Using Moviemaking to Change the World, Both Inside Theaters and Out

The stories told by these documentaries are meant to incite action, but the same goes for the marketing, social-media, and distribution efforts of their creators.

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Films, especially documentaries, with potent social messages seem to be having a greater cultural effect in recent years. That may be in part because of filmmakers' newly ambitious plans for citizen action to spotlight the issues and drive change. Three recent films come to mind as examples of the work of dedicated journalists and producers whose commitment extends beyond the subjects they cover to include far-reaching strategies for distribution and follow-up activities.

The traditional path for such well-intentioned films has been limited theatrical distribution, possibly followed by a run on cable, and then on-demand video and DVDs. As with all films, the makers' goals are accolades from festivals and admiring reviews, a distribution deal that helps to cover costs and provide promotion, and an audience that comes away moved or impressed with the film's purpose.

Now, however, filmmakers with determination to affect people beyond the screen can achieve so much more: Each film has an extensive presence on the Internet, with social media being used to spread the word and share accumulated viewers' experience. The filmmakers' objective is to turn the movie into a catalyst for action. (Perhaps the leading example of this phenomenon is still Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, an Oscar-winner in 2006 that brought climate change to the forefront of public concern and activities.)

I should acknowledge that I am especially aware of these movies and their accompanying campaigns because of connections to each of the filmmakers and producers. So decide for yourselves their ultimate worth and impact. But each one, I'd argue, is a powerful case showing how films can galvanize public awareness of problems and become instrumental in building movements to confront them.

Girl Rising, which premieres this week, is the work of 10X10, a group founded by journalists at The Documentary Group and Vulcan Productions, and with strategic backing from the Intel Corporation ( is the place to start for a comprehensive account of all that is happening in the project). The film, directed by Richard Robbins, tells in both a documentary format and narratives the stories of girls from among the world's poorest peoples, whose lives are transformed by enrolling in school. Each girl from Haiti, Peru, Egypt, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, India, Nepal, and Cambodia is paired with a celebrated writer from their country. Narrators include Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway, and Cate Blanchett. The goal of the film is to show what education could do for the 66 million girls around the world currently denied access to school. The 10X10 organization has brought together a formidable array of partners from a cross-section of NGOs and corporations to drive the social action plan, with funds raised for that purpose. The innovative distribution strategy is a partnership with a service called Gathr Films that will bring the movie to any community that can put together enough of an audience to justify the screening. At last count, 10X10 was well along on the goal of 1,000 screenings after the film's official release. Girl Rising will also be shown on CNN in prime-time in June.

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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