As audiences come to expect interaction along with media consumption, “old” media is showing documentarians the potential for video as a tent pole in cross-media storytelling.
Since its invention, film has been a permanent medium. And like a book with its threaded binding, a documentary film’s spooled polyester strip represents a series of moments set in figurative stone. We find ourselves in dark rooms absorbing its definitive message, a product of months, or years, of inquiry.
But a stand-alone film, these days, works against the nature of modern media, with its vortex of information, reaction and reassessment. New media actually invites the involvement of audience, rather than simply its attention. And this interaction has come to define the media landscape.
Could documentaries form the permanent center in a changing tableau?
An audiovisual work that evolves as its topic evolves could be the future of the form. Part of the drive to work across platforms, into a digital environment, relates to something as simple as return visits to a site, which one might translate to mean “increased engagement” in a social issue, or “increased revenue.” The dirty secret of online journalism is that those comment sections below stories, those cesspools of discourse, create return visits and, by virtue of that, ad impressions. Gawker has built its empire not on the content but on the comments, an example of morphing media that extends a story’s life by days. A documentary that can be the foundation of an ongoing discussion gives it a life beyond a single view.
Nancy Porter and Harriet Riesen’s Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women crossed platforms with a documentary and book.
We’ve seen this starting along cross-traditional-media lines. Take, for example, Nancy Porter and Harriet Riesen’s Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women. It straddled two traditional media forms — film and books — and re-told the story of the great American author of Little Women. The documentary ran on PBS’s American Masters program and the book was published by Henry Holt & Co., an example of a project that took advantage of the strengths of moving pictures and of print, and in the process worked to promote one another. Sebastian Junger and the late Tim Hetherington’s doc Restrepo was also part of a dual effort, leading to Junger’s book War.
But beyond that, with online video players and ever-more-sophisticated websites, projects can be organic, and can use the long-term commitment to a film as the so-called “tentpole” of a bigger effort.
James Colquhoun and Laurentine ten Bosch’s Food Matters, a film about overcoming illness through diet, has seemed to me a larger movement, in which the film is the anchor. The film’s website is as much about healthy choices as about the documentary, with an array of articles and products toward that end.
The Cross-Media Potential for Issue-Based Documentaries
The possibilities for a site to grow around the documentary is what I’m talking about, not just what Amanda Hirsch previously called on this blog “video plopped on a website.” The idea of bringing a viewer back to a site because of regularly posted multimedia content is different than simply creating a standing multimedia presentation.
Issue-based films could have a bigger impact (and bigger audience), potentially, with a cross-media approach. The Cove has a blog that continues to illuminate its cause, but still has the lilt of PR instead of passionate pursuit of its issue. (Note to filmmakers: Don’t make “Donate” one of the biggest links on your page. Make people want to give by the work you show them).
I liked the Oscar-nominated 2010 documentary Gasland, about the environmental impacts of natural gas drilling. While Gasland’s site has features that promote some involvement with the ongoing cause, it’s a site promoting the documentary, rather than being a larger collaborative site in which the documentary is part of the whole. I’m not promoting the idea of a film website with bells and whistles. I’m talking about a collaborative information center that brings a subject to light — The more audience members seek information, the more they get.
News Organizations Telling Documentary-Centered Stories
mixes stories, video and background material.
Documentary producers, such as Colquhoun and ten Bosch, have begun to embrace the idea of connecting on different levels with all the tools the digital environment provides, but the most notable recent cross-platform projects have come from the domain of journalism.
Newspaper websites have mostly led the charge in using multiple media platforms to tell a story. Take California Watch’s On Shaky Ground, which mixes stories, video and background material to create a big picture. Here, though, for obvious reasons, text dominates.
The New York Times‘ online project A Year At War took that concept further. Through its “Features,” “Shorts” and “Moments” sections, it created a nonlinear tableau of first-rate work that had all the gravitas and artfulness of a fine documentary. The “Moments” piece Morning Shave lasts only 15 seconds, but it picks up the force of fine photojournalism. The site’s related writing supports it nicely.
And look at Now What, Argentina?, a project created by students at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication and Pontificia Universidad Católica Argentina. It merges video, audio, text and photography to tell a broader story, though it doesn’t have a single focal film.
Questions for Docmakers to Consider
I wonder if too many documentary filmmakers are locked in to the decades-old mindset of the festival–distributor–theatrical route, when the possibilities of cross-platform projects can lead to collaboration and, by nature of that, extension. Could your documentary be the anchor for an assortment of essays on the topic you explore? Could new video or audio continue to augment what you’ve done in the film? Could original reporting or a newsfeed keep people abreast of news on the topic? Could you take cues from video games to keep your topic fresh? Could visitors contribute data or multimedia to the project?
More and more, as the Holy Grail of the Theatrical Screening fades and the web becomes the go-to place for one’s work, will documentary filmmakers see the possibilities of a bigger picture? As convergence has defined the media in the past decade, so too will filmmakers need to find ways to redefine themselves and embrace that convergence.
In the span of a few short years, distribution in the independent film world has leaped from DIY (“Do It Yourself”) to DIWO (“Do It With Others” — i.e., crowdfunding) to what Ted Hope recently christened “direct interdependent distribution.” The term highlights a new relationship between filmmakers and audiences that relies even less on middlemen — and in some cases cuts them out completely.
Dynamo Player, Distrify and Distribber are three companies enabling documentary filmmakers to self-distribute films digitally
My documentary Library of the Early Mind is at the back end of a 14-month run of screenings to very respectable audiences at universities, libraries and museums in the United States and Canada. We’ve done about 50 since our premiere at Harvard, and close to 10,000 people having seen the film. Many of those viewers told us directly they wanted to buy a copy for their libraries or classes. Others wanted to watch it again or recommend it to friends. And others, we’d heard, couldn’t make a screening but would have wanted to see the film. Digital delivery reaches all of these groups, making it a newly legitimate choice for any filmmaker with an audience (or the ability to find one). And it’s a path we’re taking in December (along with a DVD release). In the handful of years since my previous documentary, people have simply become more comfortable viewing films on digital devices (just as my newly released book appears to far to be racking up more sales in Amazon’s Kindle store than in paper-and-ink).
While video juggernaut YouTube launched a paid rental service earlier this year, there is a widening circle of companies offering direct distribution — and its catching on among documentary filmmakers like me. Dynamo Player and Distrify are two platforms for filmmakers confident they have the marketing skill to move consumers to buy their product from their own website, while tying streaming to theatrical efforts and a DVD release. Both link purchases to Paypal or Amazon, and take a 30 percent cut of each sale. Distribber, owned by the crowdfunding company IndieGoGo, takes a fee up front to place films on high-traffic entertainment hubs such as iTunes, Amazon, Netflix, Hulu and cable video-on-demand. The percentages may rival a traditional distributor, but I know too many filmmakers who’ve rued the deals they struck with distributors whose idea of marketing was little more than an addition to a catalog.
Two Case Studies
followed a theatrical run and a DVD
with self distribution online
By the time the makers brought Until the Light Takes Us, a documentary about the “black metal” music scene in Norway, to direct online distribution, it had already been seen in theaters in the United States and internationally, watched on DVD and Blu-Ray and seen on Netflix and VOD. So, co-director Ewell says, “defining the audience that’s accessing the film via the Dynamo player is an interesting task.”
“First of all, it’s generally not people who saw it in theaters or who own the DVD,” she says. “I believe the appeal is primarily for people who casually hear about the film or have it recommended by a friend or via social media sharing, forums, etc., who then pop over to our website, where they find that it’s readily available. We see a slight uptick in usage whenever we have press around the film. There’s also an international element to the film and its fanbase, and not all international territories are served by local distribution.”
The filmmakers can set their own price, and Dynamo CEO Rob Millis says the sweet spot for a streaming window is $3 to $5. At a higher price, views (and revenue) fall. At a lower price, it doesn’t seem valuable when compared to the Hollywood competition (typically $2.99 or $3.99 for an online rental).
Ewell says she sees the online viewing audience this way: “I believe that people who watch the film on our site are watching for one of two reasons: either convenience or a desire to support our work. Or both. So I keep the price reasonable, but at a level that it actually matters. And we make it easy to access.”
Amy Slotnick sees
digital distribution as a
to build momentum
in a niche market.
Wake Up, in which director Elrod chronicles a spiritual awakening, premiered at SXSW in 2009 with a modest run of festivals and community screenings, but Producer Amy Slotnick says the film lends itself to delivery via the web.
“I think this model has worked for Wake Up because it is a film that speaks to a niche mind–body–spirit audience who are very active and passionate about the topics in the film,” Slotnick says. “The Dynamo platform has helped us build momentum within that niche market, without adding to our costs.”
Because the films are online, social-media initiatives help spread the word.
“Someone can easily tell friends and family how to access it without having to coordinate a DVD shipping or theater visit,” Slotnick says. “It also works well for our grassroots outreach to non-profit, religious and scientific organizations related to spirituality, metaphysics and consciousness because those groups can easily include a link in weekly newsletters, on social networks and in their other publications.”
The viewers for Dynamo and Distrify look like Vimeo’s player, with familiar controls, and there is reasonable security to prevent downloading or ripping. Dynamo’s Millis also notes that films can be streamed in HD. Self-distributing filmmakers can create “nice clean, well-designed player pages, where the film is a bit bigger and where it’s really inviting to the viewer,” he says. “So much of what we’ve seen in sales is about presentation.”
Distrify’s Peter Gerard, a documentary filmmaker turned founder, differentiates his platform from competitors based on its ability to sell tickets and DVDs in addition to streaming films over Facebook and Apple’s iPad and iPhone devices without the need to pay for entry into the iTunes catalog.
“You just go to the film page and you can pay and watch straight on the device,” says Gerard.
A New Life for Special Features
Another interesting side benefit for this kind of delivery is the opportunity to sell bonus material. For my documentary about children’s literature, we’ve been asked if we’d be sharing longer interviews with the prominent authors in the film, such as Lemony Snicket (A Series of Unfortunate Events), Chris Van Allsburg (The Polar Express, Jumanji) and R.L. Stine (Goosebumps). With digital delivery, we could rent uncut interviews for a dollar (or two).
film is worth something,
no one else will.”
— Audrey Ewell,
Until the Light Takes Us
With Until the Light Takes Us, Ewell says, “We also have all four hours of extras up, so people who bought a single disc version of the DVD and perhaps even a few who saw it in theaters but want to see the extras, are able to.” Their website has a variety of bundled extras, from $0.99 clips to $4.99 video extras that are longer than the film.
“I know that my film is available for the rock-bottom price of free via less-than-legal torrents,” says Ewell. “At the same time, I’ve always stuck by the idea that if I don’t act as if my film is worth something, no one else will. So I checked around for prevailing prices on boutique sites — not online big box retailers like Amazon or iTunes, but indie-specific streaming sites — and priced the feature accordingly, with the extras priced per duration or in one or two cases, per demand.”
Since starting streaming online, Ewell reports that the extra features have collected more rents than the film and that she’s been happy with sales overall.
A Third Way
Distribber is a different animal, more than a technical middleman but less than a traditional distributor. Distribber charges an up-front fee of $1,595 for HD video ($1,295 for SD) to deliver to iTunes. For Hulu, add $399. For delivery to video-on-demand — and 80 percent of U.S. households with cable (according to their site) — the cost is $9,999, pending carrier approval. Distribber is something that augments Dynamo and Distrify, instead of competing with them.
The key, of course, is creating a campaign that makes people aware of the film (and how to watch it) and then converts interest into streams. I suspect innovative marketing will educate new audiences to click play, pay and view.
As Sheri Candler, indie film marketing specialist and author of the book Selling Your Film Without Selling Your Soul recently said on her blog, it’s more and more the filmmaker’s responsibility “to have a solid plan from the outset that isn’t solely dependent on a distributor coming along and making your film whole, which is to say paying a minimum guarantee that recoups your production budget with interest. Very few of those deals exist now, no matter what producer’s agents and distributors like to say.”
Documentary filmmaker Chithra Jeyaramlet let me know her 9-minute film Mijo is part of “Breast Fest 2011,” along with four other films dealing with issues of breast cancer and sponsored by the Royal Ontario Museum.
This kind of thing is a great example of getting out films in so many creative and meaningful ways. I’ll write on this sort of project more at length next week. BUT: The deadline for viewing and voting on the films has been extended. Take some time to view them all and it will be well worth your while.
Good luck to Chithra and other contenstants!
Whether it’s Joan Rivers in “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” or Timothy Treadwell in Werner Herzog’s indelible “Grizzly Man,” the profile documentary works because it can tell a story about a person like no other. But on the other end of the spectrum, telling the story of someone who’s typical is one of the hardest kind to pull off in documentary work.
The form implies representativeness, that the person in the film speaks for all other people like him or her. These representative profile documentaries hinge on whether you can learn about all people through one (or a few). These types of films also carry considerable risk for the filmmaker: If an audience can’t generalize from the subject, it’s left with nothing else, and the film fails.
Vanessa Roth’s new documentary “American Teacher” takes the risk, choosing four teachers to speak on behalf of the country’s 3.2 million teachers. With the math stacked against it, can an audience get a complete picture from such a tiny sample?
An answer is found in the core of art. Novels and fiction films are the antithesis of statistics and news reports. They zoom in on a person or small group of people rather than letting the story be told by cold numbers. You can read statistics connected to an event — The Holocaust, or the Civil Rights Movement, or 9/11 — and feel nothing, or you can surface characters who make the event connect, be it in the multi-Oscar winner “Life is Beautiful,” the journalistic work Common Ground or the novel Netherland (possibly to be made into a film).
Roth, an Academy Award-winning producer for the 2007 documentary short “Freeheld,” comes from a lineage of such storytelling. Her father, Eric Roth, wrote the screenplay of the filmic Everyman, Forrest Gump, whose main character walks through the major events of the late 20th century as a voice of decency and good intention. But Vanessa Roth has chosen here to find the Everymen among the real and complex people out in the world. And that’s a taller order.
In films such as Sarah Klein’s “The Good Mother,” the subjects are taken (I abhor the word “casting” in documentaries) from a narrow sample: women in a Mother-of-the-Year competition. The same goes for Matt Ogen’s “Confessions of a Superhero,” about the lives of four superhero impersonators. On the other hand, James Moll’s stunning 1998 doc “The Last Days” picks five of the millions who survived the Nazi death camps. The art, in essence, begins with the selection.
For Roth, there were 104,857,600,000,000,000,000,000,000 American Teachers she could have made, according to my online permutations calculator. Aging Out, which explored three adolescents in foster care making the transition to adulthood and on which Roth was co-director, had similarly daunting options.
Some filmmakers in these situations have the luxury of winnowing. A long list, a short list, finalists (with alternates). Some start with multiple subjects and eliminate in the edit. And some see their hopefuls fall by the wayside through the legalities of permissions and releases.
Half of the battle was won for Roth by the film’s source material. It, along with The Teacher Salary Project, is based on the book Teachers Have It Easy, written by Dave Eggers (Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius), Nínive Calegari and Daniel Moulthrop. Two of the teachers, Roth says, came right out of the book. Two others were found through a combination of suggestions and intuition.
In other films, Roth says she’s begun filming with more than the number of subjects she’d end with. But here, the right people had to come first. She sought subjects who were “captivating people to watch” and who together shared the collective experiences of the nation’s teachers. She sorted through letters and video diaries from prospective subjects and iterated from there.
“It wasn’t like we knew at the start we wanted to shoot four people from four different places. One person came up after we’d started shooting another, and another came up after that.”
The teachers also had to be changing. After all, characters need story arcs. She ultimately found one young teacher expecting her first child, juggling family while playing a pivotal role for her first-grade students.
“I had tried hard to find someone starting a family, because I wanted something to unfold over the year,” she says.
Another was working extra jobs to afford his chosen profession.
“It’s absurd,” Roth says, “that our teachers are cutting our grass or working at Best Buy.”
The teachers are in Texas, Brooklyn, San Francisco and New Jersey. They went to Harvard, North Texas, UMass. They have taught 6, 11, 15 and 20 years. But they are not meant to comprise a case study or demographic artifact. As much as those of us with children think we know our teachers, Roth finds something deeper, showcasing in her four subjects the hopes, aspirations, sacrifice and commitment of teachers across the country.
Roth, in bios, describes herself as an advocate as well as an artist, which makes sense. American Teacher is a piece of reportage as well as a piece of advocacy that aims at the nation’s education woes and how an investment in teachers could turn it around.
“I think the film we ended up with was true to the vision we started with, but I think to get there we went on all kinds of paths,” Roth says. “An earlier cut was less about profiling people and more about experts… It took a bit of massaging to get it back to what I initially hoped it would be.”
Is American Teacher the definitive word on the teaching profession? The math says no, but their stories do effectively represent.
American Teacher opens in New York and Los Angeles on September 30 and continues playing at festivals and community screenings through the rest of the year. Visit The Teacher Salary Project for screening information.
This post first appeared on PBS.org’s POV Docs website
How Prosumer Cameras, Apple and YouTube Have Changed Documentary Storytelling in the 10 Years Since 9/11
The Naudet brothers, Jules and Gedeon, hadn’t set out to make a documentary about 9/11. On the morning of September 11, 2001, in the early days of the digital-media revolution, they were following a rookie firefighter checking out a gas leak and ended up at the World Trade Center, capturing the first plane hitting the towers (conspiracy theories about the film notwithstanding) and the only footage from inside.
At a time when mainstream media dominated news coverage, the day’s digital technology allowed the Naudets to capture video footage on the go that would not have been possible for low-budget documentarians 10 years before. (By the same token, there weren’t as many documentary filmmakers then.)
In a week that finds us reflecting on the changes, both domestically and globally, in the 10 years that have followed the 9/11 attacks, I’m fascinated by how far digital technology has come and how documentary filmmaking has changed along with it.
The Rise of Digital Video
On this 10th anniversary, we find ourselves living in a consumer-electronics landscape where millions of Americans have video recorders in their pockets (be it a cell phone or a point-and-shoot camera with video capabilities), the means to edit on personal computers, and the means to distribute online — for free.
But in 2001, the “prosumer” market, which provided professional-grade equipment at consumer-grade costs, was just picking up steam on the back of the new DV (Digital Video) format. We also forget that reliable video sharing didn’t come to be until 2005, with the online video repository YouTube, and that bandwidth has grown so much since the turn of the millennium that it’s become an afterthought when creating media. By 2007, YouTube’s offerings were so vast and so popular that it was consuming nearly as many bits as the entire Internet had in 2000.
Today, companies associated with easy creation, editing and sharing of video are some of America’s largest. Apple, maker of the iPhone and video editing software Final Cut, was for a moment this summer our largest public company, surpassing the market capitalization of Exxon Mobil. YouTube owner and phone-operating-system-maker Google holds steady in the top 25.
The Filmmaking Burden Loosens
As filmmaking and online distribution have become even more accessible, the very definition of “documentary” has both evolved and eroded.
A decade ago, making a film had a monumental feel to it. Because of the difficulties in making one, both in terms of cost and technical skill, a documentary about mercurial or thin subjects (or by a newcomer) took a back seat to one where a filmmaker invested time commensurate with the costs of equipment. Now, every would-be filmmaker can create high-definition video with high-quality audio. Topics can be as small as the pocket-sized equipment the films are shot on and filmmakers can find niche audiences online, what Wired’s Chris Anderson called “the long tail” in 2004. That, as much as anything, has changed documentary film — not having to squeeze every frame through the narrow (and often profit-needy) outlets who once exercised control over the broadcast of content.
Ten years ago, network broadcast standards and the theater’s need for 35mm prints meant it was easy to shun a DV video (especially one shot quickly or cheaply). In the mainstream media, the new reality of documentary video has meant some odd splitting. We watch the nightly news on crystalline HD, then instantly cut to correspondents reporting, on-camera, via satellite phone. Newspapers have become documentary video sources (via their websites, just as television outlets now deliver text on theirs). “User-generated” videos are given labels like “crowdsourcing” and “iReporting” to separate it from the real stuff, and when one video breaks through, reaching the masses against all odds, it’s called a “viral video.” (Surely its success is not based on its merits.) To see video produced by The New York Times today is to forget the partitioning of media 10 years ago.
A New Aesthetic
And, as the saying goes, one man’s junk is another’s treasure. Work that failed traditional “quality” measures was also succeeding on sheer storytelling. When the documentary Tarnation came out in 2004, made for the legendary amount of $213.32 and edited on Apple’s iMovie, its string of best documentary awards showed that pixels were not the final determiner of a film’s potential. Viewers are willing to accept what they see if it makes sense.
The acclaimed 2009 documentary Tehran Without Permission was made surreptitiously on a Nokia N95 camera phone by Sepideh Farsi and played at festivals worldwide. YouTube conditioned people to watch films on business-card-sized viewers, and personal devices only furthered that, but storytelling has shown itself to trump format.
Crowdsourced documentaries, such as One Day on Earth, #18DaysInEgypt and YouTube’s Life in a Day, are continuing to pushing the form on every front, from how they are conceived to how they are produced to how they are exhibited (or interacted with).
A New Decade
Beyond all the equipment, beyond all the digital means, what’s changed in the past decade is our reality.
Documentary is about taking a hard look at ourselves. If the 1990s was a bit of a fantasy, with easy-to-win “wars” and an easy economy, all that made for a prelude to the stark truths in the 2000s. We have lived in a decade of constant fact, and documentaries are a tool for understanding our world, as unpleasant as it might be. On 9/11, we could hardly bear to watch, but we couldn’t look away. It’s something that the documentary form continues to demand of us.
Philip at HDWarrior has a great post this week about the efforts “back in the day” to overcome shallow depth of field that is so much in fashion these days, looking specifically at Orson Welle’s use of “deep depth of field” in “Citizen Kane.”
This gave the crew a nightmare as they had to bring in far more lighting when Orson decided his next shot was to be filmed at T11 or f11 to you and me. T11 in those days meant blasting the set with light in order to allow the iris to stop down to f11, if nothing else things must have got very hot indeed.
If on the occasion enough light was not the answer they would use a split lens to give them two seperate depths of focus now this was tricky as you had to make sure your foreground actors and background actors never crossed the “invisible” line.