The Perfect Marriage: Documentaries and Non-Profits

Last Tuesday, when the lights rose, vigorous applause heralded a milestone for our documentary A Plastic Ocean – because this was a milestone audience. We were screening at the United Nations, for more than 600 delegates, policy-makers, and engaged activists.

The film, which launched in January, and hit Netflix in April, was invited to the UN to engender discussion, and as an example of the social impact of documentaries. It is an example not just of social impact, but also of the impact non-profit organizations can have on documentary filmmaking and, in turn, the value documentaries can bring to non-profits. Because A Plastic Ocean is the product of documentary – non-profit/NGO marriage.


As someone who has been in the film industry for three decades, I am critically aware that the greatest obstacle to getting a movie made is not getting the money. It is having enough value. If a potential film project can demonstrate that it has sufficient value, money rushes to it like a river coursing toward the sea.

In conventional, scripted movies, value is measured along a single vector, the vector of profit. If you are an investor, whether a studio or a high-net-worth individual, you want to know if you will get your money back and then some. You look at models and comparatives, run spreadsheets with sensitivity analyses. You realize you’re taking a risk, so you try to find downside protection while retaining your upside.

More Value

With certain documentaries, however, value can be measured differently: in terms of social impact instead of financial profit. As a producer, I am always straight with financiers about their potential for financial returns. I can’t look a documentary investor in the eye and say, “You’ll get your money back,” unless we’re in the rare situation where we have a pre-sale and distribution guaranteed.

But I can tell a non-profit organization that it could be the best money they spend. Because a documentary, unique among communications media, can spread a story, share a message, and motivate social impact.

What’s a Doc?

In this framework, I am talking about feature documentaries – fully-produced films with running times of 70-100 minutes. I am not talking about little video segments or other kinds of media.

There’s something special about a feature documentary. A feature-length running time allows narrative to unfold with grace and finesse, opens a set of characters to the audience, and offers sufficient time to go into details. It’s a truism that we don’t remember facts, we remember stories. The greater truth is that we remember facts when they are conveyed to us through storytelling.

That’s what a feature doc can do. It is long enough for an audience to get involved, and it does take some commitment, some setting-aside of time to experience it fully. Therefore, while feature documentaries are only rarely mass-market entertainment, they are profound opportunities for core audience connection.

Why Non-Profits?

Non-profits face a continuing challenge: making people care. If you’re running a non-profit organization, you need to keep your current constituents while also expanding your base.

But non-profits have a significant business advantage over other entities that may finance movies: non-profits don’t have to post quarterly profits or keep their shareholders happy. Many of them define success as sharing their message by engaging people in greater numbers and with greater depth.

Freed from the constraint of the financial profit-motive, non-profits are well-positioned to become the perfect financiers for social impact documentaries, because docs can provide exceptional social impact returns. For the same money as a few “opinion maker” TV commercials on CNN, MSNBC, or Fox News – commercials that most people will miss because they’re going to the bathroom or fast-forwarding – a non-profit can make, market, and distribute captivating documentary that can reach more people and will live for a long time.

As an example, A Plastic Ocean is now being seen worldwide, and has been screened for national legislatures, city councils, and environmental organizations. It is inciting policy change and social change. The film was financed primarily by three non-profit foundations (Plastic Oceans Foundation, Adessium Foundation, and Hemera Foundation), and our funders could not more pleased with the social impact value and return-on-investment.

The Model

To be clear: the model I’m describing is not for small, cash-strapped non-profits. It is viable for larger non-profits and NGOs, organizations that have a sound financial base and scale. It is also viable for collaborative partnerships among like-minded non-profits that, by working together, can achieve common goals.

To put some numbers around this, it costs $500,000 a few million dollars to make a feature documentary (the wide variation in cost is a factor of the scale and complexity of the film), and another $100,000 – $500,000 to market and distribute it. That’s the price of admission when seeking to put a large social impact issue onto the national or international agenda.

It’s a price many larger non-profits and NGOs are paying already but, I would argue, paying for media that will not be as compelling, enduring, emotional, or inciting-to-action as a strong feature doc. In the social impact arena, when the right non-profits/NGOs place their resources in the right documentary, it can truly be the perfect – and most cost-effective – marriage.

A Plastic Ocean: First Look

Originally published in Cultural Weekly on February 3, 2016

“What are you working on?” people always ask me. For the past three years, I have been telling my friends about A Plastic Ocean. Today we’re sharing our trailer for the first time.

How did this project start? You may have heard media stories about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. You may even think you have seen pictures of it. Jo Ruxton, an adventuresome soul who has produced for BBC, heard the stories too and started thinking about making a documentary. She joined a scientific expedition to the center of the Pacific for a month of research. Jo discovered there is no floating plastic island… instead, there a truth far more insidious. The doc she wanted to produce became her mission.

That was seven years ago. Documentaries take time! Jo and her colleague Sonjia Norman embarked on a fundraising drive. It was another two years before they had raised enough for the first filming trip to seek the elusive Pygmy Blue Whales in Sri Lanka.

Production continued in stages of fundraising and filming, resulting in trips to twenty locations around the world, all the time accruing more and more information as research was building within the scientific community. Journalist Craig Leeson became an on-camera explorer and the film’s director, and world record-holder free diving champion Tanya Streeter joined the team. I came on board as a producer as well. In A Plastic Ocean, Craig and Tanya investigate how plastics enter the environment and affect wildlife and human health. They join expeditions by world-leading scientists, diving to the bottom of the ocean, visiting first-world countries as well as the remotest island communities blighted by excesses of waste. Most importantly, they share solutions that are real and practical. The film will make you aware, present optimistic choices and, we hope, incite social and political action.

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We have locked picture and will have the film completed in a matter of weeks. At that point we will start to reach out to possible distributors to complete this journey with us. If you’d like to get updates along the way, please sign up here.

Every year humans produce more than 300 million tons of plastic, half of it designed for single use, and more than 8 million tons of it ends up in our oceans. Because the Earth is a closed system, we can’t throw things away: there is no “away.” Plastic does not biodegrade, and almost all the plastic ever manufactured still exists here, somewhere, in some form.

Perhaps the most poignant of all sequences, certainly in Jo’s eyes, was the situation in Tuvalu, a tiny island nation few people have visited. Once part of Kiribati and now independent, the islands that make up Tuvalu lie along the rim of an extinct volcano in the southern Pacific Ocean. Surely they should be everyone’s idea of a tropical paradise, with palm-fringed, white-sand beaches. Yet, as A Plastic Ocean reveals, they resemble an unregulated landfill of plastic waste. There is no space to bury it, more and more is building up daily and the only solution is to pile it up – or worse, burn it, forcing toxic fumes to permeate the air. In many ways, Tuvalu is a microcosm of our entire planet.

We are all extremely proud of this film, and I think it will astound you – just as it did our adventurers, who captured never-before-seen images of marine life, plastic pollution, its ultimate consequences for human health, and viable, practical solutions that are already working and just need to be put into global action.

Please share this trailer with your friends and all who will be interested.

Twitter: @awaveofchange
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Tanya Streeter, Craig Leeson, Jo Ruxton

From left: Free diver Tanya Streeter, producer Jo Ruxton, explorer/director Craig Leeson (photo: David Jones)

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Top image from the film’s key art. Courtesy Plastic Oceans Ltd.