Cinema for Change – On Egos, Agendas and Impact

Jeremy Kagan is an international and Emmy award winning director, writer and producer of feature films and television. He teaches narrative directing at the graduate School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California and is the founder of the Change Making Media Lab, whose mandate is research into effective cinematic techniques to help organizations use the cinematic arts to achieve health, sustainability, and social justice. He produced and directed the 10-part series the ACLU Freedom Files in 2006. His feature films include The Chosen, winner of the Grand Prix Montreal Festival and Christopher Award, the box-office hit Heroes, the political thriller The Big Fix, The Journey of Natty Gann, winner of the Gold Prize at the Moscow Film Festival, the comedy Big Man on Campus and the 2007 hybrid feature Golda’s Balcony.  He has an Emmy for his television directing and among the numerous TV movies he wrote, produced and directed are Conspiracy: The Trial of the Chicago 8, which won a Cable Ace Award, and his TV movie Crown Heights, which won the Humanitas Award and NACCP Award in 2004. Visit

How did you get started working in film, and what was your driving interest?

My interest initially was to investigate how film could be used to make a constructive difference in the world. I was an idealist then and in many ways I still am.  But I thought I first needed to know how to make a movie, in order to be able to study how to use it. And as I began making film from animation to documentaries and experimental dramatic shorts I found that I was good at it and loved the process. And I’ve been making movies ever since. I’ve been lucky that a lot of the fiction films I’ve made under the Hollywood system have been about both political and social issues. I’ve been able to have a career that, even within the mainstream, deals with challenging issues to see if the media can indeed effect changes in people’s consciousness.

So, where does the Change Making Media Lab fit in?

The Change Making Media Lab is an evolution of this interest in film as service and it is devoted to researching the effects of specific cinematic elements on specific audiences. One of the issues that I find true with a lot of advocacy filmmaking is that everybody out there is reinventing the wheel. Or they’re copying a square wheel, rather than looking in depth at what the actual effects are of specific cinematic tools on specific audiences. The lab is trying to help filmmakers be able to really understand and analyze their tools – story approaches, casting, shooting styles, editing techniques, music usage – so that when they go out to create various pieces, they are making them with at least a qualifiable if not a quantifiable analysis of the cinematic elements they’re using.

Can you give an example of something CMML is researching?

Issues of authenticity. Who do you believe when someone tells you something in a film, whether the film is factual or dramatic?  Do you believe the experts, the celebrities, the dramatic actors, the person on the street, a comic, a cartoon character?  And why do you believe them? And what will be the different effect if you have the same message being presented by 5 or 6 different types of “authority” figures – which are the ones that are effective with various audiences? These are the kinds of questions that need to be studied. We are making a series of short pieces about the same subject using different testimony approaches and then evaluating their effects. This is one of our projects.

You’ve said that a social scientist can tell you the kind of film that will reach people, but only the audience can tell you if your method is working.

Know your audience.  I think the issue of who are you reaching and how you’re reaching them is essential. And because of the variety of ways people get information now, these different contexts need to be taken into account. For example, if I’m going to watch something on my computer, at my time, in my space, what’s the difference in terms of its effect versus watching it on TV or in a theater? What are the aspects of having a captive audience versus an audience that is out of our control? I don’t think anyone honestly has definitive answers on this, it really is new. The turmoil of the web and its effectiveness as a distribution network is literally up in the air.

What’s your strategy for keeping in touch with what the audience wants? Does the audience ever complicate the funder-filmmaker relationship?

Knowing up front who you are talking to is absolutely important for the funder-filmmaker relationship.  And being able to evaluate their response is essential to knowing the effectiveness of what we do. The problem is that we are often making one piece about the subject and this means we get the audience once and then everybody moves on.  You expose an audience to something potentially new and significant and for a moment they are affected, but an hour later, watching something else, they may have forgotten what you just showed them.  And after seeing your film, are people actually doing things because of it?

You’re not going to know how your audience is going to respond until you’ve actually made the piece. That’s the nature of filmmaking, it’s evolutionary. Where you start and think you’re going to finish is certainly not where you often do finish. Knowing this then requires building trust and I think that’s one of the ideas that’s in the Prenups– trust between funder and filmmaker.  You have to start from here. Each accepting the skills and knowledge of the other. To try to then add your assumption of how your audience is going to respond and shift your work accordingly certainly makes the work more difficult.

Too many cooks in the kitchen?

Yes, at that point it’s no longer film by committee, it’s film by a city, and at that point I’m not sure you’re going to get anything but a traffic jam.

What do funders and filmmakers need to be mindful of as the film evolves?

The funder knows all about the issues. They’ve spent years on this particular problem. Now the filmmaker joins in and uses her artistry to create something; and the funder then looks at it and somehow it doesn’t affect them. But it may not affect them because they’re too close to it. They don’t have the perspective of somebody who’s never seen anything about the subject or certainly far less than the funder. But the funder from his point of view looks at the film and is not touched by it and then thinks: “Oh, this doesn’t work.” Yet they may be quite wrong. It may very well move and inspire the people they want to reach. The funder’s familiarity with the subject matter may give them a prejudice toward the way they are going to see the final product.

That’s an interesting consideration – the funder’s visceral, emotional expectations.

It’s reminding the funder, “you know everything about this – I’m not going to surprise you.” They know all the facts, so it’s not new for them. They may not realize it’s working because they’re not seeing it with fresh eyes. We need to acknowledge that possibility.

And, the funder’s needs are sometimes going to change in the filmmaking process. I think it’s important for the filmmakers to know that can happen as well. The funders may want to put out a different message once they see what they initially asked for.

So it’s important to recognize that the process is dynamic on both sides?

Exactly. And if you do recognize the malleabilityof the process, and your ego isn’t enormously tied into it, and you appreciate that it’s a living process, then I think you can do fine. But I also think you do really need to respect each other’s purviews. The funder should be respected for the message that they want to get out. The filmmaker should be respected for their storytelling abilities and not second-guessed by the funder. That’s the problem most of us end up in agony over: the funder second-guesses the filmmaker, she doesn’t really trust the filmmaker’s artistry, and thinks, “I can do this, too.” And that’s the part that’s always going to be the potentially prickly place. Unless the funder says to the filmmaker, you have final cut, you have final authority to get our message out. If that’s the agreement, then you’re okay. But on the other hand, the filmmaker who has final cut should be really respectful of the input that the funder may give them after they’ve shown their work. The funder may say, you just didn’t get the message across. And sometimes the filmmaker doesn’t get the message across. They get lost in their filmmaking and forget it has a purpose of service.

You started your career in Hollywood. Does Hollywood use prenups?

The Hollywood system has an order to it, sometimes. There is constant dialogue going on between the funder – in this case the studio, the producing organization – and the filmmaker. And power is pretty well defined in terms of roles. For example, from the script phase forward there will be this conversation that goes back and forth between filmmaker and funder, and then there will be an agreement: this is what we’re going to shoot. The production process is usually more in the hands of the filmmaker unless the filmmaker goes over budget. But because of the increasing fear and money issues in Hollywood, a lot more control has been going back to the financiers.

Now that you’ve moved into more advocacy work, can you give an example of how the process is different?

Right now, I’m editing a piece for an organization that I believe in. I asked if I could help them by using cinema. They had no money so I raised money independently and made some short pieces for them. After the pieces were made, because they were such sticklers for the way they wanted the information to come out, they wanted lots of changes. And I spent time in dialogue with them trying to remind them that their audience was going to be first-timers to this material. In some cases I was able to convince them of it. It was a fascinating exchange because I was so impressed with the work that they were doing that I wanted to be of service; at the same time, I was trying to get them to understand that my service was utilizing the skills of emotional filmmaking, if you will, to distinguish from just making a factual reflection of rather complex ideas. So it was a negotiation in which, in this case, I had more control because I had funded it. But at the same time it was their issue and since I was trying to really help them, I needed to listen to them and I made changes suggested by them.

What did you learn in Hollywood that you’ve been able to apply to advocacy and NGO production work?

I think the most important thing is to have honest conversations with everybody to know what everybody’s agenda is. And to do this,  I think the Prenups are an excellent guide before you actually go into production. It can help defuse hidden agendas. And that’s very important to look at, because often there are hidden agendas. I’ve noticed repeatedly that when I’ve had these conversations early on I’ve been able to be far more effective in defusing what could have been really problematic.

The one thing that I do keep pushing is the recognition of everybody’s egos. What’s fascinating to me is the process of “who’s right?” – that’s the challenge, for the funder, for the filmmaker, even for the audience. The Prenups talks a little bit about this but I think it needs to be talked about more. Because a lot of the dialogue is not about the effectiveness of what you’re making, but about who’s right. So we need to develop a different conversation – “let’s try to step outside our own egos, let’s try to be as objective as we can” – and this can lead to a conversation where we may both find ways to help each other get what we both agree is our intended goal. I think it’s really important to understand that a lot of this is personal psychology, as distinguished from professional exchange.

You’re a professor at USC. As you look to this generation of young filmmakers, what’s the most important message you want to convey to your students?

What I would like to convey to my students now is that there is an alternative way to use the training they’re getting. My students, particularly at USC, come here because it is a gateway to the business. And what I’m most interested in their getting is: there is another way to use the skills to benefit the world we live in. That’s one of the reasons why I established the Change Making Media Lab at USC specifically. As we move ahead, I am looking forward to CMML becoming a training place for filmmakers to do this kind of advocacy work. Dramatic as well as documentary.

Do you feel like more and more funders are there to back those kinds of projects?

The truth is, I don’t know. That’s something that we’re about to discover. Ask me in 6 months!