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Beyond the Box Office: Measuring the Impact of Documentary Films

January 20, 2014

Give Up Tomorrow was one of the 2013 finalists for the PUMA Impact Award.
“Give Up Tomorrow” was one of the 2013 finalists for the PUMA Impact Award.

The PUMA Impact Awards have created an archive of case studies detailing how filmmakers and advocates use film and video to make a difference in the world.

By Tom Isler

Documentary films rarely result in direct changes to the law – and get credit for it.

It happened in 1971, when Congress passed Public Law 92-159 which amended the Fish and Wildlife Act of 1956 to prohibit the hunting (or harassing) of animals, fish or birds from aircraft. NBC had aired the documentary film The Wolf Men in November 1969, which depicted aerial hunters preying on North American wolves in Alaska. The film, which was produced by Irwin Rosten and was nominated for an Academy Award in 1970, earned a shout-out in the bill’s Senate Report for generating “significant public support for legislation to prohibit hunting from aircraft.”

Surely, documentaries can affect change without elbowing their way into legislative history. But how exactly do you measure the impact of a documentary or advocacy video, while avoiding platitudes about contributing to the larger “conversation” about a certain topic?

A British documentary organization, Britdoc, is turning the study of impact into a more rigorous pursuit, and the analysis goes well beyond box office receipts and Nielsen ratings. In 2011, the group partnered with athletic apparel company Puma to launch the PUMA Impact Award, which honors five feature documentary nominees each year.  An interdisciplinary jury crowns one of these films as the year’s most influential. The award comes with a cash prize.

The Impact Awards look at several quantifiable metrics to help measure impact: festival screenings, community screenings, theatrical releases, television broadcasts, DVD sales, awards and prizes, trailer views, website hits, e-mail lists, social networking sites, online keyword mentions, and press coverage. The organization produces for each of the finalists an “Impact Report,” which catalogues these statistics, and adds a narrative about the people behind each “campaign,” the advocacy objectives, how the campaign worked, what it achieved, and the prospects for continued impact in the future.

Why study impact? The site explains its purpose:

“[T]here is widespread lack of understanding about how the social impact of such media should be monitored and reported and a lack of templates and tools to assist them. Many films rely on anecdotal evidence or common sense to establish their impact and the lack of hard evidence presented can lead to cynicism that films achieve anything other than entertainment.”

The inaugural award went to End of the Line, which is about overfishing in the world’s oceans. The last two awards honored Budrus, which followed the efforts of Palestinians to save one village from destruction by Israel’s Separation Barrier, and The Act of Killing, which documented unrepentant perpetrators of genocide in Indonesia who have never been prosecuted.

The Impact Reports are eye-opening case studies in film advocacy.

The reports are full of interesting details, such as the lengths the filmmakers of The Invisible War (which is about rape in the military) went to get their film in front of lawmakers, and the partnership they formed with litigator Susan Burke, who also appeared in the film. The report on The Interrupters, a 2013 finalist that focuses on gang violence prevention in Chicago, talks about organizing community and prison screenings, and coordinating high-level meetings with Chicago police and anti-gang groups; it even observes how one juvenile court judge in Chicago has made the film mandatory viewing for youth on probation.

But perhaps the most interesting report is the one for Give Up Tomorrow, a film about the death sentence for Paco Larranaga, a 19-year-old Spanish student who was convicted of the rape and murder of two girls in the Philippines, despite overwhelming evidence of his innocence. As it turns out, the feature film was only the most recent part of the filmmakers’ advocacy campaign.

The project actually began as a viral video. The filmmakers smuggled a hidden camera into a maximum security prison and recorded a message from Paco.  The video exploded online. A few months later, the king of Spain asked the president of the Philippines for leniency in Paco’s case.

The filmmakers aired an advocacy video on Spanish television in November 2005, and within months, the Philippines abolished the death penalty. Paco was transferred to Spain in October 2009, but remained in prison. The filmmakers premiered a feature documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2011, which coincided with the launch of the Free Paco Now campaign. After that, the dominos continued to fall. Paco was moved to a minimum security prison and a version of the Innocence Project launched in the Philippines. In June 2013, the Spanish government officially requested Paco’s pardon.

The film’s budget was $615,000. The campaign cost another $125,000.

Here’s a short video on the film’s impact:



Lessons for the makers of advocacy films

Although the Impact Awards focus on feature docs, makers of advocacy videos stand to learn a lot from these examples. Obviously, the scope and focus of an advocacy effort will vary based on individual objectives. But what emerges from reading the Impact Reports is that the creation of a documentary film or advocacy video is only a part – in some ways, a surprisingly small part – of any campaign for change.

Filmmakers looking to make a difference need to engage beyond the final cut. That means that a finished advocacy video should be just one of several ways an advocate presents the subject matter. Advocates can foster maximum impact when they can repackage the film’s core information in many different (easily digestible) formats: websites, social media pages, fliers, e-mail alerts, press/publicity material and teaching guides. If filmmakers want to energize others to take up their cause, they should be prepared to provide as many different possible partners with tools to get the message out — not just to get the video itself seen. 

Boil it down. If advocacy videos deliver a message, the filmmakers ought to be able to communicate that message clearly and succinctly. In a sentence or three sentences. When a video is being edited, and when supporting materials are being produced, filmmakers need to be thinking in bullet points and takeaways. Audiences will want to know: What is the main problem to be solved? What can we do to help? Where can we go for information? That doesn’t mean artistry, aesthetics, complexity or ambiguity are valueless. But drilling down to the essential points will help make a more effective video, and increase the chances that audiences will be able to communicate to others the message that the advocates want to spread.

Filmmakers also need to cater to their audience. There are many more opportunities to show (or watch) a one-, three-, or five-minute video than a 20-minute film. Think about producing multiple versions of the project in various lengths, and distribute the versions according to the audience. A community meeting might have space in the agenda for a three-minute video and a short pitch from an advocate, but wouldn’t yield a half-hour to show a longer video. Shorter versions can act as trailers or teasers for the full film, or — better yet — simply spread a more focused message to more people.

Advocates need to think about building partnerships with lawmakers, prominent individuals in the field, schools, corporations and other organizations interested in the cause. Hosting community screenings or delivering DVDs or links into the right hands can be some of the most effective ways to build a campaign. It’s never too early to start building relationships; brainstorming possible connections and networking should start before turning on the camera.

Successful campaigns can be mounted with a lot of money or through the sustained effort of unwavering people and organizations. The challenge can be daunting. But, as the Impact Awards illustrate, there are also a lot of paths out there leading the way to change.    

View the Impact Reports:


The Act of Killing


Bag It



End of the Line


Give Up Tomorrow

An Inconvenient Truth

The Interrupters

The Invisible War