Awards Strategists Ric Robertson, Jonathan Taylor Launch New Venture With Advocacy Agency Tiller (Exclusive)

Tirota-Publicity-H 2019
Courtesy of Tirota

Tirota, their collaboration, cites a newly conducted survey that found audiences are eager for films and TV shows that address social issues.

Robertson Taylor Partners, the boutique L.A.-based communications agency headed by awards strategists Ric Robertson and Jonathan Taylor, is joining forces with Tiller, a New York-based consultancy that advises companies on social advocacy campaigns, in a new joint venture called Tirota, which will assist filmmakers and entertainment companies in creating issue-oriented campaigns that have ongoing social impact.

In describing the new venture, Taylor explained to The Hollywood Reporter, "There is a real marketplace for purposeful films," citing examples like best picture Oscar nominees Green Book, on which he and Robertson have been working, and BlacKkKlansman. But when it comes to issue-oriented films that hope to promote social causes, he continued, "Hollywood has often satisfied itself with putting a URL on the end credits, simply saying 'for more information, go here.'"

To bolster their argument that audiences are receptive to and in fact eager for entertainment that addresses social issues, Tirota commissioned a national survey of 1,000 adults in which 80 percent said they were attracted (29 percent said strongly attracted) to movies and documentaries addressing social issues or causes, and another 80 percent believed (30 percent of them strongly) that the entertainment industry should produce more movies and TV series exploring important social issues. Seventy-eight percent said the industry should provide more information on how to act on the issues its content explores.

"The data are clear. Audiences are not only hungry for content that educates and inspires them but also are looking for opportunities to learn more and actively engage," Robertson said of the survey results. "The encouraging news for content providers is that most Americans also believe a movie or TV series can focus on an important social issue and still be entertaining."

Tirota is designed both to maximize the impact of such social campaigns and to extend their effects behind the immediate life of a film or TV show. The Tirota partners, who include Tiller founder Rob Densen, contend that such an approach is good business, potentially boosting box office returns, while also helping issue-oriented campaigns have a more lasting impact.

Tiller, founded in 2003, works with Fortune 500 companies, foundations and nonprofits to design and execute advocacy marketing and strategic philanthropy programs that promote brands while also promoting social causes. Robertson, who spent three decades as an executive at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and Taylor, who boasts a career in both journalism and public relations, formed their firm in 2016. Both Robertson Taylor Partners and Tiller will continue to operate independently while collaborating through Tirota on campaigns for film, TV, streaming and music content.

Their combined approach, they said, is designed to offer clients' projects a longer shelf life, robust coverage in issue-oriented media, less reliance on paid media, more social media buzz, greater awards-season momentum and sustained social impact.

"Audiences are responding enthusiastically to content that educates and inspires them but also are looking for opportunities to engage actively," Tiller's Densen said. "As great as they are at storytelling, many content providers — documentarians and commercial filmmakers alike — realize that truly successful advocacy and activation demands an additional, complementary skill set. Tirota is uniquely equipped to generate deep public awareness of the issues underlying their offerings, heightening their relevance and appeal and, in turn, converting that interest into views, sales and meaningful action."

Added Robertson, "RTP has a proven ability to maximize PR and strategic business opportunities for the greater Hollywood community. Combined with Tiller's track record of helping corporations and nonprofits work together on issues of consequence to build awareness and brand, Tirota offers skills in short supply in the marketplace. We see Tirota as truly additive — a timely and valuable enhancement of our core capabilities."

According to the poll of 1,000 adults Tirota commissioned, which was conducted by Pollara Strategic Insights between Nov. 28 and Dec. 3, interest in issue-oriented entertainment extends across party lines, since 32 percent of the respondents self-identified as politically conservative, 31 percent as middle of the road and 33 percent as liberal.

Asked on an unaided basis to name their all-time favorite movie about a social issue or cause, survey participants offered a wide range of responses, with the top 10 most cited films, in order, To Kill a Mockingbird, Erin Brockovich, Philadelphia, Malcolm X, Selma, Norma Rae, Roots, Fahrenheit 9/11, Milk and Schindler's List.

Among poll respondents, 53 percent reported they go to the movies at least once a month, and 40 percent said they had seen three or more social-issue films over the past 12 months.

Pollara president Craig Worden said, "The survey evidences a strong preference for purpose-driven content across key demographics, including age, gender, ethnicity, education level and even political outlook. Americans don't always agree on the substance of an issue, but there is a clear desire for substantive content and engagement."

More than 90 percent of those surveyed agreed (43 percent strongly agree, 49 percent somewhat agree) that movies can play an important role in informing people about social issues. One-third of those surveyed strongly agreed (44 percent somewhat agree) that "in the current political climate, movies and TV shows about social issues are all the more important."

Asked who they trust to "tell the truth about/fairly represent a social issue," 27 percent of respondents said the news media, 27 percent said filmmakers and just 3 percent said politicians, while 43 percent said none of them particularly. Of the three, filmmakers had the most positive trendline. Asked how their level of trust has changed over the last five years, 50 percent of respondents said they trust the media more (18 percent) or the same (32 percent), while 74 percent said they trust filmmakers more (23 percent) or the same (51 percent). By comparison, 75 percent of respondents said they trust politicians less.

Asked which social issues they would like to see movies explore more often, those most cited were racism/discrimination and physical or mental illness (each cited by 17 percent of respondents) followed by the environment/climate change/pollution (14 percent), gun violence (13 percent) and veterans' issues, crime/law enforcement/the criminal justice system, and poverty, each cited by 12 percent.

The survey also found that 80 percent of respondents at least somewhat agree that movies about important social issues make them want to do something about the issue. Asked about the last time they saw a movie about an important social issue, only 26 percent said the end credits gave more information on where to go to learn more or get involved (25 percent said the end credits did not and 42 percent couldn't remember). More than six in 10 — 62 percent — say it's frustrating not to get that information.