Inside the High-Stakes Quest to Make ‘American Factory’ a Documentary Hit

Julia Reichert’s film wants to change hearts and minds—and won an Oscar in the process

JJulia Reichert hugged the 16mm print of her first film, Growing Up Female, to her side as she crossed the country by Greyhound bus in 1971. Each tour stop began in a living room, where a handful of women watched people a lot like themselves talk on-screen about their experiences of female socialization in American life. There was no link to send, no DVD to burn — if they wanted to share the film, they had to keep Reichert and her print in town long enough to stage a larger screening.

Growing Up Female follows women as they go about their routines at home and work, and they tell Reichert about their perceptions, frustrations, and how they’d found themselves trapped in boxes that looked like choices: family obligations that prevented them from getting an education that might lead to a better job, unfulfilling roles at home, pointless competition against other women for “the most boyfriends.” And while Reichert the interviewer asks deceptively simple questions, her message is made explicit in voiceover, in which she asks, in part, “What has become of the American woman, if unquestioning little girls accept offerings of dolls and makeup kits, and young tomboys find that roughhousing and being strong are not part of Grown-Up Woman’s world?”

The screenings ended in a flurry of discussion, Reichert recalled. “People start saying, ‘yeah, things are stacked against us. We are taught these things in class. We are taught to be beautiful and skinny, not smart.’” Then, men in the audience would stand up, “angrily, and, threatening with their fists would say, ‘Ah, you ought to make a film about men, men are oppressed, too!’ And the women would stand up and say, ‘Sit down, shut up, this is for us!’ And the men would say, ‘No!’”

The women in the audience, as during an Athens, Ohio, screening, then retreated to another room so they might talk in peace. Later, those women would turn their conversation into action, inaugurating the Athens Women’s Health Center, and send a postcard to Reichert with their thanks. Growing Up Female would launch Reichert’s career and be called the first film of the modern women’s movement. But right then, thanks to a bus and postcard, Reichert knew she’d made a movie that had changed the world.

AAlmost 50 years later, the idea that a movie can change society, one conversation at a time, has become a routine part of post-release marketing strategy, one that most moviegoers aren’t even aware of. Reichert’s latest film, American Factory, is testing that premise in an altogether different way: Backed by the Obamas’ production company and nominated for an Oscar, supported by a costly social impact campaign undertaken by production house Participant Media, available for streaming on Netflix all over the globe, the film has a profile and reach that a young Reichert might have only dreamed about. Similar to Growing Up Female, the actionable message of American Factory isn’t altogether clear: It provokes questions and conversation, but doesn’t give the viewer a bill to vote for or a consumer behavior to change. In an age when we increasingly watch films in isolation and have arguments online, the campaign around American Factory tests the question of whether all those resources can prompt a conversation as vibrant and consequential as the ones Reichert witnessed in the ’70s.

The impact campaign for American Factory drew to a close during the week before Christmas, when a group of former autoworkers, business leaders, organizers, and journalists pulled off their coats and gathered in the warmth of a rehabbed warehouse in Detroit’s Eastern Market. American Factory follows the Chinese company Fuyao Glass as it reopens a former General Motors plant in Dayton, Ohio. The audience had been invited by Participant Media, the premiere “impact” film company in Hollywood, which was started in 2004 by Jeff Skoll, who made his fortune as employee one of eBay.

Though you might not have known it when you bought your popcorn and settled in to see Spotlight or An Inconvenient Truth or Lincoln or Roma, you were watching a film that Skoll’s company produced not only for its commercial possibilities but for its progressive message. Skoll already had a foundation when he started Participant, which supported “social entrepreneurs” to eradicate disease, educate girls, and offer microloans to lift people out of poverty. But he’d held on to a fascination for storytelling since childhood. He wanted inspiring stories of change to reach a bigger audience, to see if their effects might multiply. (Participant is a full-service production house; while many of its films get the social action campaign treatment, not all do.)

As the company evolved, so too did a new role within the film ecosystem: impact producers. They aim to make movies like American Factory count, beyond gross sales, by attempting to move the dial in real life regarding the issues dramatized on screen. In a sense, it’s a formalization of the grassroots effort undertaken by Reichert back in the ’70s. Sometimes, they work to pass legislation or change consumer behavior. Sometimes, it’s not so clear.

A decade ago, distributors might have seen these campaigns as an unnecessary expense, said Christie Marchese, who launched the boutique impact agency Picture Motion in 2012. Not anymore.

“Documentary as a form still seems to hold with audiences. You can smell when something’s authentic.”

“They know that from a marketing and authenticity standpoint, they have to work with organizations to engage audiences in a real way. Businesses have to have a bottom line of impact — how are they not leaving the world a worse place?”

Documentary films still manage to break through the noise on big issues in a way that’s become increasingly challenging for other forms of media to do as our daily lives are saturated with media consumption.

“The fact that it’s longform, if it’s feature-length, implies a degree of complexity which is actually really important in context, with the anxiety around the veracity of the media,” said Beadie Finzi, who heads up Good Pitch in the U.K. “Documentary as a form still seems to hold with audiences. You can smell when something’s authentic. You can just smell it.”

The strategists at Participant have a variety of internal phraseology that guides their work. The film is the what, the who is the why; they have a double bottom line, aimed at both commercial success and impact; they use a six-part rubric when they decide whether to embark upon a social impact campaign around a film (in shorthand: scale, emotional resonance, timeline, clarity of message, agency of the viewer to do something about it, and Participant’s role in driving the issue forward); and they believe the public has to move from awareness of a new issue to understanding it before they can finally get to the engagement phase. Some films aim to tip the balance to action, others are just introducing new ideas that might one day result in a movement. While most movies just hope to maximize total viewership (read: earnings), impact producers hope to get the right set of viewers engaged and create conditions that will cause the film to spark more conversation than your average Netflix and chill.

That media companies are working with activists to promote films isn’t surprising: In so doing, they multiply publicity opportunities and extend the buzz that much longer. More relevant to the rest of us is the question that impact strategists are struggling to answer, one that corporations, politicians, friends, and family members agonize over daily: How do you change minds and break political logjams on critical issues?

WWhile some of Participant’s releases, like An Inconvenient Truth and The Cove, which took on climate change and an annual dolphin slaughter in Japan, point explicitly at actionable goals, others, like American Factory, sit in a gray area. It made for a quixotic case study. The film takes place in a swing state, starring that most coveted audience, swing voters. But the stated goal of the campaign is apolitical: to strengthen worker-employer relationships, and support new leadership that might help workers adapt and thrive. To accomplish that goal, Participant brought a diverse set of interested parties to the table during campaign events: grassroots organizers, union reps, business leaders, politicians, and Harvard MBA students. The presidential election was the elephant in the corner of the Detroit screening room.

The folks hired at Fuyao Glass in Dayton, Ohio, have been through the wringer since GM closed in 2008. When we meet them, they’re peering through the looking glass at a strange new world: They must accept jobs in a Chinese factory in their hometown for little more than half of the wages they once earned, with few of the benefits. To make it all the more eerie, they are working in the same facility where they once enjoyed radically superior conditions. They are reckoning with globalization, the inevitability of sweeping change, and must recast future hopes and dreams in the light of that altered reality.

Reichert and co-director Steven Bognar were granted access to every wrinkle of the drama that unfolded and the results are extraordinarily intimate. We don’t merely learn that union-breaking efforts are afoot, we are present for the closed-door meetings of Chinese management, critical of “fat-fingered” U.S. workers. We go inside the homes of both Chinese and U.S. workers and hear about their struggles to leave behind the poverty that has haunted them, either from spare lives in China or life post-General Motors. We follow them on the factory floor, see workers who get injured, and stand with them on the picket line. We even travel to Fuyao headquarters in China for the company’s annual holiday party.

Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company, Higher Ground, selected “American Factory” as its first offering with Netflix.

American Factory is by turns about unions, automation, Chinese and American culture, the sunset of the well-paid factory worker and the cities his and her wages made possible. This multiplicity makes it difficult for the film to nail that “clarity of message” bullet point on Participant’s list, much less “agency” to put that message into action. And yet, Participant pursued a social impact campaign anyway.

“This is the second film we’ve done recently where there’s this kind of complexity,” said Holly Gordon, the chief impact officer for Participant. “It’s not an easy pull a lever kind of thing. As systems and infrastructure change, because of the revolution we’re going through in our society, it’s not a singular action that’s going to make the change, but rather a shift in the way we think about how to make change.”

Talking to viewers after the screening, the film seemed to be a Rorschach test. Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company, Higher Ground, selected American Factory as its first offering with Netflix, precisely because of this quality. Though it’s packed with pressing issues, it is devoid of overt politics, and unlike Growing Up Female, Reichert never takes the mic to tell you what to be angry about.

The event in Detroit was the last in a tour that took the film to Dayton, Louisville, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Seattle, the Harvard Business School, and Capitol Hill, with partnerships that included the AFL-CIO, SEIU, and The New America Foundation. After the screening, former New York Times labor reporter Stephen Greenhouse and former Detroit Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley, along with two of the workers in the film, held an onstage panel. Then, viewers split into two groups: 30 had been invited to attend a dinner in the art gallery next door. The rest were welcomed to a nearby bar for a free round of drinks and encouragement to “continue the conversation.”

At the gallery, attendees passed around a mic and politely discussed their points of view as they ate dinner, admired works of art, and sipped bespoke cocktails.

Meanwhile, at the neighborhood bar, Vivio’s, Detroit labor activist Rich Feldman stood up and toasted to the two union organizers from the film who were in attendance.

“What it means to be an American is to be comfortable and to cheer each other on rather than have the difficult conversations.”

“I’m hoping that your courage and the film creates a conversation that is so needed in our country, and so needed in the world, because these iPhones that we have, there’s 500,000 people that make them in China in the plant, and in 10 years there will be 250,000, and they’ll be facing the same challenges,” he was met by a chorus of agreement. “I know in our heart we want to ask some of these questions, but we don’t know how to have that conversation, and we go on with business as usual because what it means to be an American is to be comfortable and to cheer each other on rather than have the difficult conversations.”

At a nearby table, Crystal Davis had recently interviewed for a management position at Chrysler. After the screening, she was questioning if she’d want to be a supervisor at all.

“I want to make sure my staff is treated right, so I want to know what it’s like with Chrysler,” she said.

At the next table, Michelle Nguyen, and Stephen Oh, both 27-year-olds with a startup digital agency called OVDO Media, loved the film but left feeling confused.

“I’m a millennial, so for us, we’ve grown up with technology, but my dad also got laid off by GM. I feel stuck in the middle: automation is inevitable, A.I. is inevitable, so how do you solve a problem that affects a good chunk of our nation?” Nguyen said.

Oh was trying to process the depiction of the Chinese management in the film, who fired employees when they tried to unionize and played fast and loose with worker safety.

“We run a business and we look out for our employees, but in my mind, as I was watching the movie I was afraid that Americans will have their negative outlook on Asians or Asian Americans. Not every Asian is like that, you know?”

RRich Feldman, the man who’d stood up to make the toast at Vivio’s, said he spoke up because he was frustrated that there was no Q&A after the panel — conversation and activism course through Detroit’s veins, with organizers who have founded farming collectives, rappers who are activists and filmmakers, restaurateurs who have started foundations and mentoring projects.

Luxury townhouses were going up along the highway leading into Detroit, near intersections where the homeless held signs. Between discussions of the impeachment hearings, the local NPR station announced 3,000 new jobs at Ford plants in the area, to bolster its electric and autonomous vehicle production, and in the downtown, now home to tech companies, holiday lights and a Christmas market greeted pedestrians.

Detroit and Dayton have a lot in common, but Detroit residents seemed almost shocked when they described how hard it can be to get restaurant reservations these days, the high rents in downtown driving people out, or lots of land that had shot up in value 10-fold. Still, Detroit is an enormous city, and investment has affected only a few pockets. As you drive away from them across its 142 square miles, the streets grow quiet and many houses are falling apart.

Dayton, meanwhile, has been so fatigued by the steady stream of media about its opioid epidemic and poverty, reporter B.J. Bethel said people rarely tune in for films like American Factory.

“One of my best friends is right in center in the opening scene, and he hasn’t even seen the movie yet,” he said. “It’s not exactly apathy, but people here pretty much know the story.”

Feldman works at The Boggs Center, which develops leadership among movement activists in the spirit of James and Grace Lee Boggs, who were social and political activists in Detroit. The day after the screening, Atieno Nyar Kasagam and Eric Campbell were busy working on Riverwise Magazine, as Kasagam periodically hushed her baby. In addition to editing the magazine, Kasagam is a chef, farmer, and filmmaker, who is a fellow with the Detroit Narrative Agency, a group that gives funding to support filmmakers of color in Detroit. Sidelots, her 2018 short documentary, is about black farmers in the city, including herself and her family, and the roots of their farming in Africa. Kasagam is from Kenya and her husband is from Detroit.

“It kind of gets folks in the community to really see urban farming from the perspective of a young black family, as opposed to a young white man with lots of money from a huge foundation, and what that journey means for us as young black folks who are bucking the system and choosing to grapple with it.”

Kasagam also created a social impact strategy for her film during the DNA fellowship, and worked to spread its message through screenings and panels. But “in real life,” she said, impact “takes a minute.”

“Once your film is done, you try to hit the festival circuit, and then what? I mean, you start another film?”

She plans to release Sidelots on YouTube to maximize viewership. “You’ve got to let it go, and people make of it what they want, you know? I wish it bore fruit right away but it doesn’t. It takes time.”

And she is adding a new title on her multihyphenate list: mayoral candidate. The problems her community faces are political, and speaking as a citizen she hasn’t been listened to. Kasagam will make her next film about her run for mayor of Detroit in 2021.

“I could make a documentary about all the problems, but I don’t think it’s gonna solve them. That’s where I’m at. It would take too long,” she said. “We made documentaries already but nothing has changed yet, two years later. So, I can’t keep making documentaries anymore.”

TThough the film takes pains to be evenhanded, there are still moments in American Factory that should incite anger: union-breaking efforts, including firing workers for trying to organize, and worker injuries. After filming ended, Fuyao employee Ricky Patterson died at age 57 after being crushed between a forklift and a ton of glass. His daughter, Qwantrell Holliday, said she still hasn’t seen the film.

“Knowing how they treated my father’s dead body, I can’t bring myself to look at the place he died in,” Holliday said.

In the final minute, a few captions tell us that 375 million jobs will be replaced by automation by 2030 as the faces of both Chinese and American workers fill the screen. And while automation isn’t exactly a bogeyman, it stands in as a communal threat for workers, which is to say, people. It’s the same progress that’s made it possible for a documentary like American Factory to be screened in your living room, without it being hand-delivered by Reichert, and it invites the same uncertainty about how to rate that progress.

Journalist and author based in Mexico. Biography of Chef Eduardo “Lalo” Garcia forthcoming from W.W. Norton in 2021. www.lauratillman.net @latillman

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