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Transmedia Documentaries are Sexy, But Who's Watching?


- This past April, several new media pioneers issued "The Web Documentary Manifesto," which, inspired from Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov's early writings, called for "a revolution" in storytelling.

This past April, several new media pioneers issued "The Web Documentary Manifesto," which, inspired from Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov's early writings, called for "a revolution" in storytelling:

"One - It is time to bring storytelling and storytellers to the web!  

Two - It is time to turn the web into an interactive audiovisual medium made by everyone.

Three - It is time, fellow comrades, for a revolution!"

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But what kind of revolution is it? Who is taking part, what is being overthrown, and who seeks to benefit from it? 

While terms such as "transmedia," "i-docs" and "multi-platform storytelling" might as well refer to sci-fi concepts for most viewers, some of the biggest names in documentary funding, production and exhibition are now embracing new technologies as an integral part of their mission, from the Sundance Institute's New Frontier Lab to the Tribeca Film Institute's Digital Initiatives program, from ITVS' Project 360, POV's Hackathons, and MIT's OpenDocLab, to The Fledgling Fund, the NEA, the Ford Foundation and The National Film Board of Canada.

No one within the documentary filmmaking community believes traditional "long-form" documentaries are going away any time soon. But a significant share of resources in the nonfiction world is now being devoted to new media elements and projects. This paradigm shift has sparked several questions.

Who are the audiences engaging with these new works? How many of them are there? And if they're watching on iPhones, iPads and new computers, who is being left out? Is money being siphoned away from conventional production to the websites and apps that, in many cases, are supposed to be extensions of those projects? And for the filmmakers themselves, are they being pushed towards media-making in ways they aren't suited? 

"These are big questions for us," says veteran documentary producer and director Gordon Quinn ("Golub," "Hoop Dreams," "The Interrupters"), whose next project "'63 Boycott" is built on multimedia elements. "Is there an audience, and is it the audience we're trying to reach? We take those questions very seriously."

Quinn worries that web-based and other multi-platform media loses the collective experience of traditional broadcasting. "I have some concerns about the fact that everyone is in their little niche. Narrowcasting is fine, but I think the element of broadcast -- of people experiencing a powerful emotional event together -- is terribly important for a democracy."

Tim Horsburgh, director of communications and programs at Quinn's Chicago-based Kartemquin Films, continues to push the company into new media projects. But he also frets "about the digital divide," he says. "It's no use building a beautiful, state-of-the-art transmedia doc that purports to encourage democratic discussion if the audience who needs to see it most can only access it through the latest OS and web browser. (When this writer recently trying to access a popular interactive doc, an error message arrived instead: "Please Update Your Browser.")

Documentary filmmakers Steve Bognar and Julia Reichert, co-directors of the 225-minute Emmy-winning doc "A Lion in the House," have witnessed this "divide" after launching their recent transmedia doc "Reinvention Stories," made in conjunction with AIRmediawork's Localore initiative.

"It is very sad to me that, even in Dayton, [Ohio, where the project is set] not enough people are finding the site," says Reichert. "That is in part because of our choice of subject." "Reinvention Stories" focuses on a middle age and older population—"people who have tried and failed, people who have lost careers, etc.," explains Reichert. "But the generation that really plays on the Internet is much younger. The middle aged or older working class person may not even have a computer." 

Nevertheless, Simon Kilmurry, executive producer at POV, notes that documentary filmmakers may be feeling some "pressures from the funding world" to embrace new media, with the thinking among some filmmakers being, "I can't make my film unless it has a cool interactive element," he says.

But Kilmurry and others say it's wrong to position transmedia and long-form storytelling as mutually exclusive or competing forms. "I don't think there's an obligation that all films have an interactive component," he says. "Some filmmakers come to us with interactive ideas, and some people are just long-form storytellers, and that's okay."

POV's Hackathons, which pair documentary filmmakers with digital designers, are merely a place for experimentation, says Kilmurry, who says POV intends to back transmedia projects in the future. "The reason we started doing these [hackathons] is to explore what does this all mean for docs; how can we create a sandbox for people to play in the space, and see what gains traction and what doesn't."

But if doc filmmakers choose not to play in that sandbox, there is a sense that they will be left out of the fun (and possible funding).

Ingrid Kopp, director of Digital Initiatives at the Tribeca Film Institute and the head of TFI's New Media Fund, doesn't believe the traditional broadcasting model for documentaries isn't working; "It's just people are consuming in much more diffuse ways now and you have to accept that," she says. "And if you're not in the game, you're not going to figure this stuff out."

The Sundance Institute's Cara Mertes, who oversees their Documentary Film Program and Fund and has just taken up the head post at the Ford Foundation's JustFilms, agrees. "It is an area that is seeing a tremendous amount of energy and innovation," she says. "And I think it's going to expand how we see storytelling. People are exploring all these new possibilities— bringing in apps and real-time data—in interesting ways, and I think it's really just the beginning. Documentary, in its 20th Century form, is not complete."

The National Film Board of Canada (or NFB), which has a long and venerable documentary history, recently announced a 5-year "Strategic Plan" (which also reads much like one of Vertov's manifestos), calling for "new methods and new thinking about storytelling."

NFB Director General Ravida Din, who overseas English-language productions, says funding for interactive projects—currently about 20% of their total allocation—is not necessarily going to increase, but she believes the distinction between multimedia and traditional forms is growing more blurry. "I definitely see a collapsing of linear, interactive and animation genres," she says.

While conventional documentary filmmakers used to approach the NFB with ideas about digital companion pieces, Din says the conversation and priorities have shifted. "Very quickly, it became clear that interactive demands a whole new grammar and whole new approach," she says. "More and more, we're gravitating away from digital projects that accompany something conventional to something wholly other."

To date, the NFB has backed the most popular instances of the new interactive documentary, which exist entirely on their own without a traditional long-form doc, most notably, "Bear 71," "Welcome to Pinepoint" and "High Rise." If you haven't heard of them, transmedia advocates say that's okay. "This is a very new art form," admits Loc Dao, head of digital content and strategy at the NFB. "And we're hoping that the audience becomes the multipliers of the work." 

According to Dao, the core audience for the projects has been largely tech-savvy millennials: designers, programmers, film industry professionals, filmmakers, and other early-adopters.

It shouldn't come as a surprise that it's younger viewers who are more accepting of non-linear and transmedia-based storytelling. But the NFB is trying to reach out to other demographics, with projects like "Circa 1978," an "Augmented Reality" mobile app developed by veteran Vancouver-based artist Stan Douglas.

The amount of visitors for the NFB's projects has been largely consistent: Over a 4-year period, "High Rise" has received over 500,000 unique viewers, while "Bear 71," launched in January 2012, has received approximately 240,000 unique visitors. Another more-data based project called "Waterlife" has received 1.7 million unique visitors. 

Adnaan Wasey, director of POV Digital, says the numbers are a benchmark for the fledgling industry. "Is it Kony 2012? No, it's not. But 300,000 is a nice number of people. If 300,000 people see your independent film, you're a rock star. The point is that these are examples of things that are working."

But only a few interactive docs are drawing users in such high numbers. Steve Bognar, for one, laments what he sees as the small audience for interactive docs. "It's hard to imagine a transmedia project today having the social impact of, say, Kirby Dick's 'The Invisible War' is having in the form of a feature doc," he says. "Not today, maybe. But that day is coming."

Indeed, many doc commissioners and funders say filmmakers are advised to look closely at the new medium, because, as Ravida Din says, "it's inevitable that this is the way you'll reach people more and more."

For example, filmmakers like Nicole Newnham ("The Revolutionary Optimists") and Brad Lichtenstein ("As Goes Janesville"), whose docs were both broadcast on PBS's Independent Lens series, both developed smart-phone apps, with the help of the Bay Area Video Coalition's Producers Institute for New Media Technologies, that have helped to address and expand upon the issues their films tackle.

Sundance's Cara Mertes says expanding the story space to these other dimensions is now just an essential part of filmmaking. "Bringing a film out to audiences is another stage of storytelling," she says, "and I think filmmakers need to think about it"—especially doc filmmakers, she adds.

"Because so many documentary filmmakers are interested in bettering the world," she continues, "I think they will adopt these things, as we see film as a way to make profound change on individual and community levels."

As Lichtenstein says, "I am not just making documentaries for art sake, but I also want to make them to realize some kind of social engagement goal."

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