The most successful documentaries have lasting impact. This concept isn't revolutionary. Any director pouring his or her life into a documentary wants that effort to be worthwhile. But in today's swiftly changing media landscape, how do filmmakers achieve that impact? And perhaps more importantly, how can this new landscape create opportunities that enable the impact we strive for?
There seems to be a lot of talk these days about transmedia storytelling among the documentary community. Certainly there are those who have been aware of the concept since it was first introduced in the '90s and then brought into the mainstream culture in 2003 by MIT professor Henry Jenkins. Commercial media interests have been capitalizing on transmedia storytelling for decades now.
So just what is it?
Transmedia storytelling is storytelling across multiple forms of media with each element making distinctive contributions to a viewer's understanding of the story. By using different media formats, transmedia creates "entrypoints" through which viewers can become immersed in a storytelling world.
Telling stories across platforms seems a perfect way to create impact. So why hasn't the documentary community fully adopted it?
This is just one of many questions posed at the Center for Social Media's Media That Matters conference which was held in Washington, DC, last month.
Many know the Center for Social Media for their groundbreaking work on Fair Use. But in their 10 years of operation, the Center has also offered a robust programming slate that addresses pressing needs in the documentary community. One of the Center's most successful programs (and perhaps the best kept secret in the documentary community) is its annual conference.
The conference began in 2005 as a workshop entitled Making Your Documentary Matter. It was billed as a showcase of strategies and resources for documentary filmmakers. Over the years it evolved into the Making Your Media Matter conference, tackling issues from public engagement strategies to ethical documentary filmmaking. This year the conference was re-launched as Media That Matters, to celebrate the Center for Social Media's ongoing partnership with Arts Engine, the New York-based nonprofit that "supports, promotes and distributes independent media of consequence." Pat Aufderheide, director of the Center for Social Media, sees a great synergy in the partnership. "We are thrilled to collaborate with Arts Engine, with which we share values and goals; our separate conferences have a similar approach and attract similar populations. We both want the people who come to our conferences to be alerted to the other one."
This year's theme for Media That Matters was Storytelling Across Platforms, the goal of which was to demystify the concept of transmedia. Aufderheide says they wanted to "bring it down to earth and practice, and demonstrate creative approaches to using all the media available to support documentarians' objectives." And the speakers at MTM did not fail.
The most compelling panel was a look at three successful transmedia projects--Jacqueline Olive's Always in Season Island, a Second Life outreach accompaniment to her Always in Season documentary currently in production; Roland Legiardi-Laura's new media project Power Poetry, which grew from his documentary To Be Heard; and Luisa Dantas multi-platform documentary project Land of Opportunity. What was remarkable about these projects is that while each uses a different media platform, they are all engaging and activating the audience outside of the documentary viewing experience. And for many in the documentary community, that is the ultimate goal.
Transmedia storytelling is an active process. As Legiardi-Laura pointed out, "A lot of filmmakers think ‘I did my film, now I'll do a website.' That's very passive." It's up to the filmmaker these days to recognize the power of the tools they have available to them and to use them. Yes, for most, money is an issue, but it needn't be an excuse.
More and more funds are becoming available for transmedia projects. Alyce Myatt, who was recently appointed New Media Director at the National Endowment for the Arts, announced that the agency's guidelines had been revised to reflect the inclusion of transmedia projects. And with the advent of Kickstarter, it's becoming easier to raise funds for projects like these. Legiardi-Laura breaks it down pretty simply: "Ideas, imagination and passion will sustain you. There are a lot of people doing this development with little money."
And filmmakers shouldn't let their technophobia get in the way of their vision. Olive knew from the beginning that she wanted an interactive platform to explore her subject matter: the dark history of lynching in America. But she knew she needed help to realize her vision. Olive began by reaching out to those who could help her. The National Black Programming Consortium had a new media program that helped her get started. She also received support from the Bay Area Video Coalition. Once she identified Second Life as the right platform, Olive recruited her development team. She encouraged others not to "be intimidated by the tech folk...They can really help you expand your reach. They can be advocates for your film and they're helping you translate your vision." Dantas concurred: "If you have an idea and you want to extend the reach of your story beyond the reach of your piece, you need to start to suss out who has the skills set of what you want to do, because there is a huge interest in tech developers in working with more traditional storytellers."
The takeaway from this year's Media That Matters conference can be summed up like this: How do you get heard in a society drowned out by white noise? The first way is to tell a compelling story that draws people to it. What to do next? At the end of the film, when people are there with you, they are there with you for a tiny window. Through transmedia, they can become a storyteller. They can become a participant.
So what are we waiting for?
Lynn Hughes is an award-winning documentary filmmaker living in the DC area. A geek at heart, she also consults on digital media issues and outreach for films and nonprofits.