Pull Focus: Doe Mayer
By: Kafi Kareem, Maria Howell, Shilpi Singh
Doe Mayer is an award-winning professor and filmmaker. She is the Mary Pickford Chair of Film & Television Production at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts and holds a joint appointment with the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. She is an expert in creative media for social change and educational documentaries.
Mayer has been working in film and television for the past 30 years and has produced, directed and provided technical support for hundreds of productions in the United States and numerous developing countries. Much of this programming has been in the areas of family planning, basic education, health and nutrition promotion, HIV/AIDS prevention, population and women’s issues.
Additionally, Mayer received USC’s top teaching award for the 2009-2010 academic year.
On April 7, 2011 Mayer joined us here at American University as part of the Center for Social Media’s Visiting Filmmaker series. Before screening the film, “The World According to Sesame Street,” (directed by Linda Goldstein Knowlton and Linda Hawkins) we had a chance to sit down to learn more about her approach to making entertaining educational films.
Could you outline the career path that led to your current work in strategic uses of media for education and public health?
DOE MAYER: My path has changed quite a bit from when I went to film school. I went to all the initials as I always say — NYU, USC and AFI. I certainly thought at the time that I wanted to direct feature films, like so many of my students now do. I thought that was what I wanted to do. I wanted to be one of the first women directors. And I wanted to work in Hollywood. And I did start in Hollywood. I worked on a lot of big Hollywood movies. I had this very strange job when television was an important component in a film I wrote, directed and produced the background television material in the films; that often was political. Like in “Shampoo,” which starred Warren Bately and Julia Christy and was a wonderful late 70s movie that takes place during the election in 1968, everything in the background was television of the election. It was what was happening in the real world. So it was a little documentary in a funny way that, of course, I didn’t realize at the time because I wasn’t interested in documentary as a field. But I ended up writing, producing and directing those kinds of sequences in “The China Syndrome,” which is a wonderful film about an accident in a nuclear plant here in the United States in the 70s where Jack Lemmon plays a technician in a nuclear plant who realizes that there’s a cover-up of an accident. Jane Fonda plays a television reporter who starts by telling silly stories and is beautiful and ends up very seriously involved in this nuclear cover-up. All of the silly stuff I got to write and produce was great fun. So I started working on big Hollywood movies with big Hollywood stars of the time and television became a very important component. Technologically it was an interesting time because it was a transition from television in the background scenes being match shots—which I don’t know if you remember from the old days, but in the original movies when you wanted to see a TV in a movie you cut to a frame of a television and they put shots in film because film and television are shot at different speeds. Then we had years where a bar that ran through the frame. You can still see this if you shoot a television with a film camera which runs at 24 frames and the video camera runs at 30 frames you have this bar. At this point we had figured out a technology to make a steady picture so it was both an interesting time from a story point of view because television was becoming a more and more important part of the society. I was sort of at the cusp of that and I had this odd job with no unions and it was very creative and I only worked with the writers and producers of these big Hollywood movies and it was fun. But it became clear there was nowhere to go with it. Either I was going to make a business and make a lot of money and that wasn’t going to be interesting or I was going to find another way to reinvent myself.
I was interested in documentary and in international travel and international work. So I started making documentaries at that time too – environmental documentaries within in a fairly conventional frame at KOCE, which was the TV station down in Orange County, California. And I worked on the equal rights amendment for a year in 1982. I got so fed up with the fact that America could not ratify an amendment to the constitution that would guarantee women equal rights under the law. We still don’t have that today so I decided to try something else. I always had an interest in social change issues so I moved to Zimbabwe from 1982 to 1985. That’s where I sort of found a place for myself. I started making films and I started to teach. I fairly quickly became uncomfortable making films in a culture I didn’t know well and a language I didn’t know well. But I became very comfortable teaching the skill sets to allow people to make programs about themselves. So that’s how I combined teaching and filmmaking with messages. The idea of what kinds of social change film can provide and how it can engage people. That’s how all that started.
A quick transition to closer to the present, is I was comfortable making films for my own society (for Americans) and explaining some of these issues and I did for a while I then started teaching at USC and I got very involved in the area of health communication. How can the media work in areas of health to make films and material that would be of interest in society as opposed to dull boring and let’s all go to sleep? Simultaneously I began to teach documentary at the film school at USC and my programming work became far more based in ideas of HIV aids women’s issues in developing countries, girl’s education, and environmental issues. And because there was donor support for that I actually got funded to do programming within my own culture or teaching outside of my own culture.
Much of your work focuses on strategic uses of dramatic programming for social impact. Can you speak to the power of social issue fiction?
DOE MAYER: The distinction to me is less about fiction and non-fiction than it is about narrative and the idea of storytelling. I think the critical issue in both good documentary and good fiction is good storytelling. If stories are compelling I think both can be terrific media for change. Sometimes what happens in documentary and a lot of the health-based media is it’s not story based. It’s based in statistics. It’s based in what interests the medical community or what the donors think people should know. And it’s filled with numbers. For example, it will tell people that 8million people are suffering from _ fill in the blank, and only 3million would if the other 6thousand got vaccinated. This kind of storytelling is all numbers, all data. The research tells us that none of us remembers data very well and we certainly don’t remember the kind of extended data that comes out of these fact based materials. So for the me the important issue in the field has been how do we frame this material to make it more entertaining, to make it more emotionally compelling, to make people want to watch it as opposed to closing their eyes and going to sleep and then hopefully to engage in a conversation because it turns out that we change not just based by media itself but we change often because media generates a conversation and because we’re emotionally connected. We talk to our girlfriends, we talk to our colleagues, we talk to our husbands, and our children and in those conversations we being to think “oh I could do that. I could fill in the blank stop smoking, loose weight, have safe sex or whatever the issues are.” Storytelling is critical to that process and documentary has gotten a name also as I say for the same reason because sometimes it’s very boring. But I would argue that the great documentaries are terrific stories and equally emotionally compelling and of course have the authenticity of real life and the surprises of real life. So for me they’re both potent ways to activate people to think about themselves if they’re based in narrative.
Have you found particular distribution and outreach models that are successful in your line of work?
DOE MAYER: There are some really engaging models for using media as a way to get a community to talk and I think those are the models that have worked particularly well in developing countries. And they’re not necessarily film based models because we know that people need to get messages in more than one way at the same time. These models are often theater based, particularly in Africa this has made a lot more sense than film as there is no electricity or the electricity doesn’t work. The theaters can engage people differently; they can tailor it to individual audiences, which of course have turned out to be a critical thing that we’re learning about attitude change. You’ve got to understand your audience. You’re not making it for yourself. And you’re often not the audience you’re often making it for people who don’t look or sound like you. There are class issues there are gender issues there are psychological issues. The assumption that we have in filmmaking, that whatever we do that’s creatively effective will work, often doesn’t for a different audience. The research component involved in understanding an audience and evaluation of material and the community-based outreach of that material is very sophisticated in many of the campaigns that I work on in other countries and, of course, now here.
I was just looking at a film that I’m going to show next week called, “Blue Vinyl,” which was a film with a big outreach campaign and big impact. It was about causing real change in American culture about PVC, which is this toxic stuff that was in our construction systems probably still largely is. The movie engaged people. And it’s not that they all saw it, but they talked about it. You see that with “An Inconvenient Truth.” The same kind of thing happened with “Blue Vinyl.” It wasn’t hugely seen but it was hugely talked about. The media magnified that message because there were articles about it and there were articles about Al Gore and there were all these other conversations that the movie engendered and was quoted in. So it became a centerpiece of the arguments about global warming. Again, not because of the movie isolated, but because of the movie in this broader social and media-based context that really magnified its results and got people talking. There are a lot of different models for doing that.
America has some models that are very effective and America is not able to do some of the models that we can do in India and South Africa because our broadcast system is so different. The model in the U.S. that I work in is a model where we try to influence prime time broadcast writers and producers to put accurate health information into their shows. In South Africa, the funding goes into a show that is meant to make social change with health issues called “Soul City” which has funding. It’s so popular in South Africa that it actually has advertisements. British Petroleum has ads in “Soul City” even though it’s an education entertainment based program and series that’s been on for 15 years. The show is based in research it has evaluation. It’s about a little high-density suburb, which is another name for a township in South Africa that really is microcosm of their society and has all sorts of health problems and social problems. All of that material is on broadcast television in South Africa. We can’t afford to do that in the U.S. as we can’t compete with Glee. We can’t compete with CSI. The best thing that we can do, since Americans are still getting a whole lot of health information from broadcast television not just the Internet, is to get accurate information into the hospital based shows—obviously Grey’s Anatomy and the other medical shows, but not just the medical shows. Now we’re trying to export the American model, because a lot of countries don’t have huge donor-based programming around these kinds of issues. India has “Detective VJAY,” a very successful show that competed in the commercial market. But since cable television has come it’s very hard to compete. So again, the American model of influencing what everyone is watching, proves to be quite a successful model in some ways. In a lot of ways we have no power, all we can do is try. Relationships are everything and charm works as does rewards when they do a good job. We have a big award ceremony every year at the Writer’s Guild where we give awards to CSI and all the shows that have accurate health information.
So you worked with shows like ER?
DOE MAYER: We used to work with ER. We work with all of them. Any one we can get into. We can get into most of them now because we have good relationships. What we provide is information. They are very time-constrained. Within 24 hours we will get you one of the world’s experts whatever your issue. And that expert is trained to tell you stories not to give you facts. I will tell you about a young boy I had that you can then take and put into your screenplay – no credits, no nothing – that’s what we give you and we give it to you on your time.
In your opinion what’s the biggest lesson that Hollywood could take from the non-profits you’ve worked with and vice versa?
DOE MAYER: That’s a wonderful question. Well what’s interesting in this world of entertainment education is that it’s so research driven. It’s really driven by understanding audiences and context. Now Hollywood is interested in marketing and it’s interested in research and they’re certainly interested in niche audiences. We know more and more about niche audiences, but there’s very little transfer of ideas. American programming is not generally evaluated based on whether somebody got a pap test as a result of a character getting a pap test. We are doing that at USC through this program called “Hollywood Health and Society.” We have new evaluation techniques because you can do so much on the Internet, because there’s fan clubs for each one of these groups. On “Desperate Housewives” when the blonde character got cancer and got her hair taken out, the fact that she got cancer caused huge numbers of women to talk about it and get prevention tests and those types of things. These things, when we evaluate them, can prove what kind of effect they’re having on our society. So that’s a piece of learning. From our point of view, they have resources that we don’t have. NBC has incredible resources to make big television shows. And the non-profit sector has ity-bity resources to make very little low budget shows that large numbers of people are not going to watch. So that’s what makes this model sort of innovative and interesting.
What about in terms of telling stories?
DOE MAYER: The non-profits could learn a lot from how the profit sector tells stories. This is true in the movie industry as well. We make pedantic programming. Health professionals are filled with what I call “you stupid people.” You just tell them to brush their teeth and they will do it and you stick a finger in their face and you know there’s no one on earth who wants this finger. Nobody, I’ve been all over the world, no one wants a finger in their face, and no one wants to be called an idiot. So if we don’t begin to use these entertainment framings, these story-based models for telling these stories, we’re spending a lot of money and losing a lot of people, which doesn’t make any sense because we have very limited funds and yet the health professions are still filled with agendas. Agendas like, brush your teeth, get a pap test, fill in the blank, and they think if you tell people to do it. There’s no one left in America, and I would say pretty much in the world, that would argue that smoking is good for you. And yet we still have 20-25% of our population smoking. Telling them they’re going to die and that they’re bad people for smoking is not going to solve the problem. And yet strategies are being used that are not story based and are very pedantic and are not emotionally compelling and are based in information. And again, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t know smoking is bad for you. I mean I know ice cream is bad for me and I like it. I’ll eat it anyway.
How do you measure the impact?
DOE MAYER: Well the critical issue is to do something before it’s shown. That’s the critical issue and that’s been our problem in “Hollywood Health and Society.” We have to know when an episode is going on and we often don’t, because we have no control over it. Sometimes we do and some of writers and producers are very willing to work with us. They’ll tell us before this story line is going in but this is a problem because half the time they cut it out. Even if we think it’s definitely going to be in the episode it may not be in there. Then we’re putting a lot of resources into a pretest before that’s not there. For instance, we might take the list of fans of “Desperate Housewives” and join the group and post a questionnaire about a health issues important to all women. Large numbers of people do that. You don’t have to say your name and it’ll take 10 minutes on your computer. From that questionnaire we can get a baseline of what it’s like before they see the show and then we can test them afterward. We go back to those email addresses and test them afterward and see if there’s been a change. Very often what happens is they learn something right after the episode and they’re really good about that and then 6 months later they don’t remember. That’s why these extended soap operas are so good for us, because they keep the message going for months. The original daytime soap operas are less popular now, but still are very important. One of the most interesting story lines is the “Bold and the Beautiful,” which is the most popular soap opera in the world today. Millions of people watch it. The “Bold and the Beautiful” had a story line in the early 2000s where Tony got HIV. Tony was very handsome and he got HIV and the doctor told him in one episode and about a month later he told his fiancé that he had HIV and she was of course gorgeous as well. Then they had to go to the doctor and find out if they could get married, have sex, or kiss. There was a huge spike in the number of calls to the CDC 800 number that provides HIV/AIDS information. They put a tag at the end of the show. Data shows a huge spike in calls that first day when Tony gets the information and a massive spike when the fiancé gets the information. So why do you think there’s so much more of a spike in calls when the fiancé finds out?
Because the audience of women was now thinking “oh my god now what do I do?” There has been a massive change in shows so we can put in taglines, and in some shows the actor comes on and announces, “if you want more info about this, call this number or look on this website.” Then we measure hits and we can follow up with those hits. So we have evaluation techniques, quantitative and qualitative to try and figure out what effect this is having in society. This is a complex process. The 800-phone number is perfect, because you can see those spikes on those days. It is not so perfect when it’s a pap test about cervical cancer and the woman’s mother watches the show and she gets the test. How do I tease that out to figure, is it the TV show, or is it her mother?
I think all too long people felt that if you felt strongly about something and you made a movie about it, that would change things and I think there is far more we have to learn. It is not enough to make a good movie—it is wonderful and they do matter but it is not enough.
What is happening in the media landscape that you are excited about? (Listen to audio clip below.)
DOE MAYER: I teach documentary filmmaking and I teach students to tell stories they are passionate about. I like autobiographical films but, I don’t think those kinds of films are making the kind of change that we need to begin to think about making. I think using these research-based techniques and having more of a strategy is critical. I think there is a lot to learn from what has been funded in other countries, because they actually have funding to do this kind of research and they can’t waste the money.
Filmmaking is an art and not a science and for all that we have gotten and contributions made to social science, we are still inventing the wheel and that is exciting. We’re at the beginning of this. There is more than one way to do this. Could a great fiction film released by Participant—which I think makes some really great movies and has taken on this idea of broader strategies and community based outreach and trans-media techniques—make an impact? Yes, those are great ways in. Understanding that we can work with social scientists and not be distrustful is important, as is facilitating the dialogue. Many filmmakers resent someone coming in, like a focus group, and telling them what to do and yet this is how we are going to have to do this if we want to really understand an audience who is unlike us. All of those are interesting changes are happening. I think a lot more interesting work with results and impact is being done in other countries, because the funding is more targeted and the strategies are thought through in advance. I think we have a lot to learn from them.
There are entertainment-education based strategies being used in the US but they are very small. The perfect example is Sesame Street, which is not small and has been going for 40 years and been incredibly successful and has had a huge effect on changes in society. The movie that I’m showing tonight is about that and how that model disseminates into other countries and cultures. That is the quintessential, gold standard based model for entertainment-education. Another example is a little radio soap in Mississippi called “Radio Hearts” or something like that. It targets African-American women and it is on during the time of day they can listen to the radio, it engenders conversation and has an interactive quality where women can call in and ask questions.
When making your film did you claim fair use?
DOE MAYER: No, we just did it. We didn’t make the fair use argument. It was work done for John Hopkins and they funded it. We don’t know who owned a lot of the material we used. But if you get government money to fund your work it is not copyrightable which solves the fair use question. I think there was material in there that was copyrighted, but we didn’t know and we didn’t care. It was shown only in the non-profit sector. It was shown to people all over the world to stop making women look like victims. We’re all fed up with the “poor me, women being beaten” framing. The film was showing that women all over the world are speaking up and are competent and able to do things in the fields and in business and also have children and be married.
Who was your target audience for that film?
DOE MAYER: It was really specific towards filmmakers and donors of that kind of material. It ended up getting a lot of exposure and ended up on TV (which it wasn’t supposed to be), it was shown in Egypt at the UN conference for the environment and it really was quite well received. It was done to show that there are other ways to depict women in these entertainment-education based programs.
What trends do you hope to see in the educational media film field?
DOE MAYER: I’m working on a project now taking exactly the same material and putting it in a 12-minute story-based piece and a fact-based 12-minute piece. We’re really going to try and social science test this theory, which we all think is true, which is that story-based material is better, but that has not been proved.
I think these issues, of impact and idea dissemination without wasting money are huge challenges for the future and I am hopeful. When you explain this to people they get it, but in the real world often the case is that other things happen. For instance, the donor comes in and forces you to put in information like “Latinas are 2x as likely as white women to get cervical cancer because they don’t get tested.” What do we do? I mean, they are paying for it and they are using it. In this case what I am doing is getting characters to say the messages in a way that is hopefully interesting and fun and then people will get it. It is not like all facts or all rationale is effective. We have more neuroscience research that says we don’t act just on our ideas and our intellect. We act on our feelings. So if we, as social change agents, don’t frame our material based on the emotional content and on how humans feel, we’ve basically lost the fight. That is critical and where I see good storytelling and entertainment can make a difference. We emotionally connect to stories and to people who look like us and talk like us and think like us. We love stories from the moment the fires were built and the cavemen sat around them. When we take away that basic framework of what makes us human I think we lose a lot.
Most people get the importance of story and yet you get into a meeting with three doctors and their framing isn’t based on stories it is based on the facts and the intellectual ideas. And if they have power over the storytelling they often decimate it and they will tell filmmakers to make sure they get in the different agendas. But good stories don’t have three different subtexts and dual agendas that go in totally separate directions so they say you have to get them in because the donor says so. You end up diluting and un-focusing material that needs a priority in terms of the storyline and arc. So yes the arc is there, but so is all this other stuff cluttering it up and people get bored.
What career opportunities are there for people interested in media that makes a social impact? (Listen to audio clip below.)
DOE MAYER: I think there is a whole area of career opportunities and film schools such as mine have missed it. Including, donor based areas, the non-profit sector, organizations who are hiring video storytellers and people who understand the nature of story and that it can cross platforms. I am working with a non-profit in LA and they are doing a lovely job with website of telling the stories of the people they reach. They don’t make a fortune but they are making a living and it is exciting and they are doing work they care about and they want to wake up and do it. To me that is very stimulating. This organization is called Liberty Hill.
There is the whole field of health communication, which is not going away, and it is one of the biggest agendas of the American people. One of those agendas is figuring how do we get people to stop smoking, stop drinking, eat carefully to fill in the blank.
The interface between the film school and that kind of work is very limited. Students don’t think about it coming out of film school. I think there’s a lot more innovative and imaginative ways to do this. Do you have to self define? Yes. Do you have to begin to make connections in this field? Yes. But don’t you have to do that in Hollywood? Hollywood is exactly the same way. Students will say it’s all political. Film school’s political. The world’s political. It’s all who you know. If someone’s charmed by you and likes you they’re far more likely to give you work than to look at your CV and say, “oh I want to live with this person 24hours a day and work with them.” No one does that. Understanding the world is bigger than we think and doing some research on what’s available is key. There are some very big nonprofits that have communications and film students working for them like Save the Children and U.S. AID. Government agencies also have positions. I’ve made those types of programs and I’ve taught people to make them.
Any type of communication campaign sponsored by American corporations, depending on your politics, are all options for young people who understand visual storytelling. Again, I would not like to make a distinction between documentary and fiction. I would like to make a distinction between material that’s story driven and material that’s fact driven. But, I think your options are bigger than you know. I don’t think we’ve done enough to help our students to see the bigger world. Students with energy to do this work, we need you! We need this kind of thinking. We need ways for people to place themselves within various social change components.
What advice do you give to students who want to be filmmakers and professors?
DOE MAYER: I feel very lucky. The academy has been very supportive of not only my odd career choices but also of encouraging me to change and go with new interests and reinvent myself. I can’t think that most institutions allow that. Once I stopped formally fitting in the film school and I started teaching in the communication school and doing communication campaigns for social change I was able to get a joint appointment even though I don’t have a PhD. Now I find myself in an odd position with an MA being on dissertation committees. I am on 7 dissertations in the Annenburg School, because people want applied understanding. They want the applied experiences that I am bringing. That is change in academia. That’s the good news, the bad news is that these are new fields and for Annenburg to open itself up and see that having an applied component to their more theoretical PhD based models is a good thing that took time. Change is happening. We’re seeing communities that are saying to the researchers, “What are you giving me?” in exchange for my time and knowledge that PhD’s take away and put into academic papers. That is a total change in the framing of a dialogue and researchers are beginning to think that maybe the communities are supposed to get something out of their research. Perhaps it is not enough to say thank you and give them a cup of tea.
There are rules you have to conform to as an academic and you have to be willing to do that. On the other hand, I have benefitted from living in these multitude worlds and now I am getting funding. My positioning has allowed me to get funding that I can’t get as a filmmaker on my own or even just as a communications expert. I am in a broader intellectual world that is opening up foundation and government-funded projects that I couldn’t get as an independent person.
The greatest treat of being in academia is teaching. I love teaching, the students and the energy. I want to stay connected to the world and I don’t know a better way than through young people. That is a gift that being a filmmaker alone doesn’t give me.