Films and their audiences: How engagement promotes change

Dawn Dewald/Photo courtesy Dawn Dewald

Dawn Dewald/Photo courtesy Dawn Dewald

By Sydnee Schwartz

Dawn Dewald works with companies, nonprofit organizations and film production companies to help their content make a meaningful impact. She uses her skills of audience engagement, event planning and media relations to help film do more than just bringing awareness to an issue. Her goal in her work with film producers is to help them create a deeper impact on audiences who face issues covered in their films. Dewald works to identify communities that will benefit from the film, brings the content to them, involves them in public event panels and promotes the audience to get involved in an issue.

Dawn has worked on many documentaries and projects such as The Homestretch, Invisible Cage, @home and Meru. Since 2014, she has worked on the programming committee for the Chicago Onscreen Local Film Showcase, and she is currently co-producing a documentary about juvenile justice.

What does community and audience engagement mean to you?

To me, engagement in the film industry means taking the film out of the theater. Make it real to the audience and show how issues impact them and relate to their community. This includes things such as having film showings in communities that are affected by the film’s issue and developing panel discussions with filmmakers and community members. We want to make the film and issue come alive and engage the audience enough to make a change.

Why do you think there is an importance in community engagement, and why do you think the focus on it has started to grow?

It’s definitely an interesting time to be working in documentaries. There’s a new availability to have a liberation of content instead of just informational and educational content. With this liberation, people can get into any issue that a group or community faces, and develop content about it. But that can only go so far without the engagement aspect.

People don’t want to watch a movie and forget about it; they want to become involved in the issue and be engaged in doing what they can to make positive changes. Without the community and audience engagement, films and documentaries remain informative instead of truly impactful.

What do you think the benefits are in engaging audiences in content and storytelling?

There’s definitely a range with how engagement affects audiences. Some people will just take in the information and inform others about the issue without making any changes, while other people will commit to making a change to deal with the issue. The benefit of getting the audience and community involved are the long-term committed acts by dedicated people that end up driving a larger change. For example, after someone saw The Homestretch, their family decided to reach out to the foster care system and adopt a child who didn’t have a home. Even though they adopted only one child, they both showed how important it is to support these children in their community and tackle the issue, and they also made a positive impact on this child’s life and development. Awareness and changes like that are part of what’s important about engagement.

How has working in community engagement changed your perspective on outreach?

I have a background in marketing, which helped me a lot when I started in community engagement. I booked a lot of screenings for films, which are important because they are the door that gets people into the issue. As I continued working in engagement and the films I worked on progressed in their own ways with their goals, my perspective changed on what would be beneficial to help meet these goals. Instead of just booking screenings, I began to identify which groups and communities would most benefit from seeing a film and I would book a screening there.

We also created panels with the filmmakers who were knowledgeable about the issue, and community members who face the issue every day. I learned that there is a huge distinction between promotion and outreach. Promotion is getting the issue out, but outreach is encouraging people to get involved and make a change.

When do you get involved in the process, and what are your most important tools and methods you use when doing outreach?

It truly depends on the filmmaker. Most of them don’t think about their marketing or audience engagement until they are in the editing process or done with their film. I tend to check in with them during the filmmaking process to assess their needs, but I typically get involved when they’re finishing the project. At that point, we identify their goals for the film — who they want to reach, what impacts they are looking for and possible outcomes of their activism. With those goals in mind, the outreach becomes outlined. We book screenings in specific communities, spread the word, and create and moderate discussions with the audience during screenings.

What could journalists learn from your work?

It’s kind of like a “one hand washes the other” situation. Journalists are really good at knowing and understanding their audience — who follows and tunes in. Filmmakers could definitely learn from journalists knowing what their audience is looking for and developing content in that direction. But journalists can also learn from filmmakers, especially those who work on issue-films. They can learn to develop a follow-up process about a story or report, get the audience involved to see how it affected and influence them, and make changes to their approach to encourage more engagement in news and community changes. It’s all about thinking strategically about the audience and how to reach out to them in a way that makes them part of the issue in a good way.


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