New ways to grab the attention: the year’s best charity films

From a Norwich City FC mental health video to an animated heartbreaker for Alzheimer’s Research UK, the winners at this year’s Charity Film Awards reveal some of the ways charities are innovating with film to deliver their vital messages.

3 April 2024

By Patrick Russell, Rebecca Vick

Alzheimer’s Research UK’s film Change the Ending, winner of Charity Film of the Year

Described as “the world’s largest cause-based film festival, which puts charity films on a platform and gives recognition to the causes that we should support”, the eighth edition of the UK’s annual Charity Film Awards, run by the Smiley Movement, took place on 20 March at a glitzy Leicester Square ceremony. Compered by comedian Ellie Taylor, the event featured numerous celebrities, among them Gregg Wallace, Saira Khan, Natasha Kaplinsky and Professor Green, giving out gongs before a packed cinema, while 250,000 viewers watched the livestream.

But there’s more to this than glitz and glam. For anyone interested in film’s role within society, the awards provide helpful clues to what’s going on out there. There are more registered charities in the UK than schools and corner shops combined: some 165,000. Since they all operate in the online age, most of them make video – many of them make many films annually – to campaign, raise awareness and raise funds. So the couple of dozen projects that won these awards (out of some 500 nominations) represent an almost unimaginably huge field of contemporary filmmaking for myriad causes, reflecting both the injustices marring our society and the inspiring work of those improving it.  

Some charity shorts are still aimed (partly) at the classic telly commercial break slot (and occasionally cinema ad reels), especially when targeted at older viewers who tend to watch more linear TV. But it’s online that charity film has boomed, on social video sites from YouTube to TikTok, and on charities’ websites. The web increasingly accounts for much of the screen consumption of all demographics, most especially younger generations. At the ceremony, surveys were cited indicating 50% of young people say a good charity film will increase their likelihood of supporting the cause it promotes. 

The charity film also represents the ever more complex, converging media ecosystem feeding this online video economy. Charity film production contexts span, and sometimes combine, the once sharply discrete worlds of advertising agencies, corporate production companies, creative and digital comms agencies, mainstream film and TV producers, and charities’ in-house teams.  

The full list of Smiley Charity Film Awards winners is viewable on their website. Below, we’ve picked out some of our favourites, listed by title, client charity and the category it won, representing the annual turnover of the charity itself. ‘Longform,’ in this case, means more than five minutes – a veritable epic in a field of filmmaking where attention must be grabbed and held.

One Day 

Client charity: Landworks 

Category: Longform film for charities worth £100,000 to £1 million

Who deserves a second chance? One Day, by Graeme and Jennie Montgomery, better known for creating striking visual imagery for luxury fashion brands like Manolo Blahnik, draws us in with lush yet crisply shot footage of countryside crops, contrasting sharply with the harrowing voiceovers of convicted criminals sharing their difficult life stories. We hear directly from the staff of the Landworks charity, from volunteers and from prisoners, about the purpose of the halfway house. Powerfully conveying how Landworks’ approach markedly increases chances of rehabilitation through ‘purposeful’ work and community, this beautifully shot film won the Human Rights Award at the Canberra Film Festival as well as this Smiley Charity Films Award. 

Synergy Theatre

Client charity: Synergy Theatre Project 

Category: Films for charities worth £250,000 to £450,000

Synergy similarly fosters second chances: it’s a grassroots charity using theatre to transform the lives of current and former prisoners, and people at risk of offending. It’s appropriate that their compelling promo, while delivering quality documentary information, should do so in such simultaneously theatrical and cinematic style: performed in one take in front of a highly mobile camera prowling onstage and backstage. Produced through the Media Trust, a greatly respected body which for 30 years has been pairing creative industries with social causes, the film is directed by Dean Moore, who has worked for commercial clients from Adidas to Virgin.   

Don’t Stop

Client charity: Greenpeace UK 

Category: Longform films for charities worth £1 million to £10 million

Perhaps the most consciously cinematic (and also the most political) film of the night, and a fine one too. Starring Will Poulter, Don’t Stop blends the polish of feature film, high-end TV and top-quality music video (it’s set to a contemporary reworking of the Fleetwood Mac classic) in service of incisive high-concept satire stylishly skewering both fossil fuel industries and the inequalities baked into the global economies stoked by them.  

Exec-produced by Steve McQueen, Don’t Stop was made by his production company Lammas Park whose ambitions to elevate marginalised voices and shape a more inclusive, equitable screen industry play out across today’s converging digital media landscape: they produce feature films and TV, including McQueen-directed works, but also online branded content video. Don’t Stop director Samona Olanipekun is one of two in-house directors specialising in this business stream.  

The Chest Checklist

Client charity: CoppaFeel!

Category: Films for charities worth £2.5 million to £5 million

Charity CoppaFeel! and community-led support project Black Women Rising’s online Chest Checklist campaign was driven by the need to redress lack of Black representation in breast cancer communications. CoppaFeel! states: “Black Caribbean and African women are more likely to be diagnosed with late-stage breast cancer, attributed to systemic failures and health inequities that lead to symptoms going undetected.” This film’s powerfully succinct self-care message aims to drive awareness among Black women of the signs and symptoms, empowering them to seek medical advice. Award-winning Sierra Leonean-British director Tajana Tokyo, a former professional dancer, brings amazing energy and vitality to the shoot and the edit, her dynamic visuals, set perfectly to Jorja Smith’s ‘Little Things’, making this campaign effective and memorable. 

Enough Is Enough

Client charity: Born Free

Category: Films for charities worth £5 million to 15 million

Are you with us? That’s the ask of this stunning animation, narrated by well-known spokespeople Joanna Lumley and Foi Wambui. From the long-suffering perspective of London Zoo elephant Pole Pole, whose death inspired the formation of the Born Free Foundation, the repeated close-up of her eye creates an intimate connection with the video’s audience. This compelling campaign effectively speaks to a wide audience of both young and old, an animal welfare film that proved a popular vote with the awards judges and their public voters alike.

The Cost of Breathing Crisis

Client charity: Scope

Category: Films for charities worth £15 million to £50 million

Know What to Do

Client charity: Age UK

Category: Films for charities worth over £50 million

Two winning projects demonstrate how bigger charities sometimes still deftly use the one-minute format to target TV viewers while also spreading the content online. Both speak to ongoing impacts of the cost-of-living crisis on vulnerable communities, both having been inspired by the real-life stories their workers heard through their helplines. Like all great adverts, both powerfully distil their themes into 60 compelling seconds.  

Disability equality charity Scope’s film is a direct collaboration with the TV industry, produced by ITV Creative and run during ITV-donated airtime, just before or after main commercial breaks across May and June 2023, following which the film has circulated online.  

Age UK’s piece, part of a campaign devised by their brand agency neverland, was directed by the talented Molly Burdett of Spindle Films.

#YouAreNotAlone

Client: Norwich City FC

Category: Corporate cause

“At times it can be obvious when someone is struggling to cope.” Or is it? That’s the poignant question that Norwich City Football Club puts to its members in this film, part of a long-term strategy to promote positive mental health. This film, which won gold in the ‘corporate cause’ category (covering video commissioned by brands pursuing corporate responsibility), was one of the evening’s standouts. Produced in response to the distressing statistic that the average age and demographic of Norwich season ticket holders matched men (those aged 45 to 49) most likely to die of suicide, its close camerawork, powerful dialogue and detailed performances pack a punch. This moving campaign has had remarkable reach within and beyond the club, currently being seen over 117 million times across all platforms. The club have also made the original video file freely available to all, allowing organisations, governments, prisons and places of worship to share its message. 

Friends in Deed

Client charity: Host Nation

Category: Films for charities worth £150,000 to £250,000 

Coming from a ‘joyous’ perspective this campaign film highlights the work of Host Nation, a volunteer-led charity connecting asylum seekers and refugees in London, Greater Manchester and Tyne and Wear with local friends. Experienced director Michael O’Kelly has worked across commercials and social video, for big brands like Birdseye, KFC and Diet Coke, as well as charities, and makes this a successful awareness piece by keeping the message light, simple and human. 

Change the Ending

Client charity: Alzheimer’s Research UK

Category: Charity Film of the Year

To be named film of the year meant scoring highly across the votes of both professional judges and those of the public. This year’s worthy winner skilfully combines animation and live action, colliding Disneyesque fairytale with all too real life. The project was overseen by Passon Pictures, significant UK screen industry players, particularly known for mainstream documentary and animation, but also producing work in advertising, corporate and brand video… and charity film.  

Charity film has been with us for well over 100 years: it’s deeply rooted in the history of moving image, a medium inherently suited to connecting empathy, emotion and intellect to convey a message – a message often culminating, as in the final frames of the films above, in what the charity sector refers to as the “CTA”: the call to action.

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