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Transmedia Documentaries are Sexy, But Who's Watching?

By Anthony Kaufman | Indiewire June 24, 2013 at 10:05AM

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:
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An image from Kartemquin Films' "'63 Boycott."
An image from Kartemquin Films' "'63 Boycott."

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!"

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.")

Read more on Page 2 of this article.

This article is related to: transmedia, Filmmaker Toolkit: Technology, Filmmaker Toolkit: Production, POV, Tribeca Film Institute






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