The trend of ‘motion pictures advocacy’ presents a powerful new opportunity for nonprofits to inspire social action using film communications. Mike Hill explores the possibilities and outlines ideas for helping you make your debut.

An evolution is currently taking place where social change is being driven by film-based communications which go far beyond the traditional form of the charity public service announcement. This new ‘motion pictures advocacy’ uses moving pictures to move audiences to action, deeply connecting people with a cause through topical issues and in-depth character studies.

These can be in the form of short films or movie-length documentaries shown on television, in cinemas and at events or uploaded online.

It’s not only the films that evoke a response. Screenings can become occasions for audience engagement. Films provide a focus for low-cost events and experiences such as hosted screenings, regional premieres, conferences, educational workshops, festivals and topical calendar activities or ‘days’. Each can be used to drive targeted advocacy, social action and fundraising programs.

Well-told screen stories can foster memorable experiences rivaling the meaningful engagement of sleeping rough or fasting for a good cause. Once produced, they can facilitate these deep impressions online for many years at a very low cost.

Shooting for the sky

Successful film advocacy can have amazing impact. Just one example is the AbaF (now Creative Partnerships Australia) award-winning LIFE Before Death– a multi-platform project advocating for better palliative care, which was funded by seven philanthropic foundations, two screen agencies and Australian production company, Moonshine Agency.

The project incorporated an iPad app, website and social media presence along with a feature film, 50 short films, a DVD and a television documentary that followed dying patients and families. Over 300 screenings were held in 40 countries including Australia, NZ, the UK, US and India, and the films have been viewed over 265,000 times on YouTube.

The project has led to multiple six-figure donations and made the case for green-lighting major health initiatives, including a diagnostic cancer centre in Zambia and an Australian senate inquiry into palliative care.

Do you speak story?
The language you share with your audiences is not simply lingual or intellectual, but emotional. Much of our behaviour is motivated by past and anticipated ‘felt’ experience. Well-told screen stories can engender – albeit vicariously – this deep personal connection.

At the centre of a great story is character and plot. These two factors inform which approaches best serve your unique story.

The forms you choose for your storytelling should be supported by a clear project rationale and a strategic communications plan. Combined with involvement by a skilled craftsperson, this can deliver remarkable results – even on very small budgets.

If you have more ambitious aspirations, you can reduce costs by collaborating with other organisations or seeking grants. Under the Producer Offset and Produce Equity Programs, significant tax rebates of 20% and 40% are also available for eligible productions costing over around $250,000.

Film advocacy 101
Before getting started, set goals, objectives and metrics for monitoring your impact. These steps can help:

  1. Define your broad goal: this world-changing ambition will guide every decision you’ll need to make. If other organisations, groups and activists share your goal, consider forming a coalition with them from the outset and pooling your resources.

  2. Clarify your objectives: a specific and measurable objective might be to raise awareness over a period of time. In this case, a film’s impact = project media impressions + TV ratings + public screening attendance + YouTube views + DVDs distributed + video-on-demand downloads. 
      A fundraising objective might be total donations from hosted screenings + conversion tracked online donations + DVD sales, royalties and license fees. 
      Whereas a policy objective might be calculated by counting how many decisions-makers the project screened to, then anecdotally tracking any outcomes.

  3. Know thy audience: a clear understanding of your target audiences, their readiness to engage with your story and their values is key. These demographically targeted groups will inform your marketing efforts and help you move the decision-makers who can make your broad goal a reality.

  4. Manage your message: spend the time to distil the theme that best frames your story, and then define your core message in simple terms. These steps will help you determine whom and what your story should be about.

  5. Find your forms: decide which platforms best serve your audience and objectives. These may include touch points like theatrical release, television, DVD, iTunes, YouTube, apps, websites, social media places and hosted screenings. 
    Remember, in our multi-screen world, motion pictures advocacy projects should never be limited to a single form or screen. Interactive technologies like mobile devices and social networks are particularly valuable in soliciting audience engagement.

  6. Craft your calls to action: marry appropriate calls to action to each form. These may include an invitation to learn more, discuss the issue, share the film, volunteer, petition, pledge support or make a donation.

  7. Build your budget: draft your budget based on all of the above steps, then do a reality check. Is the project likely to achieve its objectives? Does it warrant a green light?

Motion pictures advocacy is an emerging trend in Australia, where it’s encouraging to see nonprofits like the National Heart Foundation of Australia and Common Ground Canberra now spearheading new projects. More organisations are likely to capitalise on the opportunity over the coming years as film self-distribution channels become even more readily accessible.

Mike Hill

Mike Hill is the founder of Moonshine Agency and Moonshine Movies, a multi-award winning Australian communications and film production company.

[email protected]

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