Media Impact Thread at Sundance 2014

by Angelica Das

2014sundancepanelThis year’s 2014 Sundance Film Festival had a noticeable theme of media impact from New Frontier to “The Power for Story” to “At the Lodge.” The festival programmers seem to be recognizing what media makers have known for a long time–audiences are talking back and asking hard questions. This year’s festival created a number of spaces for that conversation, most directly through a discussion at New Frontier led by Wendy Levy, director of New Arts Axis and 2013 Media That Matters keynote speaker.

Levy moderated a panel called “Beyond Butts in Seats and Tweets, How Do We Know Films Are Making a Difference?” including Emily Verellen from The Fledgling Fund, Todd Cunningham from The Lear Center’s Media Impact Project, Rick Perez, director of “Cesar’s Last Fast” (U.S. Documentary Premiere at Sundance), Debika Shome from the Harmony Institute, and Sasha Costanza-Chock, assistant professor of civic media at MIT.

Measurement was the hot topic and more specifically why is measuring impact important? For Verellen, measurement is less about numbers than about telling the story of impact, which has a number of implications: helping raise money, creating a feedback loop, sharing results, and collecting snapshots or examples of impact.

But numbers can still play a role. Levy added–data can help change the relationship with the funder to understand “how are we going to leverage the work of art together.” Perez acknowledged that filmmakers have a desire to work with credible data sets to understand the role the film is playing in society, it’s part of identifying the need. And that’s where the Harmony Institute can help.

Shome noted there’s a sea change in our community, where media makers are no longer afraid of data. She added that we’re not necessarily talking about big data, but rather “medium data,” which is manageable for small teams. The Harmony Institute is debuting the alpha version of ImpactSpace, a web tool that among other features, allows you to explore the existing landscape for social impact film in your topic of choice, providing a comparison of film metrics. ImpactSpace recognizes that we are part of a networked landscape.

It’s increasingly essential for filmmakers to consider their projects in the context of this larger landscape. Costanza-Chock reminded the audience that it’s important for filmmakers to know that their films don’t have to do it all. Change happens over time, with a number of stakeholders involved. Verellen offered sage wisdom–understand where the movement exists today and figure out how the film can add to the next step, or risk getting stuck in a silough.

And don’t forget: awareness is still part of the conversation. “Don’t overclaim causation,” said Levy. Impact has to start somewhere.

Here are just a few of the documentaries to look out for who demonstrated their impact potential with premieres at the festival:


Human Rights Watch hopes that this powerful new documentary will break down the stereotypes that human rights workers are either naive or amateur. “E-TEAM” follows several members of the HRW emergency response team who document abuses and war crimes as they are happening in Syria, Libya and beyond. Directors: Katy Chevigny and Ross Kauffman.


When the public learned of the death of internet freedom activist, Aaron Swartz, he was lumped into a cycle of stories on hackers. The reality is far more complex and this documentary goes to great lengths to illuminate the life of Aaron Swartz with the help of his family–a compassionate leader who was far ahead of his time and prosecuted by the government with highly questionable zeal. Director: Brian Knappenberger


Causing quite a buzz among audiences, “Rich HIll” ultimately snagged the U.S. Documentary Grand Jury Prize. The documentary manages to capture both the beauty and intense pain of the lingering American Dream in small town Missouri. Directors: Tracy Droz Tragos, Andrew Droz Palermo


In a tribute to black American photographers, Thomas Allen Harris reflects on the history of people and family as seen through the lens of artists historically uknown to the larger public. That’s changing thanks to the work of historian and photographer Deb Willis and the energy of the newest generation of black photographers. Director: Thomas Allen Harris


Helping Others Feel Whole: Rob Rosenthal on Media That Matters