Webisodic Tendencies: Creating Doc Content for the Internet
For many documentary filmmakers, the online world is still a foreign landscape that raises anxiety-producing questions: How will my audience find my work? How will I recoup my costs? Will I be seen as a legitimate documentary filmmaker?
Morgan Spurlock, who has developed Web series with Hulu and Yahoo, among others, has actually been in the Web game long before his hit feature debut Super Size Me (2004). "The very first Web series I ever did was in 2000," he explained via e-mail. "In 1999, I wrote a business plan and raised $250,000 in financing for a company that would use the Web as a place to ‘pilot' short films and TV series. It wasn't a novel concept at the time, but with that small investment, we were able to accomplish what DEN, Psudeo, UBO, Icebox and POP couldn't—which was to be the first to actually springboard a show from the Web to television.
"My first series, I Bet You Will, premiered on the Web in April of 2000," Spurlock continues. "On the first day of the launch, we had nearly one million unique visitors. By the end of the first week, it was nearly five million. By the second week, CBS called. We finally ended up selling the show to MTV, and two years later we did 53 episodes of the series for the network. When they cancelled that series, we had $50,000 in the bank and a lot of debt. I made the choice to use that money to make a movie rather than pay down the debt, and the movie we made was Super Size Me."
Spurlock's venture into Web series was 12 years ago, yet over and over in interviews for this article, the term "Wild, Wild West" was tossed about—as in, a new frontier to be conquered on one's own terms. And the questions raised above are the same questions documentary filmmakers struggle with overall.
We spoke with filmmakers and executives to find out what the rewards and challenges were in creating content for the Internet.
One of the greatest challenges for online content producers of any kind is to find an audience for their work. "Focusing on the work and just hoping something happens is like winning the lottery; it could happen," says comedian and documentary maker Mark Malkoff, who spends half his time promoting his work via social media and e-mails. His advice for those starting out is to partner with someone who knows the ins and outs of social media, if you don't.
Filmmaker Ondi Timoner has many Web series in production, including two in her company Interloper Films' portal, A Total Disruption,which profiles "the visionary risk-takers of today." Interloper Films is developing an additional ten series for the portal—all different takes on entrepreneurs and innovators. Timoner also produces and co-hosts B.Y.O.D. (Bring Your Own Doc), a weekly program about the art and business of documentary filmmaking that airs on TheLip.tv. She agrees that it can be a full-time job getting your content in front of your audience: "My thought is to hire someone to bring every episode to the bloggers and the portals."
Eric Brown, producer and director of Off Book, a PBS Digital Studio online Web series, suggests reaching out to the community on which you did your research. "The best thing is not to compete," he maintains. "Carve out your audience. We're not all competing for the same eyeballs. There is enough to go around." According to Lauren Saks, head of PBS Digital Studies, the choice to create exclusive Web content was about finding a new audience for PBS, but originally they weren't sure if it would work. "Our biggest concern going in was, Would people watch this if it had the PBS name on it, and it was slightly more highbrow than most YouTube videos, but slightly more casual than what PBS is known for?" she said. "Originally, Off Book was going to live solely on the PBS website, but Brown convinced Saks to create a YouTube channel for the series, and it has done very well there.
Partnering with existing channels is one of the ways to get eyes on your work. "Align yourself with a channel that is getting a lot of buzz," Timoner advises. "These emerging studios have power behind them." She works with Fast Company, TheLip.tv and YouTube, but adds, "You have to test out and try different techniques. I've noticed that there is a lack of good marketing by Web portals about their series. It is very hard with this democratization. There is a lot of noise to cut through to even get to your audience and let people know you are out there. For someone like me who has somewhat of a fan base, obviously Twitter and Facebook are helpful, but it has to go beyond that."
Perhaps because of the profit-sharing models and permanence of work on the Internet, most online channels and networks do give Web series a chance to develop and find their audience. Spurlock equated this to the way television networks used to be: "They'll let a show work its way out into the ether and find its audience."
Advertising and brand-based channels are not the only outlets with which to partner, as journalistic websites are focusing more of their efforts on developing video content. One of the most successful of these partnerships is The New York Times' Op-Docs series, curated by filmmaker Jason Spingarn-Koff. Launched in 2011, Op-Docs has published more than two dozen short documentaries, and Spingarn-Koff hopes to increase this to showcasing one new documentary per week in the future. He believes documentary filmmakers should embrace the online world. All Op-Docs films can be freely shared and embedded in any website, and this is an important part of getting eyes on the Web content.
While budgets for Internet projects are generally smaller than for broadcast or theatrical release, Spurlock points out that one of the key benefits of producing Web content is the ability to maintain ownership of your work. "Budgets aren't huge by any stretch of the imagination, so if you're doing these to survive, you need to keep all your expenses and overhead at a minimum," he maintains. "But to create an environment where creators can own 50 percent of their IP [Intellectual Property] from day one is a gamble that I think most people would like to make. I always tell filmmakers that they need to be willing to bet on themselves first, because if they don't gamble on their talent and vision, then no one else will either."
Producing online content can open up unique opportunities to work with brands. Malkoff says he usually thinks up an idea and sometimes approaches a brand before doing the project. But other times brands approach him after he's completed the project, or with their own "Do whatever you like, we trust you" proposals. He used his fear of flying as a launching pad for flying a month on Air-Tran without exiting the plane. The airline also wanted him to make use of their Wi-Fi as part of the project. "I didn't shower for a month," he recalls. "I needed to use the Wi-Fi to e-mail and surf the Web to keep my sanity."
For Malkoff, integration of a brand must work with the reality of the project he is immersed in. Timoner produces the Web series The Pivot, about transformational decisions made by start-up businesses, for Fast Company while working on her own series, Wizard, for Interloper's Total Disruption portal. "We made a deal where I shoot and edit the Pivot pieces, but as long as the edit isn't in the same order, I have the right to use the footage I shot for my own channel," she explains. "Our goals are extremely aligned; they like having me to do their series, and I like their help getting to meet some of these people for Wizard. That, in a nutshell, is the Internet."
Austin Lynch and Jason S of The Interview Project had an idea to take an unplanned road trip across America and collect the stories of people they met along the way. They knew from the start that they intended to produce a Web series of short video portraits. "Releasing the series online allowed us to provide additional content, namely still images and texts that supported each episode we produced," Lynch explains. "This gave us an opportunity to create a more layered viewing experience than we could have with a long-form documentary film."
Alex Jablonski of Sparrow Songs speaks to the rewards of completing a piece on Sunday and having it up on Wednesday. For him producing a short documentary every month for a year was also chance for him to hone his craft.
Drea Cooper, one of the directors and producers of California Is a Place, shares his experience with creating an online series of short documentaries: "The pros are clear: It's up to you to do whatever you'd like. The Internet is the single greatest tool for artists. But that means you have to set your own parameters, goals, etc. Otherwise it can get ugly fast."
Ed Glaser of Dark Maze Studio says that his passion for overseas remakes and rip-offs of American films inspired the documentary Web series Deja View. While he is the host and producer and the budget is "non-existent," he still faces the same issues any documentary filmmaker would when referencing copyrighted material. "Rights are a difficult issue with a show like this," Glaser admits. "To a large degree I have to rely on the use of the film clips I feature to fall within fair use. I take the four factors considered when determining fair use very seriously, and they are my constant companions when making editing decisions."
Rules online are more enforced than many realize. Heidi Ewing made a short doc based on her and Rachel Grady's Detropia, for Op-Docs, and she was surprised how stringent the journalistic standards were. "The fact-checking is very rigorous," Ewing says. "We had to have multiple sources for our statistics. We would be satisfied with two sources; The New York Times wanted five." The Times also maintains editorial control of the short docs, which is similar to working with a broadcast network.
There exists an ongoing debate as to whether or not audiences' attention spans are shrinking, but no matter what side of the fence you stand on, the average episode of a documentary Web series is rarely over ten minutes, and often as short as two or three minutes. Even longer format programming is often broken up into shorter segments. This has its advantages but some disadvantages as well. Timoner says that while she enjoys experimenting in short webisodes, she has found that she can't tell the whole story in three minutes. "I can tell portraits and profiles, but to piece them together to tell the hows, whys and transitions, I just can't tell those," she admits. "I think there will always be a place for long-term storytelling."
After her short-form experience on Op-Doc, Ewing shares, "We are resurrecting a short we are working on right now, and we wouldn't have done that if it wasn't for Op-Docs. You have to think in terms of entrees, little bites and appetizers. It's nice to pack a little punch with a short." She also points out that there is a benefit when a filmmaker has to focus a message into two or three minutes.
For Eric Brown, working on a documentary Web series holds to the same principles as broadcast. "For new Web producers, they have an idea and the next step is to figure out the format. People like to get used to something. TV shows have a format, successful Web series must have that, especially once an audience responds. They like that familiarity."
Along with the immediacy of releasing a project as soon as it is completed comes the immediate feedback of the world.
"It was very, very satisfying to have something play and then wake up the next morning and have 200 comments from people sitting alone in their houses, as opposed to a crowd in a theater where someone might be afraid to raise her hand," Ewing recalls about having her short on Op-Doc. "The Internet allows for anonymity, so for me it was a more visceral way to get feedback than in the past."
The experience of watching online content is very different from sitting in a movie theater. Marc Wolf, creator of Don't Ask, Don't Tell (originally a theatrical piece), thinks that the Internet audience is perfect for his project, which was produced by Vuguru, the multi-platform project producer. Wolf feels that the message in his project needed to be experienced by a larger audience than the typical "theater-going crowd," so for him the privacy of online viewing was key. "If you're a young, gay person and you're looking for content that speaks to you and is interesting and political and you may not be out yet, this is a good way to learn about things," he explains. "You can find role models. You can find people who break the stereotype of what a gay person is."
There is a personal experience of viewing content alone on different platforms. After Zina Saro-Wiwa's short documentary Transition, about black women embracing their natural hair, appeared on Op-Docs, she received e-mails from around the world. Spingarn-Koff says that her piece received the most comments of any Op-Doc so far. He feels an Op-Doc could launch a filmmaker's career.
Saro-Wiwa had already screened a documentary on HBO, but nothing prepared her for the calls for interviews from television stations and magazines from around the world that began the day after the piece appeared. She was even recognized on the street. "On a street level it was immediate—not just black girls but white men and women coming up to me on the street and sharing their stories," she says. "That went on for about a month after, and still happens."
Kirby Ferguson recently presented a TEDTalk based on his Web series. "Everything Is a Remix is the hub of my professional life," he says. "It gets me commissions, speaking engagements and I meet loads of fantastic people through it. It's completely transformed my life."
The fear that your work, once online and easily downloaded, will be "stolen" should not prevent filmmakers from creating content. Copyright laws still apply, but a certain level of "remixing" is to be expected. "There is a different culture on the Internet," Ferguson says. "Except for the big corporation patent trolls, the startups and actual visionaries are all open source. We wouldn't have one hundredth of the kind of innovation we have, if it wasn't building on top of these free platforms. It has made me look at Hollywood and our copyright laws in a very different way. What's out there is out there; once it's out there, you can't take it back. I should fully anticipate that anything I put out there, I will see remixed into something else. I would rather be ripped off by a ‘pirate' than a distributor who promises to take care of my film and never sends me a check."
Spurlock's career has proved that a documentarian can travel among the theatrical, broadcast and Web spaces and be considered a reputable documentary filmmaker, yet many still fear that the Web is the low end of the totem pole. In some ways it still is. "Well, when it comes to docs, if you don't have money for marketing or promotion—which the majority don't—then a theatrical release will at least guarantee that it will get some ink," Spurlock explains. "Whether that's a review in The New York Times or a larger profile piece if it's a relevant story, theatrical presents a more attractive proposition to the media. If it goes straight to broadcast, that attractiveness wanes slightly. It's not seen as being big enough news. Very few straight-to-TV docs will get large profile pieces unless it's a passion play for a journalist. Turn that into a straight-to-DVD or VOD release, and your chances get even slimmer... And then you get the Web. It's a shame, because there's a lot of fantastic original programming being made for the Web now, but it's still seen as being the distant bastard stepchild by a lot of people. That's changing as quickly as new babies are being born, because it's the new generation of content consumers, the younger generations, that are much more platform-agnostic."
"Perhaps the biggest con is a lack of credibility," Ferguson adds. "The Web is largely amateur-ish, so people make generalizations about all of us." Timoner notes, "Most documentary filmmakers are going down the traditional route of going to festivals and trying to put their films out there. I think we are going to see documentary films coming to us in parts via the Internet in advance."
What is stopping you from expanding into creating Web content as a documentary filmmaker? New audiences, community-building around projects and unique sponsorship and partnering opportunities are out there. Zachery Wolfson, founder of the Web TV network Infusion5, asks, "If you have a treatment or even just a concept in mind for a 90- minute doc, why not make a series of ten episodes instead? Consider your target audience: Are they going to the movie theater, renting DVDs or streaming content online? Think about it."
Amanda Lin Costa is currently directing and producing the documentary The Art of Memories and adapting the true life story of Annie Londonderry, the first woman to go around the world on a bicycle, into a feature film.