Impact Producers redefine Film Metrics

jdesormej    June 12, 2017

Ask numerous administrators, interested students or any one of my 3 sons, what their notion of success may be and you will rarely hear the same response.  Defining success has always been a good way to begin thinking about any strategic plan or goals you may have in mind. Certainly today, no plan  can seemingly work without some supportive data.  In fact, metrics, analytics, data are the great tools employed these days to suggest that elusive notion of success.

My brief is observing and teaching media and this week, the topic is about metrics in documentary film, specifically Impact films.

It was once commerce vs art, now its metrics vs art

Art vs commerce now appears to have become art sustained by metrics. The same old issues of independence and individual expression still abound. There is also that above elusive issue of defining success, in this case, Impact Producing success and the need to for reliable measurement of a documentary film maker goals so as to attract philanthropic organizational funding.

What data should you employ? What data is accepted as truth? More importantly, who gets to choose the information variables that define success in your world; the metrics that justify investment and interest in a concept or idea.

The Documentary film genre remains important today because for millions of consumers, it continues to define and reflect the society we inhabit. It is the continuing commentary on the good and bad in our world.  It is the experience that awakens our environmental awareness  An Inconvenient Truth” 

Here is an art based on photographs, in which one factor is always, or nearly always, a thing observed”.  Lovell Hilliers Studies in Documentary Cinema One 1972

Documentaries in the past were usually deemed “successful” by tabulating the traditional box office methods of counting viewers: “an eyeballs or bums in seats” method, as well as calculation of sales or acquisition numbers. Something like the description immediately below.

You make a beautiful, poignant documentary. It premieres at an A-list festival like Sundance, and gets picked up by a major distributor. It debuts in theaters, on television, on Netflix. Millions of people see it. Millions are moved by it. You might, like Laura Poitras, even score an Oscar.

Britdoc founder and Impact film making pioneer Beadie Finzi says that a very, very small number of movies actually follow such a trajectory”.

But in recent years, the documentary medium itself had fallen on hard times, both as a commercial genre and a vehicle for artistic expression, documentary increasingly realizing les and less commercial interest and support. In a world exploding with expanded media platform reach, the genre itself seemed to be ignored with diminished support by broadcasters and distributors. Audiences for a time also seemed to lose the taste for this storytelling form. Funding was drying up and documentary film makers were scrambling to support their art and craft form with a credit card. Noted Canadian documentary film maker Vladimir Kabelik echoed a common sentiment among colleague film makers on the  death of documentary, now being eclipsed by staid journalism, reality tv and corporate promotional interests.

“The broadcasters and the Issue groups don’t want to deal with anything difficult, they don’t want to drill deep, they do not want to work with the film maker to uncover the real issues. They fill their time slots and their mandate and documentary film makers are cast adrift, in an ocean of indifference, political correctness and network scheduling plans”.

Funding is critical to film making and for many film documentary makers, funding was fast diminishing in Canada.

The collective response, initiated initially out of the UK, then going global, was the Britdoc “Impact Producing” movement, which has reinvigorated social film activism globally, and give new breathe to developing, funding, producing and distributing social commentary Impact Film. In the process of this evolution, Impact Funding has also created a discourse on the idea of success and how data should be used to interpret and support the film maker’s causes.

Documentary has been used as a tool for promoting social change throughout its history. But this was something new, highly energized and activist. Hence the choice of topic this week. When the rules change, one has the opportunity to obtain a better understanding of not only the documentary game but the metrics that define success, and what metrics actually mean contextually speaking. You want to change a law, move for new policy. Measure it.

This Impact social change mandate significantly expands film maker activity beyond the observation authors Lovell and Hilliers once defined documentary film to be. Impact is about campaigning as much as it is about filming. The film maker now expands his role to speak directly to a select community about that pre-determined goal.

NYU film professor and documentary film pioneer George Stoney recently noted, “50 percent of the documentary filmmaker’s job is making the movie, and 50 percent is figuring out what its impact can be and how it can move audiences to action.

Interestedly enough, Impact Documentary does not actually speak specifically to film content itself.  Rather it focuses on the social project intention or purpose of the work asking the question: can this motion picture affect a specific outcome, create social change?

It changes potential subject matter from observation to activism and it changes funding possibilities, it attracts a new body of investors and a strong cohort of followers, sharpening the idea of niche for its audience. Where is the funding coming from? Passion players, Issue organizations, web followers, influencers.

If philanthropic investors and supporters are to finance such a work, how will they know it has succeeded? These players want to know that their money is being well placed. They want to see evidence or data that substantiates the goals sought.

So what are you measuring? The game is different now. “Bums in seats” may be a secondary consideration. Box office may the least important factor in the calculation. The need for strong measurement of an Impact documentary is very clear.

Where is funding coming from ? Check out the accompanying American University Center for Media and Social Impact Chart.

“Targeted sanctions, reaching policymakers at a key moment, or creative campaigns to change specific laws and policies can be more effective.”

Robert L. Bartley, who was editor of the Wall Street Journal opinion page for many years, once said,“It takes 75 editorials to pass a law.”

The Film maker establishes success, then sells the success notion and the way of measuring success to the Investor-Influencer-Follower.

Impact starts with the goals. When you pitch a project to funders, make sure they know you’re thinking ahead to the film’s impact. Name key themes. Set out change goals. Define your audience and lay out your strategy for reaching them.

Create a plan based on the goals of your campaign, and share it with funders and partners along the way.

Metrics & Tools

If you’re going to spend five or ten years of your life trying to tell a story, then you should have some sense of to whom you’re telling the story and why. And whether they’re actually listening,and what happens next.”   Jessica Clark, quoted in Personal Affect: the Impact of Measuring Impact

Can we measure Media Impact?

Proving impact is difficult. The merit of a work itself will not stand as evidence of success alone. What constitutes impact? How do you measure impact? In a short form nutshell, here it is.

Reach: Who, attention, which elements are being viewed. 

Influence: readers’ attitudes and public dialogue.

Impact: action resulting from the Impact documentary.

“When impact is properly measured marketers are better able to redirect efforts to improve engagement rates across all platforms. Metrics used to measure impact include setting benchmarks for clients based on data, using paid ad platform metrics, track clicks, engagement, video views, correlations and trends, tools for listening, tools to track correlations etc. Some of these are custom built, some social platforms have their own proprietary tools and other third-party tools are used as well.”

We can learn to navigate metrics  Check out my amazing Sheridan College colleague Nicole Blanchett-Neheli on-line lesson on navigating metrics for journalists.

But can we quantify metrics for the public good?





Lessons for Others

Selecting the right tools is critically important to the impact producer. Story Pilot is a popular Impact data system that defines the metrics of success in this documentary world. It is very detailed on the elements tabulated to justify production and reach to audiences the production is attempting to speak to. Here is the formula used to measure data:

  • Trailer views,
  • Box office data
  • Social Media reach such as followers/likes/tweets and shares
  • Content analysis id’ing key term and hashtags
  • Number of hits to Wikipedia page
  • Mainstream mentions (amplification)
  • Policy Impacts (mentions by politicians and policy outcomes)
  • Media shifts where people are talking about the subject

Here is a view of the standards defining the overall process to inform project assessment and measurement of outcomes

  • Use multiple methods to measure
  • Apply some commonalities
    • Audience surveys
    • In-depth interviews
    • Focus groups
    • Media Content analysis
    • On-line analytics analysis
    • Case Study review
  • Employ a Broad Range of Performance Metrics
  • Qns to pose:
    • What are the metrics needed to measure strategic progress
    • Is the metric simple
    • Is the metric actionable
    • Is the data credible and timely

Impact Producers, by balancing between art and cause, will certainly have a clearer idea of audience they wish to reach and impact they wish to achieve. By defining very specific goals from the beginning of the process, they define their own notion of success. It is then up to them, not the market, to sell these goals to the followers and philanthropists, whose support is critical to the film maker’s process and effect. You define your own success here.

One concludes with a shout out in this occasion for metrics at large,  and the Impact Documentary community because here. In this instance,  we can see great benefit arising from the use of numbers and social media for human and environmental causes. These numbers or the interpretation of these numbers are a new tool and language for film makers in the future, both a sword and a shield for the daring, and knowledge to be disseminated to and learned by our students and applied, when commercial or political interests and hubris remain avaricious or simply uninterested in one’s issue.

Organization: Documentary Council of Canada
Industry: Documentary Motion Picture Production
Name of Organization Contact: TBA

Authored by: Jean Desormeaux

If you have concerns as to the accuracy of anything posted on this site, please send your concerns to Peter Carr, Program Director, Social Media for Business Performance.


The State of the Documentary Field: 2016 Survey of Documentary Industry Members

Measuring Impact: How does a film drive change Beadie Finzi

Measuring Impact: The Importance of Evaluation for Documentary Film Campaigns Beth Karlin, John Johnson


Beadie Finzi

Vladimir Kabelik

Stay Aubrey

Story Pilot

Sheridan URL

Nicole Blanchette Nihir

George Stoney

Suz Curis