At Sarajevo, experts debate the funding of social impact films
by David Katz
- Four executives from the UK and US participated in an in-depth panel on this emerging strand of the industry at the CineLink Industry Days
Films aiming to provoke change have always existed, whether to raise awareness of important issues for their audience or actually impact policymakers to change laws. But only recently has the designation of “social impact films” existed as a specific industry category. Organised by the CineLink Industry Days at the Sarajevo Film Festival, in partnership with Documentary Campus, a panel aimed to introduce and make clearer some of the concepts and conventions of this space to its industry delegates; all the speakers on stage were from the UK or USA, but their insights had great significance to European independent filmmaking. The funding for these films, which in today’s world might spur awareness and action on the climate crisis or human rights, as well as their publicity and release strategies, were both well-discussed by the panel.
Chaired by producer, screenwriter and journalist Paula Vaccaro, the participants were the UK’s Danielle Turkov-Wilson of Think-Film Impact Production and Sarah Mosses, CEO of Together Films, and from the US, Patricia Finneran, the Executive Director of Story Matters, and Brian Newman, CEO of Sub-genre Media.
Vaccaro begun the talk by emphasising the precarious nature of this part of the industry: “Us in the social impact space are thinking [about] how we can do our campaigns better or more effectively, and how we can make this space more sustainable, because we struggle to get our campaigns funded. The ideas are great but there are little resources, especially in Europe.”
Speaking about the organisation she runs, Turkov-Wilson described it as “essentially an Accenture or Deloitte for the film industry.” Then, she gave some examples with figures: “In 2020, the impact investment market was worth $750 billion globally. So if you tap into impact money, you tap into a massive market. $360 billion is being spent on millennials and Generation Z. They demand two core things – ethical, authentic content and responsible filmmaking. If anyone in the film industry supply chain is telling me that impact doesn’t make money, I can say it really is.”
Mosses emphasised how the space demands a different approach to financing: “It’s entrepreneurial in how we approach things. When filmmakers are funding their projects sometimes, they pitch to Arte, to the BFI – all the traditional 'film' people. There is so much more. In the traditional impact landscape, there’s the foundation space, individual donors and brand funders. There’s a whole collection of money available when you step outside the typical film funding routes. And that can be complemented by the normal channels.”
Newman had the most insight on utilising brands for contributing to a project’s finance pool: “When I first started working with brands, people thought I was crazy. Brands realise their consumers are looking for genuine, true reactions to what’s happening in the world. And brands give a signal of how they care about that too, so therefore they want to support documentary films. I work for major corporations, big brands, like Unilever, PMG, Mars. All these companies are investing in, sponsoring and donating to film campaigns, and sometimes they fully finance them, although other times it’s not appropriate.”
Contrasting with the other panellists, Finneran put forward a more collaborative model to working in the space. “The idea of multi-billion dollar investment is exciting, and I totally get it, but for an individual filmmaker, you can think in a more grassroots way,” she explained. “Where filmmakers travel around the country screening the film, talking to people and having conversations that really matter. The funding mentioned before is a scarcity model - 'give me money for my film.' With impact, it’s a collaborative model, going to someone who’s already working on that issue, who sees the world in the same way, and the tool is as a partner. It’s about partnership and collaboration.”
She also had compelling suggestions about measuring a project’s overall success, speaking about the limitations of seeing it merely in terms of a return on investment, and suggesting thinking instead about “eyeballs, reach, how many people, engagement, what do they do, influence, participation.” Referencing the progress of American civil rights from 1965 to now, she argued that “some problems will change slowly over time, and your film is a little push along the way.”
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