During the 2017 annual Sundance Film Festival—which took place January 19 to 29 in Park City, Utah—the U.S. changed presidents. On January 20, Donald Trump took the oath of office and succeeded Barack Obama as president of the United States; in the week that followed, protesters rallied in support of women's rights
and Muslim immigrants
in major cities and small towns across the country, including in Park City. By the time the festival wrapped, the mood, according to LA Times
film critic Justin Chang, had shifted. As he described on the National Public Radio program Fresh Air
, it was like "you went up the mountain in one regime, came down the mountain in another . . . it seemed to be like, film is important, but it's not all about film."
Fortunately, the challenge of how to make films that have real and lasting social and political impact has been the linchpin of the Chicago Media Project (CMP) from its inception. Since its official launch in March of 2014, the member-based, nonprofit organization has followed through on its mission to "foster community and provide support for social impact documentary media"
by backing films that bring social issues to the fore.
This year, seven CMP-backed films premiered at Sundance—up from three last year, according to the cofounder and executive director of CMP, Paula M. Froehle. She explains that CMP's equity fund invested in five of the films, and the other two received grants from the organization's 501(c)3 entity.
The five equity films were Icarus
, which won the U.S. documentary special jury award—the Orwell—and sold to Netflix for nearly $5 million, a record amount for a documentary; Trophy
, which sold to CNN for broadcast and to the production company the Orchard for release in theaters this spring; Step
, which won the U.S. documentary special jury award for inspirational filmmaking and sold to Fox Searchlight; Dina,
which won the U.S. documentary grand jury prize and is currently negotiating a theatrical release; and Bending the Arc
. The two films that received grants from the Chicago Media Project were Whose Streets?
and Strong Island—
the latter won the U.S. documentary special jury award for storytelling.
CMP-funded films have premiered at major film festivals like Sundance, Tribeca, and Hot Docs; been nationally broadcast on HBO, Showtime, and PBS; and have won significant awards recognizing their impact, including a Peabody Award for investigative journalism (The Newburgh Sting
). Two films supported by CMP have also been optioned for narrative remakes: Meet the Patels
, bought by Fox Searchlight; and The Eagle Huntress
. The latter was picked up for wide release by Sony Pictures Classics, while Fox Animation has rights to an animated version of Aisholpan, the documentary's 13-year-old subject.
"But the true impact comes not just from awards and premiers," Froehle insists, "but actual change on the ground to the issues at the center of these stories."
Froehle provides two significant examples of CMP-supported films that have accomplished this: The Homestretch
, directed by Kirsten Kelly and Anne de Mare, and Romeo Is Bleeding
, directed by Jason Zeldes.
After a national broadcast on the PBS series Independent Lens
in April 2015, The Homestretch
"went on to have major impact on youth homelessness in Chicago and nationally," Froehle says. The filmmakers worked with Cause Vox to distribute backpacks of basic supplies to homeless students at Burke Elementary on the south side, and the film is now used in Chicago Public Schools' training for homelessness liaisons "to educate them about the issues their students face," she notes. More broadly, The Homestretch
screened in Washington, D.C., with a brain trust of homelessness foundations and leaders from Capitol Hill. And last November, CMP organized a national screening and discussion event at the ten regional offices of the federal Department of Health and Human Services, to bring in other leaders from HUD and the Department of Education to coordinate action. According to Froehle, the film continues to be used in community and stakeholder screenings by partner organizations like National Network of Youth, the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, and the True Colors Fund's 40 to None Project.
Romeo Is Bleeding won 19 awards at 32 film festivals with screenings in 25 states, and has had more than 150 educational screenings in schools, universities, libraries, juvenile detention centers, and prisons. "Out of Good Pitch Chicago," Froehle says, "the documentary team made connections with new partners—including Blueshift Education, who worked with the film team, subjects, Picture Motion, and other educators to create a curriculum called 'Re-Mixing Shakespeare: Teaching Romeo Is Bleeding' and is now distributing the curriculum, along with the educational version of the film, through Roco Films Educational."
The film also became an example of CMP's Concierge Philanthropy collaboration with members, as one member approached CMP about creating a program to connect youth to the films that will speak to them, inspired by Romeo Is Bleeding. "CMP then developed our High School Initiative with this member," Froehle explains, "and launched the program last fall with a youth-created short film in response to [Romeo Is Bleeding], and a community screening of both the feature and the short response piece."
She adds: "This becomes a way to reach more students with powerful media and help them develop the skills to create their own impact media pieces to share with their communities—allowing more diverse voices to use these tools to make change."
Looking forward, Froehle says that CMP "will absolutely continue to 'fight the good fight' through media." CMP's annual documentary festival, DOC10, will return March 30 through April 2 at the newly renovated Davis Theater, with extended programming: postscreening Q&As with the filmmakers and their subjects, music, live events, and interactive installations connected to each film. In addition, Froehle says, the CMP has established an Impact Grant Fund to "increase the amount of grants given to documentary films." The organization is also set to announce a new, high-tier investment fund that will enable greater access to a wider range of documentary films for CMP members who are interested in coming onto projects as executive producers.
"What we've learned," says Froehle of CMP's Sundance experience, paving the way for the year ahead, "is that it truly is the golden age of documentary, and that there are many more great stories and a continually growing audience for this amazing work."
For more information about CMP, please visit http://www.chicagomediaproject.org/.