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Documentary film has the potential to influence the way people perceive the world around them by heightening their focus on a particular condition or event. As a result, the documentary can be a strong tool for advocacy by focusing the attention of the audience on a social condition and demonstrating the impact of the condition in human terms. The realization of the full potential of the documentary depends on a large number of factors both internal and external to the film. The internal components the quality of the film-making process that results in an engaging presentation and the way in which the information is presented, which often depends on the film's intended audience. The external components revolve around factors such as distribution and marketing, which make people aware of the film and stimulate a desire to view it. In many respects, the development of a documentary should be a seamless process from the conceptual stage to the distribution stage that is driven by the desire to reach a wide audience in order to influence the audience. Some of the techniques involved with advertising and marketing are applicable because the intent of the film is to inform an audience and indirectly prompt them to take the action of supporting the cause that is advocated in the film at some point in the future.
The documentary has the potential to operate in both a cognitive and emotional dimension, with the cognitive dimension concerned with the intellectual response of the audience and the emotional dimension concerned with the emotional response of the audience. The traditional approach to the documentary focuses heavily on the cognitive approach through the use of images to convey information that is intellectually processed by the audience. Because of its visual nature, however, all film has some type of emotional impact on the audience that generally involves a response to the subject matter that can be either sympathetic through identification or hostile through alienation. It is this emotional response that allows the film to be engaging regardless of the subject matter. When a documentary is used for advocacy, the emotional response must be positive and relatively strong because the film as a whole is intended to both inform and prompt some type of action from the audience. The response must also be strong enough to be persistent in that the audience must take some type of action long after the conclusion of the film. As a result, the documentary can incorporate the rhetoric of social persuasion into its overall presentation, with the ability of the film to actual persuade dependent on the specific way in which the rhetoric is developed and the characteristics of the audience.
One of the critical elements in using the documentary is to identify the target audience at least prior to the editing stage of the film. The general audience can be segmented on the basis of the following:
- Individuals that already know about the issue and are interested in learning more through the documentary
- Individuals that recognize it as a good cause and take some action in support of the issue in the documentary
- Individuals that are unaware or minimally aware of the issue, but do not take any action to support the issue because of higher priorities placed on other social issues or concerns
For the first segment of the general audience that are already committed to the cause, the documentary functions as a visual record of the issue and provides validation that their decision to support the cause is correct. This audience is very easy to reach and is likely to have a sympathetic emotional response to the documentary because their existing attitudes, beliefs and values predispose them to find the documentary engaging. This audience segment is also the most likely group to view a documentary because of their existing belief that the issue is very important and should have a high social priority.
Because of the high level of competition for distribution that involves large public audiences, the majority of documentaries are promoted and distributed by the filmmaker and the production company in conjunction with advocacy groups that support the issue. This technique for accessing a wider audience was used by the "Taking Back Our Bodies: The Women's Health Movement," which met with organized opposition to public distribution by opponents of the social issues advocated by the film. The producers were successful in distribution through the use of providing direct distribution of videos of the film to the audience in conjunction with advocacy groups that supported the issue.
In general, the ability to successfully reach audiences with documentaries appears to depend on the involvement of one or more advocacy groups that supports the issue. In addition, their involvement in the early stages of production is an important factor in developing a viable distribution plan. Through the support of advocacy groups, it is possible to access traditional distribution methods as well as non-traditional methods such as direct distribution to the audience.