A new perspective on documentary film

As we observed in a 2012 blog post, the last 14+ years have seen a substantial rise in the number of documentaries produced, particularly documentaries that focus on social issues.

Given this trend, we wondered: what issues or topics are most prominent among filmmakers working in the field? Does coverage of a specific issue ebb and flow over time? What can we learn from looking at the field in aggregate?

We turned to the growing database that will fuel StoryPilot to find out. (At the time of writing, the collection includes detail on 433 social impact documentaries released between 2000 and 2014.)

This post kicks off a series in which we’ll share some of our early findings about the social issue documentary landscape, in order to put data about documentaries and social issues into the hands of storytellers. Our goal is to help everyone find meaning in the data, and shed light onto the intersection of film, social issue campaigns, and society.

On Social Issues

In order to get at the social issue topics covered by films in our database, we developed a classification scheme of seven overarching social issues: Economics, Human Conflict, Rights and Liberties, Crime and Justice, Health, Environment, and Education. To select these categories, researchers reviewed the documentaries’ content, public opinion polls, funders’ interest areas, and other categorization schemes describing social issues. These social issue tags helped us distinguish among the films we were interested in studying. Social problems are complex, and there are myriad points of entry into a given issue; this led us to place some films into more than one category if they had strong connections to two (or even three) social issues.

Each category is very broad and can be further broken down in more detail than we’ll discuss today.  Of course many other social issues exist—this is just a first step toward understanding the content of the films in our sample.

Once tagged, we can see films cluster into issue areas. For example, Economics is (currently) the most common topic among films in our database, with 80 in all. At the other end of the spectrum, only 37 films fall into the Education category, making this the least common topic among films in StoryPilot.

The Economics of Everything

Many documentaries tackle multiple issues; 96 films (or just under a quarter of the films in our database) address more than one issue category. The most common issue-pairing among these is of Economics and Environment topics, with both labels assigned to 13 films.


Economics was also the most highly interconnected issue—about half of films tagged with this label were also tagged with a second issue. (By comparison, films on topics within the Environment category were tagged with another issue only a quarter of the time.) Looking at this in another way, every social issue category had at least one film that used an Economic lens.

What does this say about social issue documentaries’ coverage? Among those in our database, although most focus on one issue, a substantial subset tackle more than one issue at a time. Some topics, like Economics, Crime and Justice, and Rights and Liberties, are closely connected to other topics, but others like Education and Environment take a more siloed approach. When they do widen the lens, it’s especially interesting to see where the connections lie. For Environment, that’s Economics; for Education, it’s split between Economics and Rights and Liberties.

Tides of Change

Does interest in (and filmmaking about) specific social issues come in waves? In some cases, it does. We looked at the number of films in each social issue category between 2000 and 2013 (since the numbers aren’t in for 2014 yet).


In general, the number of films for every social issue increased over time—more films were released in 2013 than in 2000. After accounting for this baseline, Environment, Rights and Liberties, and Human Conflict, were the fastest-growing social issue content categories.

Some social issues showed significant spikes in number of films per year.  Environment showed a surge in 2009 (22 films), Conflict in 2010 (17 films), and Economics in 2012 (16 films). We suspect these spikes happen in response to world events and peaks in interest in ‘hot’ issues, plus a delay for the time it takes to create and release a full-length film. Until now, Education films have been growing very slowly—at a rate of about one additional film every two years. Is Education due for a flood of films?


Social issue documentaries are being released at a rapid pace, but each social issue category has its own peaks and valleys. The popularity of social issues is only the tip of the iceberg of what we can learn about film using data. We’ve also been collecting information on how much and how often films use social media, how people connect on social media for different issues, and the conversation associated with specific films, critical reviews, film festivals, and are adding more data to our database all the time.

In the future, we’ll be updating with new findings and insights and we’re always looking for more questions to ask about documentary film. Leave your big questions in the comments section below.

Top Image | Still from We’re Not Broke (Onshore Productions)

Graphics | Sher Chew

December 10, 2014
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What is data?

We often talk about “data” at the Harmony Institute — previous blog posts have discussed “data-driven storytelling,” and our forthcoming web platform StoryPilot (formerly ImpactSpace) will feature data and impact metrics on films and social issues. In presenting our work, we’re frequently asked,“What is data, really?” In response, we’ll be addressing this question in a three-part blog series. This first post defines data in the context of storytelling. The next post will delve into work at the intersection of art and data. The third and final post will introduce HI’s StoryPilot platform as a tool that that can help users navigate rich datasets to inform future creative projects.

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August 11, 2014
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Building and analyzing issue-focused social networks on Twitter

For media makers with aspirations of social change, we at HI have established a number of best practices for assessing impact. An important first step is to know yourself: set concrete goals for change along with realistic time frames for accomplishing them. The next step is to know your audience: identify the audiences that you hope to reach, as well as those most likely to be receptive to your message, and who can help facilitate your objectives.

Let’s consider a hypothetical film about the American healthcare system (see our previous case study). Although this issue affects all Americans, those already interested in and engaged with the issue are a more likely audience, not to mention potential influencers. How do we find such individuals? They may comment in one or many forums—on social media sites, in newspapers or the blogosphere, on television. As a first pass, we can look to a public forum that comprises overlapping interest networks in which healthcare is actively discussed: Twitter.

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May 22, 2014

Theory and the unseen forces of impact

For documentaries that tackle social issues, financial bottom lines may not be the best indicators of impact. Social issue documentaries have other benchmarks of success: filmmakers want to know if their film reached its audience, changed the way people think about an issue, or inspired change in the real world. Our experience working with filmmakers has illuminated the unique challenges of measuring the impact of social issue documentaries. We see the need to clarify what “impact” might look like—without boxing in filmmakers by using overly-specific methods or definitions that don’t apply to a wide range of projects and goals.

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April 08, 2014

Games for behavior change, Part two

This is the second in a two-post series by guest blogger, Rafa Kern. Read the first post here

In my first post, I wrote about how games can be helpful in training our internal elephant—that is, how games affect our automatic processing and can help us develop new habits. In this post, I’ll explore how games can also affect the elephant’s rider, which represents our conscious reasoning. Before I do that, though, I would like to provide a disclaimer along the lines of the one Daniel Kahneman provided in Thinking Fast and Slow (2011): I don’t think the rider and the elephant are necessarily “true,” strictly speaking. It is sometimes hard to distinguish these two processes and harder still to map them onto physically distinct entities in the human brain. They simply stand in for two generally different ways of processing information. In essence, they are “useful fictions” that we can use to better understand how games can impact our habitual behaviors and identities.

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March 20, 2014
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CATEGORIES Gaming, Guest bloggers