second panel discussion of the day, Lee Hirsch of The Bully Project and Aman Ali of 30 Mosques in 30 Days needed no such coaxing.
Like the interstitial that preceded it, panel two was lively and, with the help of Ali (a seasoned stand-up comic), had the audience roaring with laughter at times while still fully engaged. After coming up with what he termed ‘a jackass idea’ to tour 30 mosques in 30 days, he found that there was much more interest than he’d anticipated. What started as a blog to cover his journey eventually turned into a documentary project. However, the financier he found pulled funding before production started. Like so many of the other panelists at MTM, he adjusted to new circumstances, eventually crowdsourcing his funding and raising $6k in three days. A kid in Kentucky even raised $250 with a lemonade stand for him (Ali: “I call it adorable, society calls it child labor.”).
Hirsch also found himself dealing with circumstances he could not foresee: once mogul Harvey Weinstein picked up Hirsch’s project, The Weinstein Company wanted the film’s name changed from The Bully Project to Bully. Ultimately, Hirsch decided that distribution from the Weinstein Co. was worth it. On the other hand, Hirsch pushed back when the foundations he partnered with wanted to inject their message into the film. And when he noticed his partners seemed to feel that they were the sole experts, he had to push back then to encourage wider collaboration as well.
For Ali, part of his partnership strategy was specifically not to partner with Muslim organizations. They wanted involvement in his project for an opportunity to spread their message. Ali’s concerns were to tell good stories and have fun. He and his filmmaking team didn't want their project to feel like work, and the attitude seems to have worked. They built an audience and won acclaim from Mos Def to Hillary Clinton.
In partnerships, though, Hirsch acknowledges that the film making team must do the lion’s share of the work. To him, the onus is on the filmmaker to tell the partners how their funds will do the work. Once the work is done, the filmmaker still needs to communicate to her or his partner the importance of that work.
Norton also looks to develop the content of her media independently from her partners. Norton is of the philosophy that everyone should do what they do best; Stone Soup makes the media and non-profits focus on their work. With limited funds, she found the best way to spread a message is through storytelling and solid partnerships in which expectations are clear from the start. Their goal is to break through numbness and complacency by creating media that makes people think.
You throw a stone, see the water ripple and then the ripple goes away, but you don't see that the water rises after many stones. That is the image with which moderator Caty Borum Chattoo opened the dialogue. By the conversation’s end it was clear Dara Kell (Dear Mandela), Suzan Beraza (Bag It) and Ronit Avni (Home Front) have all contributed much to change the world in big ways thanks to the their visual media.
Avni keeps her focus narrow: she only works on projects addressing the Israeli occupation of Palestine. In her visits to both Israel and Palestine, she regularly encountered skepticism to the existence of Palestinian non-violence (on the Israeli side) and the efficacy of Palestinian non-violence (on the Palestinian side). So she set out to tell the story of Budrus, a village where non-violent Palestinian resistance worked to stop an Israeli land grab.
Despite Avni’s narrow subject focus, she clearly had a wide-angle lens on strategy. As an Israeli citizen, she knew that the German media had a huge influence on the Israeli press, so she first targeted the German media to publicize her film. Once the German press picked it up, it was easier for her to earn press in Israel. According to Avni, Israeli citizens said that, if the Palestinians resisted nonviolently, they would be welcomed with open arms (apparently that turned out not to be entirely true). Like Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, Avni also focuses on gaining the attention of and reaching policy shapers and intellectual leaders as well as working with students. As Avni puts it, students are on the vanguard of social movements while congress and politicians are usually the slowest to change their biases.
Also working in the international stage, Kell’s project focuses on post-apartheid South Africa. When she learned that the ‘shack-dwellers’ of South Africa had only experienced a decline in the quality of life, after apartheid, she sensed an important story. The shack-dwellers lived under the constant threat of violence and eviction, and Kell and her team wanted to tell the story as soon as possible. However, before they could film willing participants, the ultra-democratic eviction resistance movement she wanted to film required an extensive question-answer session about the filmmakers and their goals. Once they earned the trust of their subjects, the team set to work, cutting different versions of their project to build partner relationships, which resulted in one of their subjects coming to the US for speaking tours. This remarkable success was in spite of the fact that generally, audiences do not want to see films about activists – so Kell and her team had to tell a story about activists, without appearing to make a film about activists.
The adaptability of Kell’s team paid off when, halfway through production, Kell and her team was caught in the middle of death threats and violence against their oppressed subjects. The filmmakers had to escape in the middle of the night, but, before they did, they put together a short video with the footage to emphasize the urgency of the shack-dwellers’ situation. After the team distributed the short to a local station, the message spread, reaching influential intellectuals and human rights activists who demanded an investigation, spurring protests, and eventually gaining the attention of the South African government.
Like many (if not, all) of the MTM 2012 speakers, Beraza’s film has a strong curricular component as well. For her, it was a priority to reach children in a strong way, rather than just dumb down the content and call it "educational." Also like her fellow panelists, she had to wrestle with telling an activist story (about reducing the consumption of plastic) while keeping it entertaining. To achieve this goal, the filmmaking team kept their subject in the dark about plastic bags and plastic waste.
It is through this proxy that the story of Bag It is told. Jeb Berrier, an average American guy, travels the country and interviews experts, investigating the environmental impact of plastic bags with about as much familiarity on the subject as the audience. When he was enraged, the audience could identify with him because they were just learning the upsetting truth as well. Beraza figures it must have worked because she gets regular emails from housewives who were "just flipping through the channels" when they catch her program, and are then inspired to act.