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Make a Movie, Change the World: What It’s Like to Work with Impact Partners

Make a Movie, Change the World: What It's Like to Work with Impact Partners

Since its inception in 2007, Impact Partners has been involved in the financing of over 50 films, including award-winning documentaries such as “The Cove,” “An Inconvenient Truth,” “The Garden,” “Hell and Back Again,” How to Survive a Plague” and many more. These films have not only been critical successes but have also succeeded in changing public opinion.

This year, six films supported by the company will be screening at Sundance: “Sembene!,” “How to Change the World”,  “Dreamcatcher,” “Chuck Norris vs. Communism,” “Censored Voices” and “The Hunting Ground.”

“Impact Partners was a key piece in the puzzle of putting ‘Chuck Norris vs. Communism’ together,” said John Battsek, managing director of Passion Pictures and an executive producer on the film. “Companies like Impact are invaluable when it comes to social issue documentaries.”

Cogan’s involvement in a film doesn’t end once he’s found funding. 

“Dan is an amazing film producer, so in addition to putting together this innovative idea of capital to support these socially minded documentaries, he’s also really good at the nuts and bolts of getting films made,” Jason Silverman, co-director of “Sembene!” told Indiewire. “This is in no way silent money. He’s been involved in the process in a really productive and constant way almost from the beginning.”

Indiewire recently spoke to Cogan about the challenges of producing and launching a social impact documentary.

How important is strategy when it comes to producing and launching a documentary, particularly one with the goal of social impact?

It’s increasingly important. When we started 8 year ago, if a film was successful we could sell it to Sony Pictures Classics, or IFC, or HBO, and then that was it. Increasingly, because of the way distribution has shifted, because of VOD, transactional VOD, subscription VOD, the rise of Netflix and the increasingly complicated windowing between theatrical, TV, digital, etc., it’s become much more complicated to sell a film. We often end up doing deals where the windows are split among a variety of companies. Navigating through the sales and distribution process has become much more complicated. It used to be that our work on a film wasn’t that significant once we sold it; it’s now as significant all the way through the exhibition process in all the different windows as at any other time.

I imagine first-time filmmakers especially look to you for guidance.

In the social issue documentary world a lot of filmmakers are motivated by a story that they have fallen in love with, that’s touched them and means so much to them that they want to tell it. Therefore, we deal with a lot of first and second-time filmmakers. If you’ve been doing this for many years and have done many films, you kind of know how to navigate the post-production process, the festival process, the sales process and the distribution process. But if it’s your first or second film, and you’re thrust into this environment that’s so complicated and getting even more complicated every year, it helps to have someone who’s been down that road, whose interests are the same as yours. Which is to say, to get as big a sale as you can to the right company that will handle the film in the right way that you want it to be handled because of the issue that you care about.

Even experienced directors need help in that area, I’m sure.

Yes, even sometimes for very experienced filmmakers that strategic work can be important too. An example is we are doing Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s “Hunting Ground” that’s premiering at Sundance and when we started talking to them about that film we came up with the idea of ‘let’s sell the film now, because it’s all about the impact this film is going to have.’ So that’s how we ended up coming up with the structure of Radius doing the theatrical, or I should say the all rights except TV, and CNN doing TV.

That’s huge.

What CNN gives you is not just a huge broadcast on television, but the ability to have Anderson Cooper do a live town hall meeting at a college with real women who have gone through this experience. There’s no other network that can really offer you that kind of thing. They can cover the film on 10 different CNN shows, they can create a wall of discussion and conversation around the film for a week leading up to and then after the TV broadcast. So for the issue, it’s a whole huge other bump six months or eight months after the theatrical. 

How important is Sundance when it comes to launching a documentary, particularly a social impact one?

It’s huge. It can’t be understated. There are films that don’t need Sundance. “20 Feet From Stardom,” for instance, would have had the same life had it premiered at any other film festival, not even a major film festival. It could have premiered at a smaller film festival and it could have had the same life. But there are small films that if they don’t premiere at Sundance, they tend to disappear, but if they’re at Sundance their whole life can be changed.

At the end of the day, from a practical point of view, the value that Sundance has once it elevates that film is the ability for you to sell it in such a way that it then can have a huge profile in the commercial world. There is a very clear link between the commercial profile of a film and its social impact, because if you can’t sell a film to a theatrical distributor or a broadcaster, that film is never going to be on television — and I include Netflix here — nobody is going to see it. 

How do you reach a broad audience with film with a difficult subject matter?

No matter what the subject matter is, you have to make a great film. As a piece of cinema, a piece of entertainment, it has to work. So you need to have great characters, you need to have drama, you need to have a three-act structure with a story that works just as well as a great feature film. You are a storyteller at the end of the day, you’re not a documentary filmmaker, you’re storyteller. Therefore, you have to make films that people want to see for their own sake. We’re not interested in making advocacy films, we’re not interested in making didactic films. We’re interested in making films that when you encounter them, it feels like this is a really great story that happens to be about a social issue. That social issue for us may have been central, but for the audience you want it to be secondary; you want to make it a great film. And if it’s a great film, people are going to seek it out and want to watch it and the social issue will hit them in a secondary way.

READ MORE: Watch Exclusive Trailer for Kim Longinotto’s Sundance Doc “Dreamcatcher”

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