Capitol Alert

Documentaries like “Blackfish” influence California’s Capitol

As a crowd of onlookers cooed, two California lawmakers posed for pictures with friendly pit bulls last month under the glowing neon lights of Sacramento’s Crest Theatre.

Inside, hundreds of animal lovers were taking their seats before a free public screening of “The Champions,” a new documentary about the nonprofit Best Friends Animal Society’s efforts to rehabilitate dogs rescued from NFL player Michael Vick’s fighting ring in 2007.

But Assemblymen Rich Gordon, D-Menlo Park, and Brian Maienschein, R-San Diego, had some business to attend to first: publicity shots, which would be shared on social media later that evening to promote Assembly Bill 1825, their measure to change the definition of a “vicious dog.” In California, animals recovered from illegal fighting rings automatically earn that label marking them as dangerous to society and are generally euthanized.

“To have all of those dogs be destroyed wholesale because they may have been on the property is cruel,” Maienschein said. “This is a topic we want to make sure our colleagues are educated about.”

Stick around the Capitol and it won’t be long before you come across a screening like this one.

Last month, Assemblyman Ian Calderon, D-Whittier, hosted a showing of the Will Smith film “Concussion,” about the discovery of traumatic brain injuries in professional football players. The event included a conversation with Dr. Bennett Omalu, the physician played by Smith who discovered the problem, on how to protect athletes. Days later, actor Mark Ruffalo joined the Courage Campaign and Californians Against Fracking, which have been working for years to ban the oil extraction method, for presentations of their documentary “Dear Governor Brown” in Los Angeles and San Diego.

For lawmakers and advocates alike, movies have become a popular way to generate public awareness, promote legislation and reach those under the dome who have a say on the issues they care about.

“With any piece of legislation, you want to build all the support you can,” Gordon said. “Just the fact that this event is being held, people saw it, they’re aware of it. I had some folks talk to me in the hallway about it.”

In blue California, these events largely highlight traditionally liberal causes like the environment and consumer safety. But it’s a nonpartisan strategy; even former Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger once co-hosted a showing of “Waiting for ‘Superman,’ ” the popular film critical of public education. And nationally, conservative political documentaries are a rising cultural force. In 2012, Dinesh D’Souza’s “2016: Obama’s America” became the fifth highest-grossing documentary of all time, while a production arm of the advocacy group Citizens United has released 24 features.

Jennifer Fearing, a lobbyist for animal rights groups who organized the “Champions” screening, said it’s an especially vital tool for nonprofits and other small organizations like the ones she works with, which have a smaller and less sophisticated presence in Sacramento.

Documentaries send a message that something is “a mature problem that serious people are worried about and have put resources into,” she said, while also providing an entertaining platform to educate the public and politicians.

“It’s hard to rally a cause if they don’t have any idea what it looks like,” she said. “These films can take people inside those worlds.”

Screenings also create a unifiying point. Fearing had attendees at the Crest fill out a postcard expressing support for the “vicious dog” bill that will be mailed to their representative, generating a 450-person email list that can be tapped for further advocacy. A showing in Los Angeles followed a week later, with another one planned for San Francisco still to come.

There is no better of example of this phenomenon than “Blackfish,” the massively successful 2013 documentary about orca shows at SeaWorld.

After repeated screenings on CNN helped generate a national outcry, Fearing led a campaign in early 2014 for legislation to ban the performances and captive breeding that tied in closely with the movie. Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite attended the news conference unveiling the bill, and Fearing handed out copies of “Blackfish” to lawmakers while lobbying for its passage.

Amid intense opposition from SeaWorld, it was held for study in its first committee. But continued political and business pressures from outraged advocates, who showed up to the Capitol with hundreds of thousands of petitions, ultimately wore the company down.

In March, SeaWorld announced that it would stop breeding orcas, and recalibrate its shows so that the whales are not required to perform tricks on command. That same day, Assemblyman Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica, reintroduced his bill.

“We’ve been fighting orca captivity for decades,” Fearing said. “The turning point was that film.”

Digital video and editing software has made filmmaking more accessible to activists, and new distribution methods like YouTube and Netflix have allowed them to reach a broader audience with their movies. Companies with a socially minded mission have also sprouted up in recent years to assist, such as marketing firm Picture Motion, which manages advocacy campaigns around documentaries.

Founded in 2004 to develop “entertainment that inspires and compels social change,” Participant Media is a production company behind films such as “Spotlight,” “Citizenfour,” and “An Inconvenient Truth.” Its “social impact team” collaborates with nonprofits to develop educational content, host screenings and ensure participants’ movies resonate beyond the theater.

Representatives for the company said the goal is to make a difference, whether at a personal behavioral level or a policy level. They’ve worked with interested groups to bring several of their films to Sacramento, including “The Ivory Tower,” about the rising cost of college, last year.

Not every screening makes a positive impact around the Capitol.

As a controversial bill to require vaccinations for schoolchildren made its way through the Legislature, opponents rented out the Crest last April to show “Trace Amounts,” which argues that mercury poisoning caused by vaccines has led to an epidemic of autism, and invited Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to introduce it.

Organizer Jessica Denning was encouraged by a private screening for Oregon lawmakers the month before that she believed had contributed to the defeat of a similar measure there. But the message was completely overshadowed by Kennedy’s remarks calling vaccine injuries a “holocaust,” which quickly ignited a firestorm.

“I knew it was going to be bad, but I had no idea how immediate,” Denning said.

She said that lawmakers with whom they had hoped Kennedy could meet personally no longer wanted to speak to him: “Rather than deal with the issues, they will make a pariah out of the person who presented that to invalidate what they have to say.”

But there will always be more movies.

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, recently was moved to tears watching PBS’ “Frontline” documentary “Rape on the Night Shift,” an investigation into the sexual abuse of immigrant women working as janitors. Now she is working on legislation with the janitors union and planning an upcoming screening for her colleagues. She said advocacy films can help viewers navigate whether or not something is a real issue.

“People don’t see (janitors). They never have to see them. So what the film did is it forced them to look,” Gonzalez said. “There is an ability, when folks watch it, that they can’t just walk away.”

Alexei Koseff: 916-321-5236, @akoseff