Report by Bryan Bello
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On Feb. 15, scores of documentarians, nonprofit community leaders, funders, students and professors funneled into Katzen Auditorium. They came to discuss the future of socially engaged documentary in the age of information and the utility of impact measurement in the reign of Google Analytics. The Center’s ninth annual Media That Matters Conference, themed Measure for Measure, provided the perfect setting.
Keynote Speaker Wendy Levy spoke about the future of documentary and the absolute necessity of incorporating impact measurement into docs’ and multimedia stories alike (as well as the need to measure and refine outreach well after a story’s initial run). Paneled discussions on “Sustaining the Documentary Vision Over Generations,” “The Latest Tools in Impact,” and “Measuring Success in Multiplatform Projects” produced a day of forward thinking and discussion.
Wendy Levy has served as the director of New Arts AXIS, a Senior Consultant with the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program, Co-Founder of Sparkwise and former senior strategist at Tomorrows Partners.
She began her address by stressing the importance of measurement.
“Meaningful measurement is every bit as essential as the stories themselves, ” Levy said. “Can we bake in measurement and impact as a component of storytelling? If we can’t and if we aren’t, we as documentary filmmakers may be wasting people’s time.”
And she added: “You are the data formerly known as people.”
But Levy sympathized with filmmakers who struggle with data mining.
“You want to make great films but are being asked to do all these other data-related things,” she said.
Still, she made it clear that filmmakers must move past any hesitation they feel about data in order to enact true change.
“We are in the era of big data, and if we don’t play, then we will get left on the porch.”
The price of falling behind data-driven times, she adds, is a “recipe for irrelevance.”
Levy implored filmmakers to look at data mining as an opportunity, not a roadblock, to produce new relationships and stories based on these nodes of information.
“Stories are data,” Levy said. “The age of data is also the age of social storytelling.”
She argued that data can give story a structure, and that structure can be just as interesting once it is understood.
Furthermore, the industrial adoption of web-based impact measurement only further establishes the importance of documentarians and multimedia content generators in the world.
“You can’t just pull numbers from thin air,” Levy said.
Rather, she added, it takes someone to envision a structure or a story in order to model any analytic measurement that will impact society.
Levy concluded that metrics reveal areas worthy of analysis. But awareness does not equal change, and filmmakers cannot be content to simply reveal an issue. They must use the tools at hand to measure how to truly have an impact on an audience and a society. Interactive platforms that allow us to measure an audience’s reactions (and where these reactions are taking place) create a “loop of cultural exchange” through interactivity. These audiences don’t just passively receive information; they engage in “a two way conversation that can spread many to many.”
How do you create a measurement-enabled campaign for storytelling? What are the best resources out there for the task?
The panel that answered these questions consisted of the Norman Lear Center director of research Johanna Blakley; Katie DeLahaye Paine, CEO of public relations and social media research firm KDPaine and Partners; and Sheila Leddy, executive director of the Fledgling Fund, a group that provides grants for outreach and audience engagement campaigns for documentary film. Moderated by the Center’s director, Patricia Aufderheide, the discussion echoed much of Levy’s insistence that impact measurement without the organizing vision of a storyteller is a formula for ineffectiveness.
But if baking in impact measurement into documentary stories and outreach campaigns doesn’t mean the complex interaction of various analytical algorithms, what does impact measurement require?
Before you can even begin thinking about the tools to implement in a multiplatform outreach campaign, some serious brainstorming, project apprising and goal setting have to take place. Leddy stressed that tracking indicators along the way is important, but you have to make sure you’re tracking the right ones. You can only do this by setting clear goals in advance:
What is it you want to achieve? And be clear about assessing what that goal is. It doesn’t just have to be numbers, it can be a story, it can be an engagement, and then figuring out what that work is for and why you are doing it. You can’t lose foundation; what do you want to use it for?
Johanna Blakley is aware of the importance of tracking the right indicators. Blakley and her colleagues at the Leer Center began studying the work of 35 years of effective metrics research in the field of education. For the last 12 years, she and her colleagues have expanded on that research, implementing new surveying techniques and technologies to study film marketing and “niche faire documentary”: docs not likely to reach a national market. They developed metrics on the likeliness to see a film and not see a film, and discovered the sensitivities of measurements.
For Food Inc., we did a survey of 20,000 people. We searched for similar scores in people, but one had seen the film and the other had not. So we tried to figure out the conditions that lead to the differences. Maybe one saw it in class, maybe one lived in a certain marketing area, or there were, despite only a few differences in the survey, a key difference that held the key. Then we used that info to tweak the outreach of the program.
Blakley pointed out that racial demographic data in much documentary market research has little correlation to viewership. Approaches to establishing an effective outreach campaign that monitor this kind of “conventional” data are flat-out missing the boat.
Blakley is of the survey methodology, an approach that can actually require some heavy statistical math. But Leddy and Paine agreed on stage that integrating accessible services and products such as Facebook and Twitter AVI into a platform like Sparkwise can run an effective campaign.
“My first recommendation is you don’t need a tool, my second recommendation is Excel,” Paine said, adding that a human entering and analyzing a smaller data set is capable of extracting more qualitatively incisive insights than any computer program. She also recommended a free online course called “Statistics for Your Passion” on the learning portal Coursera.
Documentary film sets out to change behavior, but many filmmakers consider it an unlikely goal. In response to this notion, Blakely said, “Behavior changes all the time.” With the right scheme and the selection of the appropriate tools to fit that scheme, these speakers believe the sky is the limit.
The second panel of the day hosted three not-for-profit documentary film organization experts. They have provided unique support for the films they fund, keeping them relevant and effective, while providing the same services internally for their respective organizations.
Justine Nagan, executive director of Kartemquin Films; Mable Haddock, founding president of the National Black Program Consortium (NPBC); and Katy Chevigny, co-founder of Big Mouth Productions, shared thoughts and insights on the advantages of forming a media organization and how to weather inevitable storms of change, serving as the defacto pep talk for the conference.
Andrew Taylor, the assistant professor of Arts Management at American University, moderated the discussion and began by talking about the advantages of forming a filmmaking organization. Nagan weighed in, “Filmmaking can be a very lonely business; stories take years to be told. Kartemquin film provides a creative community. Years after our creators have gone on to their next project, Kartemquin is still continuing to get their works distributed so they can continue to have an impact.”
Nagan became executive director at Kartemquin Films, one of the oldest documentary film organizations in the country, five years ago, and she was charged with the task of taking Kartemquin’s legacy and ushering it into a new era of creative output while maintaining the internal fortitude of the organization.
“Gordon would say that the reason Kartemquin still exists is because of its willingness to be in the continual state of evolution,” she said. “The future of the organization was to adapt while maintaining the essence of the Kartemquin base.”
This principle guides the film organization into the future with the youth of Nagan (an award winning filmmaker herself) and the wisdom of nearly five decades of adaptation.
Chevigny, of Big Mouth productions, brought the welcome insight of a relatable independent entrepreneur.
“For me, I was scared to be a filmmaker operating off of my couch,” Chevigny said. “Somehow [co-founder Julia Pimsleur] and I thought we wanted an office.”
Chevigny quickly realized the true benefits of founding a filmmaking organization when the projects they took on began to garner a national response.
“The benefits that came afterwards, the things you can do with others, the community, your reach,” Chevigny said.
Haddock used the experiences from her 25-year run as founding president and CEO of BNPC to speak to an organization’s ability to foster a coordinated grassroots movement.
“Providing training support, networking support, seminars, conferences, the kinds of things that producers need,” Haddock said.
Through the coordinated strength of NBPC, Haddock helped to foster the next wave of African American producers and filmmakers. She learned about the power of such coordination through her involvement with Henry Hampton’s Blackside production group, which similarly provided film training for African Americans in the late 1960’s all the way into the 90’s. The number and quality of producers that emerged from these programs “is the prime example of why we still need institutions,” Haddock affirmed.
All the organization heads acknowledged that maintaining large not-for-profit media entities can be a real struggle. “Passion gets you a long way: the birthing of an organization, the tending of an organization, but then you get to adulthood,” Haddock commented. “Therein lies the problem. You have to think about mentoring and you have to plan for change, and that is difficult.”
“There comes a point in any organization where you are just trying to keep the lights on,” Chevigny echoed. “There are nightmare business scenarios, dealing with the lease on the copy machine.”
But all the panelists affirmed that weathering what a volatile economy and technology can throw at you is better endured within a community of people enduring together.
How are filmmakers that have adapted and evolved alongside the new movements in technology actually using these opportunities to their advantage? Caty Borum Chattoo, an AU School of Communication executive-in-residence and documentary producer, conducted a conversation with documentary filmmakers Nancy Schwartzman and Roland Legiardi-Laura and Paco de Onis.
All three artists currently employ multi-media technology in the form of apps and interactive websites to expand upon the outreach of their films and campaigns, well after they’ve moved on to their next projects, to remarkable effect.
Legiardi-Laura is self proclaimed “techno-phobic,” but he’s seen what new platforming technology can do for a documentary’s campaign’s marketing outreach and overall mission.
“For filmmakers, if you want to change the world you need the multi-platform to engage and inspire, not just enlighten; you need to get them to the next level, and the platforms get you there,” Legiardi-Laura said. “What’s exciting for me is that this is a different way to engage activists.”
Legiardi-Laura’s work tells the story of his convictions. Power Poetry is the world’s first mobile poetry community for youth, an interactive extension of the filmmaker’s award-winning film “To Be Heard,” the story of three Bronx teenagers that chronicle the intensity of their daily lives through poetry and use their art as an emotional release from corrosive realities.
“It is a one-of-a-kind place, a place where you get to mix your words with different media and technology,” Legiardi-Laura said.
Legiardi-Laura described how far Power Poetry’s reach could go.
“Karina, she writes a piece about how her income-earning dad is locked up all of a sudden one morning. She writes a poem, posts it on our website, we then transmit it to an NGO,” he said. “[The NGO] not only posts it, but maybe pays her to write literature for their next campaign. She gets paid and these children need to get paid.”
The app component makes it easy for young poets to write their poetry on their phones and quickly post it to the website. It’s Legiardi-Laura’s experience that the mobile phone has become the number one medium for youth to transcribe their poetry – something he used to discourage, offering poets leather-bound journals instead, but eventually realized the phones could serve as a portal for these developing artists.
Schwartzman’s film, “The Line,” sought “to tell the story of consent, not dark alley encounters” in her documentary treatment on the subject of rape. She was motivated by a drive to craft a message and set of tools that were engaging the actual realities of young women and not the realities adults believe they encounter. After interviewing multiple students and speaking at schools, she felt ready to craft her film and its outreach extension.
“It evolved organically,” Schwartzman said. “Learning by doing. I learned a lot about new media. You do something, start up quickly, you fail, you learn, and then you do something later.”
Speaking at colleges helped a lot, according to Schwartzman. It reminded that she had an audience that needed to be approached using their language and communicating their sensibilities.
“I hired a 21-year-old to teach me about Twitter; now we have 5,000 followers,” she said. “We used every platform that was available at the time.”
Schwartzman then created an app extension of her thriving “The Line Campaign” when a nonprofit organization that uses social media to promote sexual health contacted her. The collaboration led to the award-winning app Circle of 6. Circle of 6 allows college students to program a group of friends who they can contact immediately, including national hotlines, in case they confront uncomfortable or dangerous situations, sexual and social. The app transmits a GPS signal to friends listed in the user’s circle, allowing them to coordinate the exact location and intervene. The app also enables one touch, preprogrammed communications that quickly alert friends to the severity of the situation. So the message could read: “Call me and pretend you need me. I need an interruption.” If the situation seems unsafe, one tap could tell your friend: “Come get me.”
Schwartzman’s app is a hallmark example of the kind of outreach thinking that documentary campaigns need today. Rethinking campaign strategy also means rethinking campaign duration and commitment. As Schwartzman says:
What are you going to collect, how are you going to evaluate it, why are you going to evaluate it, and how are you going to use that information – that’s the extension of an app, you can’t just have created it and be done.
The extended life of multi-platform campaigns is something Skylight Films producer Paco De Onis has thought a lot about. In factoring in the duration and commitment to a project with interactive online outreach, one must also consider management, he said.
“We are incubators, we launch [interactive web extensions], but we want them to be centered elsewhere after awhile,” Paco De Onis said.
The work of De Onis and Pamela Yates (de Onis’ spouse and fellow filmmaker) led to the trial of a former war criminal and dictator Rios Montt of Guatemala (“Granito: How to Nail a Dictator,” 2011). The film produced the significant advancement of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the fight to bring justice to the world’s worst violators of human rights (“The Reckoning,” 2009).
Four years removed from his award-winning work on “The Reckoning,” the need to maintain momentum in the establishment of ICC validity and sovereignty is as urgent as when the project began. But “Granito,” Skylight Pictures’ most recent release, is now the group’s primary campaign focus.
The GMEM [Granito Memory] project provides tools for the collection of memories related to the internal armed conflict in Guatemala that lasted from 1976-1985… by using the power of memory to facilitate an intergenerational exchange to recover memories, and putting them in a publicly accessible online site, we hope to contribute to the long-term goal of establishing a shared historical narrative and build a future in harmony.
When you are doing the humanitarian work that de Onis and Yates do, it’s never a matter of one project over the other; all their work is essential. It becomes an issue of how to do the most with the resources at hand, which is why Skylight Pictures has been so aggressive in their use of the latest networking, interfacing, and analytic technologies.
Wendy levy offered a ten-day lab to develop a project around your film… a week before Google had just introduced its API, and Twitter was just coming up. We built our own map on top of the Google infrastructure, and we found ways to monitor where people were talking about the international court.
This work has translated brilliantly to the GMEM project. De Onis’s approach to transferring focus involved working with a team inside and outside of Skylight to develop a governing project now known as IJ (International Justice) Central. The site thrives under the work of a team that’s dedicated, not one taxed by the juggling of multiple global efforts all at once.
How de Onis and the Skylight team fostered their work with “The Reckoning” from idea to project, to documentary, to online awareness campaign, to established and rooted movement, is the kind of holistic thinking that the entire day inspired. As Levy said, awareness is not enough – not with what’s at stake in most documentary subjects and not with what’s available to all filmmakers to impact, measure and move the world.
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