Social Impact Goes To The Movies

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Now that the strikes that crippled Hollywood have been settled, entertainment companies are grappling with how to produce successful content. A committed group with a very definite POV will gather in December to encourage the industry to harness storytelling to create greater social good in addition to box office receipts.

Topics such as helping showrunners succeed, impact at the blockbuster level and charity’s relationship with profit will be featured during a two-day conference entitled “Impact & Profit: Entertainment To Change The World” on December 7 & 8 in Los Angeles.

Organizers from the Social Impact Entertainment Society and the Johns Hopkins Center for Communications Programs (CCP) have teamed up to promote the idea that for-profit entertainment and impact are not antithetical.

“The biggest obstacle is an outdated belief that you have to choose impact or profit: either the film or show you make will be commercially successful, or you have to make a small indie project that is dedicated to its effect on society,” said Tobias Demi, a society co-founder and producer whose work has appeared on HBO Max and Netflix.

“In reality, both are not only possible together, but they usually become more than the sum of its parts: An impactful entertainment property usually generates a ton of word of mouth and a loyal audience for re-runs, sequels and spin-offs, while a commercially successful program automatically scales impact since more people engage with it,” he said.

As enthusiastic as he is about the opportunity for commercial productions to advance the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, Demi quick to admit that the social impact entertainment industry is in its infancy. Some years ago research introduced Demi and colleagues to the work of the CCP in the field of social and behavior change communication (SBCC).

SBCC is a quite rigorous approach to promoting distinct pro-social outcomes based on proven behavior and social norm theories. The SBCC approach has been described as impact first, entertainment a close second. A recent example is the USAID-funded “Albishirin Ku!” program in Nigeria, a radio drama designed to help listeners address issues such as malaria, nutrition and child health.

By working together, the CCP hopes it will be able to “share our vast experience in designing and implementing social and behavior change communication and entertainment-education programs and evaluating their impact, and to learn from approaches used in Hollywood to further enhance our work,” said Debora Freitas Lopez, the center’s executive director.

Although making social impact highly important (as opposed to an afterthought) for major entertainment properties is rare, there are significant examples, said Demi. “An all-time favorite of mine is the Avatar franchise, which just had its 2022 sequel with a $2.3Bn box office record, while promoting environmental awareness of the ocean. James Cameron has really created a quite masterful balance of impact and profit in his work.”

Executives speaking at the conference who strive to create social impact entertainment include director/producer Stephen Gyllenhaal (“Bosch”, “Billions”, “Blue Bloods”, “UnCharitable”); writer/director/producer Peter Farrelly (“Green Book”, “There’s Something About Mary”, “The Greatest Beer Run Ever”); and producer Heather Rae (“Frozen River”, “Tallulah”, “Outer Range”). In all, more than 50 speakers are slated to share their experiences in producing social impact entertainment and social and behavior change communication.

Sharing such a diversity of approaches and experiences is “(W)hy we’re doing the conference,” said Demi. The organizers hope to “encourage our fellow film industry executives and creatives to trust in their vision for a better world without compromising the goal of financial sustainability,” he said

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