24 May 2019

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Leonardo DiCaprio, Don Cheadle praise the power of social impact entertainment

Leonardo DiCaprio, right, and Enric Sala in the climate-change documentary "Before the Flood." (TIFF)

Leonardo DiCaprio and Don Cheadle are among those who believe that, in Hollywood, it is possible to do well and do good.

They are among the dozens who contributed to a new report on the intersection of entertainment and social change. Released Tuesday by the Skoll Center for Social Impact Entertainment at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television and Participant Media, the report maps and explores the emerging field by analyzing its successes across film, television, theater and digital short form.

“Studios need to recognize that there’s a big market out there for these kinds of stories,” Cheadle said in the report, in which he discussed how starring in “Hotel Rwanda” changed his career. “[Movies] can help audiences understand what an issue is, what it looks like, and in some instances move them to take action.”

Each case study in the report includes a breakdown of its creation, critical reception, commercial outcome and initiatives implemented to inspire change around a particular issue.

Among its findings, it highlights how the heartwarming hilarity of “Will & Grace” led to positive perceptions of gay men and how 20 years of charitable “Vagina Monologues” performances have raised $100 million for feminist causes. It also sheds light on how the “Icarus” snafu led to the McLaren Report, concluding that “more than 1,000 Russian athletes across over 30 sports benefited from state-sponsored doping between 2012 and 2015.”

Don Cheadle is part of a new study on social-impact entertainment.
Don Cheadle is part of a new study on social-impact entertainment. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

At 186 pages, the report shows that there is no one-size-fits-all approach. For example, “Before the Flood,” the DiCaprio-produced documentary about climate change, had an unprecedented release strategy: It was distributed for free on all streaming platforms for 10 days after its global television premiere in 171 countries and 45 languages.

In addition to spotlighting people working to combat climate change, the documentary also aligned with the CarboTax app to raise more than $1 million for reforestation campaigns.

“The idea was to promote widespread individual action,” DiCaprio said in the report. “You want to make sure that your audience walks away with a clear understanding of the steps they can take in their own lives to be part of the change you are seeking to create.”

The report also outlines how diversity, on and off screen, has repeatedly proved to sell well, and that ignoring such stories and audiences is just leaving money on the table. It also lauds organizations — including Time’s Up, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, the Sundance Institute and Ava DuVernay’s Array Alliance, among others — that have been working to improve inclusion in the entertainment industry.

“Films like ‘Black Panther,’ ‘Girls Trip,’ ‘Get Out’ and ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ are proving that films focused on people of color have their own audience and can reach mainstream audiences too,” said “Love & Basketball” writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood in the report. “It seems clear that moviegoers are bored with the status quo, of looking up at the screen and seeing only white characters.”

Leonardo DiCaprio, right, and Enric Sala in the climate-change documentary "Before the Flood."
Leonardo DiCaprio, right, and Enric Sala in the climate-change documentary “Before the Flood.” (TIFF)

The report identifies some common characteristics among the successes of social-impact entertainment: a strong focus on the story, a deep knowledge of the issue, strategic alliances with key partners and clever distribution plans to connect with viewers.

Its creators hope it encourages others to enter the space — one that is promising not just socially and environmentally, but also financially, especially as distribution platforms continue to evolve.

“These new Gen Z consumers care about these issues and investing in companies who make a difference in the world,” Peter Bisanz, Skoll Center SIE’s executive director, told The Times. “You can actually accomplish two goals at the same time — by producing content that connects with them that normal content won’t — and it doesn’t cost you any more to do it.”

Such a directory can help combat what Skoll Center SIE deems “screenwashing,” the Hollywood equivalent of “greenwashing” in which productions or studios tout a superficial appearance of an ethical commitment to the greater good without actually integrating it into the content or company.

“Audiences are not having it anymore. They’re not putting up with things the way they once were,” “Milk” writer Dustin Lance Black, who also contributed to the report, told The Times. “This isn’t ‘politically correct’ — which is just an older generation, as far as I’m concerned, getting upset that things are looking a bit unrecognizable to them. This is accurate and authentic, the way the world has always been, and now [the industry] is just acknowledging it.”

What about the worry that social-impact entertainment makes TV shows, movies and theater way too didactic?

“Well, that’s just bad writing!” Black said with a laugh. “Good creators, writers and filmmakers can convey the truth in ways that are entertaining. And if it feels too preachy, then that’s not their best work.”

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