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
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."