Beyond Environmental Gloom and Doom in the “Golden Age” of Documentary Film

Melissa Fondakowski

It’s Friday night. A Netflix subscriber is sitting on their couch, scrolling through an endless feed of entertainment options. They pass by the next episode of Stranger Things, skip over the Marvel movies, shrug at Friday Night Lights. Finally, they land on the latest environmental documentary film release. They grab their blanket and popcorn and eagerly press play.

Admittedly, this might be a tough scene to picture. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a vision that funders and filmmakers should aspire to. In 2015, The New York Community Trust, which has supported the creation of documentary films “that help Americans understand and take action on crucial issues” since 2002,1 and The Redford Center, an environmental media organization cofounded by Robert Redford and his son James Redford that works to accelerate environmental movements through inspiring stories that galvanize action, partnered together to work toward realizing this vision.

Two short decades ago, documentary film was something that could be dependably relied upon to help you nap on Saturday afternoons. Within the film industry, documentary sat somewhere at the bottom of the hierarchy,2 and the target audiences for these films were usually people who were already invested in the topic.3 Documentary film was mostly boring, niche, and preaching to the choir. Today, the media landscape has shifted, and documentaries are now enjoying what many are calling a Golden Age. According to Netflix, in 2016 alone, more than 73 percent of their subscribers watched a documentary. That is sixty-eight million people — and on Netflix alone.4 The entertainment value of documentary films is on the rise, which presents tremendous opportunities to address key inequities within the entertainment industry itself.

2018 Grantees learn GoPro drone skills at the top of Bearclaw Mountain during The Redford Center’s Story Summit.

According to the Center for Media & Social Impact’s 2018 Documentary Film Diversity Report,5 documentary filmmakers are still largely white and male. Of the documentary films that were nominated for Academy Awards in 2018, a whopping 80 percent were focused on social justice issues, but only 12 percent were produced or directed by people of color, and only 36 percent by women. The stories that are being told could use greater diversity, too.

While some documentaries, like Netflix’s 13th, which details mass incarceration and the New Jim Crow, are compelling works on global platforms with expansive educational reach, others — especially those addressing environmental issues — remain tough draws for funders and audiences. You have likely heard of An Inconvenient Truth and possibly An Inconvenient Sequel. But what about the hundreds of other environmental films that have been produced since?

Enter The Redford Center and The New York Community Trust. Although the Trust had been funding documentary film for more than a decade through their arts funding program, they had a specific desire to increase the number of environmental documentary films they were supporting. The Trust first learned about The Redford Center in late 2014, when they partnered on a small grant to support the Center’s impact campaign to help restore the Colorado River’s delta, a goal of their 2012 documentary Watershed: Exploring A New Water Ethic for the New West. The Redford Center’s filmmaking model — highly collaborative, environmentally focused, solutions forward, and impact driven — attracted the attention of the Trust’s arts programming, and they approached The Redford Center to design a program that could get more highly effective, artful, and entertaining environmental documentaries made by underrepresented filmmakers.

The Trust offered The Redford Center the opportunity to design a program that serves kindred filmmakers in ways that go beyond simple grant redistribution. The team conducted more than thirty interviews with industry leaders and funders, and a few key points were repeated again and again: funders do not receive many environment-themed documentary proposals, and of the ones they do receive, few are developed enough to understand their impact potential. Audiences sang a similar tune. When the team took a camera and set out on the streets of Oakland and San Francisco to ask people, “What was the last environmental film you watched?” the answers — or non-answers, really — were confounding. Nearly everyone interviewed had a hard time remembering even a single environmental documentary film that they had ever watched. Some could not answer at all. Of the few who could, after a lot of hemming and hawing, they would mention something remotely gloomy. One person even said, “Armageddon?” referring to the fictional movie starring Bruce Willis as Earth’s asteroid-blasting savior. The feedback revealed how audiences perceive environmental films — and how The Redford Center might be able to change that perception.

At the time the Trust approached The Redford Center, they were in production on another original environmental documentary film, titled Happening: A Clean Energy Revolution.6 As part of their research for the film, they commissioned a landscape analysis of clean energy in the United States. One component of the study revealed that only 38 percent of Americans believed they would be personally harmed by global warming, yet 90 percent of Americans believed that energy independence — a pro-clean energy euphemism7 — should be at least a medium priority for government.8 The dissonance between these two statistics — people who, on one hand, were proverbially sticking their heads in the sand on the issue of climate change, and who, on the other, believed in the potential of clean energy — was compelling and affirming, leading the team to an even deeper understanding of the connective tissue that is missing for most people when it comes to the environment: solutions.

People are tired of hearing the bad news and want to understand how to fix things. Director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, Anthony Leiserowitz, further clarified the team’s findings: “We find in our audience research that even the alarmed [those most concerned about climate change] don’t really know what they can do individually, or what we can do collectively. We call this loosely ‘the hope gap,’ and it’s a serious problem. Perceived threat without efficacy of response is usually a recipe for disengagement or fatalism.”9 The Redford Center continued to gather more research and information on the impact potential of environmental documentary film and used it to develop the following Redford Center Grants Program.

Redford Center Grants

Currently in its second cycle, the Redford Center Grants program is supporting fourteen filmmakers working on feature-length environmental film projects that drive awareness, education, and action on a variety of environmental topics. Through an open call for proposals, The Redford Center selects seven grantees per two-year cycle to receive a $20,000 development grant for a proof-of-concept short film; a GoPro camera and gear kit; and travel and lodging for its Story Summit at Sundance Mountain Resort, where they gain access to issue experts and film industry leaders; consideration for up to $100,000 in production funds toward their feature documentary film in year two; and fast-track consideration for fiscal sponsorship with The Redford Center. The six sections that follow describe the primary program strategies and details on how it is executed.


Brenda Robinson, Justin Wilkenfeld, and Cheryl Hirasa speak on a panel at the 2018 story Summit.

As filmmakers themselves, The Redford Center already had a strong awareness of the documentary field’s diversity imbalance and placed inclusivity at the center of the program. Because environmental documentarians are an even smaller subset of filmmakers, The Redford Center knew the biggest challenge would be outreach. To cast as wide a net as possible with the first open call for proposals, they built an expansive network to support their outreach. To this day, little is more effective than personalized, meaningful, one-to-one outreach and connection. This effort began with building a diverse, multidisciplinary advisory team with relationships to the film industry and expertise in key areas, who could provide added value to future grantees — advice, connections, or knowledge — and who could help The Redford Center reach more prospective applicants.

The team also reached out to as many film funding and support organizations as possible, including Catapult Film Fund, Chicken & Egg Pictures, the Center for Asian American Media, Queer Producers Collective, and at least seventy others to engage them in outreach efforts and encourage them to connect filmmakers working on environmental film projects directly with The Redford Center. Staff also attended a number of local and regional film festivals to meet with filmmakers working in the environmental arena. And finally, they created promotional ads to release on mainstream as well as social media platforms that highlighted the goals of the program and were reflective of the types of filmmaker applicants the team was trying to attract to the open call.

Although the deadline for the open call was a limited window, folding in additional time for late applications proved important. Networking is never instantaneous, and it took extra time for the open call to reach some applicants that the network specifically targeted. Additionally, having real-time, highly responsive troubleshooting by knowledgeable staff and a midcall reminder to all filmmakers who had started an application but had not yet finished resulted in more completed applications and a great user experience — which helped create positive buzz among filmmakers around the program.

In the first cycle, The Redford Center received 282 grant applications, 90 of which were on target, on message, and of high aesthetic quality. Data collected in a survey of applicants showed that 33 percent of applicants were emerging filmmakers; 27 percent identified as Asian Pacific-Islander, Native American, African American, or Latino; and 42 percent of applicants were women, which was more than double industry standards at the time (2016).


The Redford Center’s theory of change is rooted in the belief that awareness is the first step toward action on an issue, and positive, hopeful stories have an important role to play in inspiring public engagement and creating change. With renewed reassurance about the “hope gap,” and aware of the effect that gloom and doom has on potential audiences, The Redford Center knew that for the environmental films to be watchable, they would need to be entertaining, character driven, and crafted with an emphasis on hope and solutions. The Redford Center was already utilizing these elements in their own films and saw the grants program as an opportunity to prioritize inclusivity. The Redford Center’s experience with distributing environmental documentaries taught them that a majority of people do not consider themselves environmentalists for the simple fact that they do not identify with the usual suspects of the environmental movement: white men chasing after whaling ships or preserving spotted owls. Their call for proposals encouraged filmmakers to expand their notion of the environment to include environmental justice stories, unsung heroes making changes in their communities, the unlikely flora and fauna that do not make the glossy pages of National Geographic, and anything remotely relevant to protecting and preserving the planet and its people. The point being, there are multitudes of solutions stories out there, and the time has come for more of them to be shared.

Of note is that when a filmmaker was in doubt about whether their project was “environmental,” The Redford Center encouraged them to apply anyway. What they found was that while filmmakers understood the nuance of their stories, they were not always able to articulate the environmental aspect. The Redford Center worked together with many applicants to help bring the environmental connection forward.

The Redford Center has awarded grants to fourteen film projects to date, on “clean” meat, youth environmental action, glacier melt and geopolitics in the Bering Strait, community-based climate adaptation, a youth artist’s response to Hurricane Harvey, Middle Eastern and European women on an Arctic expedition, the Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice in Alabama, sustainable farming and permaculture, the Battle of Standing Rock, the young inventors of Intel’s International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), the unbalanced protection of “ugly” species, desertification, toxic chemicals in health and beauty products, and a group of high school students from Brooklyn on a life-changing trek in Alaska.

Artist Development

A key part of The Redford Center’s model is the Story Summit. It is well known that bringing people together outside of their daily lives and routines helps to establish fresh connections across disciplines, encourage dynamic interactions, and promote innovative and creative thinking. The natural setting of the Wasatch Mountains at the Sundance Mountain Resort provides a magnificent backdrop for collaborative, creative, and goal-oriented work. All grantee filmmaking teams attend the Summit, which includes small group sessions, panels, discussions, GoPro skills workshops, and networking with other filmmakers, industry leaders, and issue experts — with the goal of helping the film teams refine their narratives and identify opportunities for impact. The relationships that develop over the three days are invaluable to the filmmaking teams throughout the evolution and distribution of their projects, as many emerging filmmakers are just beginning to learn how to navigate the complicated networks of the film industry. Having the opportunity to be in community with kindred filmmakers and environmental leaders has been particularly motivating for grantees.

An important feature of how the Story Summit operates is that every person who attends also contributes to the experience. The total group number is capped at approximately fifty, and every participant — whether they are attending as a grantee, funder, advisor, or staff member — sits on a panel, gives a talk, or facilitates a small-group session. The participatory nature of the gathering levels the field and promotes collaboration, deepening each participant’s investment in the film projects. This inclusive approach creates a space for a range of perspectives to come forward — on environmental issues, filmmaking, media, marketing, technology, science, business, education, policy making, pop culture, and art.

According to surveys conducted by The Redford Center of all Redford Center Grants applicants, one of the top reasons filmmakers apply to the program (as opposed to other programs) is the Story Summit. Many artists work in isolation, and being present in a community is rare, but when it comes to environmental filmmaking — and environmental activism, generally — community is everything. It is how people organize and mobilize, maintain hope, and shape the stories that get told.

Film still of Kua Bay via drone from the short film Reefs at Risk.


Because The Redford Center’s mission is to accelerate environmental movements, a film’s potential for impact is a primary consideration in the Redford Center Grants selection process. For environmental films specifically, it is important to distinguish impact — the change a film can facilitate — from outputs — the number of screenings or awards a film receives. While awards and screenings are important, they are not necessarily an indicator of audience action. However, when character-driven solutions are the focus, motivating audiences to act is simpler: the film itself can model how and where audiences can get involved. The Redford Center helps filmmakers capitalize on this potential for impact by facilitating connections with organizations in their topic area doing on-the-ground environmental work. At the Story Summit and throughout the duration of the grant cycle, The Redford Center facilitates collaboration and partnership opportunities whenever possible.

Note that it is advantageous to invite stakeholders into the conversation early, as The Redford Center does for filmmakers at the Story Summit. Doing so not only invites a wider range of perspectives but also supports the filmmakers in building a network of grassroots, action-oriented organizations ready to utilize their films as tools for community action.

Grantee films are having an impact on several movements, including STEM education, food security, community organizing around climate, and personal behavior change, in addition to policy shifts. The film team behind Reefs at Risk, a 2016 Redford Center grantee, used their proof-of-concept short film to rally support for the passage of legislation in Hawaii banning sunscreens containing the chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate, which happened in July 2016. In February 2019, Key West, Florida, followed suit, passing similar legislation to protect their reefs from toxins.10


When asked what the greatest challenge in making a documentary film is, the knee-jerk response most filmmakers will give is fundraising. However, when it comes to film funding, some dollars are harder to secure than others. Knowing when to jump in can make all the difference in helping a filmmaker capture a key moment or finish their film. Based on The Redford Center’s own experiences and funder and filmmaker research, early development — when filmmakers only have an initial idea about their story but have not yet shot any footage — is the stage of the documentary filmmaking process for which funding is most difficult to come by. In fact, most documentary filmmakers will spend a significant amount of their own money to push their films through this early development phase, with the promise of a larger funder jumping on the project down the line. This option is not always viable for under-resourced filmmakers and is often a challenge for environmental documentary projects. The Redford Center understood that their grants program could have a huge impact for filmmakers and film projects if they provided filmmakers with development funds that enabled them to create a proof-of-concept short film that could be used for multiple purposes, including fundraising and audience-building efforts for their feature.

However, supporting filmmakers through to the completion of their film projects was also a program priority. Because films can sometimes take years to complete, being able to engage with the filmmakers on their projects over multiple years could expand the kind of support the organization could lend — including and beyond the monetary. This thinking ultimately led to the creation of a two-year grant cycle that provides filmmakers with $20,000 development grants in the first year to complete a short proof-of-concept film. In the second year, an additional $100,000 in funds are distributed to support the production of one or more grantee films, and along the way The Redford Center facilitates opportunities for all filmmakers in the current grants cycle to fundraise for, promote, and advertise their films.

It is important to point out that though the grant award architecture was set, The Redford Center found it valuable to remain flexible with the call for proposals, being sure to give a second look at projects that while they were no longer in early development, still seemed unable to move forward due to the fact that they lacked a strong proof-of-concept piece they could use to promote their project.

Since 2016, The Redford Center has distributed more than $500,000 in cash grants and travel and accommodation scholarships to fourteen grantees. With one and one-half grant cycles under their belt, Redford Center grantees have completed three feature-length documentaries and three short films, which are all being actively distributed and have collectively screened at more than thirty film festivals.


The New York Community Trust and The Redford Center agreed on specific output goals for the program from the start, and The Trust provided enough room for The Redford Center team to be creative and flexible in how those outputs were achieved. That space empowered The Redford Center to engage additional program partners to add value for filmmakers. Examples include Cool Effect, an organization that helps promote carbon offsetting of film productions, and GoPro, a leader in content creation with high-definition cameras and gear. The Trust has offered guidance and structure without a heavy hand, trusting The Redford Center to do what it does best: develop a program that inspires the creation of more solutions-forward, entertaining, environmental film productions and can steadily shift the environmental documentary landscape for filmmakers, audiences, and movements.


  1. Amy Wolf, “Films That Change Lives,” Newsroom, The New York Community Trust, April 8, 2018,
  2. Charlie Lyn, et. al., “From Weiner to Making a Murderer: This Is the Golden Age of Documentaries,” Guardian, November 14, 2016,
  3. Eve Pierce, “The Rise and Rise of the Documentary,” Raindance, February 3, 2017,
  4. Glenn Kenny, “Netflix Cast a Wider Net for Original Documentaries,” New York Times, March 9, 2017,
  5. Center for Media and Social Impact, “2018 Documentary Film Diversity Report: Journey to the Academy Awards,” School of Communications, American University, Washington D.C.,
  6. Happening: A Clean Energy Revolution was first broadcast on HBO in late 2017 and has been viewed more than two million times in the United States alone.
  7. Rebecca Harrington, “There’s Only One Way for the US to Reach Energy Independence,” Business Insider, July 15, 2017,
  8. The study was conducted by the firm RALLY in 2015.
  9. John Upton, “Media Contributing to ‘Hope Gap’ on Climate Change,” Climate Central, March 28, 2015,
  10. Karen Zraick, “Key West Bans Sunscreen Containing Chemicals Believed to Harm Coral Reefs,” New York Times, February 7, 2019,