What Does The Participant Index Mean for Social Impact Films?

On Monday, July 6th, The New York Times published a story about The Participant Index (TPI), a new formula developed by the leading production company in social impact films, Participant Media. The index was designed to get at the intersection of two fundamental questions that define Participant’s mission: 1) which films are effective at moving people emotionally?, and 2) which films are effective at inciting individual action?

TPI brings to light a major trend in the social impact film world: We’re all trying to better understand how films are contributing to social change. This question, of course, is quite complicated because “social change” is not monolithic. It manifests in different ways and on different levels—from individuals, to organizations, to communities, to institutions and systems. And there is further nuance and complexity within each of those levels, given that no individual or community is identical. Moreover, each social issue has its own unique set of challenges and opportunities; in some cases, broad individual action can make a big difference (e.g., boycotting a brand), but for the stickier issues like structural inequity, the role of individual action is less obvious.

Active Voice has been working to understand these nuances for years, and we continue to refine our work both in our campaign evaluation (which focuses on how film campaigns support social issue organizations and advance community-level change and movement building) and in the research of the Active Voice Lab. [Stay tuned for news about Ellen Schneider’s inquiry How Do We Know (If We’re Making a Difference)?, which will offer suggestions for what can and should be measured, when it comes to creative expression—and how, depending on what you’re trying to accomplish.]

TPI, which uses survey data and mathematical formulas to place a numeric value on a film’s ability to engage people emotionally and move them to action, has raised some concerns from the independent film community, specifically: how can you assign a numeric value to art?

It’s a good question, but also deserves a closer look. Participant’s inquiry seeks to measure how individuals intersect with popular culture writ-large. While it doesn’t necessarily capture nuanced metrics that relate to some of the “levels” mentioned above, it can be complemented by them. For example, while TPI helps understand how well A Place at the Table inspired people, broadly, to take action on hunger in America, Active Voice’s evaluation of the complementary community-based campaign points to an additional set of outcomes, such as heightened awareness among food experts and increased collaboration among civic institutions. And Harmony Institute’s Impact Space provides yet another set of data, focused on the film’s influence in the press, the blogosphere, and among policymakers.

Ultimately, impact measurement really depends on 1) what you’re hoping to accomplish, 2) an understanding of how that will likely be accomplished, and 3) clarity around what you really want to know and why. While there is not necessarily agreement on the topic of measurement, this trend illuminates something exciting: If more and more players want to better understand how films contribute to our culture and our communities, there is a growing acknowledgment that film (and art, more broadly) is essential to our social fabric.