Negotiating Social Impact Rights in Documentary Film

Best Practices Guide
November 2023

Overview: What is this best practices guide, and who is it for?

The Negotiating Social Impact Rights in Documentary Film guide provides tangible guidance to assist filmmakers working in social impact today. It is aimed at helping filmmakers, especially independent and relatively new filmmakers, navigate their social impact work in the multi-platform, streaming age of documentary. It also offers recommendations for how effective collaborations with sales agents and funders can help support filmmaker efforts around social impact.

What problem does it address?
Our research has found that many filmmakers, both well-known and newcomers alike, are dissatisfied with the status quo when it comes to negotiating impact rights. The solution to the current problem, we believe, is to use collective action to change streamers’ approach, mindset, and practices. This guide aims to serve as an early step in this larger work.  

Who shaped this work?
This work was shaped by a working group of leading impact producers and filmmakers known as the Impact Rights Working Group, a project of the Global Impact Producers Alliance. Soon after its inception, the group decided that the field was in immediate need of more research to better understand the state of the field given the sudden rise in streamer interest and influence in the field of documentary storytelling. This research idea was facilitated and completed by the Center for Media & Social Impact (CMSI) at American University.

The CMSI research team conducted 44 in-depth, anonymous interviews with directors, producers, impact workers, distributors, in-house executives at major streamers, consultants, and funders working across the world, to better understand the nitty gritty details and experiences behind recent social impact campaigns (with a special focus on negotiation experiences and outcomes). This guide is based on the collective insights of these interviews and further consultations with the working group and recommended consulting organizations.

Funding Support Provided By:
This work and guide was produced with generous support from the Ford Foundation.

To engage more with this work:
This guide is based on learnings from several documentary-centered research initiatives at the Center for Media & Social Impact (CMSI) at American University. For more information on related research and guidance around impact in documentary film, along with how you can join on-going conversations and working groups dedicated to these issues, please visit You can also write David Conrad-Pérez ([email protected]), Research Director at CMSI.


Download the Guide


The Center for Media & Social Impact (CMSI), based at American University’s School of Communication in Washington, D.C., is a creative innovation lab and research center that creates, studies, and showcases media for equity, social change, and social justice. Focusing on independent, documentary, and entertainment media, the Center bridges boundaries between scholars, producers and communication practitioners across media  industries, social justice, public policy, and public engagement. The Center produces resources for the field and academic research; creates original  media; convenes conferences and events; and works collaboratively to understand and design media that matter.
Documentary Power research institute
The Documentary Research Power Institute is a multi-disciplinary Institute that grapples with the field’s most urgent challenges and works to expand access to timely learnings, needs and tools of documentary-centered research in order to serve academic and practitioner communities interested in the role that documentaries can play in community building and fields of social impact, justice and change. The Institute also spotlights the legacies and present-day work of impact producers, activists, filmmakers, and organizations who are committed to leveraging documentaries for social impact. Seed funding was provided by the Perspective Fund.