Jenny Raskin has been named executive director of Impact Partners, a documentary film funding company. Raskin replaces Impact co-founder Dan Cogan, who will continue his involvement with the company in an advisory role. Raskin will work closely with Impact’s co-founder and veteran producer Geralyn Dreyfous, who serves in an advisory role to the company.
One of the largest investment portfolios in the independent nonfiction sector, Impact Partners was founded and launched in 2007 by Cogan, Dreyfous as well as Diana Barrett, Jim Swartz and Susan Swartz. Every year the org helps fund between eight and 15 documentaries chosen from a pool of 900 nonfiction projects looking for finishing money. Selected titles are sent to Impact’s 43 high-net-worth members — multi-millionaires, and in some cases, billionaires — who seek to promote social change through nonfiction film. Those members then choose on an individual basis what films they will get behind. All 43 members pay an annual fee that covers operating costs, which includes Raskin and Dreyfous’ salary. Members are also expected to invest a minimum of $100,000 of equity money each year in one or more of the selected titles. In many cases members give significantly more money than suggested. Impact’s equity investments in a single film range anywhere from $25,000 to $2.25 million.
In its tenure, Impact Partners has helped finance and produce over 100 documentary features. In the last 13 years the group has provided approximately $30 million in equity money to docs including Academy Award-winners “Icarus” and The Cove,” as well as 44 Sundance titles such as “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” The Queen of Versailles” and “The Hunting Ground.” This year the company is behind an additional five Sundance non-fiction films: “Epicentro,” “Giving Voice,” “Spaceship Earth,” “The Untitled Kirby Dick and Amy Zierling Film” and “Us Kids.” Currently two Impact financed films — John Chester’s “Biggest Little Farm” and Roger Ross Williams’ “The Apollo” — are the on the Oscar documentary feature shortlist, which was unveiled last month.
Raskin served as Impact’s head of development for the last seven years. Prior to that she freelanced for the funder, which invests between $4 and $5 million of equity money into social issue docs per year. In her new role Raskin is charged with leading the day-to-day operations at Impact.
“In the past I was on the creative, curatorial side and working directly with our filmmakers,” Raskin said. “Now my responsibilities include oversight of our projects as well as making sure that we are offering our investors projects that they’re interested and that the experience of investing in films is a positive one. Now my head is in a strategic space at all times.”
Last June, Cogan launched Story Syndicate, a production company with filmmaker Liz Garbus. Though he is exiting as Impact’s executive director, Cogan will remain on the org’s board in an advisory role. Impact Partners and Story Syndicate will share offices in Brooklyn, where Cogan says he will act as Impact’s “consigliere.” Going forward, Cogan hopes that Story Syndicate and Impact collaborate on nonfiction films or series.
“There is an opportunity for great synergy between the two companies,” Cogan said. “Story Syndicate can bring Impact Partners projects that are looking for financing, and Impact Partners can bring Story Syndicate projects from directors that it wants to finance but which need a production home. There is no exclusivity here. Just the openness and excitement to do lots of work together.”
Producer Lauren Haber has been hired by Impact to replace Raskin as head of development. Together Raskin, Dreyfous and Haber will not only run Impact’s finishing fund film projects, but also the org’s new development investment initiative.
Launched last year, Impact’s development fund provides funding to support documentary features and series before production has begun. Raskin said incorporating the new initiative was necessary due to corporate run streaming services currently dominating the nonfiction space.
“As the streaming platforms and distributors become more and more invested in docs, which is a wonderful thing, they are relying on [docs] to perform on their platforms,” Raskin says. “They are looking at numbers and are naturally going to be risk averse in some ways. But documentaries are inherently risk-taking adventures. Filmmakers need the space to explore areas that are controversial and areas that are pushing the boundaries of the genre.”
Ryan White (“Ask Dr. Ruth”) was one of those filmmakers. He went to Impact Partners for development funding for his most recent feature “Assassins.” About the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, the half brother of the North Korean leader, the doc will premiere at the Sundance Film Festival later this month.
“We were able to secure money for him to develop that project last year at Sundance,” Dreyfous recalls. “We can move fast if we believe in the filmmaker. And we believe in Ryan. He made it very clear that he might not be able to get access or that he might be shut down by North Korea, but our investors were like, ‘We don’t care. Go for it. We believe in you.’”
While the current demand for nonfiction feature and series content is at an all time high due to streamers like Netflix and Amazon, Dreyfous, Raskin and Cogan say that getting development money for risky, political fare like “Assassins” will continue to be difficult due to the current nonfiction landscape.
“When we started [Impact] the major funding sources for documentaries were public television and philanthropic and institutional grants,” Cogan said. “If you were incredibly lucky you got to work with HBO. Today, huge multinational corporations like Netflix, Apple, Amazon, HBO Max as well as HBO, and the newly acquired Disney brands of Hulu and NatGeo dominate the documentary funding and distribution space.”
He continued, “The net result of this shift has been immensely positive for filmmakers, but it also means that these large corporations will bring their own lenses to the kinds of films they want to make and distribute. Certain controversial, politically challenging or artistically daring films will need champions who do not have to answer to shareholders and who will embrace the goals of afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted. Impact Partners will back these films that nobody else would take the risk of funding.”