Two years ago, Fledgling launched its Rapid Story Deployment Fund.  Informed by our long-time strategy of using documentary storytelling for impact, it was conceived as a pilot program designed to quickly support filmmakers, nonprofits, journalists, and others who wished to leverage short form documentary stories to elevate the national conversation around critical and urgent issues.   In early 2017, and again in 2018, we received general support from the Dorot Foundation that supplemented Fledgling’s internal funds.  

Through this fund, Fledgling has supported 42 projects that we have seen deployed across journalistic platforms, social media platforms, film festivals, and through more traditional community screening and documentary film distribution channels.  Along the way, we have been tracking the impact of these projects, as well as capturing key lessons both to inform our future grant making, and we hope, to provide guidance to others working in this space.  This is a quick summary of what we have learned. We look forward to sharing a more detail summary in early 2019.

Since its launch, Fledgling has had over 600 applications to the Rapid Story Deployment Fund and has awarded just under $400,000 in grant funding across 42 projects.  Grants range from $5,000 to $10,000 with most at the $10,000 level.  As part of this initiative, we also completed a Special Call for Proposals around Climate Change and Health in October 2017, using an advisory committee and separate application process.  Overall, projects fall into seven broad issue areas:  Health and Women’s Safety/Empowerment, Democracy and Freedom of the Press, Criminal Justice, Environmental Justice, Economic Justice, Equality and the Rise of Hate, and Immigration/Refugees.  All of these issues were front and center throughout 2017 and 2018 and this fund supported filmmakers in their efforts to insert timely and authentic stories into our public dialogue

Criteria and Review Process

As its name implies, this grant fund prioritized rapid deployment thus we used an expedited review process with the goal of turning around applications within weeks rather than months.  When necessary, we reached out to colleagues and issue area experts to request input on particular projects.  This expert insight was incredibly helpful and one of the reasons we tested a more proactive approach with the Special Call for Proposals around Climate Change and Health, engaging an advisory committee that provided valuable input, streamlined the application and review process, and helped attract strong projects around a targeted issue.

In all proposals, we look carefully at the team and its track record, distribution plans for the completed piece, the urgency/timeliness of the story, and how we think it can contribute to deeper awareness and engagement around key issues.   The criteria intentionally left room for a wide variety of short-form content.   Supported projects fall into a few broad categories:  episodic/web series documentaries, journalistic videos, shorts that are strategically connected to a feature film, shorts designed for a digital engagement, and more traditional documentary shorts.   In addition, several projects utilized documentary photography and 360 video.

Deployment and Distribution

There is a growing number of platforms and channels for short-form content, but distribution remains challenging and in many ways is still evolving.  Of the 42 funded projects, 27 are complete and have been released. Seven premiered at film festivals, four were released as part of larger journalistic stories, seven are connected to documentary feature film projects and are being used for engagement purposes, six were developed and launched as part of digital campaigns and three were launched in communities directly affected by the issues in the films.  Fifteen funded projects have not been released.  Most of these were funded in 2018 and are on track to launch either at festivals or through journalistic platforms by early 2019.  A few have run into delays due to the evolving nature of the story, which has caused timelines to shift.   A couple are complete but are sorting out their distribution options and have run into some challenges given the evolving environment for distributing short form content, particularly web series or episodic documentaries.  

The Role of Short Form Content

We see several ways that short form documentary can contribute to larger social change efforts.  Powerful short films are well positioned to provide tools for community organizing and dialogue with the shorter length allowing for more time for discussion and audience engagement in a community setting.   A short film also can be a key asset for longer feature length projects, allowing the launch of impact work prior to also the release of a feature length film.  Some even lay the groundwork for a feature length film.   We have also seen short visual stories enhance journalistic projects by adding a strong visual component and connecting new audiences to important written content.   Similarly, it has been gratifying to see several projects used to amplify and extend the work of nonprofit organizations providing content that is deployed on digital platforms helping nonprofits reach and engage new audiences.   We plan to share some case studies in the coming months that illustrate the different ways that short films can contribute to social change efforts.

Key Lessons

Our goals with this fund were to deploy short form content quickly to elevate our public dialogue and open up opportunities to use short form documentary storytelling to drive social change and impact.  A number of challenges and key lessons have emerged related to these goals.   Perhaps the most challenging issue is distribution, since channels for this kind of work are evolving and can be difficult to access and a bit of a moving target.  There can also be tension between the needs of longer form projects and related short content that can affect both timelines and the structure of the different media pieces.  Another issue, which was not surprising to us but worth emphasizing, is the need for strong partnerships and other resources to support strategic engagement.   Finally, we underestimated the challenges of a rapid review process.  Often we had nothing to review since the request was for production making it difficult to assess the strength of the story.  Added to that is the complex and turbulent political environment, with a multitude of critical issues at play and competing for attention.

Next Steps

As we reflect on our experience with this fund, we are proud to have helped support powerful and timely projects that have raised awareness and engaged communities around critical issues that Fledgling cares deeply about.   We continue to believe in the power of documentary storytelling, particularly short form, to contribute to and advance social change.     The Rapid Story Deployment Fund has been a valuable pilot program for Fledgling allowing us to deepen our understanding of the opportunities and challenges of making and deploying short form content.  We look forward to incorporating these lessons into our work going forward.

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