March 8, 2010

‘The Cove': Will movies usher in a new era of social change?

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Moving movie audiences to take action from JD Lasica on Vimeo.

JD LasicaI‘ll confess: I was excited to see The Cove take home the Academy Award for best feature documentary last night. While all the entrants were worthy, “The Cove” is among the handful of movies pushing the idea of Hollywood productions as the fulcrum for social change.

A few weeks ago I caught up with Christopher Gebhardt, general manager and executive vice president of TakePart, the Beverly Hills-based digital arm of Participant Media, which marketed and helped bring “The Cove” to theaters nationwide. Participant Media (formerly Participant Productions) — Jeff Skoll’s social entrepreneurial film production company — has an incredible track record in bringing socially relevant films to screens nationwide, including “An Inconvenient Truth,” “Charlie Wilson’s War,” “The Kite Runner,” “The Soloist,” “Syriana,” “Good Night, and Good Luck,” “The Visitor,” “Food, Inc.,” “North Country” and now “The Cove.”

A breath-taking string of success.

dolphins“The Cove” is remarkable for its guerrilla filmmaking tactics in chronicling the grisly business of dolphin hunting in rural fishing villages in Japan, where as many as 20,000 dolphins are slaughtered annually. It won the Audience Award at Sundance last year. Participant didn’t fund the film but funded its marketing.

“We’ve spent the last five years at Participant figuring out how to take the film and really use it to … really get people involved with an issue,” said Gebhardt, speaking after a conversation on stage at Social Capital Markets 2009.

You may have noticed one fellow on stage at the Oscars — film subject and animal activist Ric O’Barry — holding up a sign that said, “Text DOLPHIN to 44144.” (The camera cut away after only one second — the academy has a long tradition of not acknowledging or encouraging overly activist sentiments.)

What’s cool about “The Cove” is that, just as the movie ends, theatergoers are met with the same message: Text DOLPHIN to 44144. When you text the short code, Gebhardt explains, you’re given ways to connect, including the option to sign online petitions to protest the brutal practice, send letters to President Obama, the US ambassador to Japan or Japan’s ambassador to the United States, or you can take other actions.

Watch, download or embed the video on Vimeo. (I’ve started producing these in a higher resolution 3800 kbps bitrate at 720 pixels wide.)

I should mention that I was in the first group of bloggers in 2005 who signed on to guest-post on Participant’s first such effort: the “Good Night and Good Luck” site to discuss press reform and how changes in corporate ownership of the media have affected our democracy since the days of Edward R. Murrow.

Actions you can take

I’ve been a fan of TakePart for months now — it’s the mechanism that connects Participant Media films with taking action. “Every film [we produce or market] has a social action campaign wrapped around it,” Gebhardt says. One aspect of “The Cove’s” marketing campagn was to reach out to NGOs to see what kind of campaign makes most sense with the topic that the film addresses. My own view is that Participant Media could use a bit more guidance in running social cause campaigns.

The TakePart site has a section on The Cove where users can take the following actions:

I’ll post an interview with TakePart editor Adriana Dunn soon. JD Lasica, founder and former editor of Socialbrite, is co-founder of Cruiseable. Contact JD or follow him on Twitter or Google Plus.

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  • http://intensedebate.com/profiles/yongshuling yongshuling

    What an encouraging post! I've always known about the good work of Participant Media, but have never come across TakePart. I love how it's building community around issues raised by the movie to extend the impact even further. Very cool. :) Thanks for sharing this!

  • Freddy

    Films can help raise awareness and/or support organizing in the trenches, but calling them "the fulcrum of social change" seems a gross exaggeration. While its true that these films have enjoyed success as films, it's not as if the social ills depicted in them are any less prevalent today. Agitprop which moves people to action is a rare phenomenon.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/socialbrite socialbrite

      True, I should have said "a fulcrum" instad of "the fulcrum." Still, without an organization like Participant Media, we'd largely be left with teen boy flicks, blockbuster entertainments and buddy movies. – jd

      • Freddy

        Absolutely. Participant supports good work. You write a great blog too. Keep at it – Cheers

  • http://www.facebook.com/calebgalaraga Caleb Galaraga

    I've always been a fan of Jeff Skoll and the work of Participant Media. The eye-opening, insightful, and well-made films they make enables everyone to be aware of their surroundings and makes it entertaining to understand crucial social issues of our time.