Back to IndieWire

Transmedia Documentaries are Sexy, But Who’s Watching?

Transmedia Documentaries are Sexy, But Who's Watching?

This past April, several new media pioneers issued “The Web Documentary
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
” 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.

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

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
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
.” 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.”

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Toolkit and tagged , , , ,

Get The Latest IndieWire Alerts And Newsletters Delivered Directly To Your Inbox