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A Ratings Scale for Documentaries


The Participant Index wants to discover which films inspire people to action.

Have you ever watched a documentary that’s moved you to tears? Or perhaps moved you enough to get involved with a particular issue? Or even change your entire lifestyle?  The unique role of documentaries is to inform, entertain and in many cases, urge people to take action.

But what exactly prompts people to do something? Participant Media wants to find out which is why they are developing the Participant Index. Using information gathered from viewership numbers, social media, and online surveys, the company has formulated a ratings system with a scale from one to 100. So far they’ve found that films revolving around the food system and animal rights had the most impact on individual actions while economic inequality was at the opposite end of the spectrum. Additionally viewers were most interested in issues of education, health care, human rights, and crime, but not so into female empowerment or digital intellectual property rights.

In terms of the ratings numbers generated so far, the online series Farmed and Dangerous ranks a 97. The film The Square about the Arab Spring in Egypt comes in at 92. These figures are averages which take into account emotional involvement and action taken, information gathered from the online survey. However one potential challenge will be figuring in how much action can actually be taken. Someone can adjust their eating and consumer habits immediately while helping bring freedom in Egypt is much trickier.

The index will also be applied to some feature films that have a message behind them such as Promised Land which takes on the fracking industry. Chief executive of Participant Media, James G. Berk says, “If this existed, we would not be doing it. We desperately need more and more information, to figure out if what we were doing is actually working.”

It will be interesting to see how the Index is utilized and if it will change what we end up seeing on screen. Hopefully it can assist filmmakers in finding ways to make movies on typically underreported issues more appealing while also inspiring viewers to connect on screen experiences into their own lives.

Photo by Tulane Publications, licensed under Creative Commons.