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Cross-Platform documentaries @ Sheffield’s Doc Fest

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I’m just back from Sheffield’s Doc Fest (4-9th of November).

I did not go there because Doc Fest is UK’s most well known documentary festival, but because they are opening up to a vision of documentary that is much wider than linear documentary.  Among all the seminars and sessions that run on the side of the film screening a large number were dedicated to cross-platform projects, to the merging of games and documentaries and to new forms of business models to finance projects. All of this, to my view is the result of a television audience that is turning more and more to the internet for entertainment.

Now that around 70% of the UK has access to the internet where should broadcasters spend their production budgets? This is not only valid for TVs, the press is also heavily pushing their internet presence and some big educational establishements, such as the Open University too, not to mention the UK government that pours money to push forward it vision of “digital Britain”…

So what is happening now is that the model of TV as the main financer for documentaries is starting to shake hard and several new models are starting to appear.

Jane Mote, commissioner from UK TV, said during a session something that made me think: “linear TV is now just not enough”.

But if we step aside from financial considerations only, digital media is also bringing along a new generations of content creators: the photographic journalists that are used to the digital format, the game designers that know how to immerse audiences in their stories, the web editors that are used to curate content and digital activists that know how to use online social media… all those people are starting to have an impact on documentary making, as they create factual content using digital platforms and they are therefore creating new genres of documentaries.

This is what I found really interesting during those 4 days at Sheffield: new media – and specially the web- are changing the rules of documentary making. It is sometimes affecting the production process, sometimes the financial model, sometimes the narrative structure and sometimes just the distribution logic; but no documentary maker can today ignore the impact of new media in factual narrative.

From what I heard at Sheffield -and I only followed the new media strand, although most of the festival is dedicated to standard linear documentaries – the following are the shifts that I have observed and that I see as caused by the introduction of new media in all the stages of documentary production:

  1. 1. cross-platform pitches are now becoming the norm for all broadcasters
  2. 2. the funding for interactive documentaries is still scarce but the players are starting to change
  3. 3.independent finance and crowd-funding can work, for linear and non linear projects, especially when linked to activist topics
  4. 4. docu-games are emerging as a recognised form of documentary
  5. 5. web-documentaries are also being recognised and have now a presence at festivals such as Doc Fest

1. cross-platform pitches

The logic here is quite straightforward: broadcasters all have a web presence. Each programme has its website and its content needs to be as sexy as possible. Web advertising is also raising (while TV advertising is decreasing) so web editors are starting to have a little bit more budget to spend. The solution is therefore simple: a TV idea now has to have more than one life. Commissioning editors are looking for ideas that can produce a linear documentary but also a non linear experience that will bring people to their website. Social media, content participation, educational games, and online competitions can all have a long life and keep attracting people, while a documentary is only broadcasted once.

As a result broadcasters are welcoming cross-platform ideas. Local Food Hero was presented by UKTV Director of Lifestyle, Factual and New Media Jane Mote, as the ideal cross platform idea: it is a cooking TV series, an website that collects audiences recipes and a cooking book. Three products for nearly the price of one.

Channel 4 has a dedicated cross-platform commissioning editor, Adam Gee. Have a look to Embarassing bodies to see Ch4 efforts to link broadcast interest to social media logics. This is a project that starts as a strong documentary idea but that has a social forum life on the web that keeps it attractive to the youth audience. Channel 4 has also created 4ip to promote collaborative ideas online that do not have to be linked to linear documentary. If you want to see the sort of projects that 4ip has financed have a look to Mapumental , Help me investigate and Patient option. Those are projects that start as web ideas, and might never become a linear documentary. Tom Loosemore, head of 4ip, said “I do not want to tell stories, I want to facilitate people telling their own stories”.

2. funding: the players are changing

Of course broadcasters are still dominating the scene. Speaking to Arnaud Dressen, the French web-documentary producer that presented both Journey to the Coal and L’Obesite est-elle une fatalite , I was told that televisions are still the most likely to finance an interactive documentary. But new players are emerging: newspapers can be interested on investigative online documentaries to boost up their online presence. Although with a very small budget, French newspaper Le Monde did finance part of Journey to the Coal. Tom Happold, head of multimedia at Guardian News & Media, also seemed to predict a growing presence of interactive dossiers on the Guardian’s website.

The usual European Media programme is still active in the background, but other international players, such as the National Film Board of Canada (NFB), are particularly active in the field. Not only the NFB organizes in Sheffield a Cross Platform Pitching Competition, where the happy winner receives £5,000 of developing fund, but back home it does finance very innovative projects, check them out .

Finally, the players are changing because more and more success stories of self-financed projects seem to indicate  that money does not always have to come from the professionals…

3. independent financing models

The big hype about independent financing comes from the recent success story of The Age of Stupid, an environmentalist documentary that was entirely financed via donations and private investment. Super motivated director Franny Amstrong managed to raise the entire £500,000 budget of her film by selling “shares” of her movie before even having started it. She coined the word ‘crowd-funding’ to illustrate her financing model. People were told that they could make a profit if investing in the film, but no guarantee was given, they could also never finish the film. Eventually they did finish it, and it became a big hit, but Amstrong had very cleverly sold the theatrical rights worldwide but kept all the other rights for herself, so that she now self-manages, and entirely profits, from the DVD sales, the non-theatrical releases and the broadcasting sales. This model not only allowed her to raise much more that what a broadcaster would have granted her, but it also assured her full editorial control of her content.

If self-funding is maybe not a very quick route, it took Armstrong 4 years to finish her movie, it has also been used more radically by other people that decided to open source their content in exchange of free donations. Nina Paley went this route with Sita Sings the Blues . Although this project is an animated film, and not a documentary, it shows a new possible model: people seem to be ready to pay for free content if they think it is worth it. Sita Sings the Blues is freely downloadable from the web in all the possible definition formats (including HD for theatrical release) but Paley accepts donations and people seem happy to do so. She has managed to cover the production costs of her project and even to do a small profit. The problem with this model is that, not only there is no guarantee of a return of investment, but also the money only arrives after the project is finished… It therefore only works for small projects where the director can put the money upfront.

Finally collaborative forms of documentaries have used the web to look for help during the production process. This does obviously not cover all the costs but it can minimize them. A good example is the open source documentary RIP: an Open Source Manifesto where Brett Gaylor has asked his online audience to collaborate in specific tasks: shoot some footage, remix video or find music mixes. If collaboration is not a form of financing it is still a way to keep the costs low, as the people that participate do it for free.

4. the emergence of docu-games

Interactive games are not new, web games either, but what is starting to emerge is a critical mass of people who are creating digital games inspired by factual stories and that are researched as documentaries in order to create an experience of reality.

At least five sessions where dedicated at Sheffield to this cross-breed between documentaries and  games. You will find in delicious a list of examples that Matt Adams, from Blast theory, and Margaret Robertson, from Lookspring, have kindly prepared for their session. (see

The “classic” examples of docu-games that everybody were referring to were:

> JFK reloaded, an edutainment first-person shooter video game recreating the John F. Kennedy assassination.

> Darfur is Dying , a game about trying to survive in a refugee camp, mainly aimed to a young audience.

> Global conflicts , an educational game where you play as a journalist exploring worldwide conflicts, including Israel/Palestine.

Some new projects got also presented during the festival. Of particular interest I found Blast Theory’s latest Ulrike and Deamon compliant, a locative game which was produced for this year’s Venice art biennale. In this game the player is walking through the streets of Venice while listening to phone messages leading to a personal decision about the use of violence and terrorism. For Matt Adams, the game author, locative games are “situated narratives and powerful subjective experiences”. This is really what makes them a challenging forms of new media documentaries: they pose the problem of subjectivity in the creation of reality.

To those examples I would like to add Gone Gitmo , by Nonny de la Pena, a 3D reconstruction of Guantanamo Bay’s prison in Second Life, where people can explore a space reconstructed through thorough journalistic research and experience the frustration of being locked in such a place. Here again, the aim is to use game design as a way to illustrate an environment closed to the cameras, but also to add subjectivity to a user that is active in experiencing a specific situation.

5. the recognition of web-documentaries

This year four web-documentaries were shown at Sheffield. Those were:

> The Big Issue by Honkytonk Films

> Journey to the End of the Coal, also by the French dynamic Honkytonk Films

> Big Stories, Small Town by Australian Jeni lee and Sieh Mchawla

> Gaza Sderot, Life in Spite of Everything by Khalil al Muzayyen and Robby Elmaliah and produced by Arte television

Since those are interactive films, and they are freely available on the net, they did not have a scheduled theatrical viewing, and no Q&A with the authors, but they were accessible via four dedicated computers placed in one of the galleries of the festival.

Now, 4 web-documentaries out of 150 linear documentaries is not that much… but it is a start! Especially what is a start is that the BFN Cross-Platform Pitching competition aims at encouraging new media ideas and that Sheffield’s Innovation Award mixes new media entries with particularly arty documentaries. One can wonder if a special “new media documentary award” should be created, but it is somehow interesting to put in the same “innovation” category  linear and non linear projects… underlying that the novelty might not be in the platform, but in the style and the ideas…

So… over all this has been a very interesting festival for me. What it made me realise is that digital documentary is slowly gaining presence in the documentary industry. Under the different names of docu-games, web-documentaries, social documentary websites or simply cross-platform documentaries what is happening is that the digital format is opening doors to new types of factual content… and this is getting clear even for broadcasters and renowned festivals.

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This entry was posted on Monday, November 9th, 2009


  1. On December 14th, 2009 at 06:23 Karen Kocher wrote:

    Hello Sandra:
    One of my students brought the following site to my attention.
    It might be an interesting addition to your list of interactive documentaries.

  2. On January 5th, 2010 at 11:50 Sandra wrote:

    Hi Karen,
    thanks for your suggestion. I have watched Chiloe’ Stories and added it to the archive. Have a look. By the way… what do you teach and where? Your students are very welcomed to add comments to the website… you might want to suggest it as a learning activity…

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