Katherine Dodds on Mobilizing Audiences

The name Katherine Dodds has been synonymous with documentary filmmaking since before “impact producing” was a word. Kat seems to have written the textbook on how to successfully change minds using documentary film as her tool. As the founder and creative director of the independent social communications initiative Hello Cool World, Katherine has masterminded the outreach campaigns to go along with titles as “The Corporation” – Canada’s top-grossing documentary of all time and “65_RedRoses” – official selection of Oprah Winfrey’s Documentary Club.

Both an innovator in online marketing and a dedicated advocate of social change, Kat’s past experiences with impact campaigns began with the likes of Adbusters, and have withstood the test of time. As “The Corporation” film celebrates its tenth anniversary this year, Kat, along with Hello Cool World continues to forge strategic partnerships with industry stakeholders, and to spearhead further initiatives that are defining “fairer trade” models for the promotion of social issue films and campaigns.

Agentic: What does the term impact producing mean to you?

Katherine Dodds: The term impact producing is a recent term to me, but since I started hearing and talking about it, people in the film community point out that “The Corporation” fits this idea of an impact production: a model we brought to other projects, in terms of campaigning around films that had a similar message. It makes sense for me to talk about impact, because I got into film for social justice reasons not because I was all that invested in film itself as the only way to do this work, but I was invested in using the tools of social marketing alongside film promotion.

“Social marketing” as a field pre-existed social media, and one of its hallmarks is to use the tools of advertising to influence behavior or policy. So it’s got a potential role in the whole concept of impact producing. However this idea of using marketing for impact does butt up against some of the conventions baked into our media business system.

Now everyone wants to see their feature doc in the theatre. But it used to be that there were no documentaries on TV, that was a battle fought by documentary advocates decades ago, but what that evolved into was a funding structure that made that triggering broadcast license essential to funding a film within the Canadian system, with the editorial constraints that entails. And they can be detrimental to advocacy filmmaking. Like I said, I’m not as invested in film itself as I am interested in the climate in which films are produced, and what impact that can have. Film promotion has the chance to impact viewers so that’s why the role of an impact producing is a critical for getting audiences to take real action. But what if that’s literally not allowed? This has been the case with CIDA funded projects which cause a conflict with broadcasters.

While the idea of journalistic ‘balance’ required by broadcasters is not in and of itself a bad idea – the very concept of objectivity is suspect. My early work was with Adbusters, around the time when they were suing broadcasters like CBC for rejecting their anti-consumerism ads, specifically the 30-second spot, “Autosaurus,” which heralded the “end of the age of the automobile”. Well, it turned out that car advertisers didn’t like this and CBC pulled it, breaking their contract with Adbusters. That court case further exposed the fact that Adbusters’ ads were considered “advocacy,” which the network had a policy against running during news and information programs. Our argument was that for networks to reject these social marketing campaigns was impeding upon Adbusters’ rights to free speech, at least equal speech to product advertisers. The way I see it, unless an ad is obscene, why shouldn’t it be allowed on TV? CBC eventually lost the court case in terms of breaking the contract, but the judge’s ruling didn’t go so far as to make it a charter case. It came to light during the trial that the spot was aired during the show “Driver’s Seat”, and this alleged “news and information” program turned out to be entirely paid for by the car industry. So we exposed the fact that the separation of editorial and advertising was a sham. The bigger philosophical question in my mind is: aren’t ALL ads “advocating” something? Why does selling stuff take a privileged position, over selling an idea? In the end the show “Driver’s Seat” was dropped, and CBC tightened up their policy around advocacy ads. I think this is a real shame.

Documentaries are ultimately about ideas, but it’s rare to have a campaign actually attached to the content of a documentary make it on TV. Sometimes (like in the case of CBC) because they are rejected carte blanche for being “advocacy,” and other times because there is not budget to buy air time.

What do you see as the biggest obstacle that impact producers face today?

Impact producing has been tricky because of documentary film’s troubled history with funding. The whole funding system is in crisis, so when there is money available for filmmakers with an eye to create impact with their film, not just to sell content to broadcasters it’s no longer as taboo to take that money, as it once was. The myth of objectivity in the media has crumbled, so journalistic credibility should rest on what you say in the film, not who paid for it.

There should be standards as to the level of due diligence that filmmakers uphold when making a documentary. We don’t encourage enough lively debate in our society, and what we’re missing is a robust critical climate where people can judge what they see with some degree of literacy. Audiences need to be given the skills to say, “This case that’s being made is credible or it’s not”. If impact producing means that films are crafted to advocate, it’s up to audiences to up the ante and discuss these films collectively and mobilize.

How do you measure the success of the impact producing projects that you have been involved with?

Before we had the infrastructure that we do now, nothing was given to sustaining and maintaining campaigns. I hope that impact producing can address the needs of the stakeholders who can give a film the reach it needs and have a ripple effect. Instead of the old model that was about attending festivals and spreading awareness about issues, we can now interact with audiences and incite action more easily with online platforms.Social media has enabled campaigns to run parallel to a film release, but there is still limited money available to do an impact campaign alongside your film, let alone measure it. There is still a large, usually unpaid labour cost in doing dedicated outreach, analyzing data, and that’s what those funding impact productions should pay attention to. We’ve done what we can to measure our impact on limited resources, but our “evidence,” while plentiful, is still anecdotal, or qualitative, as they say!

Why do you believe that impact producing through film is beneficial today, versus using other mediums to drive social change?

There is a greater opportunity for impact producers to be involved in different ways today, where organizations do a lot of short term campaigning targeted around a specific result. But on the other hand deep change takes longer than the usual life cycle of a film launch. There haven’t been that many experiments of films that have large campaigns. “The Take,” made in 2004 about the aftermath of the Argentinian ecomomic crash, wasn’t a theatre blockbuster at the time it came out, but it did sell out 8 community based pre-screenings that benefited local social justice groups. And it did have a big impact, I believe, over the long tail. Since the 2008 global market crash we’ve seen a renewed interest in “The Take,” because it was about people taking back their economy. The campaign tagline “Occupy, Resist, Produce” could be a slogan from Occupy Wall Street! Like “The Corporation,” people are discovering these films now and creating their own meaning around them because they are not out of date. But it has to be noted, that this is years after the campaigning resources have been spent.

What are some words of advice that you would give to impact producers in the development stages of a film campaign?

Partnerships with not for profit organizations in the development stages of a film are crucial. But filmmakers need to think more like business people and marketers to be clear, not only about what their impact goals are, but also about what support they need to get back. All stakeholders need to be on the same page about what impact means, or else they won’t have effective success metrics.

In terms of organizations, filmmakers have to understand that the storytelling process needs to have more breadth than to simply be prescriptive about things. The bottom line is still audiences; it’s crucial to see who the early adopters are, and what appropriate creative choices look like for that specific audience.

Filmmakers are often afraid to show rough cuts, but in “The Corporation’s” experience, showing rough cuts of the film to early adopters allowed us to build audiences that wanted to see our film. It’s not about putting directors in competition with one another in these early stages – it’s about taking willing audiences and delivering them to other projects so that relevant films can have the farthest possible reach. It’s always a balancing act for authors, stakeholders and audiences to have a meaningful engagement at all stages of the process.

Can you point to an online film campaign that has really impressed you lately?

DocFactory has done some cool things lately. One of their most recent documentaries, the “Shadows of Liberty” film campaign, looked at whistleblowers and the fate of journalists in the media. They have an active online campaign and have successfully crowdfunded to do an offline community tour.Outside of the film world, certain online campaigns that have worked, like change.org, care2.org and the “Sum of Us” campaign have all built up large audiences for a network of small, specific campaigns. What I would love to see is a cross-project database, of the scale of these petition-focused sites, but that can connect interested documentary audience members to causes and continue offering content to the people who really care to hear about it in the impact realm. This was our vision for our “Corporation” database, but I have not had the resources to maintain it at these levels – for that we’d need partners.

Impact producing can be used as a nexus of how to use films to create communities for ongoing work that has a time-based impact but also that have bigger impacts, too. We know that the “Sum of Us” campaign has 5 million people on their list, but they cannot give other producers access to those lists of people. For “The Corporation’s” 10 year anniversary, we surveyed 250 people who said that they thought younger audiences needed to see the film. This showed us that there continues to be a need for film campaigns to have value for people who might ultimately be contributing money or time to the causes in the long run.

What is ultimately the best way for social change projects to create lasting impact campaigns?

Impact producing is about the audiences – increasing their literacy and having an allegiance to them. Especially if there is a particular audience who is being served by or can benefit from the campaign message. Audiences need to be part of the process, because innovation without accountability to the grassroots is colonization.The trouble is that we don’t have models for that cross sector collaboration right now. The power of storytelling to have an impact hasn’t changed, it’s become more pronounced. The challenge that we face, however, is more noise. Online campaigns for films need to get people offline to have real discussions, so that’s where organizations like Cinema Politica and Open Cinema fit in and encourage lively engagement with impactful films.

We’ll be rolling out more exclusive interviews with social change experts in the near future. Stay connected by following us on Twitter @Agentic and by liking the Agentic Digital Media Facebook page, for the latest on everything related to doing good with digital media.

  • Author: Marissa Mills

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