I Once Used Movies to Escape My To-Do List. Now Films Are Part of My Work.

ND8_6481Published on LinkedIn on February 2, 2016

In this series of posts, professionals reveal their best antidotes to work stress. Read the posts here, and then write your own (use #OutsideWork in the piece).

Ask any one of my friends or family members what my favorite thing to do is, and they’ll tell you without hesitation, “Go to the movies.” A night in a darkened theater with a big bag of popcorn is a good night out as far as I’m concerned, and as life seems to get ever busier with each passing year, the movie theater is the one place where I can truly relax and let go of my to-do list that is constantly on my mind. Dramas, comedies, action, romance, it doesn’t matter the genre of film. I just love going to the movies.

This is a love affair that began at a very young age. I was born in 1964, which means that today’s world of digital access to films and online streaming only existed in the realm of science fiction. To see a movie you had to go to the theater, and go I did. Often and as much as I could. This tradition continues to this day, to the point where I’ve often found myself in the odd position of having to convince my children to come to the movies with me instead of the other way around. Every time those lights dim, I sit back, relax, and escape into the world of storytelling.

In 2002, a switch flipped inside of me, and I decided that instead of just going to the movies, I wanted to make one. More accurately, I wanted to write a screenplay for one. I had an idea for a Wonder Woman screenplay, and this idea for a narrative consumed me so much that I decided to quit Goldman Sachs to work on it. I took the Robert McGee screenwriting course, I formed a partnership with an accomplished producer to work on this project, and I filled countless journals with my notes, scribbles, and ideas. However, like many film projects, eventually all of this ended up in a plastic bin on my shelf, and that was that. Life moved on, and I went back to just going to the movies.

In 2010, my family and I moved to Park City, Utah, and it was at this point that my love of film truly became more than just a hobby. I began attending the Sundance Film Festival, and soon after, my husband and I joined Impact Partners as investment members, a move that opened up a whole new world of possibilities of what film can achieve, not just as entertainment, but in social impact. In addition, three years ago I was invited to join the Board of Trustees of the Sundance Institute, further expanding how I use my time and treasure in support of film, and independent storytelling more generally.

Ever since leaving Goldman Sachs in 2002, I have been very active in the philanthropic space, primarily focusing on amplifying women’s voices, leadership, and rights. I have served on boards and advisory committees, and I have donated to numerous women’s funds and organizations, but never before had I considered filmmaking as a philanthropic strategy unto itself. Joining Impact Partners turned this notion on its head, and introduced me to the power of documentary filmmaking as a tool for social change. Impact Partners provides funding and guidance to films that highlight today’s pressing social issues, and since its founding in 2007, Impact has helped over 60 films bring their message of social justice to audiences around the world. Impact’s films include The CoveHow to Survive a PlagueAnitaAlive InsideE-TeamThe Island PresidentLionessFreeheldThe Queen of Versailles, and many more, and the collective impact of these films on the world is astonishing.

Since joining Impact Partners, I have gone on to executive produce the documentary films Ready to FlyThe Hunting Ground, and Hot Girls Wanted, I have become the co-Chair of the Women Moving Millions Film Circle, I curated a guidebook for how to invest in documentary films as part of a philanthropic strategy, and I have spoken at several events about the power of documentary films as a tool for social change. And I feel like I am just getting started.

At this year’s Sundance Film festival, there were two films in the line up that I supported through Impact Partners: The Eagle Huntress and Audrie & Daisy. I was at the premiere of The Eagle Huntress, and I cannot describe what it is like to be in the audience for the first time a film is being shown, especially when the subjects of the film are there as well. The Eagle Huntress tells the story of 13 year old Aisholpan, a teenager living in a remote area of Mongolia who bucks 2,000 years of male tradition to become the first ever female eagle hunter. It was an incredible story and film, and had the entire audience cheering on more than one occasion. Audrie & Daisy, focusing on the sexual assault and its aftermath of two teenage girls, was decidedly less heartwarming, but no less inspiring. Several of the young women from the film were present for a Q&A after the film, and the courage and bravery of these women was extraordinary to witness. Be sure to make room in your queue for this film when it’s released on Netflix later this year.

I know that I am very fortunate to be in a position to not only go to see movies, but to fund them as well. That being said, even if you don’t have the resources to donate or invest in projects, there are lots of ways to support these important stories. Let me give you four:

1) Go see documentary and independent feature narrative films in the theater. Having a theatrical presence enables these projects to not only make money, which allows the filmmakers to continue their work, but it also allows them the opportunity to get the public’s attention, which is very important if they want to be considered for certain types of awards.

2) If you missed these films in the theater, be sure to see them on demand through the many channels that exist for the same reasons as above.

3) Start a documentary film club to encourage others to go to see these films, and if you need help getting started, check out Influence Film Club, and online resource and community dedicated to promoting and raising awareness for the world’s best documentaries.

4) If you see a great film, share your enthusiasm and take action. It is rare for a film to not have a social media presence these days, which means you can join in the conversation and help spread the word. Social issue documentaries have a proven track record of being change agents in the world, but they need to be seen to do so, and often the best way to help a film is to use your social media networks to encourage others to see a film.

Have fun at the movies!

First photo taken at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival: Robert Redford, Jacki Zehner, and Laura Moore. Thanks to the Kimball Art Center for the photo and Samantha Greer. The second photo also taken at the festival, at the annual Women at Sundance brunch.

One thought on “I Once Used Movies to Escape My To-Do List. Now Films Are Part of My Work.

  1. Dear Ms Zehner,

    Our film on the tall grass prairie and the iconic Greater Prairie Chicken is holding a sneak peek in conjunction with the International Wildlife Film Festival. the Festival is in it’s 39th year, but still relatively unknown.

    We will hold a “World Premiere” in Chicago, Wichita or Indianapolis later this year.

    PBS/APT has asked me for 13 more films in a year.

    Just wanted to let you know, because Missoula will actually be the very first screening. We will have a packed house.
    Best to you,

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