By Sally Jo Fifer
ITVS President and CEO Sally Jo Fifer announces the Women and Girls Lead campaign — a major public media initiative that uses independent films to focus, educate, and connect audiences in support of women and girl’s leadership and development around the world.
It’s no secret that the competitive sea in which ITVS and independent filmmakers paddle is not getting any calmer. Over the last year, more than 1,000 proposals came to us for funding. The Sundance Film Festival received 841 documentary submissions. Public broadcasting is grappling with marketplace and demographic challenges. New metrics and “theory of change” frameworks have shifted foundations’ approaches to individual films. The public clicks like crazy between 120 television channels and 300 million websites vying for their attention — and that same public flunks miserably at any basic test of civic knowledge.
Yet some favorable winds and currents for independent filmmakers are popping up within the storm. Social media and crowd-funding are formidable tools for many DIY efforts. Engagement networks have created new funding and promotion partners in organizations and communities that value media. No less a commercial titan than Oprah herself has carved out new television real estate for documentaries. And independent champions like Chicken and Egg, Women Make Movies, The Fledgling Fund, and so many others continue their ongoing invaluable support for filmmakers.
Over the last decade of technological change, ITVS too has sought out these currents, working to serve filmmakers, public television, and the public — with more funding, more programs, and more ways to find and engage viewers. The creation of Independent Lens brought in 22-27 new broadcast slots for independents. Amid globalization and a zeitgeist for cultural exchange, ITVS International funded international programs and took the work of U.S. indies abroad. IndiesLab helped open doors and set fair terms at iTunes, Amazon, Hulu, and beyond; Global Voices opened a second or third window for older programs; the reboot of Community Cinema alongside social media opened 100 markets where local partners and stations come together around the power of independent film; FUTURESTATES and Project 360 created opportunities for makers focused on new media.
Our newest initiative, Women and Girls Lead, represents another current, one that brings together many of the last decade’s opportunities and builds on our work around powerful storytelling. A multiyear initiative to focus, educate, and connect citizens worldwide — Women and Girls Lead provides a frame to highlight 50 compelling documentaries, both premieres and archive selections. These documentaries represent a groundswell of stories about the leadership of women and girls facing tremendous challenges.
For public television and the public we serve, this effort will stand beside system-wide efforts like the American Graduate initiative, which raises awareness of the high school dropout crisis, and the mortgage town halls, using the power of media to start and sustain conversations around a widely shared set of issues. Details will emerge in the coming weeks on how we will do this work, with which partners and films, and with what goals. What is more important, right now, is to make clear what we believe this initiative can do for filmmakers in the 21st century marketplace.
First, Women and Girls Lead will help bring back to the limelight some “evergreen” films that are as relevant today as the day they premiered, finding new audiences for work online, through live engagement, and even rebroadcasts. There will also be valuable cross-promotion, cross-distribution, and cross-engagement opportunities for films linked and grouped together. Pulling together independent work as a content block has been critical to claiming real estate in the past; it’s worked with buckets like P.O.V., Independent Lens, and even online with IndiesLab.
Now, technology, and opportunity have gelled to connect the dots that too often go unconnected. Most importantly, we believe Women and Girls Lead as a model will provide an undeniable case for the social value of documentary film — not just for the occasional documentary “blockbuster” but for the whole collective of independent work that thousands of filmmakers do on every important issue facing civil society here and abroad, with each film a contributor to long-term conversations that benefit all.