Can a new breed of filmmaking save the world?


Ted Leonsis recalls the day he picked up the book that would change his life. Confined indoors during a storm a few years back, the vice chairman emeritus of AOL read Iris Chang's "The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II," on the historically overlooked atrocities committed in Nanking, China, by the Japanese army in 1937.

Leonsis knew he had to do something -- and he knew the way to get people talking was to put that something on screen. The resulting 2007 documentary, "Nanking," won the documentary editing award at Sundance and left producer Leonsis determined to make more films that spur social change.

A new wave of idealism is sweeping through Hollywood, fueled by a changing political climate and a younger generation of viewers. Making movies that make a difference is in -- so in that a term has been coined for it: filmanthropy.

"To me, filmanthropy is finding a story that needs light on it and will activate volunteerism and create financial contribution," says Leonsis, whose second documentary, "Kicking It," from Liberation Entertainment, centers on homelessness. "I like to say these films do well by doing good."

Not long before "Nanking," a little-known company, Participant Media, was preparing to release a movie with no stars, unless you count Al Gore, and no plot, save a rambling, science-filled slide show. "An Inconvenient Truth" was released in 2006, won two Oscars and changed the way many Americans go about their daily lives in an effort to tackle climate change.

"There's an increase in the idea that, 'Yes, I can pick up a camera (and create something that will make a difference),'" says Patricia Finneran, festival director of SilverDocs: AFI/Discovery Channel Documentary Festival, adding that applications have doubled since the fest's creation six years ago.

One of the selections at this year's festival was inspired by watching filmanthropy at work: After seeing how people responded to "Kicking It," a movie she helped bankroll, BET co-founder Sheila C. Johnson dove into hands-on executive producing her own documentary, "A Powerful Noise," the tale of three women fighting poverty, ignorance and ethnic strife.

"If you're watching TV and a story troubles you, you change the channel," she says. "But a film demands you engage. When you're engaged, you can be moved -- and hopefully moved to action."

Contributing to the filmanthropy movie boom are today's twentysomethings, who were raised on corporate America's scandals, are smart enough not to trust everything they've been told, and see the world visually. "Video is the way the younger generation communicates; YouTube says anyone's footage is interesting," adds AFI's executive vice dean, Joe Petricca.

But young people actually haven't changed, opines Participant CEO Jim Berk -- it's just that technology and online social networking have made it harder for them to ignore the plight of others. Participant, founded by eBay's Jeff Skoll expressly to create entertainment that leads to activism, has followed through with Oscar nominees "The Kite Runner" and "Charlie Wilson's War," and has deals with Brad Pitt's Plan B Entertainment and Natalie Portman. Its upcoming "The Food Project," a hard look at the "big food" companies, could be the food industry's "Inconvenient Truth."

"'When we started, we had to sell distributors that the advocacy was value-added. ... (But then) 'Inconvenient Truth' became the gold standard of how a film can inspire a global conversation," Berk says.

While it's nice to be accepted, Berk isn't resting on his laurels. "In five years, we hope to be a midsize company with interest across every platform," he continues. "But wouldn't it be a wonderful day when Participant Media ceases to exist?"