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A New Approach to Making Films That Matter

As documentaries are becoming more popular, filmmakers and funders alike must use data and resources to make films that tackle important social issues


The number of documentary films being produced has exploded over the last 20 years. The Internet Movie Database shows an exponential increase, listing 1,860 documentary titles for 1991 and 16,886 for 2011. But while the audience for documentary film has dramatically expanded, competition within the marketplace of ideas has kept pace. Funding for documentaries has grown at less than half the rate of production, while funders, concerned with the issues, want to understand their investment’s social impact in more concrete terms.
A few social science researchers have stepped up to the plate and are analyzing the influence and social impact of film with varying success. The best of these have developed new methods for untangling direct connections between media consumption and audience response. They supplement traditional research tools, like surveys and focus groups, with an approach that includes applying sophisticated math, statistics, and machine learning to Big Data. By mining press coverage and social media activity surrounding a film’s release, researchers can gain insight into the manner in which a particular framing of a social issue spreads within, and even shifts, public discourse. In one example, researchers have shown that the use of gambling metaphors in the context of education in the 2010 documentary Waiting for “Superman” entered into the national consciousness through repeated use in mainstream media.
While this field is in its infancy, promising insights about audiences and the underlying relationships between media events and social issue outcomes are starting to emerge. This is good news for funders and filmmakers alike. Like digital video and low-cost editing software before it, this industry-shifting research provides valuable tools to help filmmakers hone their craft of creating impactful, moving stories.
Filmmakers who ignore analysis in a misguided fealty to some conception of artistic integrity are, consciously or unconsciously, placing their aesthetics above the issues they care about. They are also ignoring the first rule of a public speaking, “Know your audience.” Happily, many filmmakers are embracing and learning what they can from these emerging insights. They will be the leaders in a new age of filmmaking that is more influential than ever before.
Our wish for the future: For filmmakers and funders to have the data they need to create influential stories that educate and engage audiences on decisive social issues.


Photo via Wikimedia Commons\n

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