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Award-Winning Filmmakers Discuss Creating Impact Through Storytelling

Award-Winning Filmmakers Discuss Creating Impact Through Storytelling

Panelists from USC Marshall School of Business and the School of Cinematic Arts discuss how Hollywood can galvanize local and global change.

USC alumni Ted Braun and Sarah Olson.

Sarah Olson and Ted Braun shared their experiences in impact storytelling.

[Photos Courtesy of Braun and Olson]

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Films like Blackfish, Inconvenient Truth, and 13th, are more than just interesting stories, but real-life accounts produced from a place of intention, passion, and imagined impact. In mid-April, USC Marshall School of Business Brittingham Social Enterprise Lab (BSEL) convened filmmakers to discuss impact-producing as part of its annual Jacobson Family Sustainable Impact Lecture Series.

Panelists Sarah Olson, producer of June and Knocking Down the House, and Theodore Braun, writer-director of Darfur Now and professor at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, joined moderator Jeff Swimmer, who is currently enrolled in USC Marshall’s Master of Science in Social Entrepreneurship (MSSE) program and teaches documentary production at Chapman University. Swimmer’s most recent project The Synanon Fix, a documentary series that follows the descent of individuals into the Synanon cult, is now airing on HBO.

Jill Kickul, professor at USC Marshall Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies and acting director of BSEL, opened the panel.

“We know how stories, how narratives can really shape what happens, and how storytelling can have an impact on the lives of so many, especially those within marginalized communities, where some don’t have their voices being heard,” Kickul said.

During the panel, Swimmer pointed to the power of films like Blackfish in galvanizing audiences to change their behaviors and ultimately drive changes in big industries.

“Impact is a really big and wonderful idea that works on the individual level,” Swimmer said. “What is it about this art form that inspires people to want to make change or make films that incite change?”

Olson and Braun, as well as Swimmer, have dedicated their filmmaking careers to stories with the power to change. Defining that “power” has been a distinct journey for each of them. For Olson, passion for change is a driving force in her work.

“Impact is why I do what I do,” Olson said. “It’s the power of documentaries.”

Braun has always striven to tell compelling stories that will engage audiences and stick with them. While he originally had no particular interest in trying to solve the world’s problems, he later discovered he enjoyed making films that tackled global issues.

“The stakes of the people involved lent itself to cinema — [for example] the challenge of translating complex geopolitical problems into narratives that were relatively simple that viewers could engage with,” Braun said.

Impact is why I do what I do. It’s the power of documentaries.

— Sarah Olson

Producer (June, Knocking Down the House)

Darfur Now, which Braun originally tried to make as a scripted film, launched his career as a documentary filmmaker. Since then, he’s written and directed films like ¡Viva Maestro!, in which conductor Gustavo Dudamel curates an innovative concert that celebrates the power of art to renew and unite amidst unrest in Venezuela; and Betting on Zero, where hedge fund titan Bill Ackman works to expose Herbalife as a pyramid scheme. Looking back, Braun observed, “In one way or another, my films ended up engaging in a fairly explicit way with big social problems and have promoted change.”

The discussion, which convened USC students, local filmmakers, entrepreneurs, and academics, explored the tension between impact and profit. Like with many social enterprises, the work of these filmmakers is often challenged by commercial concerns. For Olson, fundraising proved arduous and time-consuming, but her majority reliance on grants and donations afforded her the independence to focus on impact as the primary goal.

“I haven’t had to make big decisions where profit had to be weighed over social impact and I feel really fortunate for that,” Olson said.

Braun’s documentary projects, on the other hand, were all fully financed by a studio or production company.

“For me, the question was principally how is this going to be a riveting piece of cinema people are going to want to watch? I’m not thinking in particularly commercial terms,” Braun said, “But it has to be really strong, because if it’s not, any other goal I have for the film — it’s ability to shape or change policy or change individuals — it goes down the tubes if people don’t watch.”

These filmmakers don’t measure success in dollars but impact, which is often difficult and frequently impossible to quantify. And yet, Braun and Olson have felt the influence of their work over time. Olson pointed to Tapped, a film about water safety on which she was a line producer.

“I’m still getting emails from university students who are watching it. It’s got a long tail on it — it isn’t just a topic for today, but a topic for generations a decade in.”

There’s no greater example of impact than action. Following a viewing of Darfur Now at the UN, the Security Council added a discussion of the crisis to its agenda. In Knocking Down the House, Olson followed four women with no political name recognition who wanted to run for office.

“They firmly believed their representatives were not serving the communities they were elected by,” she said. “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from New York was a bartender when we started filming with her, and she ended up being the youngest woman at that time sworn into congress.”

Netflix bought the film at the Sundance Film Festival. It was one of the first times a streamer came on board and agreed to fund the impact campaign, Olson shared. If that wasn’t impact enough, the film inspired many others who were unknowns in the political sphere to enter local races.

“We would go to screenings and have young women crying and saying, ‘I saw your film and it struck a chord and I decided to run for city council or county commissioner.’ Many of them won their seats,” Olson said.

The Jacobson Family Sustainable Impact Lecture Series is a six-part discussion featuring experts and leaders in social impact spaces. This year has featured discussions on topics including affordable housing, women and minority impact investment, climate change, and AI.