Empowering Media That Matters


The Journey to the Academy Awards: An Investigation of Oscar-Shortlisted and Nominated Documentaries (2014-2016)

For a documentary filmmaker, being recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences for an Oscar nomination in the Best Documentary Feature category is often the pinnacle moment in a career. What does it take for a documentary film and its director and producer to make it to the top—the Oscars shortlist, the nomination and the win? Which film directors are recognized—in terms of race and gender? Are the shortlisted films’ stories focused on pressing social issues, or slice-of-life entertainment stories? Where can audiences see the documentaries—on PBS, HBO, iTunes, Netflix or somewhere else? How are the top documentary films distributed—by major studio distributors or smaller independent companies? What other kinds of awards can predict —or are associated with—Oscar recognition, if any? This study aimed to answer these questions through a systematic examination of the last three years (2014, 2015 and 2016) of Academy Award-shortlisted, -nominated and -winning documentary films—a total of 45 films and 56 credited directors. 


Dangerous Documentaries: Reducing Risk when Telling Truth to Power

dangerous_documentaries_coverMany of the issues most important for our society to recognize and discuss are also those that powerful people or institutions don’t want made public. Non-fiction filmmakers who tell truth to power often face aggressive attack from powerful individuals, governmental bodies, businesses and associations. How are independent makers, often working outside of media institutions for long periods of time, and sometimes untrained in journalistic practices, working with this reality? What are the risks, and can they be mitigated to encourage more and better expression on the important issues of the day? 

This report finds that the risks of doing such work are well-established in the investigative journalism community, but not always well known in the documentary film community. It documents attitudes, practices, and problems. It then addresses how makers of such work may best mitigate known risks, and what kinds of support may help them more than they are today. It finally suggests next steps to expand opportunities and share existing knowledge about how to lower risks while telling truth to power. 


Entertainment, Storytelling & Social Change in Global Poverty

Entertainment, Storytelling & Social Change in Global PovertyThe purpose of this research is to understand how audiences are engaged, motivated and changed – in terms of their knowledge, attitudes and behaviors about global health and poverty – as a result of watching an hour-long comedic travelogue documentary TV program about the topic, "Stand Up Planet." Additionally, via a quasi-experimental design, we aim to discover how perceptions of global poverty and health may be different for viewers who watch entertaining, light-hearted storytelling that balances facts with comedy ("Stand Up Planet"), compared with a sober journalistic format ("The End Game"). Both hour-long documentaries focus on global poverty and health in poor corners of the world, both aired on TV in the United States in 2014, and both include facts and “real people” in the areas they profile. The primary difference between the two is the specific focus on particular global development challenges – sanitation and HIV for "Stand Up Planet," and malaria for "The End Game" – as well as their editorial tone and format. 

Our aim is to learn how audiences engage with issues related to global poverty and health specifically, but also to provide broader insights for the individuals and organizations that endeavor to create social change through storytelling. 


Field Report: Land of Opportunity

lop5The Land of Opportunity transmedia documentary project encompasses a feature film and interactive web platform designed to foster dialogue and social impact around community (re)building in the face of crisis/disaster. In 2006, Director/ Producer Luisa Dantas started filming for the documentary (“Land of Opportunity”), which follows several individuals through the early years of postKatrina rebuilding in New Orleans. In 2012, the project evolved to include the interactive web platform (LandofOpportunity), which combines a rich archive of 1 post-Katrina reconstruction stories with multimedia content from several other communities across the country. The interactive narratives featured on the platform explore a range of places and partners facing redevelopment issues. This field report is a primer on the process of creating an interactive web-based experience after releasing a traditional documentary, as part of a greater set of tools for public engagement. This report was compiled using a series of interviews that spanned the length of production and launch of the platform, some of which were used in shorter blog posts published by the Center for Media & Social Impact. Center staff and graduate fellows conducted interviews and the LandofOpportunity production team provided research, consultation and coordination.