Putting a message into the movie business

Firms are not only producing movies with a social message, but also measuring their impact

Participant Media founder Jeff Skoll and chief executive Jim Berk:  the company is developing a tool to understand what motivates people to support an issue after they have watched an issues-oriented movie, TV show or online video. Photograph: Emily Berl/New York Times

Participant Media founder Jeff Skoll and chief executive Jim Berk: the company is developing a tool to understand what motivates people to support an issue after they have watched an issues-oriented movie, TV show or online video. Photograph: Emily Berl/New York Times

Mon, Jul 14, 2014, 01:20

You watched the wrenching documentary. You posted your outrage on Twitter. But are you good for more than a few easy keystrokes of hashtag activism?

Participant Media and some powerful partners need to know. For the past year Participant, an activist entertainment company that delivers movies with a message, has been quietly working with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Knight Foundation and the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism to answer a question vexing those who would use media to change the world.

That is, what actually gets people moving? Do grant-supported media projects incite change or are they simply an expensive way of preaching to the choir? Ultimately, the answers may help determine which projects get financed, which formats are favoured and how stories are structured. That could be true for so-called double bottom line companies such as Participant, which seek to profit (or at least break even) while creating social change, and also for nonprofits like the Gates Foundation, which increasingly rely on entertainment-style media (like the education documentary Waiting for ‘Superman’) to drive an agenda.

Motivational weaponry

More immediately, those behind the effort say, new measures of social impact will enable sharper focus and rapid course corrections in what have often been guesswork campaigns to convert films into effective motivational weaponry. That approach would apply to a hit like the movie Lincoln, which counselled civic engagement, or to a box-office miss like the anti-fracking film Promised Land. Both were Participant-backed films.

To get the answers it wants, Participant is developing a measuring tool that it calls the Participant Index, assisted in the effort by the Annenberg school’s Media Impact Project. In rough parallel to the Nielsen television ratings, the still-evolving index compiles raw audience numbers for issue-driven narrative films, documentaries, television programs and online short videos, along with measures of conventional and social media activity, including Twitter and Facebook presence.

The two measures are then matched with the results of an online survey, about 25 minutes long, that asks as many as 350 viewers of each project an escalating set of questions about their emotional response and level of engagement. Did it affect you emotionally? Did you share information about it? Did you boycott a product or company? Did it change your life?

“If this existed, we would not be doing it,” said James G Berk, chief executive of Participant. “We desperately need more and more information, to figure out if what we were doing is actually working.”

The answers result in a score that combines separate emotional and behavioural measures. On a scale of 100, for instance, The Square, a documentary about Egyptian political upheaval that was included in Participant’s first echelon of 35 indexed titles this year, scored extremely high for emotional involvement, with a 97, but lower in terms of provoking action, with an 87, for a combined average of 92.

By contrast, Farmed and Dangerous, a comic Web series about industrial agriculture, hit 99 on the action scale, as respondents said, for instance, that they had bought or shunned a product, and 94 for emotion, for an average of 97. That marked it as having potentially higher impact than The Square among those who saw it. Daniel Green, the deputy director for strategic media partnerships at the Gates Foundation, traces the new drive for impact measurement to a Seattle meeting in December 2011 among about two dozen representatives of nonprofits with an interest in social change.

“Grantors didn’t have a lot of sophistication around their analytics,” said Michael Maness of the Knight Journalism and Media Innovation program, a group that attended. He joined Green last month in describing frustration among nonprofits at their inability to gauge how much change their projects are prompting. The Seattle gathering led to an association with the Annenberg school’s Norman Lear Center, which early last year established its Media Impact Project. That project then served as a consultant to Participant in creating its index, which received $4.2 million in combined financing from the Knight and Gates foundations and from George Soros’ Open Society Foundations.

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