TLDR: We make the case that producing ambitious documentaries raising awareness of topics related to effective altruism could be impactful, and are looking for input on why this hasn’t been done or is not more discussed in the community. 

Rigor: We don’t have any experience related to producing documentaries and feel very uncertain about pretty much everything in this post. The main aim is to try and induce discussion and get input for further exploration.

Context: We are currently in contact with a philanthropist in Sweden (where we are based) who has connections and experience from funding and producing documentaries, and who has expressed interest in funding documentaries on issues relevant for EA, e.g. biorisks and nuclear war/winter. 


Should we produce more EA-related documentaries?

In a fireside chat at EAG London 2021 William MacAskill spoke briefly about “EA Media”, a topic that has come up at various times and places during the last years (See EA in media | Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Julia Galef, AJ Jacobs, and William MacAskill, MacAskill Fireside Chat at EAG and Ezra Klein interview at EAG 2020). In this chat William says that he would like EA to produce more “high-depth, high-engagement media” such as podcasts, books and documentaries. He also says that a documentary funded at around 10 million dollars would be one of the top most well-funded documentaries in the world and that we could produce several of these per year on important EA topics.

We, the authors, think this seems like relatively low hanging fruit and that documentaries on EA topics could be of high expected values (albeit high risk high reward). Thus we ask ourselves, why is this not more actively discussed and why are we not seeing any EA documentaries? Is it that the potential upsides of documentaries are small, are we missing important downsides or has this simply been overlooked? 

 

What we mean by documentary

In this post we are, for obvious reasons, interested in documentaries aiming to create some kind of positive change. And when it comes to creating change, we, inspired by BRITDOC, think of documentaries as able to fill four overlapping and interdependent, yet distinguishable functions: 

  • Changing minds: Spreading awareness and understanding with the aim of sparking societal interest and changing attitudes. E.g. introducing neglected existential risks to the public.
  • Changing behaviors: Trying to get people to do something, not just think differently. E.g. getting people to take greater consideration of animal welfare when buying things or donating more and/or more effectively.[1]
  • Building communities: Providing a focal point around which people can organize.
  • Changing structures: Directly trying to influence law or policy.

Further, documentaries can take many different forms, from a 10 minute homemade Youtube video to a feature length high budget motion picture.

In the following when we say documentary, we are mainly thinking about a high budget full length film with the purpose of raising awareness of important topics, bringing them to the attention of the media and wider society (something like An Inconvenient Truth in style). This is because we think this seems to be mostly missing at the moment, and could be of highest expected value. Also, in our interpretation, it seems like something others who have spoken about EA media are excited about (see EA in media | Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Julia Galef, AJ Jacobs, and William MacAskill and MacAskill Fireside Chat at EAG).

We want to stress that we are very uncertain about what type of documentary, or other media content might be most impactful, which is part of the reason for writing this and we would love to hear your thoughts on the matter.[2] However, it seems relevant to narrow our scope to be able to have some kind of vantage point to be working from, in this first exploratory post.

One further clarification that seems important is that we are not imagining documentaries that are explicitly about EA, but rather topics relevant to EA.

 

The case for EA documentaries

As implied above, the main case for EA documentaries as we see it is that they can create awareness of important issues, which in turn can make it easier to make progress on these issues. In the fireside chat William MacAskill mentions Armageddon and Deep Impact as helpful in building support for NASA's to detect asteroids and increased budget for asteroid x-risk mitigation. He also mentions Terminator as being good for raising awareness about AI risks. (These are not documentaries, but it seems to us the effect of documentaries could be similar.)

Further, without having done any deep investigations, we feel convinced by case studies looking at the impact of documentaries such as Citizenfour (raising awareness about surveillance), Gaslands (raising awareness about Fracking), Blackfish (raising awareness of Animal Welfare) and An Inconvenient Truth raising awareness about climate change. The most well studied documentary from the perspective of what change it made seems to be An Inconvenient Truth (AIT), so let’s turn to that for a moment. 

One analysis of attitudes towards climate change found a significant relationship between mentions of AIT in the media and public perception of the urgency of climate change. A public survey found that in the months following the documentary’s release, the percentage of Americans attributing global warming to human activity rose from 41% to 50%. This does not say anything about causality, but several experimental studies suggest AIT changed peoples minds and sometimes behavior. One study found that showing clips from AIT made participants in the study more motivated to make lifestyle changes to fight climate change. Also, surveys of people watching the movie found that AIT increased knowledge of climate change and willingness to reduce greenhouse gasses. Importantly however, a follow-up survey one month later found little change in behavior. Another study found that two months after the film was released, the purchase of carbon offsets increased by 50% in suburbs near cinemas that screened it. Again however, the increased purchase of carbon offsets failed to translate into a repeated behavior as no notable changes could be observed in purchases one year later. (See summary and further links here.)

This suggests AIT was successful in raising awareness of climate change and sometimes in actually changing behavior. However, it seems the effect didn’t last long, which indicates that an EA documentary probably should be combined with further communication efforts (more on this in a later post). We also want to highlight that these studies investigate the direct effect on those who saw AIT. A potentially more significant impact was the film’s role in getting others to talk about climate change and bring it more into common wisdom, thus setting a wider change in motion. Such impact would obviously be very hard to measure, and we feel uneasy making any hard claims to this point, but our intuition is that this is where most of the value in creating EA documentaries could lie.

A potentially valuable bi effect we’d like to mention (which William Macaskill also seemed to agree to in the interview) is the possibility that the production of EA documentaries in and of itself could increase the diversity of the EA movement, by creating need and space for people with new perspectives and skills such as creatives and communicator types (our interpretation).
 

The case against EA documentaries

One clear case against documentaries is that, while being of positive impact in absolute terms, it might not be the best marginal use of funds. We do not think it is. However, currently there seems to be a lot of information value in trying it out. Further, we have not really seen this argument being made. And as there seems to be a case for documentaries sometimes creating significant change intended by the filmmakers, it seems like we should at the very least investigate the question further. Also, in our current circumstance with a philanthropist aimed at this sole objective, it is obviously less interesting to consider alternative costs. 

Another issue is that, as alluded to above, most documentaries do not seem to have large effects. As we are interested in the expected value, this does not seem like a big problem if the upside of some is large enough. Especially since the EA movement should be able to make several documentaries, thus hopefully getting one or a few in the fat tail. 

There is also a risk that a documentary might not be fleshed out/nuanced enough to communicate EA topics. We believe this is true in the sense that the role of documentaries should not be to give a deep understanding of the topic in question. But when it comes to raising awareness, we think this argument seems less convincing. Going against us here is the fact that oftentimes the most widely-spread documentaries are the most sensationalizing ones (media logic), so producing a very nuanced documentary might not be what sells the most. Can we avoid this while still producing content that people will want to see? We think so. As indicated by the high view counts of for example Youtube-channels like Veritasium and Kurzgesagt, many people seem interested in consuming fleshed out/nuanced content. And in this domain we think it is important to consider that we are not operating in a vacuum. Many areas relevant to EA have already been covered by documentaries and this will likely continue. Thus it seems like we can have a positive impact if we create something which is more nuanced than the alternative, while still appealing (though we think it is probably more valuable to do a documentary on a topic that others would be less likely to cover). As we pointed out earlier, one observation William MacAskill explicitly mentions in his fireside chat is Deep Impact as being good for raising awareness about asteroid X-risks. And our intuition is that this assessment is correct. It seems like Deep Impact made a lot of people (who otherwise would not have been) aware of asteroid X-risks. And even though it might not have given the most accurate picture of asteroid X-risks, we don’t see how this has affected further when it comes to actual in-depth research on these risks.

(Here again we want to stress that we are not talking about a documentary on EA, but EA relevant topics. When it comes to communicating the core ideas of EA we believe a format that allows for easier updating, more depth, nuance and interaction would be better.)

Another risk is information hazards, in the sense that a documentary could draw attention to an issue from actors who might act in a way that causes harm. We however have a rather hard time seeing how this could play out, given that the documentary is done responsibly. It could be a legitimate concern in some domains, e.g. biorisks. It however feels like a very small risk in other domains, e.g. risks stemming from nuclear winter, an unaligned artificial intelligence or extreme climate change.

 

Summary

Based on the case we have found for and against, we think that producing documentaries about EA topics could be impactful and that it, under the current circumstances that we have described (with a funder specifically interested in this), seems worth exploring.  

There is so much interesting EA content out there, and a lot of the ideas that are talked about in EA circles could make for very good documentaries that could help make very abstract ideas seem more concrete and real to people outside of the EA community, and help bring awareness to these topics. 

We would really appreciate you sharing any feedback or thoughts you may have with us on this. Specifically regarding these questions: 

  1. Do you think documentaries could be effective? Why (not)? Are there important arguments for or against that we are missing?
  2. Do you think we should hire someone to do research on this? If so, is there anyone in particular who would be especially suitable for this role and what do you think they should focus on?
  3. What do you think should be the main aim of an EA-related documentary? Raise awareness, get people to take concrete action, trying to change structures or something else?
  4. What formats to choose? Youtube, feature films, podcast documentaries or TV-series?
  5. Do you have any suggestions on what would make for good EA-related documentary content? Please comment!



 

  1. ^

    When it comes to long-termist causes we have a hard time seeing what concrete change in behavior could be promoted, but would be very keen to hear your ideas.

  2. ^

     E.g. we could imagine documentaries aimed at changing behaviors to be (more) impactful. There have been studies that looked for a direct link between watching an environmental documentary and environmental donations. One study found that twice as many people donated to an environmental cause after watching a short environmental clip. Another found that after watching a full-length documentary about dolphins, almost everyone donated to a related cause. Similar findings seem to exist with regards to behaviors not related to donations. In the case of Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, a study found that two months after the film was released, the purchase of carbon offsets increased by 50% in suburbs near cinemas that screened it. 

    These studies might seem encouraging, but in the two first mentioned money was given to participants and they were asked to donate it to one of a predetermined list of charities. So this might mean that the behavior is unlikely to translate to the real world. Further, the effect of the documentaries simply don’t seem to hold for long. E.g. the increased purchase of carbon offsets failed and after one year no lasting change in behavior was observable.

    We think this is true, and needs to be taken into consideration when thinking about documentaries aimed at creating awareness as well (more on this later). However, if we are mainly concerned with raising awareness of an issue, the hope is not for the documentary itself to sustain said awareness, but rather to ignite a conversation that could be sustainable. 

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17 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 12:46 AM

An EA version of Jeff Skoll's Participant film production company seems like a worthwhile investment.

Participant funded An Inconvenient Truth, and other films that seem to have had an outsized impact on policy discussions and (perhaps as importantly) the career decisions of the young and impact-minded.

Yes! Will actually also mentioned Participant media in his chat. He mentioned it in relation to them funding the movie "Contagion".

Didn't realize Participant had produced Contagion, as well!

Reviewing the list of Participant films , I realize that I saw three of the four 2005 movies they were involved in (the trio that doesn't include Murderball) in theaters or shortly after they came out. All three had a lasting impact on my thinking re: ethics, society, etc.

Comment about the content of a hypothetical documentary:

I disagree when you say:

We are not talking about a documentary on EA, but EA relevant topics. When it comes to communicating the core ideas of EA we believe a format that allows for easier updating, more depth, nuance and interaction would be better.

There are already documentaries out there about asteroid impacts, climate change, global poverty, nuclear war, pandemics, animal welfare, etc.  There are probably some specific areas where a documentary about a specific EA cause area could make an impact, sure.  (An animal welfare documentary made by EAs would probably be very different from the typical animal-welfare-themed fare available today!  And nobody to my knowledge has made a good documentary about AI risk.)

But I think the highest expected value would be in explaining the fundamental concepts of EA.  Sure, the resulting documentary would be a fixed portrait in time and couldn't be updated as the movement learns and grows.  But I don't think that's a big problem.  Much more importantly, I think that communicating the EA mindset (stuff like cause-neutrality, a focus on cost-effectiveness, quantitative comparisons using frameworks like importance/tractability/neglectedness, and hits-based giving) is the best way to rise above the din of everyone clamoring that their advocacy issue is important and you should listen to them.  Of course a movie about supervolcanoes will tell me that supervolcanoes are important, and a movie about how Trump is a bad president will tell me that presidential politics is important, and a movie about overfishing will want me to freak out about the problems caused by overfishing.  When all documentary movies are like this, people learn to discount any particular movie's message.

I think that a film attempting to communicate the core ideas of Effective Altruism would be much more original and convincing than a film about individual cause areas.  I think "Cosmos" is a great model for a highly-influential docuseries that covered a broad range of abstract ideas -- tying together interviews with experts, experimental demonstrations, historical anecdotes,  and CGI visualizations meant to make abstract ideas feel vivid and memorable.

Hej! 

Thanks for great pushback.

First, shortly addressing the idea that there are documentaries on many EA related topics.

I agree and I believe you very likely have a better grasp of this than me. But, as you yourself suggest, I think there are gaps. E.g. I have not seen anything on wildlife animal welfare, relevant on AI x-risks, Longtermism, Civilization resilience, S-risks, Whole brain emulation etc. I am not sure these would be the best things to do a documentary on (which is part of the reason for writing this) but it at least seems worth considering.

If you had to choose a cause area/specific topic in EA to do a documentary on - what would you choose?

Moving on to the question of focusing on a specific cause area/topic or EA in general.

To some extent I agree with you. I think the possible upside of a documentary regarding the core ideas of EA is larger than the upside of a documentary on a certain cause area. However, I also believe that the possible downside is bigger. And being very risk averse with the EA brand, and not sure that a documentary could induce inclination along with awareness, I feel very hesitant to promote an explicit EA documentary. Here I think it is important to consider the telephone game effect and, to my impression, bad experiences from early mass media outreach on the general concept of effective altruism. Further, I feel we should not be in too much of a hurry with getting people on board with EA, as premature mass communication/recruitment could lower the long term potential.

That being said, I do believe something like “a big Cosmos-style TV series” (like you mention in your next comment), would be relevant further down the line. It seems such an effort would allow for greater breadth (how many ideas one can explore) and depth (how much nuance one can add to the ideas). Also, I think it makes sense to learn from doing other documentaries first.

One thing I’d be keen to hear your thoughts on is something in between. Let’s say a documentary about longtermism that really focuses on central EA ideas, without being EA branded. Do you think that would be more impactful than a documentary on a more specific cause area? Or do you think the documentary must be “EA branded”? 

Speaking only for myself and not my co-author, but my spontaneous reaction to your reply is that I agree with what you are saying regarding that this (an EA mindset documentary) would be what would stand out the most among the content that is already out there.

My feeling is still that EA movement would be very opposed to this? My perception has always been that there is such a large emphasis on nuanced communication regarding EA and a preference to always err on the side of caution regarding any "promotion" of the EA movement. Maybe what would be better would be something extremely well produced on the power of rational thinking, that also mentions the EA movement as an interesting movement that has come out of this way of viewing the world?

Definitely agree about Cosmos being an amazing model for what high quality content is possible to produce and make accessible to a wider audience. It really manages to balance the entertainment part with the informative part. I also think Cosmos is a good case for really aiming high and for the possibilities a big budget can open up for a production in terms of quality and reach.

Longview Philanthropy is interested in media / some of the ideas outlined in your post. If you'd like to chat and share thoughts and ideas, reach out to joly@longview.org, who can organise time with Natalie (who is leading on this work at Longview).

Thank you for the recommendation! Will reach out.

Comment about strategy and whether to aim for a youtube series or documentary or TV show or etc:


Per my comment on a forum thread from a while ago: " If I was an EA grantmaker, I'd want to start small by maybe hiring an educational-youtube-video personality (like John Green's "Crash Course") to make an Effective Altruism series.  If that seemed to show good results, then I would escalate to funding a decent Netflix-style documentary movie, which I imagine could be had for something like $2-5 million -- "An Inconvenient Truth" had a budget of around $1.5 million.  Then, if everything was still going peachy, we could set our sights higher and consider a big Cosmos-style TV series with a big marketing push to really try and get the word out."

I think funding a decently well-produced video series about EA topics would be a good idea today, just to provide another on-ramp into the movement alongside podcasts, student groups, conferences, blog posts, etc.  (Each episode of the youtube series could tackle a different philosophical idea or global problem, roughly following the 80,000 Hours Podcast series "Effective Altruism: An Introduction" and "Effective Altruism: Ten Global Problems").  And there are plenty of youtube studios with good track records of producing successful content.

A feature-film documentary seems like a dicier move because it seems harder to ensure that your documentary would really make a splash.  Documentaries seem very heavy-tailed, where the biggest (like "An Inconvenient Truth") are much more influential than the average.  Rather than just funding an average documentary and rolling the dice that you become a hit by pure luck, which seems to me like a recipe for sure failure, I think we'd want to take a shot at making a documentary that has at least some of the elements of other mega-hits:

  • Star power of a well-known existing celebrity. Some people, like David Attenborough or Carl Sagan, are famous for being in good documentaries!  Other times you have an outside celebrity, like Al Gore, lending their fame to a project.  In a best-case scenario, EA might hope to get someone like Bill Gates or Elon Musk involved.
  • Being directed by a famous director (like Peter Jackson, Ken Burns, Michael Moore, et cetera).
  • These days, I'm astonished at the degree to which Netflix (or other streaming services), can push a certain show merely by putting it on the front of on their homepage, and people will just watch it!  (In part, I think, because people just want to watch what other people are watching so they can participate in the cultural conversation.  And in part because people will sometimes just click on whatever you put in front of them.)  Doing an EA documentary in partnership with an existing streaming site seems like a great way to generate an audience for what would otherwise be a niche topic.
  • Being timely; having some connection to politics or recent events (CitizenFour and Gaslands kinda have this going for them; this seems more difficult for EA, but maybe there is an angle to be found).
  • I'm sure there are other ways of trying to generate a documentary mega-hit that we could figure out.

My guess is that if you're going to try to make a feature film and release in theaters, you might as well aim for a star-driven mega-hit, since making a low-budget niche documentary would be less effective than making a low-budget youtube series (the youtube series could go into more depth on various topics, and might do better at attracting young people who are a big focus of EA movement-building).  But I really have no idea what the numbers look like; maybe I am underestimating how many views the typical documentary movie gets or how easily we could hire a top youtube studio to produce EA content.

I agree with most things you say. A few thoughts.

How well do you think learning/success from a youtube series would translate into making something bigger? It seems to me they are kind of different beasts, though things such as what topics seems to generate more interest might be relevant. Also, I feel uneasy about outsourcing to much. I see the upsides in having someone with an estalished channel. And obviously we would want to have someone excellent doing it. But it seems we should be able to find a capable EA to do it and I would feel much more comfortable nowing that a value aligned person was leading it.  

Great thought on how to set uo a documentary for success. My intuition would also be that it would be higher expected value to go big. However, I do believe chances of success would be rather slim anyways, so my guess is that we would want to try at least a few before deciding it isn't woth the effort.

(Again I want to stress that I am a total lay man in this.)  

Again, speaking only for myself and not my co-author in these comments!

I like your framing of trying out smaller (still ambitious enough though!) and potentially growing. I also think that if we were to produce this type of material on the EA movement that there is so much high quality work that has already been done that could be re-used (while still giving credit to the original creators) that could at least guarantee a relatively high quality to the production in terms of content.

In terms of how one could make a documentary impactful, I also think there are a lot of things one would need to do (in addition to just producing the movie) to increase the possibility of it being impactful (my co-author Vilhelm and I have been discussing writing a post just on this topic as well so hopefully we can post that in a few weeks). As we mentioned in this post, the effects of documentaries tend to be very short-lived, and if one wants the effects to be more long-term they need to supported by other strategies such as having a clear and achievable call to action and perhaps be coupled with some other behavior change techniques to increase their chances of impact.

In terms of gaining the attention necessary from mainstream media I definitely think we could get some relevant celebrities to agree to be interviewed (such as Bill or Elon that you mention). Less sure about how willing high-profile directors would be. It seems extremely relevant that the director is a good personal fit for the production.

I think the world would be very interested in both EA and Longtermism. AI continues to grow in public awareness. A few thoughts from other comments: If a film is well funded so the interview subjects feel they will look good in a good film, there's a high chance of interviewing some big names. There are plenty of documentary crew people always looking for work, what you need most of all is an experienced documentary producer who will know how to line up cast and crew. Often the producing partnership would be an EA person co-producing with a veteran producer, that way you have an EA insider at the top. I think a lot of the concepts in EA and AI and Longtermism really mix well and you could easily cover a lot of it with big names being interviewed and quotes from good books, clips of interesting stuff much of which could be borrowed with permission from other films and news reports. 

And finally, on the question of how much EA/AI/Longtermist should it be? Well that's an easy one, this is EA and if an EA grantor funds it, it should be about what the grantor is meant to give money for...if we're not the one's to do it, who is?   You go with what you know.  EA makes EA films, really what this question is asking is how can EA make a really interesting film? Talented writers and filmmakers can do it if you give them the money.

I am interested in making documentaries and wanted to answer your questions, but found it hard to find a starting out point. It feels useful to first compare documentaries to all types of mediums, and also ask some probing questions. The range in what types of documentaries we are talking about is in some cases as large as the range between some documentaries and other mediums.  I started to outline a belief sheet/ comparison chart because it helped me start to organize my thoughts on the subject. In no way complete but feel free to take a look/edit if useful.  

 https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/139WgoWZdOpP748eVUxX-G9sBzgTkcsGdSHjI4OPeRYs/edit?usp=sharing

Thank you for the doc! I really like trying to come up with a relevnt framework. I'll check it out more later!

I agree that this is to some extent premature. I guess what made us jump the gun was that the person who would interested in funding something is explicitly aimed at high budget vidoe content. But from a more general EA standpoint it seems very important to compare different mediums. 

To give some push-/feedback I also think it would be intersting to think about how different mediums might  interact and what the best "media portfolio" would be. My intuition is that different forms of media can serve different purposes, as you are alluding to in your spreadsheet. And to some extent they might be strengthening/dependent on eachother.  

Wow I appreciate this document! Especially the "Pressing problems" section. Thank you. I will look more closely at it later.

Agree that the range is very large, we tried to narrow it down to feature film documentaries, but probably ended up including a bit more in terms of format. For example the question of Youtube vs. Documentary movie on streaming platform is interesting to me. My initial thinking on it is that movie documentaries are better for reaching "top down" - it might be able to get you more mainstream media attention, etc. But Youtube is better for "bottom up" - reaching people directly. So the different formats are probably better for different topics.

Kinda off-topic comment about realistic X-risk disaster movies:

I'm attracted to the idea that "Deep Impact was good for raising awareness about asteroid X-risks", and the consequent image of trying to lure Hollywood to make some big dumb disaster movies themed on different existential risks.  (How would we go about doing this??? Maybe just offer to subsidize 20% of a movie's production cost if it hits certain plot beats?)  But I'd caution that people have already made movies featuring niche risks like supervolcanoes, pandemics, grey goo nanotech, etc, and none of those movies do not seem as impactful ad Deep Impact.  People have also made more movies than I can imagine featuring killer robots and A.I.s, but after the initial couple of Terminator movies I don't feel like the marginal unrealistic-killer-robots movie is going the AI risk community any good.

Personally, I would love to see a well-made disaster movie about the real, modern conception of AI risk.  I am also surprised and disappointed by the fact that (even after covid!!) there are not more good movies about pandemics in the works.  (Especially when there are so many zombie and post-apocalyptic movies, which are like the less-realistic cousin of the would-be pandemic genre.)  I am also surprised and disappointed by the fact that there are not really any disaster movies about "modern warfare" or "world war 3" -- maybe a Tom-Clancy-style movie about how a miscommunication between the USA and China leads them to the brink of war, or just a movie realistically portraying what a future large-scale war might look like, with attacks on satellites and drone-swarms and cyberattacks on infrastructure and the like.  But I don't think it would be good for EA to try to make any of these movies: they'd be expensive, plus the effect on the world might be negative.  (A realistic movie about biorisks might be subject to infohazard concerns, while a realistic movie about modern warfare might inflame international tensions if not done carefully.)

FLI's short clips on slaughterbots are interesting as a concept in relation to this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9rDo1QxI260