activism film

What impact do documentary films actually have?

Of the making of social documentaries there is no end. I posted links to two last week, come to think of it. Michael Moore kicked the door down with films like Bowling for Columbine or Fahrenheit 9/11. Al Gore made a controversial blockbuster out of a powerpoint lecture in An Inconvenient Truth, and now practically every issue going has a film or two to its name. Some of them are great, some of them are terrible, and there are lots of middling ones in between. But do any of them any of them actually make any difference?

The makers of The End of the Line recently set out to find out. Theirs is one of the better documentaries, a beautifully shot and hard-hitting survey of global fish stocks and why they’re in decline. Only 10,000 people or so saw it at the cinema, but that’s not the measure of success for these sorts of films. The bigger question is whether or not it had any impact on our fish consumption habits. Did people start asking about sustainability in restaurants? Did sales of Bluefin Tuna fall, and sales of MSC certified fish rise?

The Britdoc group have just published a social evaluation of The End of the Line. It’s the first time it’s been done for a film, and the 18 month study reveals some interesting facts. For a start, they estimate that the film’s eventual audience was 4.7 million by the time it had been shown on TV and talked about. 9% of UK adults were aware of the film and its message.

By running a survey twice, before and after the film, Britdoc were able to ascertain that the number of people who believe fish stocks are low rose from 43% in 2008 to 56% in 2010. And by asking the supermarkets, they worked out that sales of sustainably caught fish had risen by 14% in certain stores. Several supermarkets changed their policies and stopped stocking swordfish and bluefin tuna.

The film’s impact hasn’t finished yet, either. It is still being screened, and it has inspired others. Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall was inspired to launch the Fish Fight, which has brought a fresh wave of interest in sustainable fishing.

In short, yes, a documentary can make a difference. Not every film does, but it’s certainly possible.

If you want to know more about the impact of The End of the Line, download the report from the Britdoc foundation here. I’d particularly recommend looking into it if you’re developing or promoting a documentary of your own.

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