Doc Power and Impact
It’s no secret that The Viral Media Lab is a fan of social change documentaries. We’ve featured posts on feature films with impact in recent weeks, including Josh Fox’s Gasland and Alison Klayman’s Ai Weiwei Never Sorry, a window on the Chinese Artist and Free Speech Activist. A bonus: Ai recently retweeted our link to an upcoming feature premiering this week at The Tribeca Film Festival:
— Viral Media Lab (@vmlab) April 21, 2014
While documentaries have always had a place in social critique, anthropological studies and awareness-raising for human rights, animal rights, environmental issues and more, it is only in the past ten years, with the success of blockbusters (and often Academy or Emmy Award winners) like Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004, Michael Moore) and An Inconvenient Truth (2006, Davis Guggenheim), which, respectively, grossed over $119 and $50 million globally, this form of storytelling has reached a new era of influence. Michael Moore’s other films, Bowling for Columbine (2002, $21 million+), Sicko (2007, $24 million+) and Capitalism: A Love Story (2009, 14 million+), join Fahrenheit 9/11 in the top 15 grossing documentaries of all time.
Part of this has to do with social media, which has assisted in the viral lift from word-of-mouth marketing for films which traditionally lacked huge marketing budgets. Social media toolsets have also allowed social cause media to join forces with non-profits who champion their messages in strategic partnerships that help crowdsource awareness. In Gasland‘s case, teaming up with environmental organizations like 350.org and offshoots of the Occupy movement has proven pivotal to the impact of the anti-fracking movement.
In addition, with Kickstarter and other crowdfunding sites, films which used to spend years in incremental foundation fundraising before hitting the screens, now find support in keeping with the timeliness of their subject matter, meaning that real-time influence has expanded.
The Harmony Institute is launching a study of media impact, ImpactSpace, later this year, which includes interactive mapping of influence-pathways to public discourse and memes generated by social cause documentaries.
This past year marked the unexpected influence of Blackfish, a 2013 documentary that debuted at Sundance, about killer whales in captivity. Its success and media buzz has evoked a public backlash against SeaWorld.
From the Blackfish website:
Blackfish tells the story of Tilikum, a performing killer whale that killed several people while in captivity. Along the way, director-producer Gabriela Cowperthwaite compiles shocking footage and emotional interviews to explore the creature’s extraordinary nature, the species’ cruel treatment in captivity, the lives and losses of the trainers and the pressures brought to bear by the multi-billion dollar sea-park industry.
Social media saturation campaigns are now built into the communications plans of film launches, creating waves of buzz as the films begin to roll out at film festival premieres.
What documentaries have impacted you most recently? Do you see documentaries frequently? What do you think is the role of social media in the expansion of this form of storytelling?