You may have heard political commentator Charlie Sykes talk about polarization in this country. He examined it in several newspaper op-eds. He hosted a show about it in President Trump’s first 100 days in office. And he talked about it at our 2017 Media Impact Forum back in June.

But if politics has become the great divider in this country, film very much remains a weapon of mass construction. Filmmakers have the power to create lasting change through their work.

They can bridge gaps with compelling narratives that cut through race, class and status to remind us that we’re not really all that different from one another. Here at Media Impact Funders, we acknowledge that work with the Media Impact Festival, which since 2014 has been highlighting the work of high-impact documentary films.

This year’s Festival was held in partnership with AFI DOCS Film Festival in Washington, D.C., hosted by the American Film Institute (AFI). At the Media Impact Festival, we honored the 10 projects selected to participate in AFI’s 2017 Impact Lab. The honorees include eight long-form films, one short film, and one virtual reality experience that address a range of pressing issues, such as the backlog of rape kits in I Am Evidence; elder abuse in the Oscar-nominated Edith + Eddie; climate change in Chasing Coral: The VR Experience; the truth about America’s drinking water in What Lies Upstream; and more. Read the full list here.

AFI DOC’s Impact Lab

This year’s Festival was held in partnership with the American Film Institute’s annual documentary film festival, AFI DOCS. Featuring the year’s best documentaries, AFI DOCS is the premier festival in the U.S. dedicated to screenings and events that connect audiences, filmmakers, opinion leaders, and policy makers in Washington, D.C. At the festival, we honored the 10 media projects selected to participate in the 2017 AFI DOCS Impact Lab. Held in conjunction with the annual festival, the AFI DOCS Impact Lab is a two-day, intensive program designed for select filmmakers and interactive media makers with issue-driven content who aim to create broader political, institutional, or cultural change through the power of story. Led by Raben_Impact and supported by NBCUniversal, the Lab provides select filmmakers with unique training opportunities in the areas of advocacy, grassroots communications, and grasstops engagement.

In order to make tangible legislative change, the Impact Lab also connects participants (filmmakers and impact producers) to policymakers and staffers working on legislation relevant to each of their films. The best practices learned at the federal level can also be translated to local activism should a film’s social impact campaign target a city council, mayor, or state legislator. Teams from each film are also connected with an issue area expert. Working together and using the Fledgling Fund Impact Workbook as their framework, Lab participants develop impact strategies specific to their film’s key issues, target audiences, and goals. We followed up with the teams—each at a different stage in the process—a few months after the Impact Lab, and created short case statements outlining their impact goals and progress so far. These case statements showcase a range of impact strategies, including working on specific legislation, partnering with influential stakeholders, and mobilizing broad and nontraditional audiences, among others.

Our goal with these case statements is to provide funders and makers with ideas on how to use media to address pressing social issues, and to demonstrate how each media project takes a different perspective and faces its own constraints and challenges, since there is no one-size-fits-all impact strategy for social change media projects. To learn more about the teams’ goals, strategies and impact so far, read all of the case statements here.

Impact strategies

Most of the engagement strategies included combinations of community screening and discussion events, festival screenings, distribution, leveraging a clear call-to-action connecting audiences to collective actions that can have long term impact, and developing digital resources such as short videos, discussion guides and curricula. However, strategies varied in terms of focus and approach toward target audiences. Below are just a few highlights—be sure to read all of the case statements for more information.

Pushing for legislative change
Some of the impact teams emphasized advocating for policy change, and a few put forth very specific and tangible legislative goals.
For example, the impact team from Edith +Eddie, which focuses on elder rights, will work with the Uniform Law Commission, which has been drafting legislation on guardianship laws and encouraging legislatures to amend existing guardianship laws. The Edith +Eddie impact team is also integrating the Uniform Law Commission’s Enactment Kit—which describes how individuals can advocate to change their state’s guardianship laws—into its own screening kit. They are also planning Capitol Hill screenings and discussions in response to federal legislation pertaining to elder care, including the recently-passed Elder Abuse Prevention and Prosecution Act.

Partnering with influentials
Some of the impact strategies focus on leveraging the power of influential stakeholders to spread their films’ messages.

For example, the team for The Force, which focuses on police-community relations, has developed a two-phase impact strategy that starts off with reaching out to “high touch” thought leaders who will use the film as a catalyst to improve community-police relations. These individuals and organizations will then help the team develop a larger outreach strategy to employ with general audiences.

The team for What Lies Upstream, which investigates the lack of safe drinking water in the United States, has developed an impact strategy that engages key influencers to host panels and water-quality testing events in local communities, with a particular focus on affluent communities—where people may be more likely to have influence over local leaders and legislators. 

Reaching both broad and nontraditional audiences
Other impact strategies focus on not just reaching popular audiences, but targetting untapped or nontraditional audiences through grassroots efforts:

  • The Work, which highlights an intensive group therapy program for incarcerated men, aims to have the film shown in communities that would otherwise not have access, including prisons where the film would resonate deeply with incarcerated audiences and prison staff and administration.
  • The team for Chasing Coral: The VR Experience, which provides an immersive look into the rapid degradation of coral reef due to climate change, developed a multi-pronged impact strategy that seeks to move “beyond the environmental choir” to audiences with less exposure to the subject matter.
  • ACORN and the Firestorm, which explores the controversies surrounding community organizing group ACORN, is combining a strategy focused on grassroots house party screenings with coverage in publications that reach a broad range of views across the political spectrum.


About the Author
Katie Donnelly

Katie Donnelly

Research Consultant

Katie is a research consultant for Media Impact Funders and associate director for media strategy and production firm Dot Connector Studio. She formerly served as associate research director at American University’s Center for Social Media (now the Center for Media and Social Impact), and as senior research associate at the University of Rhode Island’s Media Education Lab. Katie has led impact evaluations for many media organizations including PBS, Working Films, and the National Association for Latino Independent Producers. She has conducted extensive impact research, particularly on the power of documentary film, and has written about the power of media to make change for numerous academic and journalistic publications. Katie has created many educational toolkits that use media to dig into social issues, including curricula addressing youth and gender, substance abuse, and gender-based violence.