Strategic thinkers: Active Voice staff members, with Executive Director Ellen Schneider (front left), are helping social-issues storytellers take on new challenges.

Ellen Schneider's Active Voice

Michael Fox August 31, 2009

As executive director of American Documentary, Inc., the parent of PBS’ venerable P.O.V. series, Ellen Schneider oversaw what was and is the biggest platform for documentaries in America. In the late ’90s, she went on to spearhead the Television Race Initiative, which uses national TV broadcasts as the starting point for ongoing community dialogue about race relations. Schneider took the next step in her crusade to maximize the impact of social-issues documentaries in 2001 by founding the San Francisco-based strategic communications company Active Voice. The organization employs seven full-time staff and several consultants to devise campaigns for a client list that, at this writing, comprises eight active projects, four in the "legacy" phase and a dozen in some stage of development. We sat down with Schneider at Active Voice’s South of Market office to learn more.

SF360: What’s the philosophy of Active Voice?

Schneider: Active Voice has put our stake in the ground in the intersection between story and strategy. If you have a sense of how a story can be particularly catalytic in helping move the meter, then you begin to construct a road map of where you want to be, who you want to be talking to, what an audience needs to come away with and the unique role that story plays in that ecosystem of change. Yes, the abundance of platforms and opportunities can potentially diffuse what you’re trying to do. That’s why having a strategy is so key, and having one that’s flexible and is designed to take maximum advantage of how story shifts as it goes along.

SF360: How do you decide which projects you work on?

Schneider: There’s basically three ways that we get involved with projects. Someone can come to us and say, ‘Please design a campaign.’ Another is initiatives that we might generate. For example, we’re very interested in immigration issues. We often work with filmmakers or people who care about these stories, and we may help raise money for them because it’s an area that we have some expertise and believe is really profound. And a third way that we work is as consultants. Many filmmakers, increasingly, want to create their own campaign. And they should in those cases, because they’re so closely connected to the ideas and the issues. We can help them do a really good job so that they can spend the next two years of their lives implementing strategies, building partnerships, appearing with the film.

SF360: Do you find yourself competing with PR firms in the media capitals of New York and Los Angeles?

Schneider: There’s so much industry around this, which is fantastic. We’re not a PR company; we’re not an outreach company. Actually, we never use the word ‘outreach’ in our work. We think of outreach as, essentially, nonprofit promotion. Which is a good thing to do—tell people about your film. We use the word ‘engagement’ instead because we see the relationship between a story and a community as a much more multi-dimensional and dynamic relationship. It’s not simply the film being the center of the universe and we want to reach out and tell everybody how important it is. We want there to be an ongoing conversation and connection between a story, a maker, a community, a set of issues, the policy world, the activist world, the philanthropic world. We’re really one of many players in using stories to move social change. So outreach is an inadequate way to describe what we do.

SF360: How do you measure success, given that results are often nebulous and amorphous?

Schneider: This is really wonky, but we look at our work in the context of ecosystem change. To try to measure the impact of media in isolation doesn’t really recognize how important story is to moving people’s behaviors and hearts and minds. If you have media as part of a strategy that includes research, activism, policy development, philanthropy, leadership, grass-roots activities, then you have an ecosystem that can really go somewhere. But if you try to measure the discrete contributions of any one of those, you would be really misunderstanding how change occurs. It is precisely the partnership and the way that those different pieces interact that is exciting. How you measure that is if those pieces are working together well. If we look at Food, Inc., a campaign that we’re working on now with Participant Media, we’re seeing the catalytic opportunity for grass-roots food-justice groups to be in theaters with the film, to be telling local audiences how to get involved in a local way with local food policy, or school-lunch reform, or menu-labeling initiatives. We see that the theater owner is receptive because it’s going to be an event as opposed to just a consuming opportunity. National groups are using that as a way to get press out about the film and about the issues. That’s the kind of constellation of change that we think film really contributes to. But you would not pull Food, Inc. out independently and say, Food, Inc. then changed food policy. It’s about the way it worked together with these groups and players. That’s where I think the momentum is.

SF360: If you were working at the White House, you’d advise the President that stories are what’s missing from the health insurance debate.

Schneider: Have you seen The Waiting Room? Check it out. We’re just now talking to them. He has this phenomenally powerful idea of continuing to tell the story as it unfolds in waiting rooms. Certainly in Highland Hospital [in Oakland], but I think this going to resonate in communities around the country. That’s what filmmakers do really well. They are so capable of building trust [with] people that have powerful stories to tell. They are immeasurably patient in collecting those stories over a period of time. And by bringing the intimacy of what happens in a waiting room, or the living room of a recent immigrant, that’s where filmmakers contribute to helping people understand the kind of decisions that we make and the consequences of what we do. No one does it as well as filmmakers.

SF360: Once upon a time, a documentary maker like Pete Nicks wouldn’t have considered an outreach plan until his film was in the can.

Schneider: Increasingly, we’re getting involved earlier and earlier. It’s now rare that we would get involved when a campaign has already been designed. It’s more likely that we’re involved in the content and production phase, and we’re working as a team to figure out how the film is going to be most effective, and looking at both the supply side of making a film and the demand side of what stories are missing and how to cover them in such a way that audiences can really use them.

SF360: That reminds me of what Larry Daressa of the locally-based distributor California Newsreel told me a long time ago. He wished filmmakers would talk to him early on in their process, so he could suggest they make the first documentary on an overlooked issue instead of the seventh on an admittedly important but well-covered topic.

Schneider: The good news is that they’re so many films out there. We have such a rich and talented and prolific filmmaking community. And now with technology, more people can make them. But there are some very enterprising filmmakers out there who are taking an area they’re passionate about and finding a story that deserves to be told, and they’re beginning to build partnerships and alliances, creating a community around the film as it’s evolving. We can help provide connections and resources and perspective so that, by the time a film is nearing completion, there’s already a very healthy appetite, and ideas and enthusiasm and opportunities for what we hope would be a multi-purpose, multi-version, multi-platform project. So much has changed, opening so many more doors and opportunities, for the maker and the people who are using them.

SF360: It used to be verboten to talk about activism, since documentaries were purportedly objective. It’s no longer taboo or controversial, is it?

Schneider: I think there’s another way to look at it. I spent years, as you know, with P.O.V., and those are extremely powerful, suggestive films, where the filmmaker’s perspective and experiences are right up front. It’s authored, every single episode. Where we think there’s particular power around the telling of stories is the story’s ability to reach beyond the choir. We are very excited about using narrative as a way to address people’s values in a way that transcends politics and polarizing ideas. So, yes, a lot of the films that we work with are highly subjective. But what we’re going after in our campaigns is how can people who may not agree with a particular stance understand the human elements that lie beyond politics, and finding ways that people can come together around the pressing issues of our times. Wonderful work can be done to galvanize activists, but we’re particularly focused on bringing people together across these divisions using story as a basis.

SF360: Is technology a boon? Or does it just make it that much harder to cut through the clutter and get people’s attention?

Schenider: I think it’s fantastic. Once the dust settles a little bit on the fact that we can be everywhere at once, once we start to look strategically at what different platforms and different formats offer us in terms of different outcomes, that’s where the magic starts to happen. We’re working right now on a project that is multimedia from Day One. It tells the story of five people whose lives are interrelated in one small rural town. It began as a series of webisodes. We realized the story was more significant and deserved a full hour-long television version, and that there should also be learning modules that are theme-based so the story can be long-term and catalytic in communities facing demographic change. We’re hoping, in doing this, to recognize the relative merits of these different platforms—that there is an overarching narrative but if you really think carefully about who you’re reaching and where they go and how they’re going to respond to stories of different lengths and different structures, that’s when the technology really kicks in.

SF360: Tell us about the Prenups, a venture that counts the San Francisco Film Society among its participants.

Schneider: In the course of working closely with filmmakers over so much time, we began to become aware of new relationships that filmmakers and funders are crafting. When I got involved in this business, there were two: There were commissioned works, where a funder would write a check to a filmmaker and basically give him a script. And there were grants, where a funder might write a check and want to be invited to the opening but really not expect to have much of a relationship at all.

SF360: Editorially.

Schneider: Yes. Things have changed. It’s much more complex. There are many different kinds of ways that filmmakers and grant makers are working together. But as we became aware of the myriad hybrids, it also became clear there wasn’t much conversation about it—that most of that was happening off the radar in private meetings. Yet filmmakers were clearly talking about it between themselves. We started to listen to that conversation, we did a few focus groups with filmmakers, we did one-on-one conversations about how the relationships were going with the people who were funding them and then, realizing that there was a range of experience—some very promising, some kind of troubling—we started talking with funders about their experiences working with creative people. We created the Prenups, things that filmmakers and funders should talk about before they tie the knot, just to put in front of everybody a series of questions regarding editorial control, creative participation, what feedback will look like, how will feedback be taken (or not), distribution, technology, legal issues. So you can create a good working relationship from the beginning, addressing those various concerns and being able to move on in a functional and collaborative way. So far, people seem to benefit from moving this into a more public conversation as opposed to something that might happen between two people in an office.

SF360: In conclusion, how do you prefer that filmmakers approach you?

Schneider: We encourage people to go on the website and read some of the case studies, and figure out what kind of elements we bring to the table and the kinds of functions they’re looking for. Some filmmakers are filmmaker-activists and their media-making is intrinsically linked to their activism. It’s a vehicle for their change-making, and they want to do campaign design, implementation, fundraising on their own. At the other end are filmmakers who see themselves as storytellers. They may not want to be getting involved with how their story is being understood or used or incorporated into the fabric of society. They may want to be looking at their next project. And there’s a lot in between. There are a lot of filmmakers who come to us with a very particular role that they would like to play in their campaign, and we construct a model that takes advantage of their time and interests and connections, but also brings over a decade of strong practice and relationships and expertise that we have. I’m happy that there’s such a broad array of relationships that can be built.

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