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Social Impact in Film: How Movies Can Make a Difference

Learn about the ways that the medium of film can be used to create a positive social impact.
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From the “5 cents a ticket” silent films of the 1910s, to the latest releases on HBO Max and Disney Plus, motion pictures have been one of the most accessible forms of entertainment available to mainstream audiences for over a century. Films are in many ways a reflection of hopes and fears that were prevalent a the time they were made (check out this 2000 New York Times article on how horror films reflect societal tragedies of the time), and films can, in turn, instill new hopes and fears back into their audience- for better or worse.

In a modern media landscape where misinformation, fear mongering, and deliberate manipulations of public perception have had serious consequences on everything from political systems to individual mental health, the state of media messaging can seem grim.

However, there is hope.

As a social impact entertainment company, we believe that entertainment can actually be used as a tool to proactively combat harmful messages, educate audiences about pressing social issues, and encourage critical thinking.

While these conversations often center around social platforms like Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube, conversations about the impact of messaging in “traditional” entertainment like films, tv shows, and documentaries, are just as important.

The entertainment we consume has the power to change how we engage with the world around us. When great entertainment meets well-executed social impact initiatives, a film or tv show can bring overdue conversations into the public discourse, and even inspire effective activism. In a world where even simply keeping your audience’s attention is a challenge, entertainment can make it much easier to get viewers to consider new information or perspectives they wouldn't otherwise have the time, energy, or willingness to consider. In other words, entertainment transforms the metaphorical “meat and potatoes” of social impact into a delicious “burger and fries” (and yes, that can be metaphorical “Impossible” meat, if you prefer).

There’s a term for this kind of content: “social impact entertainment,” or SIE.

Some skepticism around social impact entertainment is natural: movies and tv shows about social issues aren’t uncommon in 2023, and while many of these projects are great pieces of art, can they really influence society in a tangible way?

Many experts say “yes”- or at least, “it’s possible, with the right tools and due diligence.”

Organizations like SIE Society, UCLA’s Skoll Center for Social Impact Entertainment, and USC’s Norman Lear Center study the impact of SIE on audience perspectives, and put out data-driven educational materials and formal reports on the social consequences of entertainment media.

Other than seeking out existing SIE research and expert recommendations, one of the best ways to start learning about SIE is to examine SIE case studies and learn from their successes and failures. Some factors to take into account when examining SIE case studies include: 

  1. Did the project communicate the intended message effectively?
  2. Did the message have the intended impact on the audiences?
  3. How many audience members did the project reach?
  4. If the project contained a “Call to Action,” did any portion of the audience act on it?
  5. Did public response to the project lead (directly or indirectly) to any actions by larger institutions (ex. corporate action, governmental policy changes, etc.)?
  6. How do communities affected by the issues addressed in the project feel about the project? Do they feel that the issues were respectfully addressed and accurately portrayed?

We encourage you to research your favorite social impact projects and try to answer the questions above, but in the meantime, we put together a few case studies to get you started.

Examples of Social Impact in Film

Below are 7 examples of films, tv shows, and documentaries that created a positive social impact through entertainment:

Food Inc. (2008)

While so-called “factory farms'' have existed since the 1960s, public awareness regarding the distrubing nature of large-scale factory farming was often reserved to animal right activist circles, climate scientists, and other niche groups until fairly recently. Food Inc. (produced by many of the same people behind the 2005 revelatory climate change doc An Inconvenient Truth) was one of the first documentaries that showcased the problems with the modern U.S. agricultural system in a way that resonated with mainstream viewers. The doc was the subject of a study by the previously mentioned Norman Lear Center, which surveyed audience members about how the film informed and impacted them. A whopping 84% of viewers surveyed indicated that Food Inc. “changed their life,” and 80% indicated that, after watching the film, they felt like they “could be part of a social movement to reform agribusiness.”

Blood Diamond (2006)

“Blood diamonds” refer to diamonds that are mined in war zones, and often sold to finance ongoing conflicts. The film Blood Diamond, set during the 1990s civil war in Sierra Leone, tells the story of three men who set out to find a rare gem, and the violence they experience and witness along the way. After the massive success of the action flick (which starred Leonardo DeCaprio) public concern around the trade and sale of conflict diamonds skyrocketed.

According to the Abaunza Group, Warner Brothers Pictures partnered with nonprofits like Amnesty International and Global Witness on a social impact campaign. “Through targeted grassroots efforts,” reads Abaunza’s report, “Amnesty activists were mobilized to lobby jewelry stores across the United States, and in other countries, to provide information to customers on how to inquire about proof of certifications that the diamonds sold were conflict-free.”

Brokeback Mountain (2005)

The Oscar-winning drama starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger tells the complex love story of two sheep herders in 1960s Wyoming. While there is a rich and culturally significant history of LGBTQ+ American cinema dating back many decades, Brokeback Mountain was one of the first films portraying a gay relationship to receive a high level of mainstream attention from both audiences and media outlets.

Carnegie Mellon culture professor David Shumway credits the film with increasing public acceptance of gay relationships and aiding in the legalization of same-sex marriage. In his 2009 paper “Shepherding Romance: Reviving the Politics of Romantic Love in Brokeback Mountain”, “no single narrative work… has so broadly appealed to both gays and straights.”

I May Destroy You (2020)

British writer/actress Michaela Coel’s HBO series skillfully explores the delicate topics of sexual assault, race, gender, and healing from trauma through a mix of dark comedy and emotionally authentic storytelling. The Guardian called the series “a breathtaking achievement without a false note in it, shot through with humor and with ideas, talent and character to burn at every perfectly plotted turn.” In addition to being praised for its artistry, the series also prompted important conversations about consent, mental health, and modern social dynamics among its audience members.

While many SIE projects are centered around a specific political agenda or movement, I May Destroy You is a great example of a show that achieved its SIE goals by encouraging viewers to think critically and empathetically about complex topics. Coel also went on many major platforms like Variety and The Daily Show with Trevor Noah to discuss not only the artistic process behind the show, but the themes and issues it explores.

Immigration Nation (2020)

The Netflix and Reel Peak Films docuseries offers a deep dive into the U.S. immigration system and The Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (a.k.a. ICE). The series’ creators received unprecedented access to information and footage about ICE’s operations, and how the Trump administration’s rhetoric and policies exacerbated existing issues in the system.

Immigration Nation has been praised for showcasing both the harsh realities that undocumented immigrants seeking refuge in the United States face, as well as the mentality of the ICE agents themselves and the ramifications of the “I’m just doing my job” attitude within the agency.

Blackfish (2013)

This CNN Films and Manny O. Productions documentary about the dark reality of marine mammals in captivity is a prime example of a “social media-meets-social impact” campaign. Blackfish was released in the wake of the tragic death of SeaWorld animal trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was killed by one of the orcas she had trained for the theme park’s shows.

Viewers were so moved by the infuriating tale of SeaWorld and similar parks’ neglect of trainer and animal welfare, and so amazed by the film’s revelations regarding the intelligence of marine mammals, that the doc trended on almost every social media platform after it’s release. SeaWorld’s ticket sales dropped dramatically between 2013 and 2014, and have never fully returned to pre-Blackfish levels. In 2016 SeaWorld announced it would be ending it’s orca breeding program for good.

Gaming Wall Street (2022)

The HBO Max investigative docuseries explores the historic 2021 short squeeze of GameStop, and how online vigilantes ultimately helped expose the dark underbelly of Wall Street.

Full disclosure: Prodigium Pictures was one of the companies behind this docuseries (along with Gunpowder & Sky, Biltmore Films, and the aforementioned HBO Max). However, we didn’t just include this example for our own self promotion. Instead, we wanted to use our perspective on the project to provide an “insider” example of how social impact filmmakers can use public interest around a specific story as an opportunity to educate audiences about larger complex issues.

Due to the role of r/WallStreetBets (a trading-focused Reddit forum with over 11M members that was involved in the GameStop short squeeze) in the story, the doc already had a somewhat of a built-in audience. r/WallstreetBets, and the small retail trading community in general, was eager to hear the GameStop story accurately told. Additionally, the small traders involved in the GameStop squeeze desired answers from the Robinhood trading app, which placed unprecedented restrictions on small retail traders in January of 2021.

The series addressed the GameStop story and the unanswered questions surrounding it in two installments: Episode 1 of the series focuses on the events surrounding the GameStop squeeze, r/WallStreetBets, Robinhood, and the hedge funds Citadel and Melvin-with plenty of fun “internet humor” thrown in. Episode 2 uses this momentum around the GameStop story to address the bigger questions about the system that GameStop raised (including Naked Short Selling), and the troubling reality behind “business as usual” on Wall Street.

Featuring interviews with r/WallStreetBets members, government professionals, financial advisors, and Wall Street insiders with first-hand knowledge of hedge fund antics, the series prompts viewers to educate themselves about the larger systems that impact our wallets and our lives, and advocate for greater transparency and policy change. You can watch the series on HBO Max, and learn more about the issues addressed in the series here.

How can you create a social impact as a production company?

At Prodigium Pictures, our slogan is “Movies to move the world™.” Since Prodigium was founded in 2011, we have made it a priority to take on projects with a positive social impact element. Whether it’s a traditional film/tv project, a music video, or a cause marketing video for a purpose-driven company, production companies of all sizes can be mindful of the messages behind what they create. As the examples above illustrate, social impact entertainment can take on many forms: from tackling social justice discourses, to investigating the practices of powerful organizations, to exposing audiences to a largely unknown or misunderstood issues. Moreover, entertainment-adjacent social impact campaigns can take on many forms, depending on your resources and the scale of your audience.

We also wanted to note that it is important to look at the impact of your actual practices as a company, or the practices you advocate for in your industry. In 2019, we created a Social Impact Dashboard (displayed on our About Us page) to track social impact practices like diversity on our sets, sustainability efforts, and how many projects were aligned with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

If you are interested in creating social impact entertainment of your own, or are looking for like-minded collaborators in the field, we would love to chat with you! Fill out our Contact Form to get in touch!

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July 24, 2023
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