The role of the impact campaign and its impact producer is critical to the long-term success of a film whose goal is to catalyze social change. It’s the impact producer who must deeply understand the film’s mission and message, and then figure out how best to leverage it for impact—whether it’s raising awareness, inspiring action or changing policy. Few funders are supporting the documentary impact ecosystem as robustly as Perspective Fund. A member of Media Impact Funders (MIF) since 2016, Perspective—in addition to supporting powerhouse social change documentaries such as “Writing with Fire,” “Crip Camp” and “Coded Bias”— offers general operating support and infrastructure grants geared toward building and sustaining the field. In 2020, soon after COVID-19 forced widespread lockdowns, which all but eliminated film releases and disrupted their impact campaigns, Perspective implemented an emergency relief fund for struggling impact producers facing economic uncertainty. MIF Communications Director Nina Sachdev recently spoke with Denae Peters, a former impact practitioner who oversees Perspective Fund’s infrastructure program, about the organization’s work two years into the pandemic, opportunities and concerns in the impact ecosystem, and its Our Democracy portfolio.
Nina Sachdev: How has your approach to supporting media changed over time, especially two years into COVID-19? When we caught up with you in the early parts of the pandemic, you were providing emergency relief funds to impact producers. They didn’t have a high level of job security before the pandemic, and then the situation got much worse.
Denae Peters: Perspective Fund has been funding documentary impact organizations since its inception but the infrastructure portfolio, dedicated specifically to those working in concert to build, sustain and evolve the infrastructure, knowledge base and terms of engagement for members of the social impact documentary field, formalized in March 2020. A tumultuous time!
We had a number of emergency response programs in 2020 and 2021, several of which continue to influence elements of our funding priorities and approaches. Here’s where some of the initiatives landed:
- The Impact Producers Relief Fund supported nearly 400 practitioners across 42 countries. Though the funds were for personal hardship relief, applicants also had the opportunity to share some of the projects they were working on during the application process. Based on what we learned, we were also able to offer general support to a number of disrupted film campaigns.
- To support those pivoting to bringing campaigns to life online, the Center for Media & Social Impact hosted a Masterclass Series On Building Social Justice Power Through Best Practices in Digital Strategic Communications. This 8-week program rolled out in 2021 and recordings for all sessions are available to all.
- In 2020, we launched our first open call for our film granting portfolio titled Our Democracy. We sought to offer urgent campaign support to films that had the potential to engage and educate the public and were acutely aware of the disruptions faced by so many film teams who had timed their release and campaign activities for the pivotal election year. In the 2020 round, we supported five films and campaigns and we hope to open for applications for a 2022 round in the next month or so. For those who have projects to recommend, or who want to be kept in the loop on the projects that are uplifted through this initiative, please reach out to us!
It remains clear that COVID has compounded the systemic challenges those in this field were already facing. And we really heard it when our grantees and peers shared that they weren’t just concerned about the acute and immediate impacts of COVID but the potential for long-term damage to the impact ecosystem. While COVID may have served as a catalyst for the efforts mentioned above, our intention has always been to seek out opportunities to bolster the equity, sustainability and efficacy of this work, and we’re more committed to that than ever.
NS: What bright spots do you see in the documentary impact ecosystem now? What are some of the biggest concerns?
DP: We are really inspired by the collective organizing we’ve seen recently by both formal and more informal groups and are grateful to them for sparking much needed conversations. With groups like the Documentary Accountability Working Group, Distribution Advocates, and Restoring the Future pushing us to imagine our field in new and vastly improved ways and to take accountability for making it happen, I can’t help but feel energized and hopeful.
One of our priorities is supporting field-led, community-informed organizing, programming and initiatives as we truly believe in their ability to contribute to cultural shifts. This is why we fund both capacity-building/infrastructure work and films and their campaigns in tandem—we don’t think it is possible to have films that reach their full social change potential if the landscape is unsustainable and unsupportive of its stakeholders.
Which leads to some of our biggest concerns. We are acutely aware of the resources (ie. financial, emotional, time) that this type of organizing takes. And we know from listening to our grantees that these resources, especially funds for their core capacity building work, are hard to come by before accounting for the additional resources needed to engage meaningfully in field-led movement work. For us, this means we are amplifying our capacity-building support options and are committed to supporting opportunities for collaboration in a way that eases the burden on our grantees. It means we are prioritizing funds that we hope will open up more time and space for field stakeholders to dream, innovate and problem-solve. And it means we are trying to foster more open lines of communication between our team and grantees so that we can be truly responsive and supportive of the incredible work they manage to do in spite of it all.
NS: What types of doc films and film teams are you keeping an eye out for?
DP: Distinct from other communications or media approaches, we believe that documentaries are primed to fit more dimensions of lived experience into storytelling. Films and their accompanying campaigns offer crucial insight into how larger social forces play out in individual lives, as well as how individuals and communities in turn shape those forces. This is why we think it is imperative to resource filmmakers and strategists, especially those for whom entrenched forces and systems (to offer some examples: white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, ableism) are most apparent in their lives and communities. For an effective and just use of documentaries as a tool for change, we think it’s important to fund films across all stages of production and in any of these three commonly identified categories of impact work:
- Seeking structural or policy shifts;
- Building and supporting grassroots movements for change, and;
- Shifting public attitudes, culture, practices and behaviors.
In short: work developed from a place of accountability to film participants and directly affected communities comprises an important and durable model for filmmaking and impact. We seek to resource it accordingly.
NS: What are you working on now?
DP: Next up, we’ll be launching round two of Our Democracy open call soon and are looking forward to learning about some new projects, campaigns and teams. This time around, we will also be accepting projects outside of the documentary film form to include podcasts, an area of growth for us.
We are also planning our 2022 convening series for our infrastructure grantees while diving head first into some of the recommendations they made to us last year. One of the capacity-building ideas birthed from the convenings is for funders like us to fund a suite of services that we all know are critical to organizational health but that many of our organizational leaders don’t have access to. This includes things like in-house human resources support, legal support, development and financial planning, leadership and staff development etc. We are in the process of vetting some service providers in order to run a pilot of this program beginning this year. We’d love to hear from any funders who have done something similar!
And most importantly, we are devoting a lot of time to learning from our incredibly thoughtful, resourceful and dedicated cohort of grantees. You can learn more about both our organization and film grantees here.