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The Atlantic Piece on Using Movies to Change the World


Using Moviemaking to Change the World, Both Inside Theaters and Out

The stories told by these documentaries are meant to incite action, but the same goes for the marketing, social-media, and distribution efforts of their creators.

Films, especially documentaries, with potent social messages seem to be having a greater cultural effect in recent years. That may be in part because of filmmakers' newly ambitious plans for citizen action to spotlight the issues and drive change. Three recent films come to mind as examples of the work of dedicated journalists and producers whose commitment extends beyond the subjects they cover to include far-reaching strategies for distribution and follow-up activities.

The traditional path for such well-intentioned films has been limited theatrical distribution, possibly followed by a run on cable, and then on-demand video and DVDs. As with all films, the makers' goals are accolades from festivals and admiring reviews, a distribution deal that helps to cover costs and provide promotion, and an audience that comes away moved or impressed with the film's purpose.

Now, however, filmmakers with determination to affect people beyond the screen can achieve so much more: Each film has an extensive presence on the Internet, with social media being used to spread the word and share accumulated viewers' experience. The filmmakers' objective is to turn the movie into a catalyst for action. (Perhaps the leading example of this phenomenon is still Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, an Oscar-winner in 2006 that brought climate change to the forefront of public concern and activities.) 

A Place at The Table is a Participant Media film directed by Lori Silverbush and Kristi Jacobson about the enormous number of Americans—49 million people, according to current estimates—considered "food insecure," meaning that their next meal is not assured. It had its theatrical opening on March 1, and is also available on iTunes and on-demand. The notion of such widespread hunger in the world's wealthiest nation is stunning. The film makes the case—both through narration by experts and personal stories—that the scale of the problem is not exaggerated. (PublicAffairs is publisher of a companion book to the film that is a part of the outreach program that Participant Media uses to further its social-advocacy objectives.) The comprehensive website is takepart.com/place-at-the-table.

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