It's a rare documentary that breaks into box office charts. Most linger longer in the moral conscience than graduate out of the festival circuit onto big screens. Even rarer is the cause documentary that achieves popular success as well as critical acclaim.
One notable exception was March of the Penguins. Magnificent cinematography, heart-warming stories of faithful parents, gut-wrenching odds of survival -- and the attention it drew to the impact of climate change -- rocketed Penguins to the top of the movie charts. Another rare exception is 10x10's recently released Girl Rising, a feature film that tells the stories of nine resilient girls in nine developing countries who overcome insurmountable economic and cultural odds -- simply to get an education.
Changing the World by Educating Girls
At first glance singling out educating girls as the most effective way to tackle global poverty seems a stretch. Yet the briefest look at the numbers quickly confirms the obvious -- that educating girls is indeed the most effective way to address many fundamental economic, political and cultural goals across the developing world.
Consider the direct correlation between educating girls and economic growth. In their Council on Foreign Relations paper, "What Works in Girls Education," Barbara Herz and Gene Sperling highlight the direct economic impact of educating girls in multiple ways. On an individual level, educated girls at both primary and secondary levels generate 10 to 25 percent higher wages, significantly higher than the relative increase among boys. That wage impact translates directly into faster national economic growth. As the authors note, more equal education of girls in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa in particular would have resulted in nearly 1 percent higher per capita growth in GDP over the period 1960 to 1992. Critically, in developing countries, higher education levels among girls leads to more productive farming results.
Then consider the economic multiplier effect of educating girls -- given its minimal marginal cost. Not only does doing so dramatically improve health standards, encourage fewer children and discourage child trafficking, but it also drives up savings and small business activity. Not surprisingly, UNICEF reports that educated mothers are twice as likely to educate their own children -- girls and boys. Now compound those benefits by just one generation.
But can a narrative documentary attract developed world attention to an issue so patently solvable? Surely noble goals, powerful story lines and chic Hollywood endorsements are a simple recipe for screen success. Not so fast. Many documentaries share similar attributes without making a notable impact. So how did Girl Rising debut at No. 5 on the New York Times Most Popular Movies List, open in 100 theaters, sell 100,000 tickets in its first month and be the signature purchase for CNN Films?
How to Turn Hollywood Upside Down -- While Making Friends
Start with content: Girl Rising is an immensely uplifting film spotlighting one of the real success stories in development circles. As Academy Award nominee director Richard E. Robbins notes,
"Educating girls makes such obvious sense. An educated girl will in turn educate her own children -- boys and girls -- not only in arithmetic and in how to write and read, but also in how to stay healthy, how to work and save. It's the multiplier effect writ larger by every generation. If you get sick, you might well go back to the hospital. But if you get educated, you never forget that."
Star power also helps. Each girl's story in Girl Rising is narrated by A-list Hollywood actresses including Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway, Alicia Keys and Selena Gomez. Having Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Jordan's Queen Rania on your advisory board certainly lends credence as well. Strategic partners including Intel, Paul Allen's Vulcan Productions and CNN Films also add impressive institutional heft.
Then add in 10x10's groundbreaking distribution model. Turning Hollywood's traditional distribution model on its head, 10x10 promotes screenings by offering any community -- however large or small, urban, rural or campus-based -- the opportunity to screen Girl Rising through its partnership with Gathr. Launched in 2011, Gathr is among the innovators in on-demand theatrical distribution, empowering audiences to bring films like Girl Rising to their communities, in effect democratizing theatrical film distribution. "With Girl Rising, we took a risk on a new model of on-demand theatrical distribution, and the leap of faith paid dividends," said Tom Yellin, executive producer of Girl Rising. "We've established a new model for impact filmmaking, to build a movement -- and an audience -- around a film."
Deft use of social media to promote Girl Rising also proves Facebook and Twitter are infinitely more cost-effective forms of promoting films than traditional sources. With a dedicated social media team that resembles a campaign war room, 10x10 constantly sends targeted alerts to promote local screenings, encouraging individuals to share and share again notices about upcoming screenings, while also circling back to spotlight successful screenings through an ever-widening web of friends and followers.
Translating Awareness into Impact on the Ground
Uplifting stories, star power, and impressive box-office stats without doubt. But can a documentary seen even in several hundred theaters actually translate into making a difference in traditional, and often patriarchal, societies thousands of miles away?
Emphatically yes, say director Robbins and executive producer Holly Green Gordon. Both quickly admit their value-add is in developing awareness and raising funds for the cause of educating girls through the power of film. To that end Robbins and Green established the 10x10 Fund to act as a conduit of all proceeds from Girl Rising -- ticket sales, donations, and corporate gifts -- to global nonprofits including Care, the UN Foundation's Girl Up, and Room to Read, selected on the basis of their ability to make an immediate on-the-ground impact. Beyond that, 10x10 effectively pushed these organizations to place an even greater focus within their budgets on educating girls.
Little surprise then that Girl Rising quickly received star-billing nationwide. Barely a month after debuting to critical and popular acclaim as a documentary promoted at the grassroots level, 10x10 just disclosed a week-long exclusive deal with Regal Cinemas, the nation's leading network of cinemas, to show Girl Rising in over 150 theaters across the country starting April 19th.
Announcing the deal, Amy Miles, CEO of Regal Entertainment Group stated, "Regal recognizes the intense interest by American moviegoers demanding that this film be seen in their local communities." As she continued, "This movie is making an emotional impact on many of our patrons, me included."
Fitting praise for a feature film called "one of the hottest cause documentaries in years" by the New York Times. With their drive and determination, these courageous young girls have proven that by striving to get an education, they themselves have the power to truly change the world.