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November 30, 2006 8:21 AM
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DISPATCH FROM IDFA | New DocAgora Considers Distribution and Digital Media at 1st Event

The City Theater in Amsterdam, site of the annual International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam. Photo by indieWIRE

The first annual DocAgora forum convened Thursday morning at theInternational Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam. Conceived by organizers Peter Wintonick, Amit Breuer, Fleur Knopperts and Joan Morselt as a compact one-day conference on creating, funding and distributing docs in the age of digital media. The event drew more than a hundred industry professionals and filmmakers, all curious about new directions in nonfiction mediamaking.

DocAgora was formed as a floating enterprise, with plans to host physical events at fests and markets around the world, while maintaining and advancing the debate/discussion via a web presence at Docagora.org. The organizers hope that, through this process, they can form a picture of where documentary is going in the future, and, along the way, help to forge new alliances in digital media.

Well-known festival vet and distribution consultant Peter Broderick introduced the event, warning the audience, "The distribution revolution is not a gradual transformation, it's not coming in a couple years, it's here." Citing the work of Robert Greenwald ("OutFoxed", "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price"), Broderick described what he sees as the two revolutions in digital cinema - first production, then distribution - that are leading towards more, and more successful, grassroots media.

The event continued with three panel discussions, each tackling different issues in new media. Panelists represented a broad cross-section of interests, with filmmakers (Katerina Cizek) sitting next to broadcasters (Marc Goodchild from the BBC) and internet business interests (representatives from Google, MySpace and Buongiornio SpA - an Italian multimedia conglomerate).

All described their own efforts in pushing the boundaries of the digital frontier. Emily Renshaw-Smith of Britain's FourDocs explained their web-based approach to acquiring user generated content while letting filmmakers retain their distribution rights. Gillian Caldwell described the Witness Human Rights Video Hub and their success in reaching carefully targeted audiences - often political figures and international decision makers. And Patrick Crowe, from Canada's Xenophile Media, outlined their efforts in building multimedia content into a project right from the start, rather than creating a website after finishing the film.

Much of the conversation spun around issues of rights and licensing. Broderick strongly encouraged filmmakers to retain the right to sell DVDs from their own sites. Other panelists brought up Revver.com, a YouTube-like site that allows filmmakers to pick the ads that run with their films and earn revenue from those ads. In the final panel of the day, Pat Aufderheide (from the Center for Social Media) spoke to some of the specific fair use issues facing today's mediamakers.

Among the striking statistics and success stories, none stood out more than that of the 9/11 conspiracy doc "Loose Change." After failing to find any traditional distribution, the makers put their product up for free on the web, eventually claiming over 32 million downloads of their feature length film. They then returned to international broadcasters, many of whom bought the film after learning the numbers (though the UK and USA remain unsold). While what works for "Loose Change" or "OutFoxed" may not be at all right for more creative or personal documentary work, they still offer inspiring examples of a new era of digital distribution.

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