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When Movies Go to Washington: Documentary Films & Public Policy in the United States (Volume 1)

By Caty Borum Chattoo

From Rachel Libert and Tony Hardmon's 2011 film 'Semper Fi.'

By Caty Borum Chattoo & Will Jenkins, Center for Media & Social Impact

When Movies Go to Washington: Documentary Films & Public Policy in the United States (Volume 1) is the first in a two-volume investigation about the role of documentary films in legislative and regulatory change and influence in the United States. This report provides a comprehensive, contemporary framework—specifically for policy engagement by film- and media-makers at the federal level— around legislation, regulation and enforcement. The research includes portraits of three films, purposefully profiled years after their original premieres in order to understand the long-term strategy and impact: Semper Fi, Bully and I.O.U.S.A.

Most importantly, given that policymaking is a true insider sport, this report was created primarily from the expert insights and perspectives provided by in-depth interviews with three groups of professional policy insiders: (1) policy staffers and officials (Congress, federal agencies); (2) professional issue advocates (NGO issue experts); and (3) the filmmakers themselves, who often evolve to act as change movement leaders in addition to their creative roles.

Volume 1 focuses on the federal level, and Volume 2 focuses on state and local levels. Both volumes were directed and written by Caty Borum Chattoo and Will Jenkins under the auspices of the Center for Media & Social Impact at American University’s School of Communication in Washington, DC. This investigation was funded by The Fledgling Fund. The full report is available here.


Over the past few decades, an increased number of social-issue documentary film teams have endeavored to fuel policy shifts in the United States - that is, to influence legislation, regulation, enforcement and the views of policymakers related to key social issues on the federal, state and local levels. Indeed, Capitol Hill screenings in Washington, DC, have become regular rites of passage. But while anecdotal stories of Hill screenings abound, a deeper strategic and tactical understanding about how social-issue documentary films contribute to policy is harder to ascertain. Documentary filmmakers and policymakers operate in different worlds with distinct agendas and ways of doing business. And yet, they are often able to come together in mutually beneficial ways.

When Movies Go to Washington provides inside perspectives from policymakers, filmmakers and advocacy leaders who have successfully contributed to shifting or creating policy agendas, with the help of documentary films. The report offers documentary film teams tips for engagement with the federal public policy arena. While social-issue documentary filmmakers certainly don't need to transform themselves into finely-tuned policy experts, understanding the basics and some insider tips can make the difference in a policy strategy's effectiveness. It may also provide filmmakers with the ability to fully vet impact strategy teams who may work alongside them. Additionally, a fuller understanding of the policymaking process can widen opportunities for engagement beyond passing laws alone - to the processes by which those laws are carried out and impact the lives of people outside Washington, DC.

This new investigation reveals main conclusions and strategic recommendations:

1. Look for Momentum.
Changing policy does not happen quickly, and results may not be apparent until years after a movie has premiered in the entertainment marketplace. However, when a film can successfully align with the social momentum that has been built up by others over time, it can be a catalyst that pushes the issue forward in a dramatic way.

2. Choose Effective Associations and Advocacy Groups as Partners.
For a film to have federal policy impact, it's helpful to partner early with the right advocacy groups and associations that focus on the social issue at the heart of a documentary film. Not much gets done in the federal government without advocacy and lobbying efforts, so they are crucial to any policy impact campaign. They are trusted guides and issue experts who maintain strong relationships with members of Congress, congressional staffers, and federal agency leaders and staffers. They can help film teams understand the precise policy position of a social issue and realistic policy directions - and they can move an issue forward and engage their own considerable grassroots networks.

3. Understand the Issue's Position in the Policy Process.
When developing a public policy impact strategy for a documentary film, it is crucial to understand the current status in the policymaking process of the issue it explores. Has legislation been proposed already? Is this a new issue without legislation? Is existing legislation not being enforced? Answering these questions - with the help of advocacy group policy experts - is key. Understanding the partisan implications of which major party - Republican or Democrat - controls Congress or the White House is essential to a realistic understanding of what is possible at the federal level. (Sometimes it's best to look to state and local policy if the federal level is gridlocked.)

4. Find the Right Policymakers.
There are four soft criteria for strategic film teams when considering particular members of Congress or federal agency officials to help support the efforts of the film, in addition to the recommendations from advocacy experts: (1) committee assignment and/or jurisdiction over the issue; (2) local angles of the film and connections to the member of Congress' home district; (3) established long-time commitment to a social issue; and (4) level of seniority. And increasingly, a record of bipartisan success is crucial - one-party policymaking generally doesn't progress very far.

5. Create Strong Relationships with Policymakers' Staff.
Film teams are right to think of policy staffers as the people who do most of the work. If a member of Congress or federal official assigns a project to a staff member, it will have a better chance of moving a policy agenda forward, well beyond the splash of a Capitol Hill screening. Relationships with staff are almost as important as the relationship with the member of Congress and should be nurtured.

6. Understand a Story's Unique Value and Prepare Selling Points.
Policymakers and their staffers are armed with facts and statistics. What they often don’t have is precisely what a documentary film team can offer: a compelling, intimate, human story that brings an issue to life and captures emotions. In this way, a filmmaker and policymaker agenda can align - the filmmaker provides the crucial intimate human stories. Film teams should be prepared to talk in ways that align the values of the story with the values and objectives of the policymakers.

7. Know the Facts.
An intimate story alone is not enough to convince a policymaker to pay attention to a documentary film about a social issue. Knowing the facts of the issue is important for establishing credibility with policymakers, who are less likely to support someone's personal advocacy agenda than a sound set of facts that back the human stories.

8. Provide Different Options for Viewing.
Because policymakers and their busy staffers receive so many requests for their time, it can be challenging for them to watch an entire film. A full suite of optimal versions for policy engagement is ideal. It includes: (1) a two-minute trailer to capture initial attention; (2) five-minute trailers or scene clips for small meetings; (3) a 20-minute cut for a larger meeting and Q&A; and (4) a full-length film for congressional and federal agency screenings.

9. Consider Nonpartisan Appeals for the Long Game.
In today's federal policy arena, legislation supported only by one major political party generally won't be successful. Working diligently to develop messages and an understanding of a film's core social issue - in a way that can be embraced by the values and interests of both Republican and Democratic policy players - is difficult but useful.

10. Leverage Earned Media Coverage.
Earned media coverage - articles in newspapers, magazines, stories in TV national and local news outlets, even film awards - amplify a message well outside the policy arena of Washington, DC. Media coverage is a tactical tool that can raise awareness of a supportive public who can mobilize to tell Congress and federal agencies how they feel about an issue. And, at particular points in the policy process, public support can make all the difference. Media coverage for a social-issue documentary is not only an entertainment publicity function but a grassroots coalition tool.

Download the full report here.


Caty Borum Chattoo, Director of the Center for Media & Social Impact, an innovation lab and research center based at American University's School of Communication in Washington, D.C., is a documentary producer, media researcher and communicatation strategist focused on social change. Her documentary credits include Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, Stand Up Planet (starring Hasan Minhaj), The After Party (featuring President Barack Obama) and more.

Will Jenkins has more than fifteen years of communications and policy experience at the White House, the Department of Health and Human Services, Congress and international nonprofit organizations. Over the years, he has also worked with filmmakers and media producers across the country on stories that engage public policy issues.