THE BLOG
02/25/2013 03:26 pm ET Updated Apr 27, 2013

Films Can Help Change the World

Oscar night has come and gone, but we're still discussing the red carpet hits and misses and rehashing the annual spectacle that celebrates the best of the best in filmmaking. Each year, this event reminds me of film's unique power to dazzle and captivate us like nothing else can.

When it comes to things that entertain, film is at the top of our collective list. The average American spends nearly 33 hours a week watching television or videos by some estimates, and on weekends, millions pack theaters to catch the latest release. There are few things better than sitting back with a bowl of popcorn and enjoying a good movie.

Film is big business. We track its annual contribution to the "entertainment" sector in billions of dollars. But film is much more than simply entertainment. Film has the capacity to change the world.

Since projectors first blasted black and white images onto the big screen, film has been a powerful force in the human experience. Film introduces us to worlds we never knew existed. Strangers become people we recognize. Unknown places become locations we long to go. Unfamiliar ideas suddenly have context.

"Movies touch our hearts, and awaken our vision, and change the way we see things," Hollywood director Martin Scorsese once said. "They open doors and minds."

Film, it turns out, is an ideal catalyst for change.

Former Vice President Al Gore won a Nobel Peace Prize after his film An Inconvenient Truth changed the world's approach toward a controversial issue by weaving complex science with storytelling. All the key facts of global warming had been penned by academics, discussed among government leaders and covered on the evening news long before his film was released in 2006. Yet the film did something new to sway minds and change attitudes.

Before the film's release, only about a third of people surveyed believed global warming was real. Afterwards, 85 percent believed the earth was indeed undergoing climate change in part as a result of human actions. This shift in public opinion opened the doors for politicians to introduce more than 15 new climate-related initiatives, and many countries began incorporating the film into their schools coursework.

The activist documentary Food, Inc. took a candid look at the cost industrial food production has on the public, delivering a stunning exposé on the food industry and how it interacts with water, air and people's health, particularly children. The film helped influence important policy, such as the Child Nutrition Act Reauthorization and Food Safety Act.

It's an exciting time to be a filmmaker. The Internet has completely transformed how we share content and ideas. Movies have always been an effective way to communicate messages and ideas to a captive audience -- now digital media allows us to keep those messages alive long after people leave the theater. More and more filmmakers are using their projects as centerpieces of action campaigns, prolonging the impact the film has and turning awareness about an issue into action that brings about real change.

A few years ago, Vulcan Productions started experimenting with how to integrate film with social campaigns. We produced a project called This Emotional Life, a PBS documentary series that explored our human desire and struggle for happiness. The film release was just the start for us. We simultaneously launched a national outreach campaign and website that has helped millions of people find social support and resources. More than 200,000 toolkits were distributed to friends and families of American service members around the country, helping them become more aware of the stressors that come with deployment and offering skills to become more resilient.

We learned a big lesson in this endeavor. Film can foster change long after the footage stops.

When Vulcan Productions signed on to support Girl Rising, a soon-to-be-released feature film about the importance of educating girls, we knew we wanted help get the issue in front of people and get them to do something about it. Girl Rising uses storytelling, profiling nine young women in nine different environments, to show how girls can use education to change their circumstances and their communities. The film is the centerpiece of a global campaign to encourage the public to support programs that help girls and push for related policy changes.

Change is already happening, and the film isn't even in theaters yet. Gifts for girls' education projects totaling more than a quarter of a million dollars have been pledged, including money to build schools for girls in Cambodia and Afghanistan. Intel Foundation has said it will make sure all the girls featured in the film have access to resources needed to complete their education.

One dollar at a time, I'm convinced we can help girls all over the world. One girl at a time, I'm convinced we can help change communities, countries and cultures. One film at a time, I know we can make a difference.

Bonnie Benjamin-Phariss is Director of Paul G. Allen's film company Vulcan Productions, which co-produced Girl Rising, in theaters March 7. Learn more about Girl Rising at www.girlrising.com.

Subscribe to Must Reads.
The internet's best stories, and interviews with their authors.