Developing your strategy

In the first chapter, we covered why documentary film in general is such a powerful impact medium – because it deepens understanding & empathy, sparks new connections and brings energy to an issue; because it contributes to culture change, which bolsters (and is reinforced by) other change; because in independent documentary, we have a unique flexibility to reach audiences that matter.

Now we need to make a start on how your specific project is going to build on those properties to deliver real, practical impact on the issue you're facing. What this planning looks like often depends on your starting point.

A film impact strategy must be constructed around the interplay between what a movement or activists need and a film’s strengths. For example:

  • Who can the film most effectively engage with?
  • What is this audience likely to already think about the issue?
  • What’s the issue landscape like (current events, public discourse, policy debates, etc.)?
  • What do campaigners working in this issue landscape need?
  • What are the possible “pressure points” that the story can trigger?
  • What would the target audiences need to do in order for real change to happen?

In other words, what is your theory of change?

Even if you have a clear sense of the issues your film addresses, when a story is emergent it may be unclear where things will end up and/or what the film’s strengths will be. And even when you think you know what your story is about, that may not be what your target audiences take away from it. So, if impact is a priority for you, work with your partners and advisers to make sure you’re moving forward with eyes wide open.

And while that’s true of all films to one degree or another, there are some filmmakers who embed deeply in an issue and stay with it long-term. This means that their storytelling is somewhat more issue-driven and the impact strategy, while rarely fixed, is much more stable (often tied to a theory of change) and built into the production from the start.

Exposures Lab, for example, has developed a deep expertise around climate change. Skylight Pictures often focus on human rights in Central America. And Just Vision’s mission is to bring peace to the conflict in Israel-Palestine. For these teams who have been embedded in their respective movements - in some cases for decades - the story they choose to tell is the story the movement needs.

Julia Bacha from Just Films explained that their team is on the ground in Israel-Palestine year-round, listening for the stories and opportunities that could move the meter on the conflict. When they made Budrus, they knew they needed a story that could counteract the narrative that nonviolence doesn’t work. Their theory of change was that, by elevating stories of nonviolent resistance which were largely buried in popular media, they would inspire more people to resist nonviolently.

But these folks are unusual. Most typically, filmmakers are compelled or drawn to make an issue-driven film, but then move on. And that is fine. No matter where a filmmaker and their team is coming from, the end result can be breathtakingly powerful.

There are many ways to build a strategic plan. Whether it’s built in from the start or emergent, there are nonetheless a few basics to keep in mind. Here we offer a case study and a tool to help you get started with your planning.

The Strategic Plan worksheet: effectively a roadmap-builder to take you from your film to the Impact Vision you defined.

Worksheet Download

Now is a good time to download your own Strategic Plan worksheet.

And feel free to riff off this. Using the Field Guide, Impact Producer Ani Mercedes has devised her own working process to help get started at the very beginning. For any film she’s working on, she will:

  1. Write down the key themes and messages from the film. She includes any issues, topics, or pronouns specific to it.
  2. Create an impact hypothesis. What issues might the film move the needle on? She brainstorms 2-3 hypotheses based on the themes she wrote down. Note: after you brainstorm, it's helpful to refine your hypothesis so it starts with a verb (i.e. encourage) and include who it could move the needle for (i.e. underrepresented groups).
  3. Brainstorm activities. What can the audience do after watching the film? She then brainstorms activities with the team around what things people could do to accomplish each of her impact hypotheses. (ie: volunteer, register to vote, change their purchasing decisions)
  4. List partners. She then identifies 100-200 potential partners who may be able to use the film as a tool to strengthen their own work or who are already helping people do some of the activities listed. Remember to categorise and prioritise them.

Having completed this initial analysis, Ani’s next steps are to create a simple one to two page pitch outlining this thinking, which she uses in her initial outreach to potential partners. Eventually, she will host a braintrust to bring those stakeholders together and test that working hypothesis in person, making it richer. (More about running a braintrust in the next section.)

Now, any strategic plan is likely to evolve throughout the process of making the film - especially if you’re not yet certain of the story arc - but you’ve got to start somewhere.

In the sections that follow, we'll walk you through the process of developing your first working draft:

  • Map the Issue
  • Introducing the Four Impact Dynamics
  • Drafting your Impact Plan: a how to guide

Geek Out: Ideas for further reading


Made byDoc Society Made possible by: Ford Foundation - Just Film Bertha Foundation Sundance Institute Knight Foundation