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Millennials' Interest in Social Responsibility Prompts Documentary Boom from Netflix

As Andrew Swinard noted recently in Crain’s Chicago Business: “For millennials — who, at 86 million strong, make up the largest population group the US has ever seen — social responsibility is the new religion.”

Which could be a reason streaming media service Netflix, which is spending $3 billion on expanding its original content domestically and abroad, is moving left — shrewdly acquiring exclusive rights to several cause-related and hard-hitting documentaries in a bit for broader adoption by Millennials.

Following critical acclaim and wide audience draw for its original series “House of Cards” and “Orange Is the New Black,” adding documentary titles such as E-Team, about human rights workers, and Virunga, which follows a team of park rangers fighting to save Virunga National Park, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, from armed militia, poachers and general mayhem as rebellion sweeps the country.

Netflix has also licensed Mission Blue, debuting August 15, co-produced and co-directed by Robert Nixon and actor Fisher Stevens. The film follows Dr. Sylvia Earle, an oceanic preservation advocate and activist, on her quest to stop and reverse mankind’s damage to our oceans. The film depicts atrocities such as the mass harvesting of sharks only for their fins, and industrial oil spills so massive and toxic they create sprawling aquatic dead zones.

Earle’s mission, also called Mission Blue, is to create “hope spots, designated government-protected oceanic zones where nature can recover and be preserved from excess human impact.”

Stevens met Earle after producing The Cove, a film that detailed shocking Japanese dolphin-hunting practices, which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2010.

I asked Stevens recently why he felt it was important to share Earle’s story.

“Sylvia's message is first to make people aware of the problems we face when it comes to the oceans; if they are aware, they will take action," Stevens said. "So few people have any idea how the oceans affect their own personal lives and if they do understand that, they will treat the oceans differently.

“Many people are not aware that when they order bluefin tuna in a restaurant it is like ordering a lion, or an elephant. These are truly endangered species they are eating. Making people aware in China and in Chinatowns all over the US what it means to order sharkfin soup. ... When we made The Cove, our whole goal was to make the storytelling so exciting that it made people have to take action," he added.

Fortuitously for the planet, today’s digital natives are a generation converging with the most-connected Internet of things ever. Add an increasing awareness of sustainability and better self-governance to their values mix and there’s fertile ground for social networking and sustainability to converge.

By shining a light on social and environmental emergencies around the world, this new crop of documentaries, as provocative as they are informative, can help incite our ultra-connected, forward-thinking Millennials to take necessary action.

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