For the first time in history, the 2021 Sundance Film Festival will take place in at least 20 cities across the country, as well as online. “We want to reach people who we have not been able to reach before—where access to the work is not predicated on being able to afford to travel to an expensive place,” the festival’s director Tabitha Jackson told the New York Times. “The world has typically come to Sundance. We are now trying to take Sundance to the world.”
This unprecedented move for Sundance is one of many seismic changes shaking up the film world right now, as filmmakers and funders adjust to the realities of filmmaking during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In an effort to help keep the field connected during this uncertain time, Media Impact Funders hosted a call back in May with about 50 documentary film funders who shared how they are supporting filmmakers when theatrical screenings and face-to-face engagement are off the table. While united in the goal of supporting impact work during this time, many funders continue to overlook one group in the space that is especially vulnerable during this time: impact producers.
Most impact producers, especially in the United States, work from project to project, are not employed full-time and may lack access to affordable health insurance. Their work depends largely on face-to-face engagements, such as community screenings, which are no longer possible. Another challenge is that impact funding, when it does exist, often dries up shortly after a film’s release, even if the film and issue remain relevant for years to come.
Perspective Fund is also stepping up through needs-based emergency relief funds that will be accessible to both filmmakers doing impact campaign work and impact producers. “We hope our fund will offer emergency support for impact producers, who have not really been included in other responses,” said Denae Peters, Program Officer at Perspective Fund, who is a former impact practitioner. “We’re trying to ensure we’re looking at the situation as holistically as possible by meeting emergency needs, as well as meeting professional development needs.”
We recently spoke with Peters about how Perspective Fund is supporting impact work throughout this crisis and beyond it.
Media Impact Funders: As a former impact practitioner, what do you think funders need to know about the realities of impact production work on the ground right now?
Denae Peters: As an impact practitioner, I was in the relatively rare position of being a full-time staffer for multiple for-profit impact firms. In those settings, it was often clear that the impact ambitions of even the most motivated and well-funded film teams were under-resourced, that sources of funding for the work were chronically limited to all but a few institutions and that as an industry, we still have yet to prioritize budgeting for impact in the very early stages of fundraising for a project. This work is more frequently practiced by independent/freelance specialists who may encounter an even greater lack of access to funding in support of their work alongside the financial instability that is endemic to the documentary industry.
No matter the setting that impact producers practice in, these roles are critical to establishing strategic, community-driven and meaningful change through film and yet they occupy a precarious place within our ecosystem. One of the key objectives of the Infrastructure program area that I oversee at Perspective Fund is working with partners who are contributing to a more sustainable, effective and equitable field for impact practitioners to thrive in. COVID-19 has exacerbated a number of the pre-existing challenges for this community, and we have spent the past few months listening and learning from the urgent and growing needs expressed by the field.
One of the ways that we are attempting to support practitioners in the short term is through collaborating with the steering committee of the Global Impact Producers Assembly (GIPA) to launch the Documentary Impact Producers Relief Fund (DIPR Fund), administered by our fellow MIF members at Doc Society. To date, this is the only fund offering support exclusively to documentary impact producers.
The first round of the DIPR Fund exposed glaring amounts of financial duress worldwide, reinforcing the March 2020 findings of a COVID-19 impact survey conducted by GIPA. It found that 46 percent of respondents were experiencing immense negative impacts on their work with loss of income, difficulty paying bills and food insecurity ranking amongst their greatest concerns.
So far, the fund has supported 132 practitioners across 27 countries and it is currently accepting applications for the second of three funding rounds. In addition to this short-term, emergency support, we are seeing a real need for project support to revive and amplify the wave of impact campaigns that have been postponed, cancelled or reduced in scope since the onset of the pandemic—nearly every applicant to the fund identified at least one such project that they were affiliated with.
Media Impact Funders: How do you think funders can work together to support impact production through a collaborative approach? What are some of the areas you are hoping funders will explore?
Peters: We are as committed as ever to the long-term support the field needs to rebuild and regenerate and we are eager to collaborate with aligned peer funders. As we remain in open dialogue with our partners, peers, grantees and others about the spectrum of needs and approaches, we’d love to share a few of the areas where we are actively seeking allies:
- Expand or create new avenues for emergency relief support for impact producers either through launching or supporting dedicated funds, like the Documentary Impact Producers Relief Fund, or by ensuring that eligibility for existing relief funds cover impact strategists, impact producers, outreach staff and the like.
- Ensure that funding is diverted to ongoing campaigns seeking support to re-strategize, pivot, and capitalize on the opportunity for innovation that this moment presents to us. For example, as a complement to our existing film and impact campaign funding program, Perspective Fund recently launched the initiative Our Democracy, focused on bolstering campaigns being brought to life virtually in advance of the November 2020 U.S. election.
This moment compels us to work together to envision and rebuild our ecosystem. Some of the questions we hope funders will join us in considering are:
- How can we ensure that recent gains made for the impact production field are not lost as funders, distributors and creators reconfigure what success looks like for their films’ public lives?
- How can we draw new funders into this space and capitalize on the growing awareness of the power of storytelling and narrative change?
- For funders who already fund impact work, how can we encourage and support grantees and impact practitioners willing to experiment with new models and tools?
- How can we push ourselves beyond surface-level engagement metrics and prioritize more meaningful forms of measurement and evaluation?
- What professional development opportunities are needed to support advancing the level of innovation and sophistication that impact producers can bring to their strategies and tactics?
Media Impact Funders: You’ve added an impact-focused senior fellow to your team— Sonya Childress, a cultural strategy veteran who, for the last 17 years, had led engagement strategy at Firelight Media. How did the idea for having a fellow focused on impact come about, and how will Sonya’s role further Perspective Fund’s impact work?
Peters: The idea for the senior fellowship came out of a series of conversations between Sonya and the Perspective Fund leadership team over the last several years. Informed by two decades of positioning nonfiction film as a tool for movement building and narrative change, Sonya will use the next 18 months to interview leaders and thinkers in the culture change ecosystem, survey the film community, document case studies, and develop new field-building resources.
The focus of her research will fall into three main areas: 1) building sustainability for the growing field of impact producing, i.e., the art of using films as part of a larger strategy for social change, 2) codifying ethics and accountability for nonfiction filmmaking and media representation, and 3) building power among media makers who are Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC).
In addition to mapping trends, gaps, and opportunities, she will also incubate new initiatives geared toward establishing greater sustainability and infrastructure for impact producers, as well as greater ethics and accountability for nonfiction filmmaking and social impact media more broadly. We couldn’t be more thrilled to have her expertise on the team and to have her thoughtfulness leading these complex conversations in support of the field.
Join us for our next impact discussion | Tuesday, Aug. 18 | 12:30-1:30 p.m. ET (This is a funders-only discussion)
In August 2019, Media Impact Funders held a special meeting to help chart a course for the field of media impact assessment. We convened leading practitioners to identify best practices, assess the state of practice more broadly, and explore new ways of doing media impact assessment. We reconvened the group at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, where we released our report, “Decoding Media Impact: Insights, Advice & Recommendations,” which provides an examination of the field of impact assessment and practical advice for funders interested in learning where to start. In an effort to continue those conversations, especially among funders supporting impact work, we are hosting a discussion in partnership with Perspective Fund from 12:30-1:30 p.m. ET on Tuesday, Aug. 18, to explore:
1. The latest developments in impact production, including innovative models and approaches
2. How challenges brought on by COVID-19 are being addressed
3. The imperative for funders to better support impact production