Translating on-screen emotion into on-the-ground action isn’t easy. In our case, we first sought to make that link at the community level. We launched "King Corn" into theaters with Balcony Releasing, and simultaneously screened it in hundreds of churches and schools, projected it on the walls of bars and barns, and showed it (strangely) at an indoor driving range to a packed house of farmers in the midst of an Iowa snowstorm. At locally organized events like these, volunteers signed people up to join the local Slow Food chapter, subscribe to a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm, or take action on a petition to update the Farm Bill. Change took root before the audience even left their seats.
In HBO’s case, and operating on a much more powerful financial scale, their outreach campaign involves a close partnership with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health. Working closely with scientists and policymakers, the release of "The Weight of the Nation" was timed to coincide with a national conference on obesity and health hosted by the government itself. In just a few short weeks, the series has driven renewed national focus to the issue of obesity.
In both our experience and HBO’s, the number of people that will watch our films start-to-finish is far smaller than the audience our projects will touch in other ways. Some of the greatest change-making value of a documentary is as a news hook: films make important stories easier to cover. When there’s a Hollywood angle to exploit, suddenly farm subsidies become engaging breakfast conversation on "Good Morning America," or a small-town paper decides it can profile a local child struggling with obesity on its front page. As filmmakers, we always strive to gain a bigger audience for our work -- but as advocates we have to recognize that our greatest impact may lie in giving others an excuse to cover the topics we care about.
It’s clear from the buzz around "The Weight of the Nation" that the film is driving the public conversation around food and health forward quickly and powerfully. But this is just the beginning. Production is pregnancy; films launch their lives when distribution starts -- and with multiple platforms for exhibition, community screening campaigns catching fire, and filmmakers hitting the lecture circuit to share their stories for years after the premiere, the impact of "The Weight of the Nation" is only in its infancy. What reforms will the series catalyze in Washington? How will those who see the series be motivated to change their lives?
In my case, I was one of the people who experienced "King Corn" -- admittedly more deeply than others -- and decided to do something.
It was that last shot in our film that kept haunting me, that moment of realization Aaron captured on screen: my best friend and I had wanted to get our hands in the dirt and grow food, but we’d grown fast food. We had squandered our year, and we had squandered a square of dirt that held some of the richest topsoil in the world.
So last August, Ian and four other collaborators and I launched a national organization called FoodCorps. Now there are 50 young people (average age 25) in teams across 10 states spending a year of national service in high-obesity, low-income schools. FoodCorps service members teach kids about what healthy food is and where it comes from, they build and tend school gardens that help children learn to love their fruits and vegetables, and they partner with chefs and farmers and cafeteria workers to get healthy food from local farms served in school meals. It’s a three-ingredient recipe -- knowledge, engagement and access -- that links kids to healthy food.
I can’t claim that "King Corn" or "The Weight of the Nation" or any film will change the world -- but every film changes lives. And when our first class of FoodCorps service members stand back from their school gardens at harvest-time this summer, I think they’ll realize they’ve been changed too -- as they look out over a square of dirt they’re proud of.
Curt Ellis is the co-creator of the documentaries "King Corn" (a co-production of Mosaic Films Incorporated and ITVS), "The Greening of Southie," "Big River," "Truck Farm," and the upcoming film "The Search for General Tso." He is also co-founder and Executive Director of FoodCorps, the national service program for healthy school food.